FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.49: STEVENAGE AT HOME

Article by Paul Beasley Monday, April 22nd, 2024  

FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.49: STEVENAGE AT HOME

OXFORD UNITED 1 STEVENAGE 1

I’m starting to write this after the match Friday Night/ Saturday Morning, as sung by the Specials. By 5 o’clock on Saturday Night (Whigfield) there might be a very different slant.

After this evening I can’t say I’m angry, just very deflated. Philosophically deflated. Still angry about the penalty Lincoln were awarded by Lee Swabey though.

We weren’t good enough. It was in our own hands even after losing to Lincoln. Now it’s not. At the business end of the season as the pressure mounts, the men are sorted from the boys. We’ve had two home games in four days and gathered just a single point. Not good enough.

Has all hope gone? No because I’ll repeat yet again a conceivably “not good enough” team will make the top six. It could still be us but the odds are not looking great at the moment. When a “job” needs to be done, a team like Lincoln can come to the Kassam and do it. We had a job done on us at Wembley by Wycombe and in the playoff semi at the Kassam by Blackpool. We need to develop a capability so it can be us doing those jobs or at least being able to match what these teams are doing to us.

So, we’ve handed the initiative over to the Imps. It’s their hands that it’s in now. I expect them to go to Cheltenham and triumph. I’ve put a couple of quid on a Lincoln win at 6/5 hoping I’ve thrown my money away. Those odds do seem generous. Praying the Robins, that aren’t the ones Oxford fans hate, give everything in their battle against relegation and come out with something. A draw would put it back in our hands. Mind you to then take advantage of the gift that had been bestowed on us we would have to go to Exeter and win. Anyone noticed Exeter’s form? Unbeaten in eight. Five wins and three draws. That included taking a point against Bolton and beating the team we failed to master here. No? Thought not. I hadn’t until I just looked it up.

I think the EFL got a bit confused and booked a clown to officiate the match instead of a qualified referee. Tom Nield did something I’ve never in all my years seen before, stopping the game because there was, shock horror, a very small balloon on the pitch. A balloon that in no way interfered with play as Greg Leigh brought the ball forward. FFS it wasn’t anything like Rover from the Prisoner that kept assaulting Patrick McGoohan.  I fully expected Nield to grab a red nose from his pocket, pop it on his face and pick up the yellow balloon and after a few twists produce a sausage dog.

The penalty we got to level the scores looked, as they say, a bit soft. And wasn’t it outside the box anyway? But the foul in the first half on Marcus Browne that was not given looked like it should have been based on the live view in the ground. Immediately messages came in to fans in all areas of the Kassam from friends and family watching on Sky: “100% a penalty”. The commentator was baffled.

This was serious stuff but clowns are anything but serious. Nield has had to turn down Crawley v Grimsby next Saturday because he’d already agreed to do his niece Olivia’s 5th birthday party. 

Cameron Brannagan scores penalties. Despite the lengthy delay that Nield allowed to happen he buried the one given for our equaliser. Message to Nield: book players trying to waste time and put pressure on the penalty taker. Don’t bother to lecture either side, make the kicker get on with it and if there is an encroachment infringement deal with that accordingly.

A football match only takes one path however twisty and bumpy that may be. There are an infinite number of other paths waiting that will remain untrodden. The players to a large extent determine which route is taken but certainly not more so than characters like Nield who bring a haphazardness to an event that should not be affected by such a thing.

If he’d done the right thing and awarded that first half penalty, Brannagan scores it and it is then a very different game.  We’d have the lead. The tension dissipates. Stevenage have to come out if they want something from the game and leave themselves vulnerable at the back.

Yes, I’m pointing a very large finger at the buffoon but there’s no getting away from it, our team largely have themselves to blame. No criticism from me on the Alex Revell, post Evans, visitors. Realistically they had nothing to play for but the way they approached the game and went about trying to win it thoroughly upheld the competitive integrity of League One. I didn’t think they were any worse than average with regard to spoiling, gamesmanship and foul play.

Sixty six per cent possession and 25 shots. Of those only six were on target. This might not sit right as our goals scored per game, at 1.7, is the fourth best in the division, but I’ve long thought we need to improve in this area. We miss chance after chance. Good that we are creating them yes, but if nothing comes of them then so what? We have not got a natural goal scorer. Yes, Mark Harris has got 14 this campaign but I wouldn’t call him a natural goal scorer. Have we got a centre forward? Don’t start me on the signing of Will Goodwin. Injured, then never fit, now injured again. Thus far big money spend for almost no return.

Given the talent we have, from time to time we will have purple patches where we can whack in plenty against crap opponents – and very occasionally a good one too – but when the stakes are high and the pressure is on we’re found wanting.

Lots were guilty here of missing chances with the standard of shooting mostly being very poor.  

