This season has been in the doldrums pretty much from day one. Crowds are down, expectation is down. We seem trapped in a situation we can’t get out of. A knight in shining armour with billions to spare seems unlikely. There is, of course, the unspoken ‘other’ option – to just give up.
At the end of last week I was ill, lying in bed I did what I tell other people to do when they’re ill; forget everything else, just focus on getting better. You want to be well, you’ve got other things you should be doing, but you’ve just got to hand yourself over to body’s immune system and let it get on with fighting the illness. Rest up, go to sleep, this might take a while.
So I tried to forget about work and family commitments and feeling guilty about not being able to fulfil either; nobody actually thanks you for fighting through illness anyway. I was ill, not skiving and it was only going to be a day, perhaps two. So as I simplified my life to the single purpose of getting better, I got thinking; wouldn’t life be easier if you removed all its awkward appendages and focussed only on what you absolutely wanted to? Take away the things which you do out of habit but rarely benefit from. So, along those lines, I thought, why don’t I stop supporting Oxford? Not just while I was ill, but forever.
We’re, perhaps, the most calamitous club in the country; a few never-made-its like Darlington and Chester have fallen further, Portsmouth are doing their very best to take our crown but haven’t, yet, fallen far enough. Luton and Wimbledon both won at Wembley in the 80s, like us, and then fell to the Conference, like us, but their failure had as much to do with football politics as it did football games. We, on the other hand have been in the top flight, produced, developed and sold players who have played in the top flight and at international level, we’ve invested in the infrastructure of a new stadium and have a large and committed fan base. We’re one of the most affluent areas in the country. We were even owned by the 309th richest man in the whole country. And still we fail.
Now, we play on a bog of a pitch in a stadium we don’t own with an open end which looks set never to be built. We can even see the twinkling lights of the cinema, restaurant and Bowlplex – leisure pursuits which all guarantee far greater levels of satisfaction. We go on losing streaks which feel like they’ll never end, we point fingers and bully people who we previously considered our heroes. It’s not only illogical, it’s toxic.
Football is such a massive distraction. We worry about the result and the team and the club and its finances. We worry about football and the Premier League and who is getting rich and how unfair it all is and whether we need to have technology to make things more fair and we question who is taking drugs and we worry about criminal gangs in South East Asia watching over us, fixing games at will.
Imagine if that just all went away? The time it would save that could be invested in family and work and getting healthy and sorting stuff out. It’s one of the great mysteries to me; what do people who don’t go to football on a Saturday actually do? They must have so much time to pursue other things. Are they having amazing and enriching cultural experiences that they can regale in conversion with strangers? My conversations tend to go along the lines of:
“Right, so you support Oxford”
“So, what division are they in now?”
“The old 4th division”
“What became the third division when the Premier League was formed”
“The one above the Conference”
“Ah, weren’t you in the Conference last year?”
“Well, a few years ago”
“And how are you doing now?”
And so it goes on. Supporting Oxford offers no conversational footholds; if I supported Arsenal, perhaps I could have a reasonable conversation with anyone that had a passing interest in the game about Arsene Wenger’s future. If I was part of the new footballing artisan class, not so much a fan of one club, but a knowledgeable master of all, we could talk at length about Roberto Mancini, ‘Sir Alex’ and Zenit St Petersburg’s left wing-back.
My peers at work are all older than me; there’s a garrulous Watford fan who I exchange the odd anecdote with (he used to watch us in the 80s – ARGH!). The others talk about classical music and literature and going to concerts on the South Bank. Nobody asks me about watching football from the South Stand. They don’t know the South Stand exists.
My friends talk about getting respite from their children by watching difficult Scandinavian subtitled murder dramas on BBC4; I should do that, but it’s on a Tuesday and that’s game night. I see my Facebook feed full of people triumphantly declaring it “Wine O’Clock” and that they’re sitting down with a takeaway and X Factor; could I be so accepting of simple things when, y’know, Damien Batt’s contract and everything? And I don’t like wine.
It’s a belittling and isolating experience; we convince ourselves that we’re on some kind of bold quest, displaying unflinching loyalty, a suffrage of a nobel cause. But nobody cares. They don’t look for your results, nobody checks to see whether you’ve been to every game for the last three years or that you travelled to Plymouth on a Tuesday night for a 7pm kick-off in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. What we do as Oxford fans is of no value or significance to anyone but ourselves. I’ve seen Everest from space and it’s tiny.
I wouldn’t have to ditch football altogether, I enjoyed the theatre of the Read Madrid v Manchester United Champions League tie, the football was good, the ground was great, the pitch was lovely. It was on the telly, I could let a cup of tea rest on my paunch. I didn’t need to know that the two teams and the competition have been engineered to almost guarantee success to the exclusion of all others. In the same way that I don’t need to know that the beautiful actress in a film had her boobs enhanced and her stomach airbrushed and that she shot her scenes in between periods of vomiting due to bulimia borne out of being racked with insecurities. I know too much about football to actually enjoy it.
Or, I could adopt a new team. One that I could booty-call whenever I needed to go to a game. Something local, small time, cheap and non-league, perhaps. I could look out for their games, go to the bigger ones, not really know who their left back is or whether their ownership model is sustainable.
My relationship with Oxford is so complicated; sometimes I find myself wondering what Steve Biggins or Paul Hinshelwood are doing nowadays; do they tell people they played for Oxford? Do they even remember playing for Oxford? It represents my childhood and growing up; I was just becoming a teenager when we won the Milk Cup, I’d just started working when we were promoted in 1996, I became a father literally the night before we were relegated from the Football League (and I still went to the Orient game with my newborn daughter no more than 6 hours old). We were promoted back only a few weeks after my second child came along. I’ve avoided weekend work commitments so I could go to games which may or may not have affected my career. Friendships have been strained because I have to plan around games. I’ve never missed anyone’s wedding because of football; I’m not a barbarian.
There are highs, I’ve been through three promotions and two trips to Wembley. The lows definitely enhance those highs. But for the play-off final I sat with three others, two of which were at their first Oxford game. One turned to me afterwards and said ‘Never in doubt was it?’ Wasn’t it? I thought we were on the brink right up until Alfie Potter slotted home in injury time. He had enjoyed the whole 90 minutes, I enjoyed the 93rd to the 95th minute. It was a rush, no doubt, but was his longer, lower level pleasure better my intense couple of minutes?
Perhaps I could just consign this to the past, I did it with my BMX. My obsession with music is on the wane, I don’t have the time and inclination to seek out new sounds and bands, to be ahead of the rest. It doesn’t change much, to be honest, there’s always something else to do. I’ve got an old water tank out the front of my house with the detritus of a loft conversion in it; that all needs to go down the dump at some point.
And then the sun shines and in Plymouth Damian Batt scuffs a cross field pass into the box and James Constable slots home from close range and we’ve got a win that puts us 9 points off the play-offs not 9 points adrift. Perhaps I’ll stick with it, for another week. After that, though, maybe I’ll jack it all in. The only thing is that I’ve been saying that for about 15 years.