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Saturday 3rd March 2012 ko 12pm

League 2

OXFORD UNITED 2 (A Hall 16 Johnson 18) Constable sent off 11 (violent conduct)

swindon town 0

Att 11,825 (1,166 away)

Entry S/T

Programme £3 (100 pages)

Now, dear reader over the time you’ve being reading this blog, I’ve tried to take a balanced view of what I’ve experienced. Yes, I’m an Oxford United fan, but I’d like to think I can take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

There is, of course an exception to this, and that is swindon town. Those of you that follow a big club such as Arsenal or Manchester United, will have your derbies, and just because yours are more high-profile don’t think the A420 one is any less passionate. Put simply, its small but vicious. That’s why the kickoff was set for midday and the Police presence sizable.

It doesn’t help that Oxford United’s record against their principle rival is appalling. Until Oxford’s win at the County Ground in August, they hadn’t won there since 1973. The only previous meeting at Grenoble Road was an FA cup 2nd round tie in 2002 which saw United prevail 1-0 courtesy of Jefferson Louis’ backside! More recently swindon made an audacious attempt to prise striker James Constable away from Grenoble Road. He immediately gained God-like status amongst Oxford United fans by refusing point-blank to speak to the Wiltshire club.

The visitors arrived (via a 1500 strong “Welcoming Committee at the Priory Pub) with 10 straight wins, and a clear injury list. United in contrast had 4 top players out injured including star midfielder Peter Leven and captain Jake Wright. Form has been patchy with last week’s draw at home to Macclesfield being a real disappointment. With the midfield positively threadbare, midfielder Adam Chapman was recalled from a loan spell at Newport County.

It was hardly surprising that the visitors started brightly with Luke Rooney firing into the side netting, with the passing and movement being quick and crisp. On 11 minutes came the game’s real talking point, as Constable and Joe Devara chased down a through ball. Constable’s arm flailed, and caught Devara in the chest. Hardly assault, and the swindon player went down clutching his face. Referee Graham Salisbury was surrounded by visiting players in ugly scenes rather reminiscent of Manchester United around 10 years ago. We’ll never know whether he crumbled under the pressure, but Constable was dismissed, and United had a mountain to climb.

Except it didn’t quite work out like that. Scott Rendell won a free-kick and former swindon loanee Lee Holmes swung a deep cross into the back of the box. A host of players went for the ball, but it was Asa Hall who managed bundle the ball home. Cue the stadium going potty, and this writer to have a tear in his eye.

Two minutes later, unbelievably United doubled their lead. Hall’s diagonal ball to Holmes on the left, gave the winger only one option, a needle-threading cross to the back post. This he completed beautifully and there was Oli Johnson to tap home. I sat there having a minor asthma attack watching former OUFC winger Joey Beauchamp celebrate with another ex-OUFC player Paul Wanless.

For the rest of the half it was continuous swindon pressure. Ryan Clarke tipped a Matt Richie free kick over the bar, and United added to their injury list as Mark Wilson limped off. That meant the introduction of Adam Chapman for his first home appearance for over 18 months. The emotion was palpable but United had to defend as Rooney stabbed an effort wide and Clarke came out better than Jonathan Smith at close-range.

As the frustration began to mount for the league leaders, a ball boy made himself a hero for the day. A ball went out for a goal kick and the ball boy beat Matt Ritchie to the ball. As he began to return the ball to Clarke very slowly, Ritchie took offence and became embroiled in a shoving match with the teenager. All rather amusing, but the winger was booked for his part and it all looked more physical than the Constable incident. It did give an indication of swindon’s frame of mind at half-time.

Manager Paolo Di Canio cut an odd figure, it was hard to see where passion ends and rabble rousing starts. Both managers and captains had been warned as to their conduct before the game, and while Di Canio primped and preened during the first half, as the second half wore on that turned into a morose sulk.

I expected the second half to become a continous barrage of swindon pressure. Yes, they had all of the territory, but created little that man-of-the-match Clarke couldn’t stop easily and whilst Di Canio had made all his substitutions after 64 minutes, there were no tactical changes. Quick passes and rain the crosses in, but United had switched to 4-4-1 and swindon, once they realised that Plan A wasn’t working, quickly ran out of ideas. United freshened things up by bringing on Liam Davis and Jon-Paul Pittman which gave succour to Scott Rendell who’d ran himself into the ground doing both his work and Constable’s.

The final whistle saw United comfortable, and their visitors frustrated. There was the infantile sight of Di Canio trying to ingratiate himself with the travelling fans with a scarf, but nothing should be taken away from what was real team performance by Oxford United in difficult times.

I’ve little doubt that swindon will be promoted, probably as champions, as they are the most talented side I’ve seen in League 2 this season.  The joker in the pack for them though is Di Canio. Such is the nature of the man, that you wonder whether it’ll all end in tears, with him leaving for a bigger, better club or simply picking a fight with someone he shouldn’t and leaving that way.

For Oxford, nicely ensconced in the play-off zone, the 3 points are merely a means of maintaining that position. But for the fans of both clubs it means so much more.