It wasn’t just that though. For all of our possession we hit too many stray passes. Players weren’t on top form when they needed to be. Greg Leigh for one. And although he won a lot in the air and ended up as man of the match, which bemused me, Ciaron Brown was nowhere near as good on the deck. There were murmurings about players not being good enough with upgrades needed next season, even if we are still in L1 which looks likely. Fin Stevens’ name was mentioned. Jamie Cumming too. Our keeper had very little to do. Stevenage only managed two shots in the entire game and neither of these were on target but he punches and pats the ball away too often for my liking. These two are of course on loan.

The possession stats and Stevenage’s paltry attempts to score a goal indicate that our defensive shape and work at keeping them at bay was effective. Possibly so but after we’d gifted them a goal they didn’t need to do anything other than protect their lead with an hour still to go.

That goal came after Cumming, under no pressure from a dark shirt, went for his preferred punch. Stevenage picked up the ball but we had them 3v3 out by the corner flag. We should have contained them but there was some ball watching and not man marking. Marcus Browne had a man but Tyler Goodrham appeared to try and close him down too instead of concentrating on Nick Freeman. I initially thought that it was intricate football that got not one but two Stevenage players free. Closer inspection shows the touch that sent Freeman away was Goodrham’s. Even then we had ample bodies in the penalty area to deal with the threat, way outnumbering the opposition.  But I don’t think our placement was particularly sensible. Sam Long, Ciaraon Brown and Fin Stevens were all stood in a line. Steps forward and back would have made a more effective barrier against the ball in. If Long had been a foot or two nearer the by-line I doubt the ball would have gone in off him, clumsy as his attempt to stop it was. A corner would have been the likely outcome. And should Cumming have done better to protect his near post?

Or am I being totally unfair in hindsight? On such moments seasons do turn.

Craig MacGillivray had to pull off a decent save from a low Cameron Brannagan free-kick to keep it level at the break but our recent attacking threat down the flanks had been largely neutralised.

At the beginning of the second period we had another huge penalty appeal that was denied.  Terence Vancooten’s outstretched arm, deliberate or otherwise, preventing the ball reaching Goodrham not far out. It really is a lottery. I no longer have a clue about the handball law. And was Nield too far away from the play to be able to see what’s going on? Perhaps he was busy scanning the entire playing surface for a stray crisp packet.

In the 59th minute Brannagan’s cool head and clinical strike put the penalty we’d at last been awarded into the net. This was the softest of the lot by far. Carl Piergianni did give Ruben Rodrigues a slight pull and our man was always going to accept the invitation to go down. Looked more outside the box than in to me. Yes, it is a lottery.

We now had ample time to go on and win the game but didn’t. Josh Murphy, who came into it more in the later stages, had a couple of breakaways but wasn’t able to send the crowd into rapture. Perhaps if he’d managed to stay on his feet when he slipped he could have had a second bite of the cherry.

But it wasn’t to be.

The nerves the following day checking the relevant L1 scores were as high they had been at the Kassam the night before. Cheltenham going one up. Surely not. No, of course not. Lincoln were bound to turn it around. And they did. Once they got one they’d get more. Unlike us.

Blackpool 3 Barnsley 2. Interesting.

All Lincoln have to do now is beat Portsmouth. Mrs FV is convinced that they won’t. Pompey will have had a week to sober up after celebrating the league title and hopefully will want to go out with a bang after losing to Wigan.

Then there’s the Barnsley factor. They’re on a terrible run having only picked up one point from their last five games and that’s just the difference between them and us. We have a superior goal difference. The bookies have Barnsley at 4/9 to win their last game.

As it stands OUFC, Barnsley, Lincoln, and Blackpool could finish in fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth place.

So, if we beat Exeter and either Barnsley or Lincoln fail to win we’re in the play-offs. The Grecians kept their impressive unbeaten winning run going at Sixfields on Saturday.

Do we believe? I’m finding it hard to do so to be honest. Disappointment seems to be the default setting. These last two home games tell us that. We so often come up short.

Whatever anyone says about Liam Manning and the fact that our form had slightly dipped when he left, our position in the table was a very healthy one. That was spaffed away. We’ve done it again over a four day period.

What’s the most likely outcome on 27 April around the L1 grounds and at St James Park in particular?  Either the Imps or the Tykes failing to get all three points leaving the door open but us cocking up and not taking advantage.

Very strange things happen in football. So many possible combinations. Lincoln win. Blackpool draw. Barnsley lose. Then a point for us would be enough.

Working backwards from last season the number of points required to get 6th spot have been 77, 83, 74 (us), Covid year season not completed and 73.

We’ve already got 74. I really cannot get my head round this season. With that number already gained I keep asking myself if I’m being overly critical but I desperately want success at my football club.  

At least last season we knew what was what. Utter shite from start to finish with a tiny bit of happiness for a few minutes at FGR when we got the win to stay up. Then best forgotten. Move on.

Oh, finances. To fit in with this season it would be totally appropriate to keep you guessing. Watch this space in the Exeter Fan’s View.

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