When we went two goals ahead against Wycombe back in February, it didn’t feel real. When the final whistle blew in that game, it didn’t feel real. When I ran on the pitch afterwards, it didn’t feel real. When the tickets went on sale, it didn’t feel real. It won’t be until I take my seat for this game that it will actually feel real, that Coventry City have made it Wembley.
For so long at this football club, it’s been about this quest to make it to the national stadium. We’ve come close on several occasions – those years getting close to making the play-offs, that game against Crewe – but it’s always felt out of our reach, no matter how close we actually were. This is Coventry City, the club that hasn’t made the top six of any division for 47 years, we just don’t do success.
For many, making it to Wembley is a prize, regardless of the result in this game. As someone who, through other sports, has been to big finals and seen my team lose, I’m telling you that is the most sickening experience you can have as a fan of your team. It’s not only that so much went into getting there and you didn’t win, but you’re made to watch the opposition have that amazing moment that you were expecting to have.
Mark Robins’ arrival as manager has been almost perfectly timed to provide us with the shot in the arm required to stand a chance against a strong Oxford side. He’s taken time to assess the options available to him and has now found a way to make us look like a proper team. Players appear to know their roles in their side and we’re playing with a level of intensity that has been lacking for the majority of the campaign.
However, some of that continuity and momentum from the past couple of performances is going to be lost due to the ineligible players for this competition. Significantly, Nathan Clarke and Farrend Rawson looked to have formed a robust central defensive partnership but will both be unavailable. On the one hand, that will likely see Jordan Willis and Jordan Turnbull re-form a defensive partnership that was the root of our problems for much of the season, on the other, they’re both mobile defenders who have a degree of comfort on the ball, against a less direct team than our previous two opponents, that could even prove a blessing in disguise.
Elsewhere, Ruben Lameiras’ impact from the bench last week may have made a case for handing him a start in this game to supply genuine creativity in the final third, but I sense that it’s a choice between Kwame Thomas (if fit) and Jodi Jones for that place alongside Beavon in attack. I would imagine that the rest of the midfield four will remain in place given that they are both functioning as a unit and available for selection for this game.
Finally, there is a choice to be made whether to reward Reice Charles-Cook for his performances in this competition with a start in goal in the final, or to stick with the current first-choice of Lee Burge. My inkling is that Lee Burge will start, although it wouldn’t be shocking were Charles-Cook to get the nod.
Last Time We Met
Our two meetings with Oxford this season have curiously been both our best and worst performances of the league campaign. Back at the Ricoh Arena in October, we produced a remarkably composed and controlling performance with Ben Stevenson smashing in a screamer and Marvin Sordell chasing down a weak back-pass to hand us a comfortable win. However, barely a month later, Oxford eviscerated us at the Kassam Stadium in a game that signalled the beginning of the end for Mark Venus as manager.
How Are They Doing?
Nothing can illustrate the feeling towards this game on Oxford United’s end other than they’ve actually required a marketing campaign to sell tickets for this game. They made the final last year, so they’re not as desperate for the day out at Wembley that we are, they also have a realistic prospect of making the play-offs this season, so this game may not even define their season in the same way that it does ours.
A 5-1 win over Bury on Tuesday night emphasised how Oxford have been moving through the gears over the course of the campaign. They looked disjointed for much of the first half of the season, having lost key players from last year’s promotion-winning side from League Two in Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda to Championship clubs and letting go the experience of defenders Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins, as well as striker Danny Hylton. However, the club made some excellent additions in the transfer market both in the summer and then in January, and that quality is really shining through at the moment.
The two key moves in the summer window were firstly securing set-piece maestro and wind-up merchant Chris Maguire on a permanent deal – any free-kick from him closer than 30 yards from goal is almost a penalty – and bringing in winger Marvin Johnson from Motherwell and then converting him into a marauding left-back. Additionally, they managed to bring in Everton youngster Ryan Ledson on a permanent deal and he has been a class apart in the centre of the park for much of the campaign.
Oxford also added firepower to their attack in January through bringing in Toni Martinez and Conor McAleny on loan from West Ham and Everton respectively. However, we don’t have to worry about them as they have both already featured in this competition for their parent clubs, which is just as well as Toni Martinez scored against us at the Ricoh Arena for West Ham PL2 and Conor McAleny has eight goals in 13 appearances.
Losing those two is likely to see Kane Hemmings step up into a central attacking role, a player who has played very well in patches this season, with Maguire operating just behind him. However, Oxford will still have Rob Hall to utilise going forwards, he’s a pacey and skilful winger with excellent delivery who has five goals and five assists to his name despite spending the first few months of the season out injured.
Captain John Lundstram will play in midfield alongside Ryan Ledson, another former Everton youngster, Lundstram plays in a deep role and is important in providing a defensive platform as well as playing the ball out of defence. Michael Appleton could also pick either Joe Rothwell – a former Manchester United youngster – or Josh Ruffels – a former Coventry City youngster – should he wish to operate with a three-man midfield.
In defence, the big Chey Dunkley has been an ever-present at centre-back this season but former Plymouth captain Curtis Nelson has looked a class act alongside him having returned to fitness following injury struggles in the first few months of the campaign. The previously mentioned Marvin Johnson is a real force of nature from left-back and is being tracked by Championship clubs, Appleton could decide to pick Joe Skarz at left-back and push Johnson further forward should he be feeling cautious about the big occasion.
In goal, Oxford have Simon Eastwood, who was yet another great summer signing they made. The former Blackburn man is one of those keepers who can really shut up shop if they’re in the mood, and has done so on several occasions at a higher-level before dropping down to League One for more regular football.
Overall, Oxford are a similar club right now to how Barnsley were last season (coincidentally, the team that beat them in this final last year) and have maybe just been held back from being a top six side already by the relative lack of experience in their squad. They are very much the favourites for this game and we’ll likely spend extended spells of the 90 minutes without the ball.
I was more fearful for this game a couple of weeks ago when we were playing without confidence than I am now even though Oxford are in good form themselves and are a much better side than we are. The key areas for the game for us will be whether we can adapt to the change in personnel in defence and how consistent a threat we can be on the counter-attack. For Oxford, it’s about converting the dominance they’re likely to have into goals, which could be affected by losing their form striker for this game.
Oxford are favourites for this game and it could be a really humiliating defeat on the big stage for us. I can envision scenarios of this game in which we win, but my instinct is that Oxford will beat us, probably 2-0.