Should have guessed, really. The first whiff of spring in the air as I step down from the train (if only I knew how apposite the lyrics of the old Tom Jones number would turn out to be), a proper ticket collector at the gate, the old University town bustling, benign and welcoming, its largely-youthful population scrubbed, carefree, smiling and optimistic, a pleasant stroll along the Thames (never the Isis, as I was gravely cautioned by that arch Oxford resident Professor Stephen Weatherill), the pre-match ale flowing as generously as the conversation of my companions as we enjoyed our first alfresco pre-match beer of 2002, a cabbie who was quite happy for me to finish off my Romeo y Julieta in his vehicle as he whisked us to the Kassam Stadium. Truly an idyllic day.......except for the ominous rumblings of older heads that such days never live up to expectations on the field.
Unless your expectation is that the day will not live up to expectations, that is to say. For if that was your expectation, then it certainly was lived up to, and on a grand scale. This was not, in fairness to our heroes, the sort of completely bone-idle, uncaring, hangover-induced performance that it seems to have been my misfortune to write about on pretty much every occasion on which the heavily-gnawed match reporters' Kingston upon Hull Education Department HB pencil has been cast in my direction this unfortunate season. Billy Russell has at least managed to reintroduce levels of discipline, energy and commitment on the field which ought to form the basis for a team possessing a modicum of ability and self-belief to produce something approaching convincing football. But it seems to be this latter quality which is now proving our biggest problem. For long periods yesterday we looked comfortable, even complacently so, against an Oxford XI comprising, with all due respect to them, a fairly bottom-end-of-Division 3 standard blend of great-hearted triers, promising youngsters who will end up at the likes of Portsmouth or QPR until they lose their pace and/or bottle, and old soldiers whose weight in stones is increasing more rapidly than their age in years (I'm looking at you, Moody) - truly a team which, on paper, we ought to be accounting for by a margin of two or three goals without any need for over-exertion. Yet when it came to actually striking the fatal blows, we didn't seem to be able to bring ourselves to do it, almost as if we were scared of what would happen if we did. The result was a match which had a curiously, given that City had so much to play for, uneventful end-of-season feel about it. And when a late substitution provided us with a left-side combination the defensive frailty of which, exposed in the way it ruthlessly was at Field Mill in September, gave rise to the first signs of concern about our fate this season, the final dénouement had an air of predictability about it.
Granted, we had before yesterday lost two out of three under Russell, but we never win or even so much as score at Swansea and against the Scunts it just wasn't our day, and derby games are always a lottery anyway. Add to that the swashbuckling despatchment of BRMansfield and there was no real reason to suppose that we would not take yesterday's game and our opponents by the scruff of the neck. But by the end, the thought I was personally left with was that the performance we had seen revealed that the Tiger Nation had perhaps underestimated just how deep-rooted our team's problems have become.
Resplendent in our silver away strip were the following:-
Subs: Beresford (for Philpott, 76 mins), Dudfield (for Whitmore, 84 mins).
A curious line-up, in that it seemed to owe more to experimentation than to the availability of particular players. Whether this is at all connected to the rumours of Pearson taking a role in team selection we can only speculate.
The first half wasn't largely formless, it was completely formless; rarely if ever can a less eventful 45 minutes of football have been served up at this level. However all was not lost, as this gave us a chance to appraise the Kassam Stadium on this our first visit here. I hope Oxford can find the finance to build a stand at the West end of the ground, not because this will protect the cars parked behind the west goal from wayward shooting, but because it would undoubtedly leave them with an impressive stadium for this level. It is of course on an accursed edge-of-town site, and bedevilled by lack of proximity to local facilities and the usual traffic and parking evils as a result, but if the fourth side is finished would have a capacity of I guess around 15/16,000, and, with its decent facilities (if a little congested) would be on altogether a different scale from the glorified biscuit tins at the likes of Scunthorpe and Chester - definitely more Millwall than Walsall. But I do miss the Manor Ground, I have to say.
