Match of the month
Oxford United 2 Rotherham United 1
An important game at the top of League Two sees the homeless side from South Yorkshire lose a fifth consecutive away game, while the forward-thinking hosts keep their play-off hopes alive Date February 12, 2011 Words Piers Pennington Photos Simon Gill
Afew days before the game a familiar name which I couldn’t quite place for the moment popped up in my email inbox; an old friend who hadn’t been in touch for a while I assumed. Ah yes, old Harry Worley, what’s he up to these days I wondered for a second or two before the penny dropped.
What Harry is up to is attempting to shore up Oxford United’s central defence and he was asking me to support him in his efforts on Saturday. I think this is the first direct request I’ve had from somebody to go and watch them play football since my friend Dim’s Cub Scout team reached their cup final in 1963. I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed by the slick marketing machine of a club only just restored to Football League status or affronted by the easy familiarity and presumption of a message from somebody I hadn’t ever met. Since Harry is 6ft 4ins and I’d already agreed to write a report on the match, I opted for impressed.
This is just one example of how important a proactive commercial and PR department is becoming to lower-league clubs with ambitions not just to survive but to f lourish. A few weeks earlier the ox sculpture which guards the Kassam Stadium’s South Stand was either vandalised or became the centrepiece of an al fresco installation, depending on your views on modern art. Either way, it was covered in paint. Rather than just be outraged by the assault, the club used the colour of the paint (pink) as a reason to organise collections for local cancer charities at the next two home games before getting the poor creature cleaned: excellent public relations in a worthy cause.
Today has been designated, on the initiative of a group of fans, Bring The Noise Day, an attempt to improve the atmosphere Rival fans sparring verbally is the best way of cranking up the volume, but the away fans sit in desolate isolation and to their right is the car park. It’s hard to get much banter out of a Ford Focus by urging those supporters who want to sing to congregate in the top right-hand corner of the East Stand. As this involves ignoring allocated seat numbers and, as the afternoon proves, defying safety regulations by standing throughout the game you might expect the club to be dismayed or at least to distance itself from the idea, but they actively publicise it in the programme and on the official website.
The success of the venture, however, is only partial. Generating atmosphere in the new, rather characterless all-seat stadiums is never easy, and in a ground with only three sides especially so. This is, of course, three more than Rotherham can boast at the moment, and how much support their fans can actually offer to a team playing their home games in an athletics stadium located in a neighbouring city must be open to question. Oxford’s fans would, I’m sure, have been delighted to remind them of their plight. Rival fans sparring (verbally rather than physically) and winding each other up is the best way of cranking up the volume at football, but the away fans sit in desolate isolation, two blocks of empty seats to their left and to their right, where the West Stand should be, a car park. It’s hard to get much banter out of a Ford Focus.
Rotherham go into the game fourth in the table, having just been ousted from the top three, while Oxford are ninth, still with realistic hopes of making it into the playoffs. The home side were quietly fancied pre-season to continue their progress and challenge for promotion, boasting as they do crowds which would be above average even in League One and having in Chris Wilder a manager whose penchant for trading players and fiddling with team selections rivals a Sam Allardyce or a Harry Redknapp. Today, for example, Tom Craddock is relegated to the bench despite having scored in five of the last eight matches; no doubt Jeff Stelling is telling his Sky viewers how disappointed Tom’s Aunt Fanny is about this. Rotherham,
after several seasons of holding their own in the Championship, are bound to feel they should be at least one division higher, however dire their recent financial problems.
The Millers make most of the early running with Nicky Law continually proving too fast for Oxford’s rightback Ben Purkiss. One run takes him to the byline, the defender labouring in his wake, and when the Oxford keeper can only palm his cross out it takes a lunging block from Jake Wright to stop the visitors taking the lead. But then Oxford’s passing game clicks
Left Eyeing up the local landmark Top left Andy Warrington ponders the tactical instructions in the visitors’ changing room
Top right The teams make their way onto the pitch watched by the isolated away supporters Above Another shot heads for the car park