Monday, 31 January 2011

I Can't Think of a Pun on 'Cheltenham'

Saturday, 29th January 2011.
nPower League Two
OUFC 1 Cheltenham Town 1

Well, that was alright, wasn't it?

No victory to crow about this morning and honours even over the two legs of the first 'Cotswolds Derby' season in 5 years. But another great team performance and things are looking tasty for the remainder of the season.

Another late start for myself for this one, only leaving London at noon for the drive up the M40. I've started to enjoy that drive of late, which I'm sure is in no small part thanks to our recent form on the pitch. It's a great feeling getting into the car and driving out of central London on a Saturday, towards the open green spaces of the shires. I always do a little "yaaay!" to myself whenever I go through Stokenchurch Gap and Oxfordshire opens up in front of me - such a wonderful presentation of our beloved county to the eyes. I also now know the position of every speed camera, every bend in the road and every traffic bottleneck between Tottenham Court Road and Blackbird Leys. Which is handy.

Stokenchurch Gap: Majestic Gateway
For those of you logging my spicy chicken burger pursuits (and I know some of you are), yes I can re-assure you that Branos did receive my custom before the game, and they seem to be back on their game after our little falling out early this season. Perhaps they have read this blog and cleaned up their customer service act a little as a result. A fine delectable pre-match spicy treat, delivered with a smile. Well done.

I like to get into the ground a little earlier these days, especially as I'm usually driving so can't cram pints in until 2.50pm in the Blackbird, so I was in my seat a good 30 minutes before kick off. I was thus witness to the sight of two dozen scantily-clad teenage girls prancing around in the centre circle as we were treated to a routine from Oxford Brookes' cheerleading squad.

Now, I'm not one to balk at the idea of a little pre-match entertainment, especially of the jiggling young bodies kind, but there is something about this Americanisation of pre-match entertainment that just doesn't work on a cold, grey day in England. I've been to many sporting venues in the States and Cheerleading is very much a welcome part of the furniture there - but it just seems slightly ridiculous at a League Two game of football, as echoes of 'get your tits out for the lads' ring around the ground, nearly drowning out the Britney Spears soundtrack.

Cheerleaders: It didn't look like this.

It's also a sign of my age that rather than join in the chant, I was tutting at the length of their skirts and thinking "They'll catch an awful chill in this weather."

Anyway, the game itself was a frustrating affair given our dominance for much of the 90mins, but I left the ground in rather high spirits, all things considered. It's easy to think of it as two points dropped rather than 1 gained, but you can't win every game and frankly if we continue to play such beautiful attacking football as that we will not drop too many more points this season.

My only concern is the leakiness at the back. Defending at set pieces and general sloppiness at times has meant we are conceding far too easily despite dominating matches. Someone said to me before the game on Saturday that they don't care how many goals we leak if we go and score at the other end - that they'd rather we played like Keegan's Newcastle and win every game 4-3.

Trouble is, Keegan's Newcastle didn't actually win anything. And although we are scoring goals, we are not putting away enough chances to score 3 or 4 in a game, so these defensive frailties are a slight concern. If we are serious about going up this year, we'll still need to grind out a few 1-0 victories along the way, and learn how to keep clean sheets.

Still, I don't want to sound all pessimistic as the performances of late have actually been top class on the whole and we should be very proud of the squad Wilder has now put together - it's working. His tinkering has seemed worth it, after all.

It IS working. And that is a very good thing indeed.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Cheltenham Nearly Man

Tomorrow afternoon we take on Cheltenham Town in "The Cotswolds Derby" (as this fixture has been christened by the media in the past, despite not really being a derby and Oxford not being in the Cotswolds).

This is a fixture that although reasonably local, may not feel that much of a derby for most amongst the two sets of fans. For me though, it’s one that always pricks my interest – for I have a now long-distant association with the town of Cheltenham.
It could have been oh so different for me, tomorrow. But for a twist of fate I might have been amongst the away fans, you see. A very tenuous twist of fate perhaps, but nonetheless I’ll expand and waffle for a few paragraphs, as you have come to expect…

Whaddon Road with my Cotswold homelands behind.

