Fan’s View 2020/21 – No.52 – Play-off SF first leg

Article by Paul Beasley Wednesday, May 19th, 2021  

SEASON 2020/21 No.52: PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL FIRST LEG

Stress

Along with untold joy, supporting a football team to ones very core often brings huge stress levels. Will your team hold on to a point or all three in a crucial game particularly those where it comes down to deciding relegation or promotion? And here we are facing 180 – and possibly an additional 30 minutes, still doing battle because we made the cut by the tiniest of margins. How tense will this entire journey be and I’ve not even mentioned the possibility of penalties yet? This to take us to a one off game away from getting back to a level that we last played at way back in the 1998/99 season.  Football looks very different now to what it did back then particularly from a financial perspective where large gaps between clubs of differing sizes have become chasms. And all this without the Covid factor.

I was going to continue by covering a bit more on the anxiety front – the have I got a ticket or not thing but never got round to it before the match. As it turned out that all season ticket holders who applied got one I’m therefore not going to bother.

 OXFORD UNITED 0 BLACKPOOL 3

Not for the first time I feel obliged to say that I’m not one to dish out praise for the sake of it. Therefore I found it impossible to clap the team off after the final whistle. If I had done it would have been pure hypocrisy on my part. Brandon Barker and Cameron Brannagan I could put my hands together for and as for Mark Sykes I could have continued to do so until they were raw. He was rightly our man of the match and by a huge distance. I reckon many of our players should give varying percentages of their wages to Sykesy depending how much they put in to this in comparison to his contribution and effort. If his lead had been followed I can’t envisage that an Oxford defeat would have been the outcome.

The stand out

As it was this was one of the most disappointing games I have ever attended. I never got stressed. Never felt much emotion other than when walking round the ground prior to the start where I had renewed acquaintance with faces of old that I’d not seen in what seemed like an age. Then it felt good to be back. Later it didn’t.

There was nothing on the field of play that got the passions flowing. It was like we sat back and let it all happen to us. A kind of resignation. Well that’s what I felt hence no stress came. Just a feeling that I’d been let down. Great that we were there in person but this was pretty shitty. We got what we deserved. The team did nothing much to get me out of my seat. Where was the togetherness, the passion, the joy that came over in the scenes on the pitch at the conclusion of the game against Burton and in the dressing room afterwards? That told me we had a real fighting chance with that team spirit. The form team. We were the ones. The ones on the up.

Turns out that was all a bloody illusion. We played as if none of that Burton stuff existed. Or Crewe, Shrewsbury (x2), and Gillingham. But there we have it. The clue has been there all along. I’d been swept along, as I suspect many had, by that run that got us here. And why wouldn’t we have been? No point in supporting a team if you don’t enjoy such happy times.

But step back and take a breath. Look who we’d been beating. Not bad sides but not the very best. All season, of those teams at the top, we’d only managed to beat one once. That was Lincoln. That tells that we’re not really (quite) good enough. There I’ve said it again. It’s fine margins as we know and we could have produced something special against the Seasiders but we didn’t.

What we produced was the opposite of special. I can take losing if we go down fighting and trying something but we came up with so little I found it all a bit embarrassing.

There was much in this game that can be repeated from other poor and underwhelming performances.

Elliot Lee and James Henry hardly in the game. That always trotted out saying “when Henry plays well then so do the team”.  He did play a couple of really good passes but overall I thought he was very poor. Not on it. Not sharp or strong. Bad free-kick after bad free-kick plus he missed a very good chance when he shot over the bar in the second half. Question – is he 100% fit?

Nothing was being created for Matty Taylor. I still wouldn’t have taken him off though. Sam Winnall as a replacement? Time and again he’s been given the benefit of the doubt when it looks for a brief moment that we’ve got a proper striker who is slowly getting match fit and will get goals. Then he’s back to being crocked. He didn’t even last 20 effing minutes here. I do feel sorry for the guy but it is not doing the cause of OUFC any bloody good. Seems to me his body is just not up to it. Waste of a place in the squad. Does he have another year on his contract?

