Another one bites the dust. Another cup run over, with a defeat at Oxford that is particularly hard to take, despite our being hardened to shoot-out failure after recent forays into that method of determining a result, with some wayward finishing and a couple (only a couple – don’t be daft) of awful refereeing decisions going against us. As Parky has stated, we more than enough chances, particularly in the second half, to have been home and dry before Luke was tripped in the box a few minutes after McNulty had stabbed home an equaliser to the home goal that had immediately followed his first half strike against the post.
It being a night game, and in the League Cup, and a long way from home, we squeezed into a minibus for the journey, survived a surprise road closure at Redworth which necessitated a tour of the South Durham countryside, and decided that we could have tea in Bicester and leave at 6pm for the final 18 miles. Having refreshed ourselves and picked the team, as you do, we were back on the bus with an hour and forty-five to kick off. An hour and forty later, we parked up, thankfully only a few yards from our turnstiles and made the first whistle with a couple of minutes to catch our breath. The usual handful of skinflints were atop their ladders or tree-stumps to get a free view over the fence to our right (three quarters of a canny enough ground, the Kassam), and we set things in motion by attacking the goal away to our left, where the noisier home fans were located. We’d seen the line-up, and the formation was confirmed as 3-5-1-1 or 5-3-1-1, depending on your outlook.
Flanagan Willis Lynch
McLaughlin Power Dobson Leadbitter Hume
Well, if you can’t experiment in cup games, when can you? We know from bitter-ish experience that Ross’s tries with three at the back hadn’t gone that well, so how would Parky’s?
The opening exchanges were fairly frantic, going from end to end with neither side really getting the upper hand or commanding the most territory. Hume and McLaughlin certainly did push up, with the Big Three spreading themselves across the back to protect Big Jon. We got in the first strike within two minutes when McNulty got his foot too far around the ball making the effort go wide, and that gave us hope for more accuracy once he’d warmed up a bit. That was from a long one from Flan down the right, and with neither keeper being called into action after any build-up play, it looked like hitting them on the break might be our best option. We won a corner, and a more generous ref, or one who applied the rules correctly, may well have awarded us a penalty when their keeper charged out and clearly flattened Lynch – which is practically impossible to do fairly – but nothing was given. Big Jon please note – keepers can get away with splattering opponents if the ball is anywhere near.
With 25 on the clock, Leadbitter, who’d spent most of the evening so far in the centre circle, pinged one through to McNulty in the inside-right channel, and the shot across goal beat the keeper but rebounded off his right-hand post. It was picked up by a defender, Oxford burst down their right through Hall, who played it in to the edge of the box then hit the layoff past Big Jon with our defence seemingly all flat-footed. The game continued in that vein, with Oxford using their pacey midfield (something we can only dream of, apparently) to get the ball towards our box, and while Willis and co generally stopped them, the balls out of defence lacked quality.
As we entered the final ten minutes of the half, we started to pass it about a bit, and when Leadbitter clipped one over the top to McNulty in the box, he took it to the bye-line on the left and put it on a plate for Power near the edge of the six yard box. Unfortunately, Max clearly favours other items of crockery, as he somehow stabbed it wide of the keeper’s right-hand post. The sort of chance you’d put your house on Jozy Altidore putting away, to be honest. If only it had fallen to McNulty…but he can’t be in two places at the same time. There were two added minutes, in which the home side absorbed what we tried to throw at them, and we went for our pies – which they eat with a fork in these parts, much to our Ian’s astonishment – a goal down, but still very much in the game.