Had I become a Cheltenham fan, I wouldn’t have seen the agony of relegation after relegation, as my side tumbled and stumbled from the top flight to non-league in the space of 18 years. Instead I would have seen my side promoted from Southern League obscurity in 1997, before finding a way into the Football League only five years later.

Instead of watching Oxford in our non-league low ebb, I’d have been excited by a Cheltenham team playing at their highest (to date) pinnacle – even reaching the dizzy heights of League One.

I wouldn’t have been amongst 33,000 ecstatic Yellows at Wembley last May, but I’d have been at the Millennium Stadium in May 2006, watching Cheltenham reach that vertigous League One height just a few weeks after a team in yellow down the road that I didn’t really give a monkey’s about had dropped out of the football league.

The reason this might have happened is that I grew up in the Cotswolds town of Moreton-in-Marsh, a mere 22 miles from Whaddon Road. In those early-teen years before I discovered the joys of the London Road, the young FMO was a regular visitor to Cheltenham, the nearest decent-sized town to my home.

Badlands Cheltenham:  Music on Sale Here.

In the summer I would regularly catch the Pulham’s bus to Cheltenham and go shopping in Badlands Record shop for the latest grunge & death metal releases, before hanging out in the park opposite Whaddon Road, chatting about Kurt Cobain with similarly disaffected youths. It seemed such an adventure for a 14 year old boy to be off gallivanting in another town and I have very fond memories of lazy Saturday afternoons spent wandering around Cheltenham’s town centre.

Regent Arcade: Cheltenham: Exciting

I even went on my first ever proper date in Cheltenham, where I treated Becky Cother to a coke float in PizzaLand, before a Graham Gooch book-signing event in the Regent shopping arcade caught my eye. I later wondered if this particular Cheltenham adventure had some part in why that particular relationship didn’t work out.

Back then, despite liking football, the thought of spending an afternoon watching non-league dross was far from being on my ‘to do’ list. I’d never even noticed that the club existed to be honest – so ignorant were my young, innocent eyes to anything other than the Football League and the fledgling Premiership.

So despite my very fond attachment to the town of Cheltenham, it was east and to the city of Oxford that I eventually drifted – for some League football, no less. I was taken to The Manor Ground by a friend’s father one eventful afternoon in Jan 1994 and I haven’t looked back since - I was hooked.

Rarely did I ever even venture to Cheltenham again in fact, until our paths crossed on the football pitch many years later of course. For every Saturday from then was pretty much spent heading up the Manor Ground to watch Oxford with a couple of school friends.

How different things might have been had I had a friend who’s Dad watched Cheltenham, rather than Oxford, perhaps? Or if I’d been just a few years younger, and had caught the buzz around the town during Cheltenham’s rise to the Football League? If it’d been 2006 rather than 1996 when I was gallivanting around Cheltenham, Oxford would have been the non-league club and Cheltenham the nearest ‘decent’ team.

I would almost certainly have gone along to Whaddon Road were that the case. Perhaps it wouldn’t have instilled the same excitement in me that the London Road did all those years ago, but things would certainly have been different and I doubt I’d have ever found my way to Oxford subsequently.

These might be rather tenuous (and, well, frankly a little farcical) ‘what ifs’ – but nonetheless the scenario did make me think how different my life might have been had I taken the A429 rather than the good old A44.

My whole centre of gravity would have shifted westwards – I never would have lived in Oxford, nor gone to university here, and probably today I’d be living in Bristol rather than London. I’d never have met my wife, as I’d have no reason to be in her home-town of Reading, where I lived for a time in order to easily get back to Oxford for games. I’d probably have pickled my liver on scrumpy cider, too.

I’m sure there are some lovely people that I’d have got to know supporting Cheltenham, but I’d never have come to know all the brilliant people I know through supporting Oxford over all these years, either.

Worst of all though, I’d have been happily chanting ‘Come on you Robins’ tomorrow afternoon whilst wearing a red scarf around my neck. The whole thing makes me shudder.
Thank heavens for fate, and Up those Yellows!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Djoumin to do that?

