Going to football with an old school friend is an opportunity to reflect on the past, we traded memories of going to Oxford as kids and the general wonder of following our club to the very top of the sport. Then 90 minutes of the 0-0 draw against York cremated our childhoods.
“I’m nervous” he said when he got in the car.
I’ve known Brinyhoof* for 30 years, a length of time that I can’t quite comprehend. We met at primary school when I moved to the area with my family. He was in my new class, at least I think he was. It probably makes him, by a margin of a few weeks, the person outside my family that I’ve known longest. We were both average footballers who loved the game. He was a Liverpool fan, I was Ipswich. We were both Oxford.
I stayed at his house when my parents went to a funeral in Scotland, bamboozling his mum with my insistence on having peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast. He stayed with us when his family were on Family Fortunes; which I genuinely thought would make them rich beyond all measure. They made it to the last round but failed the double your money bit at the end.
Our dads started taking us to watch Oxford around the same time; a couple of years before the dawning of the glory years. Occasionally we went together; his dad worked for Cadbury or a chocolate distributor or something. Any which way, he always had boxes full of chocolate stored away in his larder. Going to games with his dad meant chomping chocolate by the fistful. For me, this meant he, perhaps, had the best job in the whole world. My dad worked with computers; big white boxes which didn’t dispense any chocolate at all.
Back then, your life evolved clockwise around the Manor pitch. Dad’s and their boys would inevitably start in the Osler Road which was safe, cheap and not too busy. There was a tea bar just behind the Osler Road terrace where I bought Bovril. When you became a teenagers, you’d invariably graduate to the bear pit of the London Road. Then, as you got older, you’d take up position on the Beech Road; posh blokes would be in the seats, well, benches. Everyone else would be on the terrace. If you really made it in life, you’d take up residence in the peculiar little stand in the corner which acted as a sponsors’ lounge.
On the corner of the Osler Road and London Road was a wall. It was a prime spot because you could see everything and touch Kevin Brock or Gary Barnett on the back as they took a corner. You could test your readiness for the London Road, by trying to get yourself a position on the wall. Being soft boys from the villages, we didn’t survive long as the rough city boys would move us along. We weren’t ready for the London Road terrace, not until much later.
We both went, separately, to see us away at Coventry in the cup in 1982, we lost 4-0 and Oxford fans tore seats from the stand and threw it on the pitch. Robert Maxwell had just arrived (I wrote to him, asking him to save the club, his secretary wrote back asking if my dad wanted to be an agent for the club’s lottery). Jim Smith was appointed a few months later, and the club was off.
The last time I remember seeing Brinyhoof at a game was the Milk Cup final, improbably, we bumped into each other, as he and his dad went into the stadium. We wished each other well, and headed off in separate directions.
Gradually, our lives took slightly different directions. He became John Peel in a cul-de-sac; his bedroom darkened as it became engulfed in piles of records and tapes from bands I’d never heard of. He headed off to late 80s Madchester via an ill advised foray into pastel jumpers, white socks and slip-ons.
We seemed to remain friends via other people, which meant we never developed the petty jealousies and frustrations of a more claustrophobic friendship. In the great venn diagram of our lives, the intersection was predominately occupied by Oxford United. So, when we did meet up, we always had a conversation starter.
Via Oxford’s indie music scene, he took an active role in FOUL, being part of a committee responsible for ‘publicity stunts’ such as getting Malcolm Shotton nominated for Sports Personality of the Year, and creating the world’s largest football scarf. He went on 606 and endorsed Firoz Kassam (‘Because there was no plan B, he says quite correctly). I had no idea, I just went to games and figured that something would sort itself out eventually.
He moved away and stopped going to games, I didn’t, and didn’t. Saturday was probably the first game we’d seen together for over a quarter of a century, and therefore, almost certainly the first we’d seen without our dads.
We originally went to games not in expectation of success, but because our dad’s were football fans. The club were a decent lower division team, destined ever to remain so. Shortly after we started going, the club embarked on a rise and fall that nobody has seen in the history of the British game. Had we not had that experience, one or both of us would have drifted away to do something else with our lives, something more interesting than following an unremarkable lower league team. Our presence on Saturday at a meaningless fixture against York was almost certainly as a result of the glory years.
In a sense the charm of York on Saturday was that it revisited the memory of The Manor 1981/82. We were going to football because it was football not because we were demanding success. Back then, just going to the game was as important as winning the game. I remember the sights and smells as much as I do the games and goals. Winning promotions and titles weren’t on the radar. Brinyhoof’s nervousness might have been about the significance of the game, but it was probably more about reconnecting with his past.
By 4.45pm, after 90 minutes of the most meandering lifeless football I’ve seen in my life, I felt like we’d set fire to our childhood.