Monthly Archives: December 2014

U’s, Shrews and Boxing Day (Dark) Blues

I’m not sure what the official qualification period is before a regularly repeated activity becomes a tradition, but as this was our third “Dad and Son Bank Holiday Groundhop” (and as plans are already taking shape for a fourth adventure over Easter 2015), it’s certainly beginning to feel traditional for Dan and me to set out for a previously unvisited league ground for a football fix around a major holiday weekend. This time, Oxford was our destination on a bitterly cold and damp Boxing Day, for the League 2 encounter between Oxford Utd (the U’s) and Shrewsbury Town. The keen follower of this blog will recall that our Easter 2014 sojourn had – entirely coincidentally – seen us visiting Shrewsbury for the then home team’s clash with Crewe Alexandra in League 1. Defeat for the Salop that day played a significant part in their subsequent relegation to the ‘old fourth division’ in May 2014

Some obligatory background colour about Oxford (courtesy, inevitably, of Wikipedia) before we get into the detail of the visit. Oxford is the 52nd largest city in the United Kingdom, with a population of a little over 150,000 people. Rather idiosyncratically, Wikipedia lists motor manufacturing ahead of education in the list of the city’s key industries, although there is no disputing that the University has a far higher world profile than the BMW plant at Cowley that is responsible for a fair chunk of the world’s Mini production. Poet Matthew Arnold first coined the phrase “the city of dreaming spires” to describe an architectural heritage that includes examples of buildings from every major period in English history since the Saxons. I’ve included a couple of examples sourced from Wikipedia here (you get nowhere near anything of any architectural merit if you arrive at the Kassam Stadium, as we did, via the M4 and A34!)

Oxford's architectural heritage

Oxford’s architectural heritage

Our trip to Oxford on Boxing Day morning started badly with the discovery that a known ‘slow puncture’ in the rear wheel of the family car had become a total let down in the 36 hours that it had been sitting on the drive since Christmas Eve. Stretching my mechanical engineering skills to the fullest extent of their competence (not far to be honest), the spare wheel was eventually fitted and we set off. It was an odd drive east along the M4 towards Oxford, in the sense that it rained pretty much all the way, but the road ahead was never really wet. It was almost as if we were dragging the rain clouds on a rope along the route with us. Nevertheless, the journey passed without incident and we arrived at the Kassam Stadium, the rather exotically named home to both Oxford United FC and London Welsh rugby union team, in very good time. Having parked (for free!) in the large football club car park at the rear of the East Stand, we commenced the mandatory walk around the perimeter of the ground in search of the club shop

Oxford 1

 

 

 

The first thing that strikes you about the Kassam Stadium is that it’s not really finished. There are three perfectly functional (if soulless) stands along two sides of the pitch and behind one goal; and a yawning gap where the fourth stand ought to be behind the other goal. What makes this all the more perplexing is the fact that the three stands that are there, are actually all quite big. The ground capacity is 12,400; this is 3,000 more than can be accommodated at Shrewsury’s Greenhous Meadow stadium, as an example, but the fact that the Shrewsbury ground is built with four stands makes it feel like a proper sporting arena. The problem with the Kassam Stadium as it is, is that you can look over the wooden fence behind the goal at the west end of the ground and watch people making their way into the multiplex cinema on the other side of the car park. Even worse, when Oxford Utd are not playing well (as they didn’t on our visit) and home supporters therefore leave early, the visiting fans in the north stand have a great view of the early leavers and can easily wave and chant “Cheerio” as they trudge away

Oxford 2

The other notable thing about the stadium is the fact that it appears to have been built without any provision for a club shop. There is a portacabin that might operate as an outlet for merchandise (although it had no stock and was not open on Boxing Day); but the main club shop is a five minute walk away across the large car park of the adjacent multiplex cinema and retail development, round a corner and next to a laser combat centre. To be fair, the shop itself was well-stocked and very efficiently run, but the overall impression is that Oxford Utd as a football club has an uneasy relationship with its home ground – being both part of the fabric but also somewhat separate at the same time

