You know, today I wanted to just see a good game of football. To qualify that, there are very few games we’ve lost that I would mark down as good, so of course victory was still paramount. But behind that I wanted to see us play well, with commitment for sure but also without fear, against what we assumed would be decent opposition (and I’ve no axe to grind with Robinson, he failed for us and like in a marriage when it all goes sour you focus on the negatives, but succeeding with Mad Roland at the helm was not easy).
In the end we had the good, the bad, and of course right at the end the ugly. The good was the effort put in, nobody shirked and there were plenty of tired bodies still being put on the line, epitomised by Famewo somehow lasting to the end of the game. Coupled with that was generally good defending and cover from the midfielders. The bad came in the form of, like Tuesday, poor decision-making in the final third as reasonable positions were not turned into goal-scoring opportunities in what proved to be a game of few chances (although the BBC’s stats showing a combined 24 shots and only 4 on target were misleading as some on target were deflected or blocked). The ugly came right at the end as Schwartz took on the job as penalty-taker after Stockley had been tripped and struck it well but not high or low enough and saw it saved. Sure, over the 90 minutes a draw was the fair result, but as Curbs said afterwards “who cares?”.
The team …. well bless my cotton socks was unchanged from Tuesday, including the substitutes. That meant in front of Amos, Matthews, Pearce, Famewo and Maatsen, with Watson in front of the back four. However, whereas on Tuesday night we had Forster-Caskey and Smith in central midfield flanked by Washington on the left and Millar on the right, with Aneke up front, this time Millar returned to the left wing, Washington played as a centre-forward, and Aneke was asked to fill in to the right. Whether this was the result of something Bowyer and his team had spotted remains to be seen, but it was evident in the early minutes that Washington and Aneke were shrugging shoulders at each other, seemingly unsure who was to take up which position.
From the off it was an even contest, with plenty of probing but both defences on top. Washington was getting into good positions without making the most of them, although on one occasion he was going to be played in only for their defender to deliberately stick out a hand to block the pass, the referee crazily giving nothing (was he confused by the rule change?). Millar lost the ball and made the foul to prevent them breaking, picking up a yellow where their guy had not, while at the other end the only moment of concern – aside from an injury to Matthews which saw him replaced by Gunter - was when Pearce decided to go for a ball that Famewo seemed to have covered, almost letting their guy in.
We did have a chance, when Aneke got clear, passed to Millar, who laid it on for Forster-Caskey advancing into the box. It was a tight angle and his shot went over the bar. That was effectively balanced out by a powerful Oxford shot which might have been heading in only to be deflected behind for a corner. And the half ended with Aneke judged to have caught the defender with an arm when jumping for the ball, of course echoing his recent (overturned) red card. This time the ref gave him a yellow, leaving Chuks looking confused over what he might be doing wrong.
At the break you had the feeling that one goal for either side would win it. It was all competitive, committed, but lacking in quality. That did if anything put even more of a premium on not conceding, as chasing the game would have been very tough.
It wasn’t surprising to see Aneke replaced by Stockley for the second half, which is no reflection on how he had played but rather an acknowledgement that this was no game in which to go down to 10. Other than that the game continued much as before. Watson picked up a yellow for a routine foul. It was something of a surprise, therefore, that both teams came close to breaking the deadlock around the hour mark. First, Oxford benefited from a little confusion in our defence and their guy took it along the edge of the box, looked up, and his shot crashed back off the inside of the post and out, with Amos beaten. Immediately we broke and Millar was played in, advanced to the box, and curled a shot just wide of the far post.
It calmed down again for a while after that flurry of excitement and with around 15 minutes of normal time left, and players starting to tire, Bowyer made a triple-substitution. Off went Watson, Smith and Washington, on came Shinnie, Jaiyesimi and Schwartz. It was a bold move, leaving us with two wingers and two forwards, without the defensive covering midfielder. In our exchanges at the time I sent out ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man, this is Schwartz’s moment’, and surprisingly he did touch the ball not long after coming on.
As the clock ticked down you had the feeling that it would be awful to lose it at the death and that a point wasn’t so bad. We were still producing the occasional moment, with Stockley having a header from a free kick only to be given offside, while the ref decided that a wayward pass from Oxford which hit him should be rewarded with a bounced ball giving them possession close to our box. That danger passed.
And then. In the second minute of stoppage time, a throw-in on the left side went into Stockley, who somehow managed to control it on his chest and turn the other way, only to be tripped. I don’t know if it was a stonewall penalty, have to see it again. All I know is that it was given and with the clock showing the game effectively over we had a penalty to win it. With Washington off the pitch, Schwartz stepped up. He hit it to their keeper’s left but he guessed correctly, it was at a height which meant he could get there, and an outstretched arm deflected the ball onto the bar and over. The final whistle came immediately after.
What can you say? We all know we didn’t deserve to win (or to lose), but that’s the beauty of football. I don’t care what the win would have meant for our play-off prospects, that’s for tomorrow. I only know that it would have put a big smile on my face.
Amos – 7/10. Another game where he wasn’t required to pull off any blinding saves. Did spill one he should have held, had no chance with the one that crashed off the post.
Matthews – 6/10. Had to leave the pitch injured after 18 minutes.
Pearce – 8/10. Another immense effort. Did make a mistake going for one in the first half that was for his partner to deal with, gave away a free kick or two, otherwise did all we could ask.
Famewo – 8/10. I’d make him man of the match for us, just because it was clear from the first half – after a run back to cover – that he was struggling but kept it going until the end. I’d be surprised if he’s available for Tuesday.
Maatsen – 7/10. Put in a shift and was less exposed than on Tuesday, also got forward to good effect.
Watson – 7/10. Pretty effective in front of the defence, no complaints.
Millar – 7/10. So close to being the match-winner, had the beating of their full-back, just not able to deliver the end-product.
Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Decent game, almost scored a couple of times in the first half, otherwise worked his socks off.
Smith – 7/10. Did good work before seeming to tire in the second half. Linked up well with others.
Aneke – 6/10. No real complaints for the first-half display but seemed a little confused by being asked to play wider and, with another card for an aerial challenge, needs to sort this out before it becomes a real problem.
Washington – 6/10. Almost but not quite, whether on the ball or looking to receive it.
Gunter – 7/10. No complaints, did his job.
Shinnie – 7/10. Thought he did well, some timely interceptions.
Jaiyesimi – 6/10. Fair enough but didn’t seem to get the chance to affect the game in the final third.
Schwartz – 6/10. Not going to mark the guy down for not scoring a penalty. Forget it, we still need him to deliver.