Djoumin Sangare: Instant Legend.
 Our new signing Djoumin 'Jimmy' Sangare looks like he has the potential to become one of those players that will go down in U's folklore for being a bit of a character.

He signing has generated a lot of excitement and speculation, something that adds further to his folk hero potential. He was a living legend at York City and even has his own Djoumin Sangare Appreciation Society page on Facebook.

There is also a video compilation of his finest moments on you tube here. It's quite an impressive selection, although it might be noted that the poster of the video, a certain 'MrDjoumin', might have had a motive behind making sure the video showed him in the most favourable of lights. That there might also be another potential video out there showing him getting constantly nutmegged, falling over and scoring spectacular own goals should also be a consideration before we fall in love with the man!

I'm already enjoying his yellow player interviews this week though. He's a Muslim, so he told us in his first interview. It may seem an irrelevant comment, but I like to know the religious persuasions of the players.

That Jimmy feels the need to tell us of his dedication to Islam as a way of introduction tells me he is a committed individual that will always give his all to the cause, you see. Very good too.

Is Tonkin a Methodist? Perhaps Sammy Deering is a Mormon? How has Beano learnt to kept his cool so well of late? Meditative Buddhism? Who knows? I wish I did.

You can tell a lot about a player from his religious persuasion. Certainly, we have had quite a few 7th Day Adventists play for us over the years, considering their unwillingness to do anything on a Saturday.

Anyway, back to Jimmy. I was also happy to hear he already knew quite a few of the other players - Purkiss of course whilst recently at York; Damien Batt when they were at St Albans together a few years back. But more importantly he played alongside Ryan Clarke at Salisbury - and it's important that a centre-back forms a good relationship with his keeper.

Thankfully, Clarke and Sangare need no introductions to each other, it seems.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Bantam Wait

Saturday, 15th January 2011
nPower League Two

OUFC 2 Bradford City 1

The last time Oxford played Bradford at home was in December 1998, when we were both in the 2nd tier of English Football. They beat us on that occasion, 1-0. They also ended up finishing 2nd and being promoted to the Premiership that season, whilst we went in the other direction in what would become the eventual decline out of the football league for our recent wilderness years.

Hard to believe then that the Bradford team going up to the Premiership would pretty soon after find themselves following a similar spiral to us so that we met again this weekend in the basement tier of the Football League. The difference being after the drop out of the League, most Oxford fans are surely pretty grateful to be here. For Bradford fans though I'm sure most are still coming to terms with their rapid decline that finds them where they are.

As one old pundit might have said whilst scratching his bulging balls at half-time during the Milk Cup final, "Funny old game, isn't it?"

I'd been looking forward to this game for a few days. It had a big game feel about it, being the two best supported sides in League Two, currently. I was excited. After promising myself never to have a Branos spicy burger again, I even thought "what the hey" and went and got one of the zingy treats for the walk down to the stadium. I got garlic mayonnaise all over my pigging coat in the process. Nadgers. Then I bit into a jalapeno and it's searing pickled heaty liquid splashed into my eye. Double Nadgers. It was going to be one of those days I thought.

And it so nearly was. How many of us thought it just wasn't our day as the 70minute mark passed and chance after chance was put wide, tipped over the bar or inexplicably blocked on the goal-line in a manner that seemed to defy the laws of physics?

True, it was a ridiculous goal to concede early on to a mediocre and unadventurous Bradford side. From then on in though, there was only one team in it. If there is a single Bradford player, fan or official that genuinely thinks they deserved even a point out of that game, they need to be sectioned immediately. They wouldn't be looking at the game through rose-tinted glasses - they would be 100ft lead-lined, sound-proofed screens they would be standing behind to come to that conclusion.

In the post match interview, Chris Wilder made mention of the "55 chances" we had on the day. The fact of the matter is, it really didn't feel as though it was that far off this figure. We were amazing. Every player out there was amazing. Six wins from Seven. 1 point off the play-offs. 6 from automatic spots.

We can do this, you know.

We really can.

I'm excited.