Fan’s view 2021/22 – No.18 – FA Cup Rd 1 – Bristol Rovers at home

Article by Paul Beasley Monday, November 8th, 2021  

FAN’S VIEW 21/22 – NO.18

FA CUP ROUND ONE: OXFORD UNITED 2 BRISTOL ROVERS 2

From time to time when churning out these Fan’s Views I feel obliged to say that I am largely a big fan of Karl Robinson and think he’s doing a fine job for our football club. There are however occasions every now and again when I quite strongly disagree with his tactical changes and comments he makes.

He had me baffled when he referred to games with the Gas being our second local derby. Whilst there’s a bit of an edge to games between the two sides and hence the reason for the one o’clock kick -off on a Sunday on police say so, there’s a whole host of clubs located closer to us than Rovers.

That’s neither here nor there though. It was his assertion that we played well and I heard some of our fans with a similar opinion post-match, that I’d take issue with along with his view that Paul Howard was the best referee he’s seen up here. Oh, and then there were his bloody substitutions.

Summing up a team’s performance by saying they “played well” sometimes is a very accurate brief assessment but it is very rarely as simple as that. Such comments can ignore the fact that a football match lasts for 90 plus minutes. Brief spells of utter brilliance can blind an observer to periods of the game when a team is not doing some things as well as they should be. Many fans I’ve talked to over the years seem oblivious to the fact that what a player does off the ball when his team is out of possession is just as important as what he’s up to when his team is attacking.

My half time summary was that we’d done okay but no way would I say we’d played well. Rovers deserved their equaliser partly due to their persistence but also because we deserved to concede, being very sloppy in not stopping them playing. They looked a decent L2 side, nothing more, and when we did play the ball about it was clear that we were the ones with the extra class which is to be expected. We’re sitting sixth in the division above them.

Going a goal up so early proved that we could rip them apart. Cameron Brannagan slipped Mark Sykes away with ease through a massive gap in the square Bristol back line. The ball squared into the six yard box was side footed home by Matty Taylor. Who else?

Post-match I’d felt no tension in the air. I thought the visitors might have come and swamped the place providing nearly half the gate but that didn’t happen. 797 was way below the figure I thought would turn up.  4286 home fans was probably a little more than I was expecting. Bigger fish in the league to fry type of thing. That and the fact that tickets had only been discounted by a fiver. Much cheaper for the replay. Terrace tickets a tenner and concessions just a fiver. That’s more like it.  Both clubs had to agree on the prices on each occasion of course.

Given there was only just over 5k present in total and a more natural habitat for the time of day would have been the dining table facing dinner, a lack of atmosphere could be forgiven. Matty scoring really changed all that. The Gasheads loathe him having popped over the river to City. This set things up nicely with each set of supporters taunting each other in the North Stand. All adds to the occasion as long as it is not taken too far. The East Stand got into the swing of things too. “Joey Barton, you should be in jail”. Now there was a real edge.

I thought Rovers defence was there to be got at and exploited but we never put our foot down and made the game ours. At times we didn’t move the ball quite quickly enough. Two touches when one would have done. I noted CB at times was guilty of this but perhaps I’m hyper critical and demand too much.

It was them creating chances though. They clipped the post and stretched Simon Eastwood. Steve Seddon looking very vulnerable at left back. I think that’s an area we really need to be looking to improve upon in the transfer window. At the very minimum we need to bring in some meaningful competition for that position.

The first equaliser came one minute into the six added at the end of the first half. Seddon had been robbed and Sam Long could only send his backward header to the unmarked Sam Finley who finished with no messing.

The first 25 minutes of the second half were something else altogether. It was breathless high octane entertainment. End to end stuff with us going more to their end than them to ours. We looked like we could score four, five or six, even if we’d possibly leak a couple in the process. That was playing well and some, going forward. Defensively there was a debate to be had even here and the final stats analysis of our 17 shots with six on target to their 11 shots with nine on target is a touch sobering.

The goal with which we re-took the lead six minutes after the turn-around was from the top drawer. Again we just sliced through the visitors’ rear guard. Marcus McGuane driving forward and taking the subtlest of return passes from Taylor before classily side footing with power beyond James Belshaw.

I was really impressed with McGuane, not only by his quality on the ball but also how he got back and covered in exactly the right areas quickly and with no fuss. Others could learn from this.

After that it seemed nailed on that we would get another as we kept hitting the frame of the goal with efforts that if they’d gone in would have been deemed very good indeed. Fine margins but none were in the really should have scored category. The unlucky yellow shirted men were Taylor twice and Sykes.  The only missed sitter was a Gavin Whyte header at the far post.