There were no changes for the second period, and the 1,600 or so visiting fans lifted the atmosphere as we urged the Lads forward. Oxford continued to keep us away from the danger area, so ten minutes in Lynch, either injured or the victim of a tactical change, made way for Grigg. Consequently, we switched to four at the back, but McLaughlin and Hume were still very much attacking full-backs. Oxford hit a couple of efforts off-target, then on the hour Baptiste, one of those pacey midfielders that were causing us so much bother, wriggled across the edge of the box to make space, only for Big Jon to stand firm and palm the shot away. Good save, and shortly after that Hume, who’d run himself into the ground, made way for O’Nien, who can now add left-back to his rapidly expanding CV. He brought added energy, which was no surprise, and was a constant nuisance to the home midfield and defence, which meant that we became a lot more positive.
Dobson, as seems to be his style, had grown into the game, putting in a series of telling crosses from inside right – and one of them beat everybody but the keeper’s fingertips, which pushed it onto the top of the far post. Nearly, but not quite, and we’d have taken a strawky one with thanks, as we rarely get them. Another from a similar position was to McNulty at the back of the box, but, as we were up on our feet (where we’d been since kick-off, to be honest) in anticipation of a decisive touch and finish, the first touch was neither a shot nor a trap and ‘keeper Eastwood gratefully fielded the loose ball. Aww, bugger, and it prompted one of our fans to scream "Maguire, get off, yer sh**e". I do wonder about some folks.
Never mind (sort of), his next effort was more effective. After ten minutes of actually getting the ball, and men, into the box, we were level. Leadbitter slung in another corner from our right which the home defence couldn’t get shot of, and there was McLaughlin to hook it over his shoulder to McNulty at the back of the goal area. Easy – yes, thankfully, and he popped it away to spark some serious celebrations amongst our fans. Still about fifteen to go, and with us now very much on the front foot there was a feeling that we could do this. A third chance to Marc almost brought joy, but when a goal seemed likely as he picked up another McLaughlin cut-back, a defender’s toe deflected it for another corner. McGeady and McLaughlin were combining well down the right, right in front of our fans, resulting in an increase in volume from the stand as we got a close-up of the action.
With three minutes to go, the ref created his moment in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. O’Nien galloped into the box from the left, and as he shaped to shoot, he was clearly brought down. 11,108 fans saw it, players and backroom staff saw it, stewards saw it, and the linesman saw it, (but as usual are too soft to give the ref advice unless a weapon has been used) – but the ref didn’t. I know I should be used to the nonsense that passes for officiating in League One (or games involving League One sides), but that really was a howler bordering on the vindictive. He compounded things a minute later by penalising McGeady near the edge of their box when he allegedly knocked a giant defender over – with his back to him and moving away from him. Truly astonishing.
Two added minutes brought no joy, and it was straight to penalties – but I’d not have been surprised if the ref had not allowed us to take any. Despite there being a “neutral” end – as there isn’t a west end – the shoot-out was taken to the end full of home fans. Not fair, not fair. There was a coin toss and Oxford started proceeding, firing home their first before Power blasted his away. A second gave Big Jon no chance, then O’Nien sent the ‘keeper the wrong way and rolled it home before pulling a face, or something else that upset the home fans. A third one went into the net, and up stepped Grigg, only to place the shot firmly several feet over the top, and you know what? I don’t think many of us were surprised, the way his career in a Sunderland shirt has gone so far. Oxford duly put away their fourth before McNulty saw his less than impressive effort saved, and it was all over. We’d created plenty of chances, while McLaughlin hadn’t had that many saves to make, but our night was summed up by our two experienced forwards failing from the spot.
Just the League, and the FA Cup, and the Leasing.com Trophy, then, and a long ride home in the dicky dark, with an interesting detour through the Oxfordshire countryside to match our earlier tour of Durham’s.
Man of the Match? Willis ran the back four/three/five well, and while Leadbitter’s corners were of the quality we’ve become used to, he needs more pace alongside him to be really effective. Dobson covers plenty of ground, but he’s a long distance man rather than a sprinter. Hume caused problems until he ran out of puff, but his replacement was the one who caught the eye. O’Nien, with yet another string to his bow and what surely would have been the winner, from either open play of the penalty that never was but should have been, gets my vote.