Fan’s View 2017/18 (no.49) – Rochdale at home

Article by Paul Beasley

Oxford United 2 (pens) Rochdale 1

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Penalty no.1 – Photo, Simon Jaggs

Fourteenth in the table and, even if we’d lost this encounter, by dint of Oldham only drawing  with Doncaster after pathetically losing three nil to Southend in the week, both at home, we would have been mathematically safe. Never in any doubt some have said, either fully believing it, or just saying it cos that’s what one does.

Of course there was some doubt even though we may now end up with quite a few more points than the bare minimum needed to stay up. If results had gone in different directions in the last two sets of fixtures we could have been travelling all the way up the M6 to Ewood Park crapping our pants.

As it is we can go there relaxed and possibly with a mind set to spoil any championship party Wigan might unintentionally lay on for them.

But the bottom line here was: forget about what was happening elsewhere and what could happen in a week’s time, don’t lose and we were safe because Rochdale would have been the fourth team that couldn’t catch us.

No two games of football are quite alike but familiar patterns emerge when a manager has had time to instil his ideas, tactics, work ethics and motivation into the players he has decided to use from the squad he has available – whether that squad was assembled by himself or another. Just as telling is the list of players on the club’s books but not even sitting on the bench.

Since Karl Robinson came in we have been so much better defensively and that’s not just the back line that has improved but the shape and work rate of the midfield has been a contributing factor in this too.

The average number of league goals per game conceded was 1.45 under Pep and 1.71 under Faz. KR’s record is much more impressive at just 1.11 and if you take out the first few games of his reign when he obviously needed time to observe, plan and fix, his record is even better. We’ve now let in just three in the last six matches.

Again early on we saw the opposition having more of the ball than I would have liked, with there being a bit too much space in midfield for them to play in than I felt comfortable with, but that was my pessimistic side to the fore. More careful thought told me that they were not playing in areas that were hurting us and that they were not breaching our rear guard. Well perhaps on a very rare occasion but that’s what will happen in almost every football match ever played. And as Simon Eastwood is back to his very best we have much less reason to panic when a goal bound effort is launched than we did in our leaky period. Todd Kane had done pretty well to show a Dale wide man to the bye-line but the man in the white shirt then demonstrated excellent skill to get our full back to block a cross that never came first time. Instead he pulled the ball back onto his right foot and bent a beautiful angled ball into the six-yard box onto Calvin Andrews head. Andrew’s leap said goal, Eastwood flying back across his goal throwing his arms at the ball said not. Any keeper anywhere would have been proud of that point blank reaction save.

It’s a stat I keep coming back to and one that still amazes me – we’re the joint 5th highest scorers in L1. We’ve scored as many as Shrewsbury and four more than Plymouth. It’s no surprise that the three lowest scorers are relegated Bury and MK Dons plus Northampton who need to see a goal difference turn-around of 17 on the final day to survive. Strange things happen in football, but not that.

Nearly every time I’ve mentioned how many goals we’ve scored, the reply I’ve received has been yes but we got most of them much earlier in the season. That’s true. Pep averaged 1.46 per game (his record actually boasted a +1 goal difference even with that Wigan drubbing), Faz 1.14 and Robinson’s currently stands at a paltry 0.89.

We again didn’t really look much like scoring from open play although we did have two first half efforts, one from each of our strikers. (I say strikers but Wes Thomas has scored just once since early January and Jon Obika has failed to find the back of the net since getting a goal in three consecutive games as 2017 became 2018.).

It was Ryan Ledson who played Thomas in, our forward having taken up an intelligent position. His third touch was a shot on target but was quite easy for Josh Lillis to save.

Thomas was instrumental in setting up the chance for Obika. Another run where he actually appeared to be going quite quickly and pointing to where he wanted the ball saw Rob Dickie, having brought the ball into the Rochdale half, deliver as Wes left the defender for dead. A stretching Obika saw his effort from the pull-back hit the feet of the well positioned Lillis.

Throughout their time on the pitch though they don’t really do enough and the wholesale changes we are told that are coming will probably have significant focus in this area of our squad. They don’t look quite sharp enough and lose the ball a bit too often, fail to win much in the air and for all the decent stuff they produce they don’t deliver enough of it.

However we have to remember that this is L1 and it is easy to set our expectations unreasonably high. During many games I’ve thought, and I’ve heard it said by those sat around me: “We could do with him in our team”.

Here it was Andrew. He is big and strong. He held the ball up well. He nearly scored with that header. He was a handful. But reflect further – he never truly bossed our centre-halves who both did a rather good job in handling him and take a look at his goal scoring record. If he was an Oxford player with such a record he’d be utterly crucified by many of our fans based on the treatment some gave Ryan Taylor. This season Andrew has scored 3 league goals at a rate of one every 777 minutes played. He has converted only 9% of his chances.

At half time no one I spoke to had been enamoured with the display in the first 45 minutes but nor was there much criticism as we were still on course, never having been blown off it, for the point needed to be 100% sure.

