Fan’s View -no.23 – Gillingham at home

Article by Paul Beasley Sunday, November 18th, 2018  


Military Day. Photo Simon Jaggs

My pre-match thinking but is it pessimistic or realistic?

This season to date has been a very dark and depressing one. Whilst I can only genuinely speak for myself it isn’t that difficult to pick up the mood of fellow supporters in and around the Kassam and at away grounds as well as on social media.

Obviously, as with every topic, there will be a divergence of views but there’s no denying most Yellows would deem these very worrying times. There are a vocal minority of internet keyboard warriors who want Karl Robinson out at all costs. Last season added to our poor start this, with the dodgy league position we now find ourselves in and him being scouse and coming over as he does on the radio, is enough and always will be whatever is achieved going forward for these types.

I would say the majority, and I’d include myself here, were being very cautiously optimistic as we’d put together an unbeaten run of six games in the league, stopped leaking goals other than at Scunthorpe and, including the Checkatrade, hit three goals in three consecutive games.

Reasons for this improvement were down to the return of Simon Eastwood, a settled back four with John Mousinho playing just in front of them, Jamie Mackie up top putting it about and most players returning to fitness / from injury – or so it appeared.

Following the poor display against FGR and the twitter posting on Monday 12th Nov of the availability board at the Oxford United training ground listing injuries etc. it hit me that any foundations of our mini revival may well have been built on sand.

Our next three games are against the Gills who are just three points above us, Forest Green from a division below, then Bradford who are bottom and have picked up just one point from the last 36 they’ve competed for. If we screw this sequence up we’ll have taken massive steps backwards and that goal-less cup draw gave a hint this could be what happens.

But it’s the players that are definitely or possibly not going to be available in the near or foreseeable future that gives me greater concern.

For starters Gavin Whyte and Aaron Heap are away on international duty. The former is one of our key attacking assets. Pace. We really need that.

Those under “Injured” are listed below. We know roughly how long some will be out but others we don’t. They may be back for the next fixture.

Fabio Lopes

John Obika – we’ll probably not see him in an Oxford shirt again

Shandon Baptiste – we’ve missed his creativity for nearly a month now. Don’t know when he’ll be back.

Mackie – I don’t know what the matter is with him but he’s suspended anyway. There is a big question mark over his ability to play two games a week. He’ll be a massive miss. Without him we’ve looked utterly frail up front.

Ricky Holmes – Bloody hell, it’s that on-going back problem. A fit Holmes is a huge asset but we know he’s never going to be fit for a run of games and needs injections.

Tony McMahon– Cracked ribs. Out for 6 weeks minimum. He’s brought much needed experience and solidarity to the back four. He’ll be another big miss. I suppose playing on for 15 minutes with this affliction against FGR didn’t make it worse. That’s what comes of not keeping a substitute up your sleeve for emergencies. KR had played his hand with half an hour of playing time remaining.

Luke Garbutt – Hamstring

Tsun Dai – Long term absentee

Marcus Browne – Another we need but if only he’d dispense of that Premier League head and put on a L1 head with the skill he’s got he could be somewhere near the best player at this level KR would have us believe he is. Referees don’t seem to understand and he gets targeted, hence after a kick or two, he’s on this list. Fingers crossed he’ll be moved to another column pdq.

Samir Carruthers – High hopes when he arrived. Now always something wrong, always a set-back. It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see him again.

Rob Hall – Long term and I really do fear for his future.

Josh Ruffels – A knee problem. What’s going on here? Josh never gets injured.

The critics will point out that Robinson brought many of the above to the club.

On Thursday he said “We put that image (the availability board) out more as a joke than anything else.”

I’m glad you can laugh about it Karl but from where I’m sitting I can’t see us being able to put much of a side out let alone fill the bench. Or could this be the time when Sam Smith finally comes good?

Or a previously untried youngster sets the first team alight. Slavi Spasov? Harvey Bradbury? Or both?

Or will we end up having Ruffels, Holmes and Browne available after all. Kidology?

Or soon see the forgotten man Ivo Pekalski proving to be this season’s Ricardino?

I could go on – Nile Ranger. My view is it should be up to you Mr Robinson, based on Ranger’s footballing ability and his current attitude and behaviour.  It is impossible to ignore how light we are in the tried and trusted striker department. Trusted, though? As I said, your call.

As a fan I have very little idea where we’re going regards all of the above but I really could do with some good news and by that I mean something that is sustainable and not a quick fix.

On the matter of the need for good news, when are we going to hear how Eric Thohir’s arrival is going to be a game changer and when are our minds going to be put at rest regards the winding up petition?

Oxford United 1 Gillingham 0

Although I thought we improved markedly in the second half, overall there wasn’t a lot to get excited about particularly for the neutral. Anyone looking for something pleasing on the eye or with lots of goal mouth action, mad scrambles and near misses would have been very disappointed.

But I’m not a neutral and a few hours later coldly reflecting on what I witnessed I’m feeling more positive than I was at the final whistle. Seems I’d let that FA Cup performance drag me down way more than it should have. Built on sand? No way after this. This was something solid, if not rock solid then not far off. We had a resolve that wasn’t there earlier in the campaign. We weren’t going to buckle. The defence is now pretty darned good. Now we’ve got that established almost as a given (hope I’m not tempting fate) the odd change here and there is not far off being seamless.

Sam Long came in for McMahon and was a man of the match contender. Overall he was defensively sound and only once got totally done when a blue shirt went past him on the bye line. He might not be a marauding fall back who runs great distances with the ball, but he often offers an overlapping option and also showed quick feet on occasions.

The returning Ruffels was just as unyielding in the other full-back position. He’s really grown into that role and the only mistake I can remember him making was when he failed to control a simple pass to give away a throw-in, which is saying something.