At no time during the game did we get any flow going. 57% possession yes. Flow no. Possession in areas that hurt the visitors and gave them genuine problems, no. We had one shot on target all game. That’s pitiful.

Hat’s off to Blackpool. They merited the outcome and knew how to handle the situation much better than we did. They had more strength, belief and desire. Yes they pissed us off with time wasting and whatever but that shouldn’t distract from the fact that we were nowhere near being competitive.

It could have been different if a couple of first half breakaways had resulted in goals for us. I was deluded, when with Blackpool playing in our half and putting the pressure on, I thought this might all be part of our game plan. It wasn’t. It was that they had control of the game and never relinquished it.

One would expect the home team, especially with fans once again present, to be the one doing the pressing but we weren’t capable of that.

Blackpool defended well and those breakaways came to nothing. The key players involved being Barker and Sykes.

Defensively we were back to being a bit sieve like. Right-back Jamie Hanson wasn’t any better or worse than the others but the injured Sam Long was a massive miss. He’s a battling winner and that was sadly lacking to a great degree. What was a blatantly obvious miss was his runs going forward. Hanson provided none of that. Whenever he got the ball – and he never showed for it like Sam does anyway – he usually turned and played it back or sideways. No driving runs forward giving us momentum and taking the game to the opposition. That’s not his fault it’s just the way it is.

We’d had to scramble the ball away a few times before the first goal came but the writing had been on the wall when it did arrive. I really rate Josh Ruffels. He’s been great for us but his defending of the Blackpool free-kick wasn’t his best moment. I don’t know why he opted to get a touch with the outside of his left foot instead of properly facing the ball and hammering it away with his right. Was his mind elsewhere dreaming of playing in the Championship anyway next season with someone else perhaps?

What’s the point in putting all that effort in over the season to overcome our terrible start to get this far and then blow it? You tell me. Going behind didn’t serve as a kick up the arse. Instead it just got worse.

Three minutes later it was 0-2 and only a quarter of the game had elapsed. Ellis Simms beat Rob Atkinson much too easily and I thought Elliott Moore didn’t look particularly athletic as he knelt and tried to block the shot instead of rushing towards the scorer. Also let’s not forget it was a simple high ball that set this up. Another let’s not forget is that over the 46 standard games we were only the joint ninth best defensively. That needs to be improved upon. Best was Blackpool. The two automatically promoted sides also bettered us as did the other two play-off teams Lincoln and Sunderland plus Ipswich, Fleetwood and Portsmouth.

It’s largely our goal-scoring exploits that got us to where we are. Only Hull and Peterborough, the two that went up, scored more than us and then there was a gap of seven to Sunderland and Charlton behind us.

Couldn’t add goals here though and didn’t really convince that we were likely to although I thought Sykes – who else? – was denied a stonewall penalty when he was pushed as he fired a shot goalwards in the second half. I don’t understand why there wasn’t greater uproar.

The third we conceded was a classic counter attack. They were eager and faster at running forward than we were at running back.

That just about totally sealed it.  At two down a quick goal in the second leg could make things very interesting but to get to two down – how pathetic does that sound with a quarter of an hour left of your home leg? – we needed to pull one back. Leadership, drive, guts, determination, willingness to go that little bit extra for the cause weren’t there.

So what of it? Well we’ve got bugger all to lose at Bloomfield Road. We might as well go for it. Plenty owe us after this. But how do we breach the best defence in the league at least three times without letting one in ourselves? Yes exactly. And it looked like Brannagan will be an injury doubt along with Winnall who we should probably just forget.  Start with Taylor, Dan Agyei, Barker and Olamide Shodipo? Tell the lads to give 110% cos that’s what footballers can do and in this case add on whatever percentage was missing from some here and perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll give them a game this time and something to think about.

Football can be a real downer but it is also a funny old game. Can’t see it but here’s hoping to be rolling in the aisles and some come late Friday evening.

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