Nothing particularly beats a good old night under lights with the football. The mid-week fixture that breaks up the week’s monotony more effectively than Patrick Viera breaking up play in 2003. The JPT is a strange trophy only consisting of League 1 and 2 sides, broken up geographically according to that political lion’s den of ‘north’ and ‘south’ (somewhere around Birmingham I guess), in a straight knock out like any good old cup competition. How seriously the JPT is taken is anyone’s guess bar for the most ardent and informed fan involved but derby games always brings about a certain zest to any fixture.
Oxford Utd. Onetime Milk Cup champions in 1986. Onetime non-league footballing side (they got promoted back to the football league in 2010 taking roughly 33,000 to Wembley for the Conference Play-off final). It is a team that has undoubtedly had its ups and downs, now plying their trade in a very competitive League 2, in stadium they don’t own, that has 3 stands. It all just seems a little surreal compared to the behemoth that is the Premier League and the money which one has come accustomed to being bandied around. Oxford Utd was also my first game I ever went to as a child. 1998. The Manor Ground. Oxford were in the old Division One at the time against Stoke City. That afternoon I saw Oxford beat Stoke City 5-1, in a season where Oxford came 12th and both Stoke and Manchester City were relegated. At that ground across the coming years my friend got kicked in the head by Dean Windass when he fell over a hoarding and we saw a young Dean Whitehead ply his trade as an industrious and creative centre midfielder. Oh memoirs of times gone by!
This particular game also has its own special significance. The great ‘A420 Derby’. Oxford United seemingly have a lot of derbies. Cambridge United, Northampton Town, High Wycombe but Swindon Town is undoubtedly the one. I saw Oxford against Swindon in the 12/13 season, a Swindon Town managed by Paulo Di Canio, that glorious Italian crazy-man who really brought a little magic to the Premier League at the career killer that is Sunderland. On that night Alfie Potter slid in to secure a 1-0 victory and Oxford’s 4th on the bounce. The chanting was visceral and the place was bouncing. This game proved no different with 9,000 packed into those 3 stands.
With all honesty, I can write very little about Swindon Town which will have any credence or conviction and whilst in terms of live, in the flesh football I haven’t seen Oxford yet this season they are on a good run. In fact, Oxford are on a very good run. A truly sumptuous, Leicester City ‘let’s span the seasons’ kind of run. Their record of one defeat in 20 games includes a 4-0 demolition of Championship stat boys Brentford at Griffin Park in the League Cup 2nd round as well as a consistency in the league which is wetting the appetite for a bit of a title tilt this season. Their performances in this time have garnered attention from the national press with The Telegraph, Guardian and The Times all featuring Oxford United in some capacity since the start of the season and last night I saw why.
Oxford United are managed by Michael Appleton. With injury calling time on his playing career, the Manchester United trained footballer has found managerial stability difficult to come. After serving as Roy Hodgson’s assistant at West Brom, Appleton found himself at the crumbling estate houses of Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn. The latter two were particularly bad times with Appleton in charge for 65 and 67 days respectively at Blackpool and Blackburn. Whilst his appointment at Oxford was met with some reservations, by the end of last season Oxford was playing some remarkably un-League 2 football and last night, against opposition from the division above, was no different. Oxford play a lovely game of ball retention and patience.
If approaching the game in chronological order I have to talk about the pre-match banner which was unravelled down the East Stand. Here I was on a Tuesday night watching a 4th tier team doing their little bit of pre-game drama, Porto and Dortmund-esque. Blue and yellow placards are flanking a banner of an Ox gorging a robin with a horn, above the banner spray painted on a yellow material proclaims ‘ROBINS ON THE RUN’. It is brilliant. It is fantastic. It is English football at its very best.
This aside, Oxford dominated the game from the moment it kicked off. This in part was due to the dominance exerted by both Liam Sercombe and John Lundstram who controlled the possession wonderfully, Lundstram holding back slightly as Sercombe ran and ran and ran himself into the ground. Such a strong base provides a ground foundation for Oxford’s own little League 2 luxury in the form of Kemar Roofe. Signed from West Brom in the summer, Roofe never made a full debut for West Brom despite remaining on his books until he was 22. Yet, on the performance I saw this week, he could well be a jewel in League 2. His sense of movement, tenacity and ability to do the unexpected genuinely offers Oxford with a unique weapon, as seen in this game. Swindon players didn’t want to get near him but couldn’t afford to give him too much space. They were stuck between a rock and a hard place and such indecision opened up the game around him. Oxford’s No.20 Ryan Taylor provided the assist for both goals and bears an uncanny resemblance to the great Dave Kitson in both appearance and stature. Other noteworthy performers were both full backs George Baldock and Joe Skarz, with good positional play to negate any risk on the counter whilst persistently offering themselves up for the ball in attack. Callum O’Dowda however is one stand out name. Coming through United’s academy, the Republic of Ireland U-21 international, is a true attacking threat with the ability to cross of either foot and particularly cut in on his right to shoot at goal. His ability to unleash a shot was clearly apparent about 10 minutes into this game, firing a wicked curling shot from outside the box that ended up striking the cross bar. O’Dowda could be destined for bigger things, but right now he forms part of a squad playing with a level confidence not seen at the Kassam Stadium for many a year.
Oxford United went on to win 2-0 for their 5th straight victory against Swindon. The last time I saw Kassam that victory against Swindon didn’t feel it was the start of something great, it was an isolated albeit incredible moment in a potentially taxing season. The atmosphere around the ground this time though was different. Oxford approached the game with a confidence and self-belief which has been lacking for seasons upon season and it is this new-found confidence that all 9,000 of the fans in attendance on Tuesday night clearly revelled in after a truly domineering performance.