Saturday’s win over Wycombe was the first time I’d seen us win away for 12 years. In fact, the last time I saw us win away, was the last time we won away to Wycombe. It was, from what I remember, the most dismal win ever, like the final twitch of a dying man.
I don’t do away as much as I used to. I’ve seen us at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Highbury in the league, I’ve seen us at Lincoln City, Burton Albion and Leyton Orient. I’ve seen us in York on a Tuesday night, Eastbourne Borough on a Saturday morning and Carlisle on a Saturday afternoon, though not in the same week. I reckon I’ve seen us at about 30 grounds, which I think is enough to be respectable, but not enough to be a complete mental.
Going through the list, I can remember pretty every away trip; sitting at Crystal Palace as a socially inadequate 20-something with an high flying American executive who I’d been working with on an exhibition. He said he’d wanted to see some genuine English soccer and I mentioned I was going to see us at Palace. He was treated to a pretty entertaining 2-2 draw. The other time I was at Selhurst Park, I was standing in a corner stand whilst being blasted by unseasonable horizontal hailstones. There was the time we played QPR on plastic pitch, they equalised in the last minute when the ball bounced like a golf ball on concrete. There was the time at Loftus Road when we had Simon Marsh and Paul Powell as bona fide Under-21 England players. I thought that under Malcolm Shotton the glory days were back.
I remember the games at York and Carlisle simply because I couldn’t quite believe that anyone other than me would be there. I would have gone to Birmingham City but arrived late and locked my keys in the car. I terms of ex-league clubs, I got stuck on route to Boston once and was on the outskirts of Kidderminster when I found out the game had been postponed. They don’t count, I know.
In recent years I’ve not been able to go away much. I have other commitments and the quality of football has hardly justified any reprioritisation. I suspect as my children get older and more into football, we’ll head off to some godawful holes around the country in search of away days. I’ll enjoy that. But, at the moment, four hours in the car to freeze their fingers off doesn’t appeal so much.
Wycombe brought back memories of what makes away games so special. There’s an odd mix of familiarity and mystery. The familiarity comes from the fact you’re with other Oxford fans, some of whom you might recognise from home games. The mystery comes from the fact nobody really knows quite what they’re supposed to do; where do you get in? Where do you get a drink? Most people will have been to Adams Park before, but where at home everyone has their own routine; where they park, when the get into the ground, where they sit; in an away game nothing has a pattern.
There’s the unique mix of people; North, South and East Standers sit together. There are the generic football casuals; baseball caps and Stone Island jackets. There are dads and lads, active greys taking in a game during a weekend away (although perhaps not at Wycombe, admittedly) and there are elderly diehards who despite seeming unable to walk, manage to nestle amongst the hoolies, if they were drinking tea from a china cup they wouldn’t look out of place. There are those who haven’t missed a game home or away for years and have no longer got any real grasp of the world outside a football ground.
The disruption of routine means that the stand is a hive of activity; people arrive late, and just as things start to settle down, others start heading for the toilets. At home, you can time your arrival at the ground, pre-game drink and pee break so that it doesn’t disrupt your enjoyment of the game. Away, you could be half an hour late, or two hours early. You could be drinking for hours or heading straight from your car to your seat. At some point, and not usually at half-time, you need a wee. The stand buzzes constantly.
Best of all, however, is the moaning. The bloke next to me criticised everything about Wycombe from the floodlights to the lack of sponsorship (for which he was glad because it meant they’d go bust). When you’re away fan, you’re cornered. You’re penned into one part of the ground; everything is put on a war footing; police and stewards expect trouble. The level of tension is completely disproportionate to the threat of trouble. But, it gives us something else to moan about.
The facilities are usually inadequate. But, let’s face it, facilities aren’t a big deciding factor in whether you travel or not. Deciding factors are distance and performance. So why should the home side invest in sweet smelling toilets? Also, Wycombe’s away facilities rarely need to accommodate 1900 fans, as a result we were left queuing like cattle for the toilet. More moaning.
Amidst the activity and the moaning is the game. OK, they were terrible. I wish no bad of Wycombe, but everything about them feels like they’ve lost all sense of direction. Their crowd were apathetic, and I’m sure that Gareth Ainsworth is a lovely bloke, but a novice manager trying to dig his team out of a hole while squeezing the last drops of his boyhood dream does nothing for Wycombe. They need an Ian Atikins to piss everyone off and dig in.
But enough about them, we were brilliant. Potter had one of those games which makes you wonder why he isn’t playing at a higher level, Constable and Craddock are looking a more potent force with every game. Whing is the universal steadying force in the team and across the club. We’re reassured by his presence. The only let down was Chapman who was a little lackadaisical at times. However, even he managed to write himself into Oxford United folk history by revealing he’d played with a burnt nipple.