The Oxonian shares painful play-off memory and gives message to U’s

ALEX Russell. That’s all. A man with two first names, neither of which I can wipe from my memory, over 20 years since he ruined my day. Yes, I do bear a grudge.

Russell was a midfielder. He was pretty good and in 2002/03, was a central part of a strong Torquay United side in the Third Division, managed by Leroy Rosenior. On the last day of the season, they made the long trip north to play Lincoln City at Sincil Bank.

Lincoln manager Keith Alexander was a very nice man, but his team were horrible. They were all nine foot two and full of elbows. An air raid siren greeted every corner as their hulking army of giants trundled forward to try and nod the set piece in.

Now before you snobbishly say you wouldn’t want to watch that sort of football, the Oxford United team that season were pretty direct too. Manager Ian Atkins was a pragmatic Brummie whose lumpy back line of Andy Crosby, Matt Bound and Paul McCarthy were formidable barriers but not renowned for playing the ball out from the back.

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By the final game of the season, they knew that a win, and a defeat for Lincoln, would allow them to reach the play-offs.

The tension at the Kassam Stadium was unbearable. Not since Peter Rhoades-Brown was chased by a police dog in an unplanned half-time entertainment had there been such fear in the ground. Surely United couldn’t mess this up?

Well, they didn’t do it themselves. Steve Basham scored twice and they beat York City to keep their side of the bargain. But up at Sincil Bank, Russell was about to have his moment of infamy.

With his team 1-0 up, he took a penalty that would kill the game off. People in Oxfordshire were glued to their radios, but Mr Russell inexplicably tried to be clever. He delicately chipped the penalty straight down the middle into the waiting gloves of home keeper Alan Marriott.

That showboating, hundreds of miles away, cost United a place in the play-offs. Simon Yeo, a striker who hadn’t scored for six months, scored in the 86th minute to get the point they required to go into those play-offs instead.

Readers, this weekend United head for the West Country, needing a win at Exeter to gain a place in the play-offs. A place that seemed assured in January. All ear buds will be tuned to Sincil Bank though, where the Imps welcome Portsmouth. It will be horrible. And it could be heroic.

Just do your jobs, gentlemen. A year ago at Forest Green, you huddled round a phone to find out if your win meant you stayed in League One. It was a wonderful day. This year you can get out of League One the right way. You can be heroes. And I can finally forget Alex Russell…

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