During the day, The Manor was a mere tiny pinprick on the world. It was surrounded by a hospital, bowling club, houses and a busy shopping street, competing with the rest of life for attention. When the sun was out, it was just your average 6 sided stadium.
At night it was very different. The darkness smoothed out the imperfections, closed the gaps in the stands, switched off the outside world and put the spotlight on the club.
By March, Oxford’s 1995/6 season was finally beginning to gain momentum; spluttering form throughout the early part of the year had left us in that tantalising position just outside the outside of the play-offs. 16 points from a possible 18 had seen us suddenly gain impetus for a late surge towards the play-off places.
Swindon, meanwhile, were grinding their way to the title. They had retained a number of players from their Premier League and Division 2 days; with a bit of organisation and focus offered by Steve McMahon, there was enough quality to succeed at this level.
When it came around to the derby game at the Manor, it was the ultimate case of the Swindon’s immovable object meeting Oxford’s irresistable force.
Denis Smith, however, was under pressure. Despite finding some form, he was never that far from the fans’ ire. He’d resided over relegation, a failed promotion attempt and an unconvincing opening to the following season. A defeat to Swindon could have stopped the revival in its tracks. The season could have meandered into meaninglessness and Smith may well have been shown the door. In many respects, the season, and Smith’s future, hung on this one game.
The game was held on a mild evening, the Cuckoo Lane End was full, as one would expect from the champions elect. The home support was buoyed by our form and the fact it was the derby and a night game. I took a friend along. A Crewe fan by birth, he liked the ‘In the Swindon slums’ song. I accidentally washed his ticket and needed to get a replacement the day before the game.
The game started with a degree of calm on the pitch in complete contrast to the frenzy in the stands. Each Swindon attack was greeted with a disproportionate amount of angst. Amidst the hysterics on the sidelines, there was an emerging feeling that we were in very much in the game. Nothing they were doing hurt that much.
Early in the first half, Matt Elliot made a nuisance of himself on the edge of the box forcing a poor clearance from a Swindon defender. He was the kind of player who always seemed to have time and, despite his enormous frame, a grace on the ball that you rarely see. He had a lot of time to think as the ball dropped, he could have brought it down – inviting a defensive blockade – or swung a leaden leg at it – which could have seen the ball go anywhere. He did neither; I was directly in line with its direction of travel and with consummate control he made contact with the ball, using its energy to redirect it back towards goal with enough pace and accuracy to beat the keeper. 1-0.
Amidst the hysteria, I turned to see my mate being cuddled by a delirious Oxford fan. He was cerebral chap who enjoyed his own company more than others. Having a wide armed factory worker giving him a cuddle was not in his comfort zone. He managed to show both delight and anguish at the same time.
We added a second through Martin Aldridge to give us a sense of comfort. As the game drifted into its latter stages, substitute Paul Moody picked up the ball inside his own half. Not a natural winger, he couldn’t decide whether to go for goal or the corner flag. He just ran.
Having a Paul Moody running at you is clearly no fun and he soon found himself approaching the Swindon box. Without really looking, he put a sensational, Beauchamp-like cross into the back post where Beauchamp, the focal point of the whole affair, arrived to volley home.
You can see Beauchamp’s frustrations coming out as he belts across the front of the Cuckoo Lane punching the air in front of the Swindon fans. The derby was won and Beauchamp was liberated. It was one of the most perfect nights at The Manor.
The victory validated the promotion charge. We sythed through almost everyone standing in our way, including an equally famous 3-0 win at Wycombe. Swindon secured the title as expected and we slotted into second with a 4-0 win over Peterborough. Denis Smith’s position was secured.
Next… stability, collapse and Jefferson’s arse.