Up to that point we’d not moved the ball at pace or had players running dangerously with it directly at visiting defenders. We had however kept possession reasonably well and when a team has that the other side are not going to score. (Possession stats were 50:50)

We’d seen nothing new or revolutionary just a team going sensibly about its business in non – spectacular professional manner.

There had been no real hint that victory would come other than that we weren’t going to let in (m)any goals. Goes without saying that I always want us to win but there was an added incentive for that to be the outcome. I wasn’t the only one that had spotted odds of 2/1 on an Oxford win. That was too tempting and a very small drinking / betting kitty which had shamefully been grown when we lost to Plymouth was “invested” with potentially £67 coming our way.

Chatting away I learned I wasn’t the only one sucked (suckered?) in by those odds. “The bookies know what they’re doing” which did seem to ring true when we went one down on 59 minutes. Our defensive shape had been good with many men back behind the ball. Rochdale were playing it around tidily in front of that line when a well hit shot that would probably have been confidently dealt with hit Cameron Brannagan and dropped kindly to Brad Inman. The Peterborough loanee controlled expertly, beat Dickie and slotted home. It was just one of those things. Although we could have done better I wouldn’t call it bad defending.

Clearly the team weren’t happy but there were no recriminations (no one was really to blame) and heads didn’t drop. Earlier in the season we may have thought damn, we’re bound to let in more now.

By now we were looking more of a threat going forward. I thought we were playing quicker and at last running at Rochdale. Rothwell was doing so as did Robbie Hall when he replaced Alex Mowatt in the 61st minute and Malachai Napa who came on for Thomas 14 minutes later.

We were only behind for three minutes. Callum Camps was in a position to easily deal with Rothwell down the right flank but inexplicably ran past the ball. This allowed our man to take possession and head into the box with a chasing Camp behind him. I’ve seen what happened next live and have played it back over and over again in full speed and in slow motion and still I can’t be sure what happened. Did Camp push Rothwell and make it look like he didn’t by holding his hands as he was (wasn’t) doing so? Did Rothwell stop and ensure contact was made? I keep changing my mind but if that had been given against us would probably have been strongly protesting whilst also being really angry at the defender.

What matters though was what referee Nick Kinseley thought. He thought penalty. What mattered next was what we did with that spot kick. There was no James Henry who was busy becoming a Dad so up stepped captain John Mousinho. He buried it emphatically in Paul Moody style – hit so hard there’s a fear it will just sail over the bar.

Well done to Mous for that and his performance in general. I’ve been critical of him previously alongside pointing out his very good points but here it was mostly good stuff. The problem is with all his assurance on the ball comes an almost cast iron guarantee that he will get in a bit of a mess at least once every game. Same here. And for that reason I would question whether he’ll be starting next season. NB: He has another year on his contract.

Back at level pegging neither side fully got at the other in such a way as to indicate there was to be a winner.

We though kept on playing in the same way and with seven of the ninety minutes remaining we experienced a bit of déjà vu. An Oxford player brought down in roughly the same area of the penalty box once again by Camp and again conversion resulted.

We had by this stage begun to knock the ball about with a bit more swagger whilst not going out of our way to force a game we didn’t need to force. Hall was able to get the ball back from Ledson after taking a short corner and entering the box on the bye-line, took on Camp. Over he went and this time it was the linesman who spotted the infringement before informing Mr Kinseley who then did the necessary pointing.

Again I honestly didn’t really know although I do think Camp put his arm across Hall and then conveniently fell into him. I therefore say this was more of a penalty than the first. My family thought the other way round. If I was a Dale fan I would probably have found enough evidence to argue this shouldn’t have been given either. But for a second time it was poor from Camp. Blame him or the official but these could be the incidents that relegate Rochdale. They now reside in 21st place with their remaining game against play-off chasing Charlton.

This time it was Todd Kane who coolly sent Lillis the wrong way with a low shot.

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Penalty no.2 – Photo, Simon Jaggs

It was so good to see Hall back and this time actually touch the ball quite a few times. Initially he looked way off the pace and got booked for a mis-timed attempt to get the ball. Rochdale though were worried by him as evidenced by them scything into him a couple of times in quick succession on the touch line. Rightfully the yellow card came out as it did for Ledson who stood up for the felled Robbie. That treatment only spurred us on.

For a second game in a row we got an extra six minutes for our money. For the second game in a row I couldn’t understand why. It made no difference as there was no further scoring.

Our last substitution gave us seven minutes of Ricardinho. That’s a pleasure. The crowd thought so, singing his name with great gusto. He likes that. Will he like it enough to stay on reduced terms? Substitute appearances don’t count towards triggering the extension clause in his contract.

Before the game we renewed our season tickets. £950 (for two), the same price as for 2017/18, sounds a lot for L1 football so I asked myself the following:

Question – Did I get value for money?

Answer – No. Nowhere near.

Question – If I had known what the performances at the KasStad were going to be like would I have still parted with that money?

Answer – Yes, absolutely.

Question – Why?

Answer – Because I support Oxford United.

So will it be any different next time around? We’ll just have to wait and see but there are things that excite me about the future and things that concern me too. All we can do is wait and see how it all plays out.