Oxford City 2 Cheltenham Town 2 (16th Jan 2016)
I think it says something about the game today that in this FA Trophy match between two non-league teams, Cheltenham were able to rotate their squad to such a degree that they could make 10 changes to the starting eleven of their last league game. It also says something that a sixth tier team in England, in Oxford City, were able to name no fewer than six Spanish players in their first team squad.
The last time these two clubs met, back 1980/81, things were no doubt very different. Also very different back then would have been the venue, as that game was played at Oxford City’s old Whitehouse Road ground. They played there, not far from the city centre, until being kicked out by landlords Brasenose College, and the ground sold off for housing. It certainly looked a quirky venue, with a church sticking into one side of the ground, and an unusual steep stand in the opposite corner, which had about a dozen rows of seats and looked almost taller than it was wide.
Inevitably, city’s new ground finds itself out on the city’s outskirts, constructed in a more pragmatic style, and will struggle to match the character of their old venue, but actually it’s not too bad. For starters, such a location, next to the A40, is very handy. Anything that avoids driving through Oxford – a city whose traffic policy seems devised by a councillor who once had their cat run over and hates all cars as a result – is a plus. There’s also the rather grandly titled Oxford Community Arena next door. This adds some needed parking spaces and serves as a second club bar, although if there a big rush of women wanting to play netball on their courts at the same time football is on, it could be an issue.
With a crowd well in excess of the club average expected, over triple the norm as it turns out, even the extra car park spaces were full. There aren’t that many league fixtures that see three supporters coaches turn up. The extra away contingent gave the club bar an unaccustomed packed and steamy feel on this cold afternoon. That’s steamy in the literal rather than the pornographic sense, obviously, and probably thankfully too, given the demographic of the stereotypical non-league supporter.
The size of the crowd was probably just about perfect for this kind of venue too. Big enough to have a sense of there being a crowd, but small enough so that latecomers weren’t having to peer between heads on the perimeter fence to be able to see the pitch. It was also big enough, in the second half, for a bit of light-hearted terrace banter to develop between the two set of fans, in the three-stepped “shed end” behind one goal. In the distance behind this end is the blue and while bulk of the John Radcliffe Hospital, behind which Oxford United used to play, before they too were forced to move to the outskirts on the other side of the city.
The other end is just a flat expanse before the club bar and tea bar. Hats off to the club for seemingly obvious idea of having the tea bar positioned somewhere that actually allows you to see the pitch while buying refreshments. As always, such an arrangement require some sort of fencing in front of the serving hatch, lest a wayward shot flies it and sends the tea urn flying, but in a nice touch Oxford City have used what appears to be gates from the old ground, with Oxford City picked out on good old-fashion wrought iron.
The main stand is four rows of seats and about 50 yards long. It’s shallowness dictates that it’s probably for those who feel incapable of standing for 90 minutes, as the view is little better than standing. A similarly sized terrace on the other side would be better, if it weren’t for the large view-obstructing dugouts placed in front of it.
When coming out of the ground, while my own thoughts were being swayed by the presence of three very pleasant young Spanish women ahead of me, I overhead some Cheltenham fans saying how much they enjoyed the game, as it was “real football” to use their words. I think much of that sentiment was down to the way the game ended, not to mention the ease of grabbing a beer or three during the game, as it could have been very different.
Whether the Cheltenham boss overestimated the ability of his second XI, or he just wasn’t bothered too much if his side were knocked out, the reality is that Oxford City really ought to have won, both on the balance of play and how the game went.
The first half had a few talking points. Oxford City edged it without scoring, mainly due to their shooting having more enthusiasm than accuracy. They did have one effort that looked to be scrambled away from the line, but mainly they were testing the strength of the shed end roof rather than the Cheltenham keeper. Cheltenham had the odd shot of their own, with the best effort, and worse miss, being skewing a shot badly wide after being put through. The lack of familiarity within the team showed.
The 2nd half was entering “this could end 0-0” territory when Oxford City took the lead they probably deserved. “All you need is Bubb” sang the City fans when Grenada international Bradley Bubb came on after 62 minutes, and two minutes later he’d tucked away the opening goal from close range to put the hosts 1-0 up.
It seemed to take the Cheltenham players a while to work out that being a goal down meant they’d be out. Having already made their three subs, there was no kitchen sink to throw in Oxford City’s direction, but they did start to get forward with more regularity. All it tended to produced was a series of wasted corners though.
With six minutes left, it did look like they’d saved the say. Another ball came in and drifted, intentionally or not, past the crowd of players in the six yard box. It dropped first bounce to debutant Niall Rowe, and he smashed the dropping ball into the far top corner.
Having levelled, their minds seemed to already be on the replay, and two minutes later Oxford City were back in front. A ball into the box couldn’t be cleared, and as keeper and defender scrambled to get the ball, Marlon Jackson, back at the club after an unhappy goalless stint at Tranmere, was able to poke the loose ball in at the near post. Joy for the home players. Head in hands despair for some of those from Cheltenham.
It seemed to sap Cheltenham completely. It looked more like an invigorated City side would get a third goal to clinch the tie, but maybe enthusiasm got the better of them. The ball broke to Cheltenham in the second of three additional minutes, and knocked out wide to the right. Given far too much room, the Cheltenham player was able to take the ball right into the box on the right had side. With a line of players charging back, he was able to just roll the ball in front of them. All it needed was a slight touch to deflect it in, and visitors were able to celebrate getting out of gaol for the second time. The agony for Oxford City was probably summed up by their keeper lying motionless on his back, like he been shot, for about 10 seconds afterwards.
It nearly got worse too. A Cheltenham free kick was floated in right at the death, the City offside trap failed, but the keeper just managed to pluck it out of the air to prevent what would have been the harshest of winners.
The picture from Oxford City’s old ground came from here…
Other pictures can be found here…