Oxford United 1 Bristol Rovers 2
Sunday 17th January 2016, League Two
"Aren't you driving to Oxford today?" asked my wife Becky, standing at the door of our bedroom trying to rouse me from my hungover state of rigor mortis. I had organised an impromptu casual pints event the night before with some old friends that had ended up with us getting a little more Darrell Clarked than I had originally intended. I choked down some paracetamol and hit the road nervous about my blood alcohol content.
I had originally decided not to bother with this trip in the name of post-Christmas penny pinching, despite it's relative closeness. However the exciting return of Rory Gaffney coupled with Oxford's cup heroics made me think that this may be a classic and when I saw someone selling a spare ticket on Twitter I took it as a sign.
After just over an hour and thirty minute's drive through the pretty Wiltshire scenery (and Swindon) I had arrived on the outskirts of Oxford where the Alakazam stadium stands, surrounded not by the trappings of more traditional grounds: grubby pubs and long-suffering neighbours but by a Bowlplex and a Frankie and Benny's. I was almost glad to be driving, the thought of ducking into Bowlplex for a swift pint was not appealing.
I had arrived way earlier than my meet up time with Neil off of Twitter and it was a testicle-shrinking 3 degrees, so I decided to take a walk. I spent £2 on a sample pot-sized cup of coffee and began shuffling miserably around the perimeter of the stadium. I really hate the cold. The only thing of note on the stadium exterior front is the big reflective glass panelled entrance that gave the place a sort of late 90s leisure centre feel. Apparently there's a bronze statue of an ox somewhere but I didn't see it.
The interior of the Kablamo stadium consists of three all-seater stands. The south is two-tiered and contains the posh seats. The north is where the 2,300ish Rovers fans were seated, with about a quarter of that amount of Oxford fans one the far side. The east stand was similar to ours but obviously smaller because it was behind a goal. It looked to be the preferred place of the more raucous Oxford supporter. Conspicuous by its absence was the west end of the stadium, which is filled only by a small wall covered in adverts. I wouldn't like to hazard a guess as to how much OUFC has paid out to Bowlplex in window repair fees over the years due to stray balls.
As you have probably guessed this is another modern identikit stadium that I find difficult to make interesting with my puny human words. The beige breeze block concourse didn't help matters, though I did find it funny when I encountered in the men's room the handiwork of a Chesterfield fan who had written 'OXFORD SCUM' in what appeared to be crayon on the wall. I queued up dutifully for my sole cup of warm, nameless bitter as a feeble shield against the frosty bullshit I would be facing for the next two hours.
Out in the stands we were treated to the auditory delights of Sandstorm by Darude as an elderly chap in a suit ambled out onto the pitch with a microphone and addressed the east stand. He congratulated the crowd on the recent results against Swansea and Millwall which he said were made possible by the constant noise of the home crowd. He then tried to start a warm up routine to get the home crowd going but had to give up and shuffle off back down the tunnel after his three attempts were drowned out by the Rovers support who were positively delighting in ruining Oxford's party.
I enjoyed the flag waving antics of Oxford's small gaggle of ultras as they welcomed the players to the pitch, it was a nice little display even if no one could possibly be intimidated by a banner that says 'Oxford Boys'. I enjoyed the fact that the U's support appeared to encapsulate all the main segments of the modern fan, the silent ever-seated old-timer, the mad shouty singing section people and the belligerent frothing tosspot that stands as close to the opposition fans as possible in order to exchange obscene hand gestures all match.
All this didn't completely remove a nondescript feeling of being in a well-to-do place that chairpeople and local politicians would breathlessly tell you was a 'sustainable community asset' as they grip your hand a bit too tight and grin twitchily. Just to give you an example of what I mean: every single substitution had it's own sponsor read out over the tannoy: "Substitution, number 20 Taylor replaces number 15 O'Dowda. This substitution brought to you by The [suchandsucha] Hotel, Oxford." I have never heard of this happening before and it's one of those things that makes me think we may be a bit too far gone as a species at this point.
The game played out much as I had expected, a tight affair between two teams who should find themselves in the top 7 come May. Oxford passed slickly and were able to get themselves into good positions with very little notice, it was easy to see how they troubled Swansea and Millwall recently. Rovers defended tenaciously and looked threatening on the counter, helped by decent long-ball deliveries from Leadbitter and Clarke and the classy touches and turns of shiny new striker Rory Gaffney.
The deadlock was broken straight away in the 2nd half when a short corner was worked to the middle edge of the box to an unmarked John Lundstram who's shot was deflected/flicked into the net by wonderkid Kemar Roofe. A bit of a shit one to concede considering both teams had been defending well up to that point. Rovers drew even again 6 minutes later with a blistering run from young Danny Leadbitter who then produced a perfect cross for Matty Taylor to head in. I would have been happy with the point had you asked me at the start of the game but the players clearly weren't as Gaffney did his utmost to make it two by running on to a cleared ball from the Rovers goal, powering past his marker and breaking free before making the last minute decision to pass to the unmarked Taylor who dutifully smashed it into orbit as he often does when faced with 1-on-1 situations. Much-maligned veteran keeper Steve Mildenhall produced a fine save from Lundstram's powerful strike at 80 minutes and went on to save another from O'Dowda from a silly angle with his feet. I really think Mildy will have given Clarke pause-for-thought with his performance today and we should have fewer fears going forward in that department.
The pivotal moment came in the 87th minute when Jermaine Easter flicked the ball past the last Oxford defender and was taken to the ground by their keeper while chasing it. Sub striker Ellis Harrison cooly launched the penalty into the top centre and there was much rejoicing followed by mass confusion when it was announced Harrison would be going on loan to Hartlepool straight after the game. Good old basket-case Rovers.
It could be argued that Oxford were hard done by and certainly deserved a point in my view but the penalty was a pretty clear one for me and they were fortunately unable to take advantage of their equal share of the chances. A real testament to the never say die attitude of Rovers under Darrell Clarke and a great away day for one of the larger away followings we'll see this season.