Andrew Bennett reporting from the Habbin:
This Easter has been a stranger one than most. The four-day weekend has lost an hour along the way, the League programme has been set aside in favour of internationals, and Mr Bean has turned into Maigret. Some of it has been predictable (the dismal weather, chocolate-induced indigestion, stupid game shows on Saturday night, Histon losing), some of it less so (England winning excitingly in Germany, the Twenty20 cricket team being quite good, the Light Blues victorious in the Boat Race, Posh not losing), but our beloved U’s have come out of it in much the same position as when they entered it: on the fringes of the playoffs, in plain view but tantalisingly out of reach, bobbing up and down on a bungee rope that is just too short for contact.
It was something of a boon publicity-wise for Oxford United to visit the Abbey a day after the cities’ students had gained battle on the choppy dirty-grey waters of the Thames, although both sets of supporters know that there is no such rivalry between the respective football clubs, and a healthy crowd of 6,108 gathered as the morning’s clouds began to disperse, yielding reluctantly to a watery early-spring sunshine as they turned to cotton wool in a backdrop of blue.
Oxford have enjoyed a fine season so far and arrived comfortably ensconced in second place behind runaway leaders Northampton Town, backed by 1,328 supporters in the South Stand. Like the hosts their squad was depleted by international call-ups (four to United’s two) plus the absence of John Lundstram, who was dismissed at Stevenage on Good Friday, and their change strip of red and black stripes with red shorts made them resemble Histon, like an attempt to lull their opponents into a false sense of security. Top scorer Kemar Roofe was present, though, equal third most prolific marksman in the division with 17 goals, which made it a little surprising that he sported the number 4 shirt.
United line-up: Norris; Furlong, Legge, Coulson, Haynes; Clark, Dunne; Williamson, Berry, Dunk; Spencer. On the bench: Beasant, Omozusi, Roberts, Horne, Ismail, Simpson.
Shaun Derry made one change from Friday’s defeat at Bristol Rovers, awarding Hull City loanee Max Clark his first start in place of Zeli Ismail, and he accompanied James Dunne in a holding role within the manager’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. Elliot Omozusi was sufficiently recovered from illness to boost the substitutes’ ranks to six.
After a wild night the wind was still as blustery as a Donald Trump speech and straight from the kick-off Chris Maguire essayed a cheeky shot from the centre circle which rolled apologetically wide. The hosts swiftly began to assert themselves, though, with Luke Berry particularly eager to get forward in support of line leader Jimmy Spencer. The latter had an under-powered header clutched by keeper Benjamin Buchel and Berry was well wide with another header inside the first five minutes, and the U’s skipper had two more efforts at goal before another five minutes were up, while Jordan Bowery broke away to fire wide for the visitors.
Oxford’s game plan seemed to involve utilising the stiff breeze to loft hopeful long balls over the top of the United defence, but time and time again they were overhit or just plain inaccurate and ran out of play or straight to Will Norris. United, for their part, were more patient in their build-ups but were unable to find that killer ball in the final third, but Clark and Dunne looked assured in front of a back four led imperiously by Leon Legge.
Neither keeper was troubled for a good (or not so good) 20 minutes. Dunne stormed through to have a blaster blocked on 27, then Spencer sent a 20-yard curler just wide of the far post two minutes later, following which Ben Williamson’s cross was missed by Spencer and bounced out of play off Berry at the far post before he could react.
Darnell Furlong was brought down 25 yards out by Joe Skarz on 36, costing the Oxford left-back a booking, but Clark’s ensuing free-kick was easily plucked from the air by Buchel. Sam Long then missed the target for the visitors, while in added time Clark’s free-kick found the head of Legge but he could not guide his header on target, thus ending a rather bitty first half in which neither side had produced enough threat to the respective goalkeepers.
Oxford came out for the second half determined to improve on a mediocre first 45 in which they had been second best, and Maguire’s shot from the edge of the box flew narrowly wide within three minutes of the restart. He then drew a foul from Dunne, who became the first U’s man to see yellow, and a little spell of pressure followed from the visitors which resulted in a couple of untidy scrambles in the United box but no really telling attempts on goal.
The U’s rallied and Williamson set up Spencer for a shot on the hour which got rather caught under his feet before he fired over. Maguire was next into the book for an unsubtle shove in the back on Berry, but Ryan Haynes’ free-kick sailed feebly over the bar. Berry then saw an underpowered shot gathered by Buchel and on 65 Danny Hylton replaced Bowery for the visitors.
The much-vaunted Roofe was getting no change out of Legge, who was in commanding form as evidenced when he comfortably blocked the Oxford marksman’s run to gain his side a goal-kick, while Norris also looked fully in control and held Alex MacDonald’s 20-yard shot on 68 minutes.
Three minutes later Ismail replaced a rather out-of-sorts Williamson and soon made an impression with some mazy runs and tantalising crosses, while Robbie Simpson came on for Clark with a quarter of an hour to go to boost the hosts’ attacking options. George Waring then replaced Maguire for the visitors, and Harrison Dunk broke away promisingly only to try to be too clever with his footwork and found himself dispossessed.
