Archive for February, 2012

On Saturday the 3rd of March at 12pm, Oxford United will take on Swindon Town at the Kassam Stadium in the imaginatively named “A420 derby.” The derby between the two sides has been fierce since the early 1980′s. The rivalry intensified due to the regularity of meeting between the sides and the geographical proximity throughout the decade. Swindon fans’ vandalism of Oxford’s stadium means there is absolutely no love lost between the two sides. They painted the bronze Ox outside the Kassam in Swindon colours (Oxford then used it to promote Cancer Month) as well as burning “STFC” into Oxford’s pitch before the game last August.

The league history is overwhelmingly in favour in terms of Swindon Town with 23 wins and 81 goals scored to Oxford’s 11 wins and 57 goals scored. There have also been 20 draws between the sides over the years.

Oxford have never faced Swindon in the league at the Kassam Stadium. The only time they have played each other at the Kassam was in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup in December 2002. The score was 1-0. Controversial striker Jefferson Louis scored the winner that day to send The U’s faithful into utter delirium. The goal, in truth, was a fluke. Louis’ flick on went straight in after Steve Basham’s run bamboozled Bart Griemink in front of the Oxford Mail Stand. Louis’ celebrations post-match have to be seen to be believed as he ran round the home changing room naked after Oxford were drawn against Arsenal at Highbury in the next round.

That was then. This is now. I, as an Oxford fan, am not confident going into Saturday’s game. Oxford’s current form has been sketchy of late with 9 points from a possible 15 in their last five games and a disappointing 1-1 draw with Macclesfield at home last weekend and sit 7th. Macclesfield had lost 8 straight away games before that game. Swindon, on the other hand, have won 9 games on the trot and have seen the Wiltshire club move from 7th to 1st since just after Christmas. Paolo Di Canio, who has divided opinion, appears to be working his magic with the side after spending big in January signing Paul Benson, Luke Rooney and Lee Cox as well as Ronan Murray and Derek Boating on loan from Ipswich and Arsenal respectively.

They also failed in signing Oxford’s top goalscorer, James Constable. Known to Oxford fans as “Beano” – a nickname given to him in his younger years due to his alleged likeness to the Heinz product. Oxford accepted a bid, but Constable decided against even travelling up, re-affirming his legend status at the club. The Yellows number nine decided the game the last time the two teams met back in August 2011 with a brace helping Oxford win 2-1 at the County Ground. This followed comments from Di Canio claiming that he was a Swindon fan. Constable does in fact support Tottenham and after the embarrassing error, Di Canio backtracked in the post-match press conference citing having “wrong information”.

Oxford’s key man for the game this Saturday would have been Peter Leven. He’s scored a halfway line winner against Port Vale, a brilliant free-kick against Cheltenham from 30-odd yards as well as a curling effort against Plymouth from the corner of the 18 yard box to name a few. If the Oxford faithful are to be believed, Peter Leven does what he wants. But Peter Leven cannot guard against injury. He’ll miss the game with a shoulder injury. A massive blow for Oxford. Simon Heslop is fighting to be fit, but if he doesn’t recover in time, Wilder will have to choose between Mark Wilson, Asa Hall and Adam Chapman to partner the tireless Andy Whing and Lee Holmes in a midfield three.

The possible inclusion of Chapman is an interesting one. He was Man of the Match in Conference Play-Off Final in 2010. Oxford won that game 3-1 to end their four year absence from the Football League. But the midfielder’s promising career was thrown into turmoil after he was jailed for causing the death of 77-year old Tom Bryan by dangerous driving. Since his release in September, he has had an injury plagued 6 months. Earlier on this week, Chapman was recalled from an impressive monthly loan spell at Newport. Now he’s got his match sharpness back, he could be Oxford’s secret weapon against Swindon. Oxford lack a free-kick taker with Leven’s unavailability and Chapman looks the perfect replacement for Leven in terms of dead-ball delivery.

For a side that went 22 games without a clean sheet last season, Oxford have had 11 clean sheets this term which puts them fifth in the clean sheet table. Swindon are first with 15. This is a marked improvement and we have to look at who Wilder has brought into the defence. Former Chelsea and Leeds centre-back Michael Duberry divided fans opinion when he arrived in the summer from St. Johnstone. His apparent lack of pace worried some fans, but his commanding presence has given the Oxford back line confidence this season. When he was injured in November, Oxford lost every game which shows his importance to the side. He has hit a purple patch with four goals in his last four games. The only problem is that three of them have been in his own goal. That includes what he dubbed on Twitter as the “Imperfect Hat-trick”. Left foot (OG), Header (OG), Right Foot. Despite this, Duberry remains a cult hero at the Kassam. I doubt many other players could get away with scoring so many own goals in a debut season and still be loved by the fans of a club.