The football? One short paragraph will suffice for the first half. On 7 mins Tappa fed Philpott on the right, and the latter's dangerous-looking cross was hacked hastily to safety. That was about it for a quarter of an hour, with City not content to turn the screw and the Ox content to do what spoiling they had to do, although the increased restiveness of the egregious Goole contingent sitting just to my right was gingered-up somewhat on 21 mins when a clearly-offside Moody (the double standards of the far-side linesman in the first half when applying the offside rule being one of the talking points of the half) released promising Ox starlet Brookes, who sliced yards wide with only Musselwhite to beat, and lay face down on the turf for some time as if in search of sympathy for some imagined injury to divert attention from his (on this occasion) incompetence.
For some reason my notes of the game at this point read "Holt is dire".
The next item of note was a pronouncement from Steve Weatherill which only got as far as "If Souness were alive now......" before he checked himself, but not before his neighbours had turned to face him, mouths agape with a mixture of surprise and delight. Or does he know something we don't? I think we should be told.
Oxford started to assert themselves more in the second half of the first period, but without ever posing a serious threat. The only other event of the half worthy of comment was the booking of Alexander, sadly looking as ineffectual as John Moore on a good day, for angrily bouncing the ball on the ground after being penalised, in a manner which always looks funny when those freakishly-tall basketball players do it.
On to the second half, and barely had we registered that the game was under way again before we had our best chance of the match, when Alexander raced onto a lofted ball from midfield and hooked the ball past the Ox netminder, only for the ball to bounce just the wrong side of the keeper's right-hand post with the large but hardly boisterous City contingent of around 1 000 on its feet in anticipation of the breaking of the deadlock. This heralded a spell in the match when, without ever getting into the realms of sustained slickness, we could easily have scored on two or three occasions. Theo went close on a couple of occasions, both times after having been fed by Norris, along with Justin our best player, although there should also be an honourable mention for Lee Philpott until his substitution. Alexander should have done better on 60 when he chose to shoot himself but blazed over with Theo unmarked in support and better placed. Six minutes later came probably our second best chance, when Theo, in his only real purple patch of the game, stormed through the middle and found Alexander, but the latter's shot was blocked by the keeper's outstretched leg. The home keeper also saved well from a Sneekes 25-yarder on 71.
This particular spell of promise came to an end on 74 when Theo got onto a Holt throw and hit a shot which the home keeper uncharacteristically fubled, but unfortunately although Philpott got to the rebound first, the angle was too narrow for him to do anything except curl it onto the roof of the net. The City 16 was substituted shortly afterwards, and the Beresford/ Holt combination on the left, truly the antithesis of Roy Race and Blackie Gray (ask your dad, kids) seemed to provide the catalyst for City's demise. The Ox, although second best for most of the half, had still managed to strike a couple of almost-telling blows, and no doubt file-card memories of the early-season defensive frailty of this particular combination were dusted down to show Oxford what they had to do, and do it they duly did. Three times they attacked down their right and looked menacing in the process, before it was a case of fourth time lucky for the home side on 81. Their wide midfielder on the right was able to slot the ball into the box completely unopposed, where Brookes, the target of our lampoonery in the first half, fired the ball home inside Musselwhite's near post.
It was clear that there was to be no way back. The Dude came on for Theo to no discernible effect, although we might have done better on 87 when Norris blotted an otherwise neat copybook by opting to shoot himself, and hitting the ball wide, when Greavesie was well-placed for a lay-off, to the dismay of our Goole friends, who were by this time reduced to referring to Sneekes as a "Gippo". How nice to see that irony is not yet dead.
Pearson has made it clear that Russell is in the frame for the manager's seat on a permanent basis. From what we have seen so far he doesn't seem likely to be able to halt the slide sufficiently convincingly to be able to put himself among the front runners, although he has undoubtedly received the hospital pass of all time in being asked to do anything to correct the evils with which our team has been beset. Indeed, it's doubtful to see what difference any new presence at the helm could achieve in the time we have left to relaunch our attempt to secure a play-off berth (as I think they are called). If there had been any scope for the situation to be redeemed, it would surely have been apparent yesterday. Instead, the overwhelming feeling was one almost of relief at the impending close of one of the most disappointing seasons in living memory.
The fact that the post-match pub discussions centred around possible pre-match drinking venues for Dagenham said it all.
Report by: Ian Thomson