The Blues’ disappointing start to the season unfortunately continued on Wednesday with a 2-1 defeat at Nottingham University. Without a dramatic turnaround in results, Oxford will soon be facing a relegation battle, having experienced defeat in the first three of their four games. Bearing in mind that there are only ten games in the BUCS league season, a rapid transformation is needed to get back to winning ways.
Despite this, the results Oxford have had have not reflected their performances. The current team are regarded as one of the best footballing sides Oxford has produced for several years, and this has been proven on several occasions; at times teams have been unable to cope with the counter-attacks and slick pass-and-move football which they have displayed. Furthermore, a 1-1 draw with Hartpury (the best university team in the country) along with other impressive results in pre-season provided the belief and confidence which would have been needed to get a fast start in order to earn promotion to the Premier League.
This was not to be the case however, and the game didn’t start well for the Blues. They looked sloppy and lethargic and Nottingham took full advantage, pegging Oxford back inside their own half for the first ten minutes of the game. Although this pressure was not transformed into any real clear-cut chances, there were a couple of risky moments including one worrying goalmouth scramble inside the Blues box when the ball was cleared poorly.
Against the run of play however, Oxford took the lead. A trademark long throw from Adam Healy was headed half clear by a Nottingham defender, straight to captain Julian Austin whose mishit shot/pinpoint cross looped to the backpost where Alex Biggs was standing to deliver a composed and decisive finish. The goal was very much undeserved but this manner of scoring has been integral to Oxford sides in the past and is undeniably effective; for how else do Stoke stay in the Premier League? The only difference is that Adam Healy gets into the Blues team on merit, whereas Rory Delap appears to have no other discernible skills.
Despite taking the lead, the Blues had no control over the game and it wasn’t long before there was an equaliser. Midway through the first half a scuffed clearance from the Oxford defence left the Nottingham right-back with enough time and space to curl in a decent cross into the box. This was subsequently flicked on to an unmarked player at the back post and the ball was tapped in to level the score.
Almost immediately a swift Nottingham counter-attack split the Blues defence wide open, leaving keeper Tom Haigh alone to protect the Oxford goal. As the Nottingham player neared the goal he failed to round the keeper, managing to simultaneously kick the ball out of play and fall over. In an incredible turn of events the referee awarded a penalty. Although contact was made, the striker was no longer in control of the ball. This was an extremely poor decision for Haigh who has been outstanding all season, pulling off unbelievable saves on a regular basis. One particular instance saw an entire training session stop to engage in a spontaneous round of applause. The penalty was converted.
The first half contained another controversial refereeing decision, this time in the Blues’ favour. Left-back Anthony Beddows was judged to have brought down a Nottingham player outside the penalty area, even though there was no doubt that the foul was committed inside the box. Bizarrely, a free-kick was given, much to the anger of the Nottingham team, who unnecessarily abused the Blues’ temporary linesman Luke Devereux.
After 45 minutes, Oxford still felt aggrieved by the penalty and knew there was plenty of room for improvement. After a much needed motivational team talk, they emerged a different team; sharper, at a higher intensity and playing with a real desire to change the course of the game.
The Nottingham team were no longer allowed to settle on the ball and the Blues began to control proceedings. This period of domination created several chances, the best one falling to Alec Ward, whose shot was unfortunately deflected over the bar following a goalmouth scramble.
But Oxford couldn’t capitalise any further and after this short 10 minute spell of superiority the match fizzled out and the remainder of the game saw neither side do anything memorable. After 80 minutes, all 3 substitutions had been made and the team had switched to a more attacking 4-4-2 but this had no real impact (unthinkable seeing as I was one of the subs) and it was clear that it was not going to happen.
Overall, a substandard performance from Oxford, but they have yet to face a team which has properly merited a victory. To make matters worse, before Wednesday Notts were only one point ahead of Oxford with 1 loss and 2 draws, which makes the result all the more frustrating. The only silver lining on the horizon is that last season’s side had a similarly miserable start and they eventually won the league, but the Blues will need to win every game from now on if they wish to repeat that achievement.