There was always something magical about walking down the London Road to The Manor on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. As the last embers of the rush hour died to make way for the suburban calm of the early-evening mid week, the welcoming golden glow of the Manor, previously hidden from all except those who looked for it, emerged like Shangri La.
There was the illicit excitement of being out on a school night, the prospect of a break from the humdrum of the working week. I just about remember when a 7.45pm kick-off had an almost art house sophistication about it, because that’s when European games featuring Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town kicked off, a foppish alternative to the domestic routine of a 7.30pm kick-off.
We’d go to see Oxford play. The opponents, bar knowing what colour shirts they’d be wearing, were largely anonymous. There was the odd frisson of excitement offered by a full Cuckoo Lane End when the likes of Forest, Wolves or Birmingham City visited. In the main, Karen Brady being ‘fucking slag’ aside, opponents were a team of faceless drones; like those put in place as a foil for the Harlem Globetrotters.
The walk through Headington mixed those heading for football with those heading for home with those heading for the pub with those heading for petty crime. Entering the ground released you from life outside. If you go to the Kassam there is no contrast between those seeking the football escape and those saddled with the monotony of real life. Its geographical isolation and its position amongst other monoliths demanding your attention means the light is not welcoming, it is cold and expectant.
And with the Internet and all-pervasive media, we are required to know about our opponents. When Craig Reid scored Stevenage’s second last night, someone behind me said ‘that’s his first goal for them’… why do we even need to know that?
Last night we weren’t looking to perform, we were looking to beat Stevenage. The environment in which we wanted to do it was unforgiving. It became harder as we became more anxious. The less effective we were in beating Stevenage, the more frustrated we became at our own failings. We wasted most of the game fretting over our shortcomings rather than focussing on a performance that would bring a breakthrough.
Their gameplan pivots around their fabled pre-planned 30 minute drinks break. It is so callously petty you would hope that someone in the Stevenage hierarchy might look upon it and think that although effective, it does make them look like a bunch of cock-ends. I suspect not, not while things are going well. What is so frustrating about it is that it suggests that they can control the game above and beyond the referee, stop and start it at will. The injustice of it enflamed us. By the time we regained composure, the game was lost.
Thinking about it, our response should have been to crowd around the drinks with the Stevenage players casually supping from their bottle cage. Even better would have been for stretcher bearers to sprint on, stick a neck brace on the stricken player, strap him to a stretcher and whisk him away to the John Radcliffe ‘as a precaution’.
We’re keen to create a narrative around almost every game. There has to be a reason for our rivalry. It’s part of the marketing. But if we treated every opponent as the anonymous nobodies of the Manor days and focussed on our performance rather than theirs we wouldn’t be sucker punched into throwing 3 points away.