FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.52: PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL PART 2

Article by Paul Beasley Sunday, May 12th, 2024  

FAN’S VIEW 23/24 – NO.52: PLAY-OFF SEMI-FINAL PART 2

SEMI-FINAL SECOND LEG: PETERBOROUGH UNITED 1 OXFORD UNITED 1

Photo, Steve Daniels

Days like this do not come around very often. A day of shredded nerves. A day of emotion that is hard to put into words. And at the end of the day it’s us, not this very good Peterborough side, going to Wembley, where we’ll be going through it all again and some.

Before events like this I don’t know what to do with myself. It was one pint – and a very good pint of Batemans XXXB it was too – before making the 10 minute walk to the ground. Entry through the incredibly narrow turnstiles was quite slow with everyone being searched. As usual fans of both clubs managed to get flares inside London Road. Where do they hide them? Should the stewards be on the lookout for anyone walking funny? Or is it that their checking is as cursory as to make it meaningless?

I have covered how old school – and with it inadequate – Peterborough’s home is in previous FVs but there is no denying that the low roof that can be easily touched at the back of the stand is a massive atmosphere enhancer. With no hint that people were aiming for the seat specified on their ticket, that’s where I aimed for and ended up standing alongside Selfy. Did anyone actually use their seats?

I can’t recall many days like this supporting my club. Phenomenal. From before the first minute of the game to a while after the last the energy generated by the vibrancy in the away section could have powered a medium sized town for a week. Throw in the tension and it was an incredible mix.

The home fans were obviously well up for it too. There were 11,123 of them and 1,306 of us, meaning we had 10.5% of the total and I’m not sure whether they quite sold out. They had 13.29% of the gate at our place where the home area did sell out. 9,647 Oxford fans were present last Saturday.

Any worry about “day trippers” diluting the passion of the support on site was totally unfounded. I doubt though that will be of any comfort to the loyal home and away types who clocked up a few thousand miles over the season but missed out on getting a ticket to this one. I know plenty. I also saw many familiar faces in the Main North Stand on Wednesday night. Those I didn’t recognise were every bit as passionate and wound up as I was. Just because I didn’t recognise them doesn’t mean they’re not regular away supporters, just not been on my radar or in a circle of friends that overlap another circle of friends.

There will have been many fans, either by choice or because they missed out on tickets, who watched on Sky at home or in a pub/club. Their bodies will have been experiencing similar feelings to those of us in Cambridgeshire. Mrs FV wears a smart watch. Whilst sat in front of our TV at home it kept detecting high stress levels and telling her to do breathing exercises. That wouldn’t have worked, the whole thing was breathless.

Teams that have very low possession often create the most chances as borne out by the number of shots on goal. It’s what you do with the ball when you’ve got it and how you go about containing the opposition when they’ve got it. We’ve won games like that as the season has worn on. We’re no longer about mostly playing the ball about slowly at the back with forward passing often looking like an afterthought. Still mustn’t forget that keeping the ball is a good thing though.

Here we had just 30% possession. Just one shot on target, the penalty presumably, out of a total of five. Peterborough had eight of their 18 on target. They had 14 corners to our five. We made 37 clearances. They made just nine.

So this clearly wasn’t one of those matches where we controlled the game without the ball and were the more potent team.

This was an Oxford United team I could no way envisage existing just a few months back. No soft underbelly when push comes to shove. No lack of that extra bit of desire to get the job done.

It wasn’t pretty but boy was it wonderful to see. Other teams have done it to us, now it was at long last our turn. The referee is there to officiate and interpret and apply the laws of the game accordingly. Yes we committed 19 fouls but any moaning from Peterborough can be countered by pointing out that they committed 17 in the first leg when Josh Murphy was certainly targeted. He had obviously been picked out as a danger man. Posh have many danger men. Ephron Mason-Clark is a particular standout. I’m blinkered, especially so on the night, I’ll admit. For clear fouls I was claiming our man got the ball.

Jamie Cumming going down “injured” to take some time and sting out of the game was just what was needed. Keepers don’t have to take 30 seconds on the side lines. Love it. Totally hate it when the other team do likewise of course. That’s football.

So everything points to it being all Peterborough and little from Oxford. Did they have us on the ropes though? I’d say for most of the game no, but in the final minutes yes.

We defended magnificently for the most part. Despite the intense pressure we didn’t buckle and never looked like we were without answers to what was being thrown at us. Defending as we did we were not going to get over run. At the end yes we were on those ropes but refused to go down with some extraordinary saves, blocks and goal-line clearances. On another day it might not have been quite enough. Today it was.

Midway through the first half Peterborough had a free-kick that was played to Josh Knight just beyond the far right hand side post. His marker was Mark Harris who was more intent on stopping the home no.5 getting to the ball, probably illegally, than winning it himself. He was easily beaten and from very close range Cumming had to beat the shot away.

In the 39th minute Fin Stevens took out the impressive Mason-Clark, who will be playing for Coventry next season. It was clearly a foul although I yelled “never”, in the same way as I did for just about everything. “Handball” when it was nowhere near a hand. I was that biased.

It took about a minute before the free-kick was taken. Over it went to the far post. Harris v Knight again. Our man did exactly the same as previously. Knight side-footed home.  It was shocking defending. No lessons learned from earlier. Radio Cambridge picked up on this. If Harris was never going to win this battle why had we not left him up field where likely an extra blue shirted defender would have stayed back? Surely we had someone better suited to this task in our ranks.

