There have been better performances and bigger results, but has there ever been a better story behind a game of football involving Oxford United?
Your dad will tell you stories of past games involving mythical beasts and feats of derring-do. You’ll listen in awe when you’re young, but as you get older, you’ll begin to question how close to the facts the story actually is.
Saturday’s game is the story you tell your children and grandchildren. And you won’t have to make up a word of it.
But how, playing the best team in the league, in the richest vein of form in their history, with a team stripped of most of our best players, did we actually win on Saturday? Here’s Oxblogger’s 7 step guide to our derby victory.
Paolo is a fascist. Fact. A cheap shot?
No, fascism is an ideology promoting unity through hard work and intolerance of non-compliance. Di Canio’s leadership philosophy inevitably draws on his deep-seated principles. After our win at the County Ground he admitted an admirable need to learn from the experience. His public spat with Leon Clarke earlier in the season resulted from Clarke’s reluctance to put in the work Di Canio demanded. Work and continuous improvement are basic principles of fascism. You won’t get many fans resisting calls for unity and hard work from their manager; you don’t have to be a fascist to be intoxicated by that dogma if you find success.
However, extreme ideologies assume stability, they promote a single path to a single destination. They assume unquestionably, that the path and destination are pre-determined. Their intolerant response to uncertainty is to reinstate the ideology through force, that is plan B. Compliance can justifiably be achieved through violence, if you’re a fascist. When violence isn’t an option, and things change, there isn’t a plan B.
As we will see, things changed a lot during the build up to, and the course of, the derby.
A lot was made of Swindon’s 10-game winning streak; a club record. Logically, this put them into a strong position going into Saturday’s game. But they’d never been in that position before, no manager in their history had been in that position before. The longer any record breaking run goes on the more likely it is to end. Each game brings new pressures that have never been experienced, by anyone, before.
The opposition’s attitude changes, complacency creeps in, tiredness, mental fatigue. As the challenges get more complicated the central tenet of Di Canio’s ideology, hard work, is not the only solution. The last thing you need during a record run is a rabid derby atmosphere introducing more variables. At their peak when they were apparently at their strongest, Swindon were increasingly vulnerable.
Peter Leven’s injury
Peter Leven has become a focal point of a lot of what we do. He’s in a goal of the season competition, he trends on Twitter, he takes all our set pieces, he’s a creative spark. Other players look to him, the fans look to him.
The early announcement of his injury last week served to change expectations; we wouldn’t win the game playing the Leven way because he wouldn’t be there. Without Leven, nobody knew how we’d beat Swindon. Some believed we couldn’t win. Di Canio; whose strengths of motivation through application, requires a stable environment, didn’t know either. Paradoxically, Leven’s injury played into Chris Wilder’s hands.
Jake Wright’s injury
After the Leven announcement, Jake Wright’s injury flew under the radar. Wright’s leadership skills are without parallel at Oxford. You rarely see a player so in control of his team. However, he also likes to play football, some of his passing along the back line is hair raising.
Wright’s injury allowed Whing to slot into the back-four. That changed the dynamic considerably. Whing is a no-nonsense fighter, he and Duberry set a different tone that spread throughout the team. Anthony Tonkin, lackadaisical in the Conference, suddenly became a ferocious pitbull. The back-four weren’t going to play football, they were going to block and clear their lines. The Oxford that we’ve been watching all season, was not the Oxford that appeared on Saturday.
They may claim otherwise, but this was a big game. For many of us, our only interaction with the police is getting frustrated when they get stuck in the Tesco self-scan aisle buying a mid-shift chocolate bar. The neutralised zone built around the away end and coach loads of Swindon fans being escorted by a phalanx of police horses fed a frenzied atmosphere. We know that elements of both sides stepped beyond the mark; but overall, it was a fantastic spectacle.
They’ve got the LDV Autowindscreen Simod Cup Final and the prospect of the title. You can argue until you’re blue in the face as to which is most important. But, they won’t have a bigger, or more rarefied league game all year. This wasn’t conclusive proof that we are best; it was just another chapter in a saga.
In the same way that Celtic need a strong Rangers to thrive, Swindon and Oxford benefit from each others’ presence. The derby has defined our season both on and off the pitch. It was only because it was Swindon that things turned out like they did.
James Constable’s sending off
Constable’s profile within this fixture had grown some way beyond what he (or anyone) could influence on the pitch. Everyone interprets things beyond what they see. Constable’s challenge on Devera was not malicious, it was barely worthy of a yellow card. The referee interpreted the reaction of the Swindon fans, players and the fact it was Constable to conclude that this was an aggressive action from a player who’d been affected by the pressure that surrounded him. Had it been any other player on the pitch, they wouldn’t have been sent off.
Constable’s departure left Rendell up front on his own. All he had to do was hold the ball when it came to him, he did it magnificently. My man of the match. Di Canio had put so much emphasis on Constable, when he was no longer there, Swindon struggled to know who to worry about. We became a multi-headed beast for about five minutes. Johnson, Holmes and Asa Hall weren’t in Di Canio’s play book. Oxford, fierce local rivals playing in front of a massive partisan home crowd, were playing like an away team with players Di Canio had never seen before.
He didn’t react, he panicked. The situation was different to the one he’d planned. He substituted Cibocchi for Smith, and then Smith for Cox. They kept playing deep balls to the back post in the first half and passed and passed and passed to no great effect in the second. Had we gone at them, they may have picked us off. Had things gone through Leven and Constable, they’d have stifled that because it was too obvious. If we’d played the way we want to play, it wouldn’t have been as effective and the crowd would have got frustrated. As the situation changed, Chris Wilder was the one who reacted and the fans recognised the role they had to play. Wembley taught us that victory comes from patience.
Stripped of Wright and Leven plus Davis and Potter. Down to ten men through the loss of our talismanic striker after 10 minutes. With our match winning goalkeeper suffering cramp throughout the second half. Playing the league leaders on a 10 game winning streak in a local derby. The prospect of a draw, let alone a win, was distant to say the least.
They say that you can judge a team by its strength on the substitute’s bench – of the 10 players on the pitch; seven wouldn’t have been in the team had we played at Christmas. 3 wouldn’t have been in the team on Friday. You don’t throw those players together in that environment against that side and accidentally beat them.
This was the victory of a deep, cohesive and motivated squad, moulded by Wilder and funded by Thomas, who has created an off-the-pitch set up dedicated to winning games (yes, I mean you East Stand ball boys).
Di Canio’s Swindon is a good side, the best technical side we’ve faced. They weren’t as effective or efficient as Cheltenham, but they’re still likely champions. However, they are built on a simplistic utilitarian ideology that was exposed on Saturday lunch time because the world is not simple and things change. Yes, we won the derby, yes, we won the double. But more than both of those we demonstrated emphatically what the new Oxford United philosophy is about.