So, the evening wasn’t entirely wasted. We got to see the goals from the Youth Cup at half-time and humiliation was eventually avoided. As an anniversary present for Sir Chris it wasn’t what he would have wanted, it wasn’t what we really wanted (the performance and the prospect of a replay), and with Bournemouth apparently winning tonight the outcome isn’t what my French partner Suzanne will have wanted (stupidly I exchanged a freebie voucher for that game as she is in London for the weekend but soon realised that both we and Bournemouth would need to lose for her to get to use it). But at least after a miserable first-half we managed to apply some pressure and avoid defeat, almost winning it towards the end.
In the event the pitch looked ragged and heavy but was perfectly playable (and for the record I’d add my apologies to all the others to the Barnsley fans – and Addicks who had to travel further than I did - regarding Saturday’s fiasco). The team selected for the night had to balance the demands of a tough trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday and the need to pay at least lip-service to the FA Cup. Hamer got the nod in goal (just what the loan signing of Thuram-Ulien means for him and Alnwick of course remains to be seen), Wilson and Wiggins the full-backs, Morrison and Wood in central defence, Jackson and Cousins central midfield, Kermorgant and Church up front, with Pritchard and Cook being selected for the wider positions. A mix but looked strong enough on paper.
However, selection can mean less than application and preparation and, in front of a meagre crowd (despite the restrictions there were plenty of seats available), we made what many will feel was a predictable start. It doesn’t take much for things to go against you when you’re not truly up for it, especially when the opposition are and the ref’s a bit slow. An indifferent opening spell turned into a poor one as the ref failed to spot a blatant shove in the build-up, one of a number of craftily foul challenges by Oxford that the officials seemed oblivious to, which resulted in a corner and one of those goalmouth nightmares that sees a bit of a scramble and a bit of a shot take a wicked deflection off Morrison to leave Hamer stranded.
Not long after and Cousins was caught dawdling on the ball and their guy played it into the path of another who took it on and beat Hamer. 0-2 and a debacle was becoming a possibility. It could have been worse before the break as one of theirs shot over from a good position, while all we had offered was a good run by Wilson into space and a dangerous cross not converted, plus a late penalty appeal followed by our first shot in anger after 42 minutes. Basically we hadn’t troubled Oxford as nothing was happening to pull them out of position, everything was too one-paced and predictable, with the honourable exception being the work done by Cook.
There were no changes at the break, presumably on the grounds that singling out up to three would have been unfair and to make them go out again and do better. With Oxford having had the break to think about it, and causing us fewer problems, we did start to look as though we could make something happen. And when we did it was quite simple. Corner, near post run by Morrison and neat header in.
That raised the crowd and the team and thereafter we were the more likely, even if it was to require a good turn around the post by Hamer to prevent them getting a third. Pritchard, who has struggled to have an impact, was replaced by Green, whose ability to cross the ball was to make a material difference. One ball in from the right saw Jackson get in a decent header which went just wide of the post. I’d like to find the words to describe our equaliser, but if truth be told after that near miss I decided it was time to take a quick break for a Jimmie and missed it all. Apparently it was a ball in from Green and something of a scissor-kick from Kermorgant, a beauty but I’ll have to take others’ word for it.
The chance to win it at the death came as Harriott – who along with Pigott had replaced Cook and Church - rose at the far post to get the header in only for it to hit their defender close to the line in the face. Five minutes of stoppage time failed to head off an unwanted replay.
Let’s leave it at that. It was no game to welcome in Monsieur Duchatelet and his people, no game to celebrate Sir Chris’ tenure, and no game to linger in the memory. Oxford, despite a fair amount of questionable tackling, deserved to get something out of it for their first-half efforts and hopefully to reward their fans who made the delayed journey. Let’s just hope that the dome gets back on the pitch quickly as the rain is coming down again and that on Saturday we get back to the serious business.