Oxford usually play a 4-3-3, but played 4-4-2 at times last week. The weakness in the 4-3-3 formation is that it is susceptible to attacks down the wings. Swindon’s key man will be their left winger, Matt Ritchie. The former Portsmouth player moved to Swindon in the summer and has scored 10 goals and managed 10 assists making a case for League 2′s player of the season. Oxford will need to change to a 4-5-1 when not in possession with the wingers tracking the Swindon full backs. It is extremely important for Oxford to have a midfielder move across and help cover the full back to help nullify Ritchie’s threat to the Oxford defence.

As an Oxford fan, a loss would be devastating for the fans. The fact of the matter is, Swindon are a better side. There is a reason they are sat at the top of the league. On paper Swindon should win, but derby games never stick to the script. 1973 was the last time Oxford won at the County Ground and the only season we’ve done the double over the Robins. We broke that 38 year record for not winning in Wiltshere earlier on this season. Can we achieve a famous double?

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My First Game

Posted: February 7, 2012 in Retro Oxford United

Oxford vs Bury. 10th August 2002. Nationwide Division 3.The opening day fixture from the 2002/2003 season and the atmosphere was uneasy. I, of course, would not have known this being an eight year old going to my first football match with a classmate and his dad. I was blissfully unaware. The reason for the air of anxiety around the ground was because of last season’s efforts. Oxford had been in the bottom division of the Football League for the first time in over 30 years. And they under-achieved. 21st was not good enough. It had cost Oxfordshire-born and former Derby County and Liverpool player Mark Wright his job in charge. In came Ian Atkins. He kept Oxford in the Football League, albeit by limping over the line. Atkins had all summer to rebuild his new side. He brought exciting players in Scott McNiven, James Hunt and Matthew Robinson among others to join an already decent line-up with stars such as Chris Hackett, Dean Whitehead and Steve Basham.

So, going into the Bury game, Oxford fans were waiting with baited breath if Adkins had done the correct business. Were these new signings going to gel? And despite a shaky start to the game with missed chances for Bury’s Pawel Abott, Oxford managed to grab the opening goal. It was a jinky run from Manny Omoyinmi and he completely bamboozled Lee Unsworth who, somewhat inadvertently, flicked the ball with his hand. Was that a penalty? There were shouts from all around my relatively conservative stand point in the South Stand. The referee was running towards the box pointing at the spot. He’d given it. There appeared to be some argument over who wanted to take it. Not too dissimilar to my eight-year old self’s usual playground antics. I always wanted to take penalties. I liked scoring goals. But finally the big centre back with short sleeves and a captains armband grasped the ball and placed it firmly on the spot. I heard someone mutter “Crosby’ll smash this”. Some pessimist said “He’s going to miss it”. The ‘keeper was doing all manner of actions to put him off. Flapping his hands and waving them over his head as well as jumping up and down on the goal line. Up stepped the lumbering Crosby. A beautiful moment of absolute silence as he struck through the ball. I heard the “thwack” from Crosby’s right boot. I heard the sound of the ball hit the net. And a deafening roar from behind me. I hugged my classmate’s dad. My classmate didn’t seem too interested. He wasn’t the football breed. And that horrible anxiety at the start of the game had disappeared.

We’d just sat down and two minutes later we were back up again. Whitehead played a beautiful ball splitting the Bury defence wide open and with Omoyinmi’s pace, he was away. He slotted it past the Bury keeper and the scoreline read 2-0. Happy Days! When I went back to the playground on Monday morning, I wouldn’t be Beckham or Owen or even Scholes. I’d be Omoyinmi. He was my idol. Shame I couldn’t say his surname, so I settled with calling him “Manny.” As an eight year old, I didn’t appreciate Dean Whitehead’s role in the team. An assist and an all-action performance. He was just tireless. Never stopped running. But it was Manny who I’d remember. Later on, Manny had another chance where he should have squared it to Oldfield to make it 3, but fluffed the opportunity. Half time came and went. The announcer told us that Oxford were now sitting pretty at the top of the Nationwide Division 3. There were smiles and handshakes all around me. Happy punters finally getting to see an Oxford United team that were challenging for promotion.

I don’t remember much else from the game apart from the Bury goal. It was a sweet strike from just inside 25 yards. Top corner. It hushed us. You could hear a pin drop. That anxiety that was there at the start of the game was back. And it wasn’t nice. Apart from my classmate. He jumped up and screamed. You’d of thought it was Oxford who had scored. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think he was a football person. He realised his error as hundreds of eyes bore into him and sat down rather sheepishly. “I thought it was the final whistle” was his explanation. But luckily for us and for him, the goal was too late for Bury to have enough time to have a real clear-cut chance for the equaliser. Soon enough the final whistle blew, and my first football match had ended. 2-1 win to those boys that used to come from up the hill.

So there you have it, my first football match. Oxford carried on strongly that season and were in the automatic places for most of it, until dropping down to 8th in the final few months and thus missing out on the play-offs by a place and a point to, wait for it, Bury. Maybe if we had have made the play-offs that year we might have been promoted and never got relegated to the Conference in 2006. What if?