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Saturday 15th February 2014 ko 15.00

League 2

OXFORD UNITED 3 (Connolly 27 Wroe 53 Smalley 68)


Att 5,108 (365 away)

Entry S/T

Programme £3 (inc’ Oxford Mail)

Its been a good week to look at sport as a whole. I do enjoy the Olympic games, and like many others I watched agog as Lizzie Yarnold won gold for Team GB in the Skeleton Bobsleigh. I’m not sure why I enjoy watching the sports that I don’t know intimately, but there’s something visceral about throwing yourself down an ice tube on a tray with your chin an inch from the ice. Of course she won by just under a second over 4 runs, a massive margin, but it was the way she conducted herself afterwards that impressed me. Calm, collected and respectful she is a credit to herself, her country and her sport, and watching her interview you could imagine a legion of young girls taking up sport with her as their inspiration. I fact a few hours later I saw a tweet of a 5 year-old girl, face down on a skateboard wearing her brothers cycle helmet. It’s a powerful, positive message, and one I hope will be repeated many, many times.

If Lizzie Yarnold is a modern sporting icon, then Friday saw the death of a sporting icon of the 1950’s, Sir Tom Finney. The Preston plumber was of another age, where even the top players earned a pittance, Finney never earned more than £14 a week, and even at his pomp supplemented his wages helping satisfying the post-war need of qualified plumbers. Born a street way from Deepdale, he never played for anyone other than Preston North End, and collected 76 England caps. As wonderful a player as he was, I’ll remember him for his modesty and passion for the game, as former England captain Bobby Moore put it, “If you’re as good as Tom Finney was, you don’t have to tell anybody.”  I found those qualities in Yarnold, so Friday felt like a passing of the baton for me.

Part of my pre-match routine is to sit in the car and wait for the team line-ups to be read out on Radio Oxford. This time I used the time to get from car to stadium seat to work out just what caretaker manager Mickey Lewis was planning! 4 forwards James Constable, David Connolly, Deane Smalley, and Dave Kitson meant Josh Ruffels unluckily saw himself relegated to the bench, and with Constable and Smalley playing on the left and right flanks the formation was as much a CV for Lewis as it was an attacking gamble. And it so nearly didn’t work out….

Every so often  in League 2 you see a side based on pragmatism, where physicality and fitness replace clever passing and, for want of a better term, style. Mansfield are big, strong and direct and for the first 30 minutes they scared the living daylights out of an Oxford United team that were learning how to play the new tactics.

With the wind swirling around the 3rd stands, former Hereford striker Sam Clucas forced a smart save from Ryan Clarke in the Oxford goal before David Hunt blocked a shot from Lee Stevenson. Clarke’s save from the dangerous Clucas, at close range was worthy of a far larger audience. In fact it may well have changed the game as just 5 minutes later Oxford took the lead through a chance that was a quarter of the ones that Mansfield had spurned.

A Constable knock-down found Tom Newey wide left, and he found Connolly who received the ball with his back to goal. Connolly dinked and twisted before shooting. The ball took a slight deflection and Alan Marriott in the Stags goal could only watch as the ball crept inside the right-hand post. It was utterly against the run of play but a piece of supreme goal-poaching from a quality striker.

Stung, the Stags struck back and the rapidly improving Matt Bevans dived full length to block Clucas’ effort. A Constable thunderbolt from 25 yards was well saved by Marriott before Stevenson’s 20 yard effort in first half stoppage time whistled wide.

The start of the second half continued in much the same vein. The towering figure of Matt Rhead (who I last saw in 2011 scoring a brace for Corby Town against Bishops Stortford), produced a knock-down that Clucas blasted wide. Clucas’s profligacy in front of goal was quickly punished, but not from an obvious source.

With 4 recognised strikers in the starting line-up perhaps its was inevitable that the goal of the game would come from a holding midfielder. A loose ball was picked up by Nicky Wroe, he glanced goalwards before curling a delicious shot into the top-right corner.

Still Mansfield attacked, with Clucas having yet another effort saved by Clarke, but a wonderful Oxford passing move finished the game as a spectacle. Newey’s erudite ball down the left channel was perfect for the marauding Constable. A quick one-two allowed Constable to pass across the goal from the left, the ball hit the right hand post, bounced out, and there was Deane Smalley to tap in.

Three-Nil was harsh on Mansfield, but the difference in the end was a single word- Quality. Each one of the Oxford goals was completely different, a poach, a sublime shot, and a team effort. Lewis’ gamble paid off, and whilst he’s getting the benefit of players returning from injury, the whole place is wearing a smile at the moment. That is largely down to the likable caretaker manager, but as someone said on the phone-in after the game, “It’s better to be a lucky manager, than a good manager.”

That quote is a corruption of another quote by the great New York Yankees pitcher Lefty Gomez, but it does hold true, even if Mickey Lewis can’t exactly put that on his CV! The result leaves Oxford third, with the game at fourth-placed Rochdale in two weeks time looking like a real 6-pointer.