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Tranmere Rovers & Cheltenham Town Stare Into The Abyss
We have three Matches Of The Week for you this week. Tomorrow night, it’s England vs Croatia in the World Cup qualifiers and on Thursday night the England Ladies Team take on Germany in the final of the European Women’s Championship in Helsinki. Tonight, though, we kick off with Oxford United vs Luton Town in the Blue Square Premier.
Oxford United and Luton Town met this evening as non-league clubs for the first time, and it was an event. The two clubs were both in the First Division during the 1980s, and their subsequent relegation from the Football League have been the result of neglect on the parts of the people that owned their clubs. This is Oxford’s fourth season in the Blue Square Premier. They led the table for much of their first season before tailing off and losing in the play-off semi-finals against Exeter City. The following year they stayed in mid-table for much of the season and eventually settled in eleventh place, and last season finished just outside of the play-off places, four points off a play-off place after they were deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player.
Luton Town started this season as the favourites to win the Blue Square Premier title, but things haven’t gone their way so far and the pressure is already starting to build upon manager Mick Harford. Their biggest single problem so far has been their form away from home. Prior to this match, they had drawn three of their four league matches. They are in third place in the table, but this is not necessarily where they expected to be at this stage in the season. Their team has been booed off the pitch a couple of times this season already (notably in an away match against Kettering Town after a 0-0 draw). Expectations are high at Kenilworth Road this season, and Mick Harford’s legendary status will probably count for little if he can’t keep his club in touch with the likes of Oxford United at the top of the table.
Kick-off is fifteen minutes late. No surprise there. This was always going to be a big match, and over 10,000 people have packed into The Kassam Stadium this evening. You can only imagine what it must be like for the players, sitting in the dressing room in their full kit, waiting for the referee’s signal and knowing only that the crowd is swelling and swelling. We could be forgiven for thinking that Oxford’s players, top of the table and with the weight of expectation that comes with three years’ underachievement, might not enjoy the extra time to contemplate the importance of this evening’s match, but they come haring out of the traps and have a penalty within three minutes when James Constable is shoved to the ground by George Pilkington. There’s no hesitation from the referee in pointing to the spot, but Constable’s penalty is well saved by Mark Tyler.
Oxford only have to wait a minute for the opening goal of the evening, and Constable earns himself hasty redemption with Matthew Green crossing from the right for Constable to score from close range. Luton are shell-shocked, and it only takes until just over a quarter of an hour in for Oxford to double their lead. Their second goal is the goal of a homecoming hero. Jamie Cook was born in nearby Witney, and played seventy-seven games for Oxford between 1997 and 2001 before leaving to join Boston United in 2001. In the intervening eight years, he has played for Boston, Stevenage Borough, Bath City, Witney United, Rushden & Diamonds and Crawley Town but, at the end of the transfer window he rejoined Oxford after a venture set up by Oxford fans called “The 12th Man” raised £5,000 to bring him back to the club. Luton failed to clear a corner successfully and Cook, twenty-five yards out, controlled a difficult ball, dragged it back an curled the ball into the top corner of the net.
Luton have been a little unlucky. Between the two goals, Alan Hall’s header had been cleared off the line by Mark Creighton but, as things settle down, Luton’s lack of penetration becomes more and more apparent. They have plenty of possession in the middle of the pitch, but are frequently let down by the final ball in the middle of the pitch and they manage just two clear cut chances in the remainder of the half when Alan White shoots over from eight yards out and when Damian Batt’s skin is saved by goalkeeper Ryan Clarke with Luton’s Tom Craddock bearing down. Oxford have a comfortable two goal advantage.
Eleven minutes into the second half, the match effectively ends as a contest with a red card. Matthew Green earns a little space on the right hand side and is manhandled to the ground by Luton’s captain Kevin Nicholls. On another day, Nicholls may only have only been penalised with a yellow card, but tonight wasn’t to be Luton’s night. Luton did continue to press on – Clarke made a double save from Freddie Murray and Tom Craddock. By now, though, time is slipping away from Luton and, in the closing minutes, Oxford look as much like adding a third goal as Luton. At one end, Clarke saves well again, this time from George Donnelly, while at the other Tyler saves just as well from Adam Chapman.
