Removed from the collective consciousness that is the 3pm Saturday kick-off and ignored by TV, it was fitting that the derby win was dumped into a football vacuum, meaningful only to those who truly understood it.
Ours is a derby that repels those not in the know; other derbies give the outsider reference points to help their understanding of the rivalry. At least you can empathise with derbies coming out of Sheffield, Manchester, Milan and Glasgow because we all know what it is to dislike our neighbours.
No such thing for Oxford/Swindon, this is a fiercely parochial affair. The clubs don’t share the same county, let alone the same town, and the likes of Wycombe, Reading, and the Bristol clubs are dotted around to confuse the picture geographically. Its name – presumably chosen by the Derby Naming Committee – is practically in code. Ask most people what the A420 is and they’ll shrug blankly – it’s a road, right? Radio 5 thought it was the M4 Derby.
In theory, there is a class divide but it’s hardly something that permeates the rivalry. Both sides consider each other to be ‘knuckle dragging, inbred scum’ as opposed to upper/lower class or Catholic/Protestant scum.
It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other.
The lack of meaningful games between the two clubs has contributed to its increased intensity. Previously there was little more than a nagging, depressing familiarity about defeats at the County Ground. Look at footage from 15 years ago and you can see empty seats in all parts of the ground. People simply couldn’t muster the energy to drive down the A420 for another panning – it wasn’t so much like being stabbed in the heart, more like grumbling irritable bowel syndrome.
Only in 1996 when Skinner and Baddiel started banging on how long it had been since England’s last triumph, did people start to actively quantify ‘hurt’. Nowadays most people know how many weeks of hurt it’s been since you scored from a left-sided set piece. 10 years ago if you asked someone how long it had been since we’d won at Swindon and the answer would typically be ‘ooh, a loooong time’. Somewhere along the line, it was given a label, a ticking clock – 36 years, 37 years, 38 years – it was hardwired into our psyche. Not even that permeated into the stat-hungry mainstream media. Sky was more interested in Paolo Di Canio’s sending off than the breaking of a hoodoo.
The A420 Derby, the 38 year-old voodoo, the bubble of the County Ground, the world looking at anything but what was going on in Swindon. A local derby for local people. The coming together of all these factors took us to Sunday and That Game.
Constable, the soul of a club. The target of a mad fascist Italian manager. Is he on the brink of leaving? A Swindon fan? Off form and unhappy? If any or all of these are true, he remains the constant we can rely on. Football fiction is strewn with heroes rising, phoenix like, when a challenge is put before them. With everyone looking on him and his every move, there he is with the two goals that matter. Read any Roy of the Rovers story, and you’ll see James Constable’s Oxford career. In a cynical world, he’s a proper boyhood hero.
This is the football many of us fell in love with. Not through a TV lens, but live and without the voyeurs of armchair fans making comment and analysis about things they know nothing about. Those who saw it weren’t the privileged few with connections to large corporate sponsors. They were people who go to games every week. Football as a visceral, not intellectualised or media friendly experience.
For us this was part of a Grand Slam – a Wembley win and a Swindon away win. What would complete it? A league title, perhaps? These require different effort, resources, skills – but in terms of the impact they have on the club and fans, this is the triple crown that could open the debate as to whether Chris Wilder is the best pound-for-pound manager we’ve ever had. Two down, one to go.
Under Wilder and Kelvin Thomas everything is in place. We have a club with the cohesion and a force of personality that could go onto achieve many things. Wembley: done, Swindon away was the next step towards achieving unprecedented legend.
I thought this sort of thing disappeared with the naivety of youth. I was wrong. The only down side from Sunday is that, in terms of this fixture, if we win every derby game for the next 38 years, it will not get any better than this.