Before this match even started it was clear that Oxford would need to battle to get anything from it. On a dreary and freezing Tuesday night in February, on a ploughed field of a pitch, in front of a tiny crowd and against a side who battered us off the pitch the last time we played them this was always going to be the case. The players should have known this ahead of kick-off as well, but if they did they certainly seemed surprised when the match turned into a pitched battle with the referee acting as little more than a spectator as the visitors quickly set about gaining the upper hand through means both fair and foul.
And, quite simply, our players didn't fancy squaring up to them. When Fleetwood came forward our defence backed off, repeatedly opening up to just allow them to stroll through; they were afraid to put a foot in and make a challenge, instead simply hoping that they would hit it straight at us. Going forward, there was no impetus to really attack them, no one took responsibility themselves and seemed content to play a simple unhelpful pass to another team-mate in the hope that they might have more an idea of what to do with it. The players looked scared to play the game which, given the poisonous atmosphere surrounding the club right now, is hardly surprising.
Fleetwood, on the other hand, were certainly not afraid, charging around the field as if they had every right to shove and kick our players every time the ball came within hoofing distance – which, according to a particularly spineless referee, they did. They didn't look a particularly good side and their sole tactic was to launch the ball in the air, rough up our defenders, win a flick on and then take pot-shots at the Oxford goal. It was a simple tactic that should have been relatively easy to deal with but instead ended up causing us countless number of problems and the visitors seemed eager to capitalise on the gaping holes that opened up in our defence.
Even despite this, the visitors somehow contrived to create very little of any note, even though our defence was practically inviting them to shoot at goal – their single real opportunity for all their endeavour in the early stages coming from Ryan Crowther, whose shot blazed well over the bar.
James Constable tried his best to make something happen up front, turning his marker and making a driving run towards goal but he was pulled too far wide and ended up shooting into the side-netting. And Montrose showed that there were rewards to be gained from being ambitious when he managed to get a shot off which was saved by Fleetwood keeper Scott Davies at full stretch.
And absurdly, despite having played awfully from the first whistle, we should have taken the lead when someone (Deane Smalley?) headed in from a corner. But the referee spotted a foul on the keeper somewhere and disallowed it, a laughable decision given that until this point he had ignored Fleetwood's constant pushing, pulling, tripping and clambering at every opportunity.
If the last two paragraphs give the impression that we were anything like competitive in this match, however, then they are very misleading. It was with a sense of inevitability that Fleetwood took the lead midway through the half and again it was totally avoidable. A simple move on our left-hand side dragged our defence completely out of position and with the Fleetwood strikers lined up in acres of space on the right we were undone by the simplest of square balls. Crowther was on hand to blast past McCormick, who should feel very let down by his defence for leaving him completely unguarded.
Potter had the perfect opportunity to level things late in the half when he was set clean through on goal, but instead of charging through and slotting past the keeper like a confident player would have done he bizarrely attempted to pass it to a player who wasn't there and the ball drifted harmlessly out of play. The United crowd found their voices as the half-time whistle went, as possibly the worst 45 minutes of football I have seen all season ended with a chorus of boos.
In fairness, we started the second half much better, immediately getting on the front foot and showing more attacking intent than we had in the entire first half. But after creating some decent pressure in the opening minutes any realistic hopes of somehow turning this game around were ended when Fleetwood got their second. It was a typical freak goal that we have conceded so many times this season as a long ball from out wide found its way to the back post and Junior Brown strolled through completely unchallenged to nod in. Arguably McCormick should have claimed the cross, but the defence still need to do their jobs and mark up.
United limped through the rest of the game and rarely looked like getting into the match, as Fleetwood seemed to suffer an unusual bout of injuries which kept their physio incredibly busy running back and forth to treat 'injured' players. They would then miraculously make a full recovery after rolling around for five minutes and hobbling off to the far side of the pitch.
Again Constable did his best to liven things up in front of goal and was unlucky to see an excellent left-footed shot cannon off the post. But there's only so much one man can do and the support from the rest of the team was negligible. Both Potter and Rigg had off days, but Rigg could have pulled a goal back when he made a great run to get the wrong side of the defence only to shoot straight at the goalkeeper.
Our goal finally came in the 89th minute and it was an absolute peach. The ball pinged around the Fleetwood area and several players had a go at it before it found its way out to Liam Davis, who took aim and struck a beautiful shot from 25 yards past the melee of players and into the net. That one will surely get a nomination in our end-of-season TBFUTH Awards, but it's just a shame this rare moment of quality came in such a stinker of a game and will presumably be forgotten as a result.
United threw men forward in the five minutes of injury time but of course by then it was too little, too late. A couple of players had shots from promising positions which sailed harmlessly over but it showed that the chances would have come if we had been braver earlier in the match and hadn't been so afraid to just have a go. We never deserved a point from this match, but Fleetwood – a kind of detestable cross between Stevenage and Crawley – were a dirty and cynical side who seemed more than happy to cheat their way through the match (exemplified when they chose first not to put the ball out of play so one of our players could receive treatment and then not to return it to us after we had kicked it out ourselves – and this coming just minutes after we had returned the ball after they needlessly hoofed it out of play so one of their 'injured' players could instantly get back to his feet). They were never worth three points.
And that's the most frustrating thing right now: Fleetwood are not a particularly good side despite their league position. No one in this league is. But we're even worse and that really hurts.