The Kassam Stadium erupts at the final whistle. This is a big, big result for Oxford United. A 3-1 defeat for Mansfield Town has put them five points clear at the top of the table and they are playing like a team full of confidence. However, they were doing this for the first half of the 2006/07 season, and ended up missing out that time. Complacency can be the undoing of the best of teams. For Luton, this is a result that will sting, but there was enough in their performance this evening to suggest that they can, if they don’t make any knee-jerk decisions and overcome the pressure that they are undeniably under to get back into the Football League quickly, mount a serious bid for the BSP championship this season. In a forty-six match season, there is a little room for mistakes to be made as long they are not repeated. Luton aren’t out of the race yet – how they react to tonight’s defeat, however, may determine whether they lose touch or not.
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
The difference for Oxford this season and avioding a repeat of the 06/07 season is the fact they have Chris Wilder as manager. The best manager outside the Football League. He worked miracles on the smallest of budgets and horrendous conditions at Halifax and with the proper support a club like Oxford can offer him he will take them up no doubt about it. In my opinion he is one of the best managers Halifax have ever had.
“Matthew Green earns a little space on the right hand side and is manhandled to the ground by Luton’s captain Kevin Nicholls.”
One person’s manhandling is another person’s cynical scything. Otherwise, nice report. Although your assessment of Luton’s chances of promotion based on last night’s performance is, I would suggest, rather optimistic. I was astonished how little they had to offer up front, and how often they overhit their passes or seemed bewildered in the last third. As for Oxford, I’ve seen them play better this season and, as Halifaxian says, this United under Wilder is a different proposition to the bottlers of three seasons ago. Wilder has built a squad that can cope with pressure, and as a manager he won’t allow complacency. For the first time in over a decade I am actually optimistic that we have the makings of a promotion-winning squad at Oxford, and this is reflected by a strange feeling of unity between fans, team, management, and, bizarrely, the chairman, Kelvin Thomas. For the first time ever we have a chairman who the fans respect, believe, and even like. In my experience that’s not what football chairmen are like, and it’s a breath of fresh air!
As an Oxford fan, I can see the mistakes Luton are making as they were the mistakes we made in our first and second seasons in the BSP. We thought we could play our way out of a lower league using league standard players. But this division isn’t like that. It’s a boxing match. A pub league. And you need the steel to get out of it. Hence the biggest changes for us have been a solid midflied and a an awesome back line / goalkeeper. Let’s also give credit to the goalscorers, but this is a leage won in the middle of the park, and luton are just not “nasty” enough in there.
In 2006/07 Oxford made the mistake of employing league players with no non-league experience.
This time round we have Chris Wilder who has bags of knowledge at this level and has been shrewd bringing in players renowned at this level as very good players. Chris has got an impressive record at this level with Oxford as he has managed the team for 77 games seeing his side lose on just 4 occasions.
We know from our own peril that the tag of the big team means nothing in this division and teams will be prepared to sit behind the ball to content with getting draws against the biggest and supposed better teams. Its those kind of matches that matter over the season and to date Luton are finding it hard to break down those teams with lots of draws.
“However, they were doing this for the first half of the 2006/07 season, and ended up missing out that time. Complacency can be the undoing of the best of teams.”
Complacency wasn’t our undoing; it was that the fear of loosing took precedence over the desire to win (and a lack of fire power to go with that). In contrast Daggenham lost a few games along the way but still relentlessly went after the win in every game. Luton feels a bit like we did in that 2006/07 season, it’s possibly a good thing for them that they have lost the ‘invincible’ burden this early in the season.
Tel Boy get your facts straight how the hell has Wilder managed OUFC for 77 games when he took over last Dec?
Great result last night and Harford showed how tactically he hasn’t got a clue compared to Wilder. Let’s hope Big Mick helps OUFC’s promotion push by staying at Luton for as long as possible.
Mark your right 33 games 23 wins 6 draws and 4 lost. Where did I get 77 from!!!
Very decent match report.
Luton are a strong side. Certainly the best opposition we’ve seen in our 4 years of hell.
Getting out of this league is not achieved by hiring overpaid league players. League players don’t have the bottle for the fight generally and paying extra doesn’t get you extra fight. Getting out of this league is achieved by putting together a balanced side with a strong spine, who can win the battle and then play the ball.
Luton will learn a hard lesson this season, as many others like Exeter and Cambridge United have done before them.
There is little in standard between the Conference Premier and League 2, but there is a very different way to win games.
Sadly Oxford do not own their own ground and pay a handsome rent to Kassam, the man who saved them from liquidation.
The more successful they become, the less this will be an issue but it is yet another example of why ticket prices are so high (£18 for Division 5 football!) and why direct ownership of stadia is so important for the long-term success and sustainability of clubs like Oxford.