With ten minutes to go there were shouts for a penalty at both ends in the space of a minute. Berry made a timely interception as he bustled into the box but seemed to be hauled down, to no interest from the referee,
then up the other end Hylton tumbled under Legge’s challenge to howls of outrage from the travelling supporters, who had been obsessively shouting for handball every time an Oxford player’s shot went near a United defender.
Spencer then had a powerful shot blocked (handball!) before he was involved in an incident with Jake Wright at a throw-in midway into the Oxford half in front of the main stand; Wright made to take the throw, then threw his arm at Spencer’s face. A Yeovil man was sent off for a similar offence at the Abbey two weeks ago, but after consultation with the better-placed linesman, ref Haywood awarded only a yellow card. Given that violent conduct is a red card offence, one has to ask exactly what infringement Wright was booked for.
Both teams had thrown everything they could at each other during the second half, but neither could produce that moment of quality sufficient to break the deadlock, and at the final whistle players from both sides lay prone and exhausted on the sunlit turf. Oxford had not really shown how they had come to be so well placed in the league, presumably at least partly due to their weakened squad, while the U’s had demonstrated why they will fall short in their playoff quest, producing little to truly trouble the visiting keeper for all their honest endeavour. And the jury is surely still out on this 4-2-3-1 formation, which leaves Spencer isolated and wastes Williamson wide to the detriment of the team as a whole. The seeds of a decent team are there, but they need another season to germinate when their injured players will be fit again and the dead wood in the squad replaced. Easter is a good time for rising from the dead, but mid-table safety will do for now. The planning for next season should already be underway.
Today saw the first goalless draw at the Abbey Stadium this season. There were two last term, against Shrewsbury and AFC Wimbledon, plus a certain FA Cup game against Manchester United. The U’s have recorded three nil-nils away from home this season, at Barnet, Hartlepool and Luton.
Today’s attendance of 6,108 was the third best at the Abbey this term, beaten only by 6,607 against Portsmouth and 6,298 versus Luton Town. The highest away crowds have been 15,425 at Portsmouth, 10,262 at Bristol Rovers and 9,227 at Luton.
This afternoon’s attendance is also the second best ever for a game against Oxford United at the Abbey. The best remains 6,496 on 30th November 1991 when the U’s were top of Division Two (now The Championship); the game finished 1-1, Dion Dublin putting the hosts in front early in the second half before Lee Nogan equalised for Oxford. The teams were:
CUFC: Vaughan, Fensome, Kimble, Dennis, Heathcote, Chapple, Cheetham, Bailie, Dublin, Taylor (Philpott), Wilkins
OUFC: Keeley, Robinson, Smart, Lewis, Foster, Melville, Magilton, Wanless, Aylott (Durnin), Nogan, Simpson
United have lost only twice in 16 league games at home to Oxford since the clubs first met in the Southern League in 1961-62, winning eight times and drawing six. Their only defeats were in 2006-07 (0-3) and 1994-95 (1-2). Their away record is the exact reverse, with 2 wins, 6 draws and 8 defeats.
Max Clark is the fourth man with that surname to turn out for the U’s in a league match. The first was David, a striker who made three appearances during 1955-56, then came Steve, a defender who started 63 league games plus three as sub between 1983 and 1986. Thirdly came Paul, Tommy Taylor’s assistant, who played twice at centre-back during 1995-96 at the age of thirty-six.
Clark is only the second Max to play for United, following Max Porter, who made three Conference starts plus five as sub during 2005-06. He is also the fifth man to wear the number 12 shirt for the U’s this season, after Jacob Blyth, Alie Sesay, Terry Kennedy and Lewis Page. This is a club record for one shirt in one season, beating United’s four number 23s during 2004-05 and four number 26s during 2006-07.
The other number 12s for United before this season have been: Michael Kyd, Tom Cowan, Daniel Chillingworth, Igor Latte-Yedo, Ryan Lockett, Jon Brady, Josh Simpson, Leo Fortune-West, Jack Jeffery, Josh Coulson, Rory McAuley and Matteo Lanzoni.
Norris 8. Always looked assured and in control.
Furlong 7. Put in a competent shift.
Legge 9. Simply colossal.
Coulson 7. Solid and reliable.
Haynes 8. Growing in confidence with every game.
Clark 7. Busy, energetic and can only improve with experience.
Dunne 7. Quietly dependable.
Williamson 6. Willing runner but is not best used in a wide role and looked rather lost at times.
Berry 8. Always positive and first to get forward in support of Spencer.
Dunk 7. Ran himself into the ground as usual.
Spencer 7. Decent job up front, although like his colleagues, needs to be more ruthless in front of goal.
Ismail 6. Some good work on the right flank.
Simpson 6. Struggled to make an impact.
United gave their all in a deserved draw with high-flying Oxford, although both teams lacked quality in the final third and the game rarely looked like being anything but a goalless draw. Plenty to enjoy, but plenty of room for improvement, too.
Man of the Match
Leon Legge. None of the Oxford players could find any way to get past the big man, who resembled an indulgent but stern adult playing against small children at times.
Haywood 5. Awarded far too many soft free-kicks and ducked the big decisions.
Soundtrack of the Day
Cassius featuring Cat Power and Mike D “Action”
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