Going into today’s game my abiding thought was whether the shift in expectations - from taking on at home two teams which rightly or wrongly we were confident of beating to a tough away fixture against a side joint top with three wins out of four having just turned over Barnsley and Derby on the road – might work to our advantage. Less pressure on entertaining and scoring, greater focus on discipline and keeping a clean sheet. Hard to tell really as we had a real curate’s egg of a game but the same outcome as we contrived to throw away another point with a late goal, one which left me and I’m sure many others absolutely fuming.
The team, like that for Port Vale, showed three changes. Isted made his first start for us in goal, Maynard-Brewer dropping to the bench, where he would be joined by Hector and Taylor. In came Elerewe and Ness, the indications being a 3-5-2 with Asiimwe and Blackett-Taylor the wing-backs. The suggestion was Edun and Anderson joining Dobson in midfield, with May and Kanu retained up front. With Campbell(1) able to take a subs spot, as well as Campbell(2), Kirk, McGrandles and Jaiyesimi were all squeezed out (raising the question whether one or more of them may have played their last game for us).
The talk was that we bossed the first five minutes and might have scored twice: first a May shot blocked with a hint of handball then a heavy touch from May when he was put through. I confess I had duties to perform (French family birthday lunches are far from over at 16.00) and missed that period. If we were on top it was completely at odds with the following forty minutes or so, as during this time we were not just outplayed but close to embarrassed. We looked leaden and short of any ideas with the ball, frequently pressed into losing possession, and passive without it, in stark contrast to Oxford, who moved it well and passed with cohesion and threat, pulling us apart. Fair play to them, still no excuse for a lame performance from us.
That we reached the break only one down was the only positive from what I saw. Their goal, after 10 minutes, was a combination of individual and collective error. An optimistic hoof forward from Isted was nodded back and their two midfielders, with the aid of an unintentional but fortuitous (for them) handball, took it beyond Dobson. Still no real threat until Elerewe committed himself and their guy skipped past him. Still some way out, but then as he advanced nobody got near him, allowing him the space and time to look up and pick his spot from the edge of the area. It was a good shot, just criminal that a back five could not have at least forced him to offload the ball, or closed down the eventual strike.
I doubt whether the goal was responsible for what followed until the break, suffice to say that Oxford could easily have added two or three and been out of sight. I’d suggested before the game that odds of 3-1 on us to win looked attractive; at the break I wouldn’t have taken 20/1. To add injury to insult we picked up four yellows (Asiimwe, Dobson, Kanu and, it seems, the analyst on the bench) and Holden felt obliged to make a change before the break. Not clear if Elerewe was injured or not, but Campbell(C) appeared for his Charlton debut as we seemed to ditch the back five – and at the break two more changes were made, with Ness, who had looked as wobbly as Elerewe, replaced by Hector and Kanu giving way for Campbell(T).
It looked as though we had moved to a kind of 4-5-1, looking to match them numerically in midfield and stench the flow. And by and large the change worked. Perhaps Oxford were as confused as the rest of us and had trouble regrouping, but they lost their edge and, with the commitment raised we found ourselves putting them on the back foot. Let’s get one thing straight, I’ve seen comments from Oxford fans suggesting we got dirty, but that’s nonsense. Yellow cards were handed out mostly for professional fouls by both sides. In fact in the second half it was three apiece, with Oxford quite content to illegally break up a promising move when it suited. There wasn’t a bad foul by either side all afternoon.
Just past the hour we were level. Good work from a free-kick down the right by Campbell(T) was followed by a decisive contribution from Campbell(C), as he managed to keep possession and set it up for May to shoot home via a deflection. For the rest of the game is was pretty even, both sides looking capable of notching another but not fashioning gilt-edged chances. We started using the long throw of May to cause them problems, which given the players’ height meant a central defender or two going forward for these set pieces. And that, plus what can either be described as a rush of blood to the head or just an excessively gung-ho approach, proved to be our downfall.
With around five minutes left of normal time we were starting to think that going home with a point, after the awful first half and three consecutive defeats, might be a positive outcome, something to build on. Instead we get a throw and pile everyone forward. Steve Brown commented after the game that we had eight players in their box for the ball in. Of course if we score and go on to win the game it’s a masterstroke. But surely this was a case of playing the odds. Instead the ball was cleared and we were immediately in trouble. Ball back inside and two guys were clear on goal. The first effort was blocked but the second wasn’t. I’ve no idea who made the decision to send everyone forward, or if any actual decision was taken. One should have been and it should have been to err on the side of caution.
With five additional minutes there was still time for Campbell(T) to cause havoc down the right again. He was fouled but the ref played advantage, only for his squared ball not to find anyone free in the box. And with that the game was over and lost.
Holden said after the game that “We’ve got to see that game out and get at least a point to build on, but unfortunately we’ve been hit with a sucker punch again.” If the onus was on seeing the game out, why did nobody tell some of the defenders to get back and defend what we had? Did none of the defenders ask for guidance? It wasn’t a sucker punch, we shot ourselves in the foot. When people in football talk of a need to learn lessons you don’t expect it to be related to something you should have learnt in school. It was only a point but one which would have stopped the rot, allowed us to talk about the response in the second half and the contributions of the two Campbells, instead of leaving us to focus on a continuing series of defeats by the odd goal featuring very avoidable goals.