Still going up?

After the derby last week I walked the children into town to spend their World Book Day vouchers. The adrenaline was still pumping, my brain still processing the sights, sounds and experiences of the last few hours. The weather was spring-like with a slight chill cutting through the warm sun. People around me were getting on with their normal Saturday afternoons. It was a quiet weekend in an Oxfordshire market town.

It reminded me of Cup Finals during my childhood. It was the only domestic club game shown live on TV. The television would go on at 8am for a cup final themed Swap Shop or Saturday Superstore, then we’d flick between Grandstand on BBC and World of Sport on ITV, depending the celebrity-strewn line-up each was offering. There were things that I thought were unique to the Cup Final – hotels, team coaches, suits, the ritualistic inspection of the pitch, flags – nobody had flags at games unless it was the Cup Final. I remember the 1984 Cup Final coverage opening with shots of Andy Gray and Mick Lyons, topless, hanging out of their hotels smiling and laughing. I realise now that there were probably hookers, lager and cigarettes just out of shot. But for me, this was a simple football celebration.

The game would happen – and then my mum would turf me out into the street. I was full of fizzy pop and sugar and hydrogenated fats, exhausted from my sedentary day, overloaded with the noise and epicness of the coverage. there would be an early evening chill in the air, and a quiet void as my head span. I loved Cup Finals.

‘Our Cup Final’ The withering solipsism of the moronic Swindon fringe. If a cup final is a big game you’re desperate to win, then yes, indeed last Saturday had all the hallmarks of a cup final. It isn’t our only focus or necessarily our biggest game, it seems that in modern football not winning is actually cooler than winning. Teams forgo winning ‘cups’, or in this case, derbies, for apparently bigger prizes (5th place in the Premier League or the vague hope of group elimination in the Champions League). Some Swindon fans appear to have dismissed last week’s derby because their focus is the league. Last time I looked, winning games was integral to winning leagues. If their focus is the title, I still can’t quite fathom how losing to Oxford helped their chances. Still, if they wish to by-pass the fun of actually playing in big games to attain a position within the League they’re barely able to attain, and incapable of sustaining, then so be it.

Ian Lenegan’s post-match interview against Swindon talked of gentle, sustainable growth, with the aim of reaching the Championship. Beating Swindon isn’t the reason for his investment; but he’ll enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination. And so should we. And so should they.

But the reasons that made last Saturday so special – triumph in the face of significant on-pitch adversity – was likely to bite us on the arse eventually. Unlike most ‘cup finals’ there is no recovery period afterwards, and so no rest-bite to our injury crisis. Perhaps Tuesday’s excellent draw with Shrewsbury was the benefit of momentum but Saturday was a game too far. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that we’re still playing with a patched up team. ‘Struggling’ Bradford have not lost at home since November, and so despite their supposed lowly position, it was never going to be a push over.

Our own form is both good and bad, depending on predisposition. Miserablists will look at four wins in 12 during 2012 and too many draws. Chirpy-heads will look at two defeats in the same time and nearly 4 months without an away defeat up until Saturday. The reality is that we are 16 points ahead of where we were this time last year and we’ve been sitting in the play-off places for some weeks. Teams in a similar position, of which there a few, are similarly undulating. Swindon are in a stellar run, which is a reference point that doesn’t help the doomongers finding ‘proof’ of our supposed failings. In reality, their existence is really only relevant during the 180 minutes the clubs spend in each others’ company. Although perhaps not for the Swindon tweeter who last week tweeted their youth team victory over United with the hashtag #priderestored. Ah, bless.

Two years ago we’d just been beaten by Hayes and Yeading at home, now we’re in the League 2 play-off places 16 points better off than we were last year. We have a decent chance at the play-offs and should we make it, will be able to go into it relaxed in the knowledge that whatever is achieved is on an upward trajectory (even if Swindon do end up as champions, it still be lower than they were last year and a third year of decline). The knowledge we can beat the best in the division home and away, should offer some confidence that we can go up this season, even if it is by a narrower margin than we would hope. Promotion would be a lot of fun, and this season has already delivered two truly memorable chunks of fun already. If we don’t get promotion, that doesn’t mean we’re failing. Going up, however, will need people to keep some perspective in the coming weeks.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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