Oxford 3 Oxford 4

To be honest, there was a general sense of malaise around the whole event this Boxing Day. At virtually every football ground I’ve ever visited (including some amateur league games where the total attendance could easily have fitted in a double decker bus), there has always been a sense of anticipation and nervous excitement around the place in the hours leading up to kick off. It’s what makes a visit to any live sporting event unique – that sense that anything might happen, that the script for the contest to come has yet to be written, that plot twists and moments of drama will be created on the fly as the players react to the conditions, the bounce of the ball, the vagaries of chance and misfortune, the passion of the crowd. This usually creates a buzz, an atmosphere, that causes the hairs on the back of the neck to stand up. I say ‘usually’ here because at least on this occasion, there wasn’t really any ‘buzz’ at all at the Kassam Stadium. If there was an atmosphere pre-match, it was one of foreboding and impending doom, rather than positive excitement

This may in part have been a realistic assessment of the chances of the home side against a Shrewsbury team that was flying high in the division having won 6 of their 8 previous matches and with a chance to head the table with a win at Oxford. In contrast, the home side had won just 3 of the last 8, and came into this match on the back of a disappointing 1-1 draw with bottom club Hartlepool the previous Saturday

We entered the ground at just after 2pm and made our way to the concourse area serving the upper south stand in search of the obligatory ground hop refreshments – a pie and a coffee for me; a burger and a beer for Dan. Now, I know that mass catering at sporting events is not a likely source of gastronomic delight, but it’s surely unforgivable to serve a cold beef and onion pie at a football match (especially when it’s pouring with rain and 3 degrees C outside!). It was a shame too, as I reckon it would have been half decent with a bit of heat applied. Dan’s burger was passable, however. Having watched the end of the Chelsea v West Ham game on the concourse TV (Hazard is just too good, isn’t he?), we made our way to our seats

Oxford 5 Oxford 6

The match itself was effectively all over in the first 18 minutes, with goals from Collins and Ellis having put the Salop two up by then, and Oxford never really looking like getting back into the game. Indeed, the three Shrewsbury squad members sat behind us in a vacant section of the press box were confidently predicting the withdrawal of key team players at half time if a three goal cushion was established by then. In the event, there were no more goals in the game, but that owed more to Shrewsbury profligacy than to any stiffening of Oxford’s defensive resolve

Oxford 7 Oxford 8

With the result effectively decided in the game’s first quarter, this neutral observer was able to watch the game more critically than perhaps would have been the case in a more evenly contested affair. The stand-out performer during the game was Shrewsbury’s Liam Lawrence. Lawrence had celebrated his 33rd birthday two weeks before this match, but he looked anything like the gnarled old professional in this game. It is often said of players who drop down a division or two towards the end of their careers that they have so much time on the ball that it as though they are playing whilst smoking a pipe and wearing slippers. That would be a grave disservice to Lawrence on this showing. He was so much more relaxed than that! Pretty much everything that Shrewsbury did that was good in this game (and there was a lot of it) involved Lawrence at one or more key points. He operated largely on the left side of midfield (although he popped up more centrally from time to time as well), filling the space between Oxford’s defence and midfield and seemingly always having time to pick a telling pass, or hold up the ball to allow others (notably Collins, but also attacking wing-back Demetriou) to press on into more advanced positions, safe in the knowledge that the ball would be fed into their path. The only surprise for me was the failure of Michael Appleton (Oxford’s manager) to task one his players with simply following Lawrence around the pitch in an attempt to harry him when in possession and generally to reduce the time available to him to dictate the pace of the game. The only blot in Lawrence’s copy book came towards the end of the match when a cleared cross found its way to him 18 yards out and just to the left of centre. With time and space to pick his spot, a third goal seemed inevitable, but a heavy first touch proved enough to allow Oxford to scramble the ball away, and the chance was gone

Oxford 9 Oxford 10

Oxford looked tired and lethargic from the first whistle to the last. Their only real chance came within seconds of Shrewsbury’s second goal, when a sharp cross-shot forced an excellent diving save from Leutwiler, and the rebound was cleared away to safety. Having made it to half time only two goals in arrears, the home fans had every right to expect that their team would come out with a bit more fire and passion after the break. The fact that their only shot on target in the second half came in the 88th minute says all that needs to be said about how misplaced those expectations were

Oxford 11 Oxford 12 Oxford 13

And so the final whistle came (from referee Lee Probert, dropping down a division or two from his normal appointments in the Premier League) and we made our way out of the ground and back to the car for a long, dark and very wet drive back to south Wales. Was it worth it? It’s a tricky one to answer – any trip to watch live football is almost always preferable to staying in and watching it on TV, so in that sense, I’m not sorry that we made the effort to go. In fairness to Oxford (the city and the team), this match probably didn’t do either of them justice. We’ll have to go back when the weather’s a bit better and give them a second chance!

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