The talk before the win against Cheltenham was the state of the pitch which has been turned into a near quagmire as a result of persistent rain and persistent rugby. But while the state of the pitch is never going to help the aesthetics of our game, it might just be the unlikely saviour of our season.
I’m afraid I’ve got something that makes the Saville enquiry look like a walk in the park. Back in the 1970s the BBC were a bit down on their luck, the recession was biting and the sports department in particular were in the doldrums. There weren’t enough journalists around to research the stories they were given and what’s more, they didn’t really care. So, a secret meeting was held with all the senior journalists and broadcasters, they needed to come up with a plan that meant they didn’t have to put in the work to do their jobs.
They invented The Slope. The Slope was the universal explanation for anything to do with lower-league football. In Cup competitions rather than talking about the merits of the players in the teams they were covering, the universal solution to everything was that the pitch had a slope, to, somewhat ironically, explain the levelling of the playing field between the team and their more illustrious opponents.
“How do you think it’s going to go today Brian?”
“Well the pitch has got a bit of a slope”
“Jimmy, Leeds are a goal up, but they’ll be kicking up the slope in the second half”
If you wanted Gary Neville-esque insight, then you might discuss the direction of the slope; end to end, corner to corner and so on. But fundamentally everything about football involving lower leagues pivoted around the slope of the pitch. The pitches didn’t even need to have a slope, it was just a journalistic code to tell others that, frankly, nobody knows anything about the day’s teams.
During the glory years of Oxford’s rise, The Slope conspiracy would regularly raise it’s head. The Manor slope explained victories over Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle and Leeds, it explained 2 championships in a row, it explained absolutely everything. It didn’t explain that you only ever played with a slope for half a game and it’s not as if the ball cascaded down the pitch like it had been rolled down a flight of stairs.
In the modern era even pitch care has become a branch of science. Thoroughbred footballers need carpet-like surfaces to perform, anything that is not lush and green is considered an absolute travesty. The Manor had a good pitch; I once met a referee who had officiated a game between us and Newcastle, he remarked at the wonder of the surface. “It’s all grass” he said, which is only remarkable when you try to keep your own lawn free of weeds and other interlopers.
The Kassam pitch was a step up again, there was no slope and it supposed to have some kind of synthetic mix which made it more durable; Real Madrid were interest in it. Our poor results were then blamed on the pitch being too good. Teams liked to come and play, although it didn’t really explain why our players seemed not to like to come and play.
Then modern football and modern rugby collided; rugby decided to adopt football’s get rich quick scheme. They needed facilities, and they had money. Ground sharing became a thing. Watford, Reading, Wycombe all had rugby cousins. Kassam looked for some rugby tenants, usually involving trying to move a team 70+ miles to the dreaming spires. It’s taken over a decade to actually land one with London Welsh. And now we’re back to talking about the pitch again.
The Kassam pitch now is not unlike the pitches of the 80s, which were a massive improvement on the pitches of the 70s. The ball is lighter now, of course, and boots were more substantial because of the higher likelihood of injury, so subtly the game is different. The game has adapted to its new palatial conditions. But we did play passing football on poor surfaces back then, it was possible for wingers and ball-players to thrive on rutted pitches. Peter Rhoades-Brown, an exponent of wing-craft in the 80s, didn’t seem concerned that the pitch had cut up. He was more worried that his guard of honour had been forced off the pitch.
It is taking a bit of getting used to. It’s not helping us in terms of style, but it does give us something we can unite to fight against. In the first years of Wilder’s reign we fought the Conference itself, and last year it was Swindon. This year we’ve started eating ourselves from within, which is how football clubs, regardless of the competence of the individuals involved, destroy themselves. That’s what happened under the Kassam regime. We were threatening to go back that way again.
Tuesday’s win against Cheltenham wasn’t pretty, but it was effective; two wins away over Christmas and Cheltenham’s elevated position helped, but there was a renewed patience amongst Oxford fans. This was about getting the job done in difficult conditions. It was a disciplined display and we made the 3rd place team in our division look ordinary. After a frustrating period where we tried to play like Barcelona while looking like Barnstable perhaps the pitch might actually rescue our season.