There was so much going on that looking back now I have no idea what order it came in. Somewhere along the line we nearly witnessed a goal that would have been talked about for decades to come. Brannagan’s free-kick from well inside our own half.  Quick thinking and superbly struck. Belshaw was just as alert though and excellently tipped the ball over the bar for a corner.

There was only one team that was going to win this and that was us up to the 71st minute. That was when Robbo made three substitutions. A game changer in a bad way.

Unlike in the EFL, the FA still allow 5 changes to be made in their cup competition. Our first was an enforced one with a quarter of the match gone. Alex Gorrin had gone down earlier in our penalty area and had some of the lengthiest on field treatment I can remember when a player then continues to participate. That was only temporary though and he soon had to make way with Ryan Williams replacing him. Gorrin was a loss but Williams is one of those all energy players that it is no harm to have in your team. He must have loads of pent up energy having been given so little game time thus far.

Alex Gorrin receiving treatment. Photo, Simon Jaggs

Taylor, Sykes and Gavin Whyte off for Dan Agyei, Billy Bodin and Anthony Forde was Karl’s call. As was McGuane off and Jamie Hanson on eight minutes later.

My take/concern was I hope this lot can see the game out. I very much had my doubts though. Afterwards I heard it said that we didn’t win because we hit the metal work instead of scoring and missed a very easy chance. Absolutely true. If a few of them had gone in we would have won easily and this would have been hailed a masterclass.

But an indisputable fact is that the score was 2-1 when these substitutions were made so for me there’s an incredibly strong argument that this action was what threw the win away.

Obviously we’ll never know but I was very convinced that carry on playing as we were and that third goal would have come and then would have been the time to shuffle the pack but probably not three in one go. Although I do acknowledge there’s only three slots available to use all five permitted changes.

I’ve spent some thinking time trying to work out Karl’s logic. Taylor, Sykes and Whyte were all a threat and playing well. Protection for coming league fixtures I assume. And Matty had been booked although that was with only half an hour gone. But why not wait a bit longer with that third goal looking very likely? If there was a genuine worry about Taylor v his former employers and the risk of wind up/injury he would not have been selected from the start.

After these changes our level of threat dropped massively and the only time we appeared to be really going for it was after Rovers had pulled level again in the 87th minute. Too little, too late, wrong players.

I’ve got a lot of time for Anthony Forde but this was a negative defensive option. I thought Bodin did quite well but we’d thrown so much that was good away and he’s not a Sykes or a Whyte.

Agyei had another 20 minutes to show what he could do. Again it was not a lot. Another post-match comment I overheard was that he’s a “waste of space”. I hate to hear that about any Oxford player but the body of evidence mounts by the minutes he’s given. In his defence all I can say is that he’s not as much a waste of space as Sam Winnall.

The final change was a further backward step but if that was to protect McGuane as he slowly gets back to full match fitness then so be it. Jamie Hanson is one of those almost forgotten men. He’s still only 25 but has been with us for three and a bit seasons now yet has made only 33 league starts. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for a particular player at a particular club. It goes without saying that injuries have not been kind to the young man. Will we ever know if a fully fit JH is good enough for this level? One thing is for sure; the competition for midfield places is much harder now than when he first came to the club.

It most certainly didn’t work out for him here when he gave away the penalty from which Rovers equalised. It could be said that he was unlucky but the award of the spot kick was correct in my opinion. Not quite tuned into the pace of the game? Not aware that a man wearing a blue and white shirt was close enough to stick a foot in and get there first as he swung a leg to clear?

All this praise for the referee, I’m having very little of. Let the game flow? There were 19 fouls awarded in this game. The previous week against Morecambe there were 13. But that is not the point. The laws of the game lay down what merits a free-kick. In theory there could be none in 90 minutes or 40-50.

In the past we’ve had officials who have given free-kicks when a player has lost a fair 50:50 challenge and ends up on the ground or when a player has initiated the slightest of contact and thrown themselves to the floor.  We’ll probably see that again at some stage but for now there’s much less of this which is a good thing. But when Williams is smashed in the back and sent to the floor with no foul given that’s a bad thing. As is when one of our men beats an opponent and is chopped to the floor but play is allowed to carry on. If you think that’s fine Karl then perhaps you’re managing in the wrong sport. Tellingly Howard was booed off at half-time. But what do the fans know? Shirt pulling, and there was plenty of it particularly on Taylor, although as usual we were not innocent bystanders, now an accepted part of the game. Managers happy with it and coach accordingly? It happens so often so why don’t they start a campaign to make it legal? Not for me. Any lump can grab a handful of material. I want skill to win out. Let the players that can play play. Rant over, but only until the next time.

 

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