In what could prove to be a clash of promotion rivals come next May, Oxford squeezed out the Tigers with quickfire goals and a solid defence. Ian Thomson sees promise in adversity.
Something magical about that first away League game, isn't there? Springing out of bed with a joie de vivre not be found at the corresponding time during the working week, the same pockets of baleful-looking individuals with pot bellies, tattoos and baseball caps still hanging around every station, the only footballing logo on display being the three lions, the train hopelessly overcrowded, not least by hordes of ignorant Scousers en route to Highbury bellowing their coarse attempts at wit for the whole train to be irritated by ?..ah yes, after the joy of opening the season in style at the Circle (and that's before we talk about the game), football is definitely back.
Something of this sentiment was transmitted over to the still forlornly three-sided (and with the most pathetic scoreboard I have ever seen) Kassam Stadium yesterday. After the euphoria of last week, the Tiger nation was brought back down to earth with a thud, the triumphalism of the pre-match renditions of the large travelling support quickly sticking in the throat. For we lost, as sadly we tend to do when the chips are down away from home. And we lost deservedly, just, not because of any general lack of flair or endeavour on our side, but rather thanks to the superior organisation and disciplined approach of an Oxford side who looked on this showing as though they understand what is needed to escape from this wretched Division and are more than capable of delivering. The parallels with the Plymouth side of a couple of years ago were there to see.
The Tigers' line up was the same as the one which had started against Darlington:-
Subs: Musselwhite (for Fettis, 45 mins), Forrester (for Elliott, 73 mins)
City started off with a pleasing confidence and fluency which allowed them to dominate the proceedings for the first quarter of an hour. After five minutes an Alsopp charge down the left was halted and the ball ran loose to Price whose shot was easily saved by Ox netminder Woodman, and a couple of minutes later a raking Elliott cross from the right caught the home keeper unawares as it sailed over his head but unfortunately for the Tigers the ball dropped outside the far post and was cleared for a corner. Alsopp figured again on 14 minutes when he chested a ball into the path of the onrushing Price who hared menacingly into the box before being crowded out.
Oxford had not asserted themselves in any respect during this spell, other than in the form of a clattering of Joseph by the ex-Cheltenham thug Alsop (more of whom later), and seemed hard pressed to cope with the slick passing and running of the Tigers. Things certainly looked set fair at this stage, but the Ox started to even things out after the first fifteen minutes and the sucker punch was duly delivered, with Oxford taking an undeserved lead on 21 minutes with their first proper foray into the City box. A cross whipped to the far side of the penalty area from the right was headed back across goal by an Ox who had got in behind Hinds but looked as though he may have strayed offside in the process, and Basham reacted first to prod the ball home from close in with the City defence still apparently basking in the warm sunshine.
So, a lot of good work undone by some defensive sloppiness, and it was soon about to get worse. The home side were now taking the game to City with passion and vigour, and doubled their lead within five minutes, courtesy in part to more slack work at the back. A cross came in from the right and Joseph allowed himself to be beaten to the ball by Basham who planted his header wide of the Fett's groping right hand.
So, having scarcely threatened in the first twenty minutes, the Ox had within five or six minutes taken an iron grip on the game which they sought to reinforce by a series of increasingly physical challenges, tackles through the back and use of the elbow. Our heroes, for their part, had been well and truly knocked out of their stride and heads started to drop, whilst among the vocal elements of the Tiger support the chants of "E-I-E-I-E-I-O" and "We are top of the League" had been predictably supplanted by vociferous criticism of the team's efforts.
It looked bleak at this point, but, encouragingly, City began to claw their way back into the game and, although we did not know it at that stage, the home side were not to subject the City goal to any further real peril throughout the remainder of the afternoon. This may to some extent have been borne out by protection of their lead becoming the priority, but it was to prove an increasingly precarious-looking strategy as the half wore on and the Tigers began to put Oxford under greater pressure, and might easily have pulled one back before the break, particularly on 40 minutes when, after Burgess and the impressive Price had combined on the right, the ball was moved inside and a Tiger whom I did not identify hit a stinging drive which the diving Woodman pushed away with one hand, with City unable to force in the rebound amidst penalty appeals, apparently for pushing. City went close again with almost the final play of the half when Thelwell crossed from a Green short corner and Alsopp's header appeared to be tipped over by the home keeper, although the referee ruled that it had clipped the top of the bar.
Main talking point at the start of the second half was the substitution of Fettis by the Muss, presumably due to an injury of some sort, maybe even a recurrence of his back trouble, although our netminding Ulsterman had not looked to be in any discomfort at any time during the first half.
