Oxford United 2 Swindon 0: Derby defeat spoils Town’s unbeaten run
Swindon’s superb run of ten straight league victories was brought to an end today. A crazy three minute spell, followed by a backs-to-the-wall performance by ten man Oxford gave the home side the three points, and the bragging rights; the Town’s local rivals recording only their second ever double over Swindon, and their first since 1972/73, writes Richard Banyard.
The game started as local derbies normally do – at a frantic pace – but Swindon seemed to settle first. Town could have opened the scoring as early as the third minute, when a Ritchie cross from the left found Luke Rooney on the far post, only for the winger being able to volley the ball into the side netting. A minute later and we really should have taken the lead, when Oxford ‘keeper Ryan Clarke hit Ronan Murray with a kick out of his hands, Murray picked the ball up, but Clarke managed to turn his shot around the post. With Clarke protesting, there was a period of confusion where I was stood – for a moment, we were wondering if the referee had given a penalty due to all the protesting – as it turned out, Clarke had been complaining that Murray had blocked his kick, and we only had a corner.
On eleven minutes was the first major flash point of the game. A ball was played upfield by the Oxford defence, towards James Constable – the man at the centre of attention between the sides this season – but as Joe Devera got close to him, Constable turned towards the ball, but as he did so, connected with Devera’s face with his forearm. I’ve seen the incident again on TV, and from the opposite angle, the challenge looked completely innocuous – from our side though, the connection he made was clear, though I would question the intent. The incident was right in front of the Town fans and with the linesman standing directly in my eyeline, he would have had exactly the same view point as I did – it came as little surprise when the Oxford striker was shown a straight red card.
Unfortunately for us, the sending off galvanised the home side for a period and just seven minutes later, Swindon were two behind.
For the first, Alessandro Cibocchi was penalised for bringing an Oxford player down on the Town’s left touchline, and we failed to defend properly. Former Town loanee Lee Holmes swung the ball into the danger area, however Foderingham decided not to come for it – and I thought Joe Devera should have dealt with it – but the ball dropped into the six yard box for Asa Hall to slide and stab it home.
Within two minutes, one became two, as Swindon got caught on the break, and again it was Lee Holmes the provider. After being slipped down the left flank, Oxford found themselves two-on-two, and though Caddis at first seemed to have held Holmes up, he played the ball into the area, where both Devera and Cibocchi failed to cut it out, allowing Oli Johnson to tap it in. From being on top against ten men, moments later we were up against it, as the result of some very poor defending.
Shortly afterwards, Cibocchi shot woefully high and wide after picking the ball up outside the area following a Town corner. Di Canio had obviously seen enough, substituting the Italian and bringing on Jonathan Smith, dropping Oliver Risser into central defence and moving Alan McCormack out to left back – had he been on the bench, I’m sure Callum Kennedy would have come in – instead, both Kennedy and Phil Smith were sat in with the Swindon fans.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, the lead gave Oxford something to hold onto, and they set themselves up accordingly, playing two very narrow banks of four, with Scott Rendell up front on his own. For the remaining seventy minutes, Swindon had complete control of the game, but just couldn’t find their way past an Oxford defensive line that was superbly marshalled by Michael Duberry, backed up by keeper Clarke.
We had our moments though. On 21 minutes, a free-kick from Ritchie from 25 yards was arrowed at the top corner only for a diving Clarke to turn it round the post. Ten minutes later, the Town wide man came even closer, his shot cannoning back off the post. Before the half was out, Murray bore down on goal after intercepting an Oxford pass, but his cross went agonisingly out of reach of Paul Benson.
As the Town pushed forward to get back into the game, the home contingent were doing what ever they could to disrupt. Balls that went into the crowd didn’t come back, and the ball boys were slow to get it back into play. Ritchie took exception to one on the stroke of half-time, ripping the ball out of a ball boys’ hands to give to the home side for a goal kick; earning Ritchie a booking for his trouble.
When the half-time whistle went, though there were a couple of jeers from the away support, I think most (myself included) were still highly optimistic that we could still get something out of the game.
The second half though was pretty frustrating to watch. We started off patient, which I thought was the right thing to do, and we played some very neat football, but we lacked the penetration in the final third; and we didn’t really seem to get any more urgent as the half went on. The Oxford defence was very well-drilled, and they threw themselves at any attempts on goal. To quote a cliché, they defended for their lives. When they did win the ball, generally it was lumped away from the goal as far as possible, only for the Town defence or midfield to press again.
For all of the possession and territorial advantage though, all the corners and all of the attempts on goal, we didn’t create much in terms of clear sights on goal. Generally, there were just too many bodies in the box to find space.
For the first time since he’s been here, Benson was outfought by the opposing defence; and without a strong player alongside him, we didn’t have enough of a physical presence to trouble the back line. What the defence didn’t gobble up, goalkeeper Clarke would come and claim. It says much that the Oxford custodian was named man-of-the-match, perhaps just as much that he’s the first goalkeeper I have ever seen go down with cramp during a game.
The home side hardly got out of their half, but the closest we came to scoring was a Joe Devera volley that screamed over the bar, and a Ritchie free-kick that Clarke nearly dropped, only to gather at the second attempt. Devera also had another headed effort cleared off the line, but in truth it never looked like going in. Di Canio tried to change things up front, bringing Bodin on for Murray, but I felt we needed strength up there, that we just didn’t have enough of.
The game was summed up neatly in injury time when Caddis burst down the right flank and played yet another ball across the face of the Oxford area. Benson failed to make a connection under pressure from a defender when it looked like he should have buried it, the ball rebounded back to Bodin, whose shot was charged down for another Town corner. Twenty shots on goal, but nothing to show for it.
Credit where it’s due, Oxford defended stoutly to say the least. After the red card they got their noses in front and set themselves up to make it incredibly difficult for us. Ifs, buts and maybes, but it really felt that if we scored once, we could have gone on to win the game. I was also very pleased that the away support didn’t turn on the players, other that a few idiots that must have directed some comments at Paul Caddis after the final whistle (Caddis waved a finger at them to tell them to shut up), and the whole Town team came over to applaud the travelling fans.
Finally, di Canio came over as well… at first, it felt like a bit of an apology, but he followed it up, pointing skywards to tell us that we’re still going to go up this season, then pointing down for the Oxford fans…. By the time he left us, holding his Town scarf aloft then swinging it around his head, the away fans were in full voice again – that game forgotten, now onto the next.
Header photo – V Ellory