The expectation now was that Peterborough would sense vulnerability and immediately come at us with even greater vigour. But some young muppets in the Motorpoint stand threw two blue flares onto the pitch. A steward came out with a grabber and removed them. Then a third was lobbed on. That was taken away too. Just as we were about to kick-off again a fourth came flying on from the back of the stand. By the time we got underway just over two minutes had been lost. Can’t have done us any harm. Thanks, you morons.

We’d just entered stoppage time at the end of the first half when Owen Dale was brought down from behind right on the edge of the penalty area. Too central and too close to do some up and over bending. Joe Bennett ran over the ball then Cameron Brannagan hammered it. Posh captain Harrison Burrows rushed from the wall and did a bit of goal keeping. Penalty.

Photo, Steve Daniels

The usual minute or so delay didn’t phase Brannagan. Unflappable, he side-footed home to Jed Steer’s left, the Peterborough keeper going the other way. That will have made the half-time team talks rather different to what they would have been five minutes earlier. Before the break Cumming had to push another shot out of play for a corner. This time Harris’s wrestling was with a different blue shirt but in exactly the same area. The ball didn’t make it that far and no damage was done.

The second half was probably even more attack v defence than the first. It began frenetically. Mistakes from both sides, Mason-Clarke causing real problems and with just three minutes of this period gone home appeals for a penalty. No way handball. Blocked by Bennett’s upper chest, chin or beard but certainly not his hand or arm as those of a Posh persuasion would have it.

Bennett was one of our players who incurred the wrath of the home supporters. He smacked into the goal-post but they decided he was faking it. He didn’t have treatment but later on needed Amy to come on after he got a knee in his back. Given that we were under the cosh we’d hardly want to be without a defender for half a minute.

With seven minutes of regular time to go we could have sealed it and released all the tension which had become almost unbearable. After a very rare Oxford break a back pass was played to Steer who just presented it to Ruben Rodrigues on the edge of the area. He in turn moved the ball on to Marcus McGuane who shot just wide but Steer looked like he had it covered. Hindsight is a great thing but Murphy was to his right completely unmarked.

So we continued to sweat. Down Bennett goes again. He is replaced by Marcus Browne. That’s not faking.

We were getting closer and closer but whilst everything that Peterborough were doing was super quick the clock was ticking along in slow motion.

In the 90th minute Darren Ferguson threw on the tall Emmanuel Fernandez in an apparent last throw of the dice. Over came yet another corner. Won not by Fernandez but another sub Jonson Clarke-Harris. This was it surely, our resistance was broken. But no, Sam Long got his head under the ball and flicked it away off the line. By now the local radio commentators had lost the plot. Handball they claimed.

More corners that we defended with our lives. Ciaron Brown bravely headed a cross away and was then met with the full force of Fernandez’s forehead. The home fans weren’t happy. Could have been more than a free-kick in my view.

We survived the 90 minutes with our noses still in front but then had to face another seven minimum. In that time there was action aplenty. Fernandez headed over when he probably should have done better. Cumming flew to his right to keep out a Knight header.

Those seven minutes elapsed but the game continued for seconds more. A long Peterborough throw was flicked on and passed across the face of the goal a few inches from the line. How Mason-Clark didn’t get a touch on it I’ll never know.

The final whistle then went with the only score that mattered being the aggregate of PETERBOROUGH UNITED 1 OXFORD UNITED 2.

Photo, Steve Daniels

I have never seen a defensive display like this in all my years watching the club.

Four days later, which is when I’ve got round to finalising the second last FV of the season, I’m still on an incredible high. But I’ve also now stepped back and considered what went on with some of the emotion removed and how that sets us up for Bolton at Wembley.

Des will obviously have a game plan as he did here but in my view we’ll have to do more than this and improve in certain areas if we are to progress to the Championship. When we did get the ball we were quite poor at keeping it. Our dead ball delivery wasn’t good nor were the very few passes delivered into the penalty area. As throughout the rest of the season I fear that we won’t score the goals required because I don’t think we’ve got the forwards. That though is clearly ridiculous as we scored one more goal than Bolton in the regulation season. And for all of the heroics on another day we could have come up short. But one thing is a given, if we show the same guts, determination and driven desire this coming Saturday we’ll be in with a very good shout.

Can’t wait. We’ve got our tickets. Of course we all have. Ah tickets.

TICKETS

I woke up quite late on Thursday morning to discover tickets for the final were going on sale at midday. We decided to get them purchased as soon as we could. Perhaps I missed some small print but it never goes quite to plan does it? Bloody Ticketmaster (as I keep saying). I’ve got a mate who asked me to get his ticket with ours. He’s not one I’d previously added to my network to enable me to assign him a ticket. No matter, he gave me his fan number so I logged on at 11:45 to add him to my network. The system wasn’t having any of it. I just got a message saying I was in the queue with over 1000 in front of me. So I waited until 12:00. The 1000 were soon dealt with. We’d decided we’d have category 3 tickets but there were none shown as being available. Made no sense but we picked seats in another area instead. We included one for my mate and then was able to add him to my network with the tickets sat waiting in my basket. No problem assigning tickets to my wife and son. And there he was on my list. I hit the assign button and got a message that I couldn’t do so. I tried a few times before giving up and removing the extra seat from my order. Someone later said how did you get a ticket for the section we’re in because it’s a family section?  News to me. No hint that was the case when I was putting my order in or message saying “where’s the kids ticket?” Does anyone fully trust Ticketmaster? For the privilege they’ve charged a £2.50 booking fee for each ticket and £1.50 transaction fee. Bargain – if we win.

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