The early second-half pressure was exerted entirely by City, although progress was difficult against a well-marshalled and disciplined Oxford rearguard yet to concede a goal in anger. A promising move came to naught on 56 when Elliott, who for me has been the one real disappointment so far this season, chose to drive the ball over the Oxford goal from wide out instead of trying to find one of the three City men in the middle, and three minutes later Burgess knocked a cross back across the goal from the far post but the alert Woodman gathered it safely before the hovering Alsopp could apply the final touch.
Little had been seen of the Oxford attack in the second half, indeed, since the second goal. However the first real incident of controversy in the second half took place on 67 minutes about six yards from the Muss's goal, courtesy of the lummox Alsop, who, clearly overweight and red-faced with exertion in the moderate heat, had contributed absolutely nothing so far but to get himself booked. A rare Oxford corner (I wasn't keeping count, but the final tally of corners must have been in City's favour by a factor of at least four) was whipped in from the left, but as it fell into the clutches of the Muss the lumbering great hump of an apology for a professional footballer that is the Oxford number 15 launched himself at him, very late and with the clear intention of playing the man as opposed to the ball, and sent the stand-in City custodian crashing to the turf. The entire City defence reacted, and there was a few seconds of the usual handbags at twenty paces stuff before referee Wright acted decisively in brandishing the yellow card at Alsop for the second time, followed by the red, which was fair enough, although it should have been a straight red. One hopes also that Mr Wright's report of the incident will mention the time it took Alsop to leave the field after his dismissal, and that this will result in the thug facing an additional charge.
In an attempt to bring new inspiration to the City attack, Taylor replaced the lacklustre Elliott with Forrester, but the home side remained resolute in the face of being down to ten men. Burgess, who worked hard throughout, was a constant thorn in the side of the home defence with his aerial abilities, but to no avail. Then just as it seemed that any prospect of retrieving some form of salvation was to be irrevocably consigned to the "too difficult" pile, with the beleaguered centre midfield of Green and Ashbee increasingly struggling, a ray of hope was suddenly unleashed twelve or so minutes from the end. Burgess, winning his umpteenth ball in the air, knocked a cross from the right down to Green deep inside the Oxford box, and our reformed absconder laid the ball off perfectly for Alsopp to drill it into the right-hand corner from fifteen yards. A very well executed goal, and just reward for commendable persistence during the second half.
It would have been nice, to say nothing of being a huge psychological fillip, to have nicked a point at that late stage, but it was not to be. The hitherto-rock solid home defence was now reeling as the Tigers pressed forward in waves, roared on by a support which had found its voice just as instantly as the home support had lost theirs and started nervously checking their watches, and had Lady Luck been in a little more kindly mood we may well have had some reward to bring back north with us. A mere two minutes after the goal, Price stole in behind the Oxford cover and pulled the ball back across the face of the goal with, agonisingly, not a single Tiger close enough to supply the finishing touch. Then Burgess headed a cross from Delaney straight at the keeper. With four minutes left, and the home defence increasingly content to hoof the ball out of play whenever they could get hold of it, Forrester hooked a Thelwell cross over the bar. It was looking a lost hope for the Tigers now, but still the chances came, with Burgess beating the ground with his fists in frustration after he had not managed to keep his shot down as the clock moved round to 45 minutes, and a Green effort suffering a similar fate well into the three minutes' added time.
Verdict? As I said, it would have been great to have nicked a point, and with a little more steadiness in front of goal during those frenetic last few minutes, or a few more minutes on the clock, we probably would have. But, as I also said at the start, credit to Oxford, whose organisation and work-ethic were formidable. On the whole, City battled persistently, which was good to see, and there was certainly honour in defeat in a match which, whilst not living up to the predicted thrill-a-minute spectacle, was an absorbing contest in many respects and one which we may well look back on come May as one of the toughest games of the season. Two big disappointments were the defensive lapses leading to two goals in five minutes from an attack which presented very little other credible threat during the entire afternoon (quaere whether either goal would have happened if the Sergeant had been playing), and the fact that yet another big away game has ended in defeat. All things considered though, and unless and until we know better, it was a day to be disappointed for City rather than with them.
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Fettis; Thelwell, Joseph, Hinds, Delaney; Price, Ashbee, Green, Elliott; Burgess, Allsopp. Subs: Musselwhite (for Fettis, 45), Forrester (for Elliott, 73), Keates, Whittle, Melton.
Goals: Allsopp 77
Sent Off: None
OXFORD UNITED: Woodman, McNiven, Ashton, Crosby, Bound, Robinson, Townsley, Wanless, Brown, Alsop, Basham. Subs: Whitehead (for Brown, 81), Oldfield (for Basham, 86), Hackett, Rawle, Lovegrove.
Goals: Basham 23, 28
Booked: Alsop, Robinson
Sent Off: Alsop
Last revised: August 17, 2003