One of the binds of being a blogger is that you spend all your time thinking about things to blog about. Match reports would be pretty easy to do – who scored what, when and how; but there are plenty of good places to read those. But, I want to write something else, although that else isn’t always easy to stumble across. The challenge is that going to football is a routine that doesn’t change hugely from one game to another. There are precious few extraordinary moments or events that effectively write themselves. Instead, an idea will usually begin to manifest itself at the beginning of the day, but that will evolve until, a couple of days after the game, I’ve finally settled on something to write about.
When I got out of the car on Saturday and headed towards the ground a theme drifted into my head. The walk to the Kassam is quite different to the one to The Manor. The Manor, of course, was in the middle of Headington and fans would congregate around pubs, chip shops, supermarkets and programme sellers. There would be obstacles all the way into the ground. It would create a pre-match atmosphere. At the Kassam you’ve pretty much got two options; go to the ground or go to The Priory, and then the ground. The net result is that you get an overly efficient flow of fans straight into the ground; fantastic for law and order and time and motion studies, but the result there is there no pre-match atmosphere outside the Priory until you get to the queues for the turnstile.
So, I was heading towards the ground in my overly efficient way; it was grey and raining. The slightly intimidating gangs of kids on BMX’s had been forced inside. The streets were even more deserted than normal. A theme came into my head; loneliness.
With the current apathy surrounding our club and its performances, 4 games; 2 draws 2 defeats, the idea of Ultimate Support Saturday seemed a vacuous marketing scam; even if it was one conjured up by the fans. The problem is that marketing only works when you fundamentally believe in the message. A cold, grey, wet lower-league game involving a team with no form to speak of was never likely to serve up an ultimate anything.
Liam Davis had been on the radio giving the most unconvincing interview I’ve ever heard from a professional footballer. Yes, performances have been disappointing, he said, but If the boys keep doing the things they’ve been doing they’ll still keep moving forward. And the fans have been brilliant. And so on. Except its evident none of this is true. Regardless of what you think of Chris Wilder or Ian Lenagan and whether they should be given more time or not, by no measure is the club moving forward. And before you start, the fans haven’t been brilliant, they’ve been subdued and negative.
We’re sitting in a no man’s land; promotion looks as unlikely as relegation. We’re not bound by a common purpose; club and fans have become isolated from each other. Going to football has become a lonely experience.
It’s not dissimilar to the situation we found ourselves in when Chris Wilder arrived. Football was a habit for a dwindling number of people. But there was a growing acceptance that promotion was getting harder; perhaps too hard to really bother. Wilder was on nobody’s wish list; his appointment underwhelming. The club seemed to have thrown in the towel. We lost his first game and Sam Deering broke his leg. We shrugged in acceptance of our lot.
Then in the next 11 games we had 9 at home. We were docked 5 points, harshly, because of Eddie Hutchinson, but we only lost 2; one a FA Trophy game that didn’t matter; the other was a 2-0 defeat to Torquay which turned a potential promotion chase into a fatalistic cause. Malcolm Boyden launched his ‘Believe’ campaign galvanising what we’d all started to think; the world was against us, but we could triumph anyway. It was magnificent, the ultimate failure to reach the play-offs even enhancing the belief in the quest we were on.
Saturday started with that feeling of loneliness, the listlessness of not having a cause to galvanise us. The dog days had gone. There was just a vague recollection that things were good once. Northampton fans were the ones showing the spirit of togetherness with the noise they were making while a goal down.
But, James Constable scoring is always reassuring, like a barometer for our stable world. Coming back from a late set back is a reminder that we’re not incapable. And it was against a decent side on a decent run. Perhaps there is a reason to be hopeful.
Cup games seem to be acquiring a significance that they haven’t had previously; it’s a fanciful shot in the dark, but results against Accrington and Plymouth, a bit more luck with injuries and maybe someone in the transfer window to kick some arses in the midfield and we might start to feel like believing again.