Amazingly though the best of our back four may have been Rob Dickie. His was a towering presence winning so many high balls, particularly in the second half when the visitors decided to go even longer than they had in the first.

Equally surprising was Curtis Nelson’s first half showing. I’d not seen him playing this poorly for ages. He got caught on the ball and his passing lacked its usual accuracy. But give the man credit, he kept at it and was much more his normal self during the second 45 minutes. He can read a game and knows how to defend.

As ever now whilst talking defence, John Mousinho has to be mentioned. Yet again he did the job that he’s been assigned in exemplary fashion.

At half time though I just couldn’t see how we were going to come away with all three points. Even after ten minutes I though this isn’t looking good and about twenty minutes in Mrs FV told me “we’re going down”.

More passes were going astray than not. They either ended up at opponents’ feet or were over hit into touch or right the way through to Tomas Holy, the colossus of a man in the Gills goal. From an attacking perspective individuals were not shining, or even playing together, and we didn’t seem to have enough midfield presence to take control. At times it was Gillingham who got close to gaining a foothold but they never quite truly achieved that.

Smith was ineffective. Holmes whilst being our most likely to register didn’t look fully fit to me. He had a few runs and shots that made Holy work to keep them out but more passing (as long as they are accurate passes) would help. He like most others lost possession a few times.

The same can be said of Marcus Browne. He over ran on his dribbles more than once. He also infuriated me when he was subject to what may have been a good tackle right in front of the travellers from Kent in the North Stand. The Gills defender and our loanee both ended up on the floor. Our man had the opportunity to get to his feet first. If he had done so he had a path into the box. He chose to lie on the grass and appeal for a free-kick.

I was seeing nothing from Cameron Brannagan that suggested he can take a game by the scruff of the neck and get things moving from the centre of the park.

After the break our passes were finding yellow shirts, control was better and one or two players seemed to be more at it. Browne was becoming genuinely dangerous. He was keeping the ball and whilst at times the feeling around me was he should have released it sooner, when he did move it on the receiver was still in a decent position.

When a team creates a bit of momentum they tend to be the ones picking up loose balls in the midfield. That was so with us.

The goal came in the 59th minute, three minutes after our manager had made two changes. Holmes and Smith went off. Jamie Hanson and Harvey Bradbury came on.

Holmes looked unhappy at being removed. Ironically I thought Smith was just starting to get into the game more and in the few minutes he had after his cuppa, had laid off a couple of really intelligent balls to colleagues.

It’s about time Hanson started repaying the fee we laid out for him. I’m told it is quite substantial for a club our size but I’ve not had that confirmed. He did well enough here though.

As for Bradbury I’m probably going to upset a few people but I can only call it as I see it. No way can I agree with the comment someone made on Radio Oxford that he was the game changer. To me he didn’t look mobile or quick. I can’t recall him winning anything in the air or even having the ball under control. We’re told he’s not properly fit. It is obviously way too early to form an opinion. I’m sure he’ll be better than that. Another of the comments on the radio was that Harvey did more in the half an hour he played in this game than his Dad Lee did in all the time he was here. That’s some of the biggest nonsense I’ve heard in ages. I was a fan of Bradbury senior who played in Oxford colours over sixty times. True he wasn’t the finisher we all wanted, but he was the class act in a not very good team. I heard something recently that is quite telling. That was the view that Lee was such a superior footballer to many around him who were not on the same wavelength that things he was trying to do just didn’t come off. I can see that but we had a number of fans at the time who refused to then and obviously still do now.

Having earlier been critical of Browne I now have to heap praise on him. He’s another who’s not 100% fit. He was supposed to come off after about 65 minutes but was having none of it. If he’d not won the penalty we’d be two points worse off now. At the time I thought quite possibly the referee had got it right although the dive was exaggerated and having seen it again in slo-mo I don’t think the arguing defenders have much of a case.

Photo, Simon Jaggs

Given Holy is six foot nine I would have thought the sensible approach would have been to hit the penalty low. James Henry smacked it high and still beat the giant with relative ease. Some nerve.

We’d only put together one proper move in the first half that I can remember but now we started to play a little bit and could have had a second when our scorer hit the post after receiving a cross field ball from Browne.

Although some way off our better more recent performances we were worthy winners. Gillingham did pose some threat but we were not exposed in anything like the same way as we had been four days earlier.  Brandon Hanlon hit one just wide at the fence end after we’d carelessly lost the ball in midfield and were caught out for pace and there was another fairly close escape when they broke on us following a corner and appeared to have us out numbered. Here though that resolve came to the fore as a couple of our boys dug deep, covered the ground and saved the day. I think Henry was one of them.

The Gillingham player most will be aware of is Tom Eaves. He’s scored 28 league goals in 48 starts for them and currently leads the L1 2018/19 scoring charts. He’s that kind of player we often refer to who really pisses off fans of teams he’s playing against but who would secretly quite like him in their team. He is very physical. I noticed time and again how he took a step directly into his marker who had to stand his ground with Eaves then appealing to the referee. The Gillingham man also did a helluva lot of holding and shirt pulling on the blind side of the officials. If that’s not being penalised, and often it wasn’t, and you don’t do the same back, you get bullied and lose the battle. So quite right he didn’t get his penalty in the second half. Interestingly some Gills fans thought Dickie had Eaves in his pocket. If that is so could this be the coming of age game for RD?

I could now spend an hour or so banging on about the inadequacy of referee Neil Hair but have not got the will to do so. He didn’t come across as favouring either side just very inconsistent and a bit strange in his decision making.

Anyway for the first time this season two things have happened. We’ve been awarded a penalty and we’re out of the bottom four.


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