Oxford United 2 Rotherham United 1

An important game at the top of League Two, watched by Piers Pennington, sees the homeless side from South Yorkshire lose a fifth consecutive away game, while forward-thinking hosts keep their play-off hopes alive

A few 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 flourish. 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 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 play-offs. 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 right-back 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 into gear. Asa Hall finds James Constable in the box and a sharp turn and shot sees the ball fly away off goalkeeper Andy Warrington’s legs. Before long Jack Midson is fouled near the touchline but he manages to stay on his feet and his cut-back is fired home emphatically by the chunky Simon Heslop. Credit to the referee – Simon Hooper is having an excellent game, allowing the advantage wherever possible and making decisions swiftly and decisively. In one incident he allows an advantage after a foul by Hall, and though it is three or four minutes before the ball goes out of play again he still calls Hall over to quietly warn him but not to book him; many referees simply wouldn’t bother if they weren’t going to show a card.

For the next 20 minutes Oxford are in control and Rotherham reduced to pumping long balls forward which Wright and my mate Harry Worley swallow up comfortably. So it would be a surprise to everybody when the visitors equalise were it not for Oxford’s regular inability to hold on to a lead, the previous week’s goalless draw with Gillingham being their first clean sheet in 23 games. For once Rotherham keep the ball on the ground and nobody picks up Law’s run as he chips a through ball from Omar Daley past Ryan Clarke. Far in the distance we can hear the celebrations of a few hundred happy Yorkshiremen; the Oxford fans mutter darkly in a resigned sort of way. The rest of the half is scrappy, enlivened only Oxford’s hopeful penalty shout as Constable tumbles in the box. Mr Hooper waves it away scornfully.

Half-time sees a row of footballs lined up on the edge of the penalty box. Fans of all ages, genders, shapes and sizes attempt to kick these against the crossbar. Nobody succeeds. One woman confesses to the MC that she can’t kick a ball to save her life. “Do you know Andy Gray?” he enquires cheekily.

Early in the second half Chris Wilder makes a change which proves decisive, Simon Hackney replacing Midson for his home debut. The substitution, the stadium announcer tells us with no hint of irony, is brought to us courtesy of the Debt Doctor. Call me old-fashioned, but a sponsored substitution does seem a step too far however innovative this fund-raising effort might be, and as Hackney is on loan from Colchester the club shouldn’t really need the good doctor’s assistance on this particular occasion. It does, however, transform the Oxford team: Hackney proves to be quick, with the ability to pick a pass and deliver a wicked cross. From one such cross Constable flicks the ball goalwards at the near post but is thwarted by a fine save from Warrington.

The game’s decisive moment arrives shortly afterwards. Another cross from Hackney finds Steve MacLean arriving for a tap-in at the far post only to be pulled back by Rotherham’s defender Callum Kennedy. It’s the clearest penalty/red-card combination you could ever wish to see, and Mr Hooper makes no mistake. MacLean takes the spot-kick himself, Warrington dives to his left to block but the ball cruelly spins back across goal and inside the right-hand post. A goal and a man ahead, the match should be over but Oxford immediately become frenetic, hurling themselves into tackles and giving away needless free-kicks. “Take his legs away,” screams a small boy beside me. “Bloody hell,” says his friend reprovingly. “I know, sorry,” says small boy. This is pretty much the attitude of the Oxford team; they know they shouldn’t but they can’t help themselves. When they try a more measured approach this also draws disapproval. “We’re not bloody Arsenal,” complains the bloke behind me as six or seven passes are strung together without any discernible forward progress, and a murmur of agreement ripples around us.

The remaining 20 minutes are hugely entertaining as the Oxford defence continues to panic while their attack misses chance after chance to make the game safe, most of them falling to the unfortunate Constable. Those who have Brought The Noise encourage him with chants of “Beano” but he still fails twice while one-on-one with Warrington. Rotherham come closest when the division’s top scorer, Adam le Fondre, goes clear down the left, the right side of Oxford’s defence nowhere to be seen despite having the extra man. Clarke starts to advance, hesitates, and comes again. Le Fondre appears to nudge the ball past him and get clipped, but keeps going, only to shoot into the side netting. Will Mr Hooper call it back for a penalty? No, goal-kick. The Rotherham players protest vigorously but in vain. At the final whistle the scoreboard flashes up news of defeat for local rivals Swindon Town to make the joy of the home fans complete.

So, Harry, thanks for the invitation; I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Next time you must come to watch me.

From WSC 290 April 2011