The defeat to Chesterfield felt so typical of this season. The moment that you think we’re about to break out of the fug and grab an unlikely play-off spot, we meekly throw away three points to a team with a terrible away record. Is this familiar cycle a sign that we’re entering a dark age?
Before Saturday’s game against Chesterfield, I found myself in a conversation about the state of modern football. One of those discussions where the game’s rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. That there are too many foreign owners ploughing money into teams that skew the competition. One said that teams could no longer make it through the divisions into the top flight like Watford, Oxford and Wimbledon did back in the 1980s. The words ‘Swansea City’ or even ‘Stoke City’ popped into my head, but I suppressed my urge to correct him and nodded in agreement.
We do that. Agree with things that we don’t actually agree with. We conform to norms and patterns. It’s a survival technique, it prevents us from being outcasts. Take the incident with Nathan Smith on Saturday, for example. He was barely able to run when Damian Batt was powering down the line readying himself for a cross into the box. Somehow Smith managed to get into a position where the ball cannoned off him for a corner. Finally, he goes down and Oxford fans are apoplectic. The collective view was that he grounded himself pretending to be hurt by the ball hitting him.
After treatment, he hobbled back to the halfway line before dropping, again, to the floor. More boos. Deane Smalley tries to roll him off the pitch and a scuffle ensued. Smith goes off, genuinely injured. And yet, Oxford fans can’t bring themselves to give him the benefit of the doubt, or to criticise Smalley’s ill-advised actions. All along I sit in silence, accepting the views of the masses.
That ‘do what we want’ song rang out when Chesterfield scored. It’s a horrible song, but it’s sung every week. It’s just part of the pattern of a matchday. It’s rare to hear an original club song or something which is genuinely funny or original. The pattern of the game, the day, stays the same from week to week. The routine of an Oxford matchday clicks by. Those who come for excitement and thrills have given up, others will inevitably do so soon, it’s not a protest against the current owners or managers, it’s just the product of the boredom of the current routine.
So much of this season reminds me of the club that I started seeing in the early 80s. It was a complete anathema to what I’d come to understand as what football was. Football on TV, in Roy of the Rovers and on my subbuteo pitch was full of glory and cups and goals. Seething crowds banked on terraces, tumbling down with unbridled joy when you star striker scored. In reality Oxford United in the early 80s was full of people moaning. The stands were sparse, the routines set in stone. The club never really got into relegation trouble, nor troubled the promotion places. The sense of helplessness at the endless drift was palpable.
Nowadays, James Constable is Peter Foley, Jake Wright is early 80s Malcolm Shotton. Good players, players who we can be fond of, but no John Aldridge or Matt Elliot. They’re players who are likely to jettison us forward. The others are Tim Smithers, or Mark Jones, or John Doyle. Never heard of them? Exactly.
Those who think that firing Chris Wilder is the solution to this misunderstands the problem. I’m fairly certain that Wilder is not about to take us to the Premier League and firing him might freshen things up a bit but I think most people agree that the immediate future is all but mapped out with or without him. We’re set to miss out on the play-offs, season ticket sales will fall and lots and lots of players will leave. Next season will probably be the same as this. And the season after that, and the season after that.
These are football’s hard miles, unrewarding drudgery, and it could go on for a while without either us finding a genius manager who can outperform within the constraints around us, or new and significant investment which will make good managers great. Granted, that’s always a possibility, but the chances remain remote.
A small core of fans may remain to tough it out; and one of these days we’ll be at Wembley, or a title clinching home game, or one of the country’s biggest grounds and we’ll have a sesnse of something we can’t quite put our fingers on that others won’t be able to feel. We’ll have games like Chesterfield, forgotten over the passing of time, deep in our muscle memory.
But, time has run out, the post-promotion glow has wained, Ian Lenegan’s ability to fund rapid growth is coming to an end. There are some signs in the youth set up, that a golden age of Oxford-based youngsters could be the solution, but that’s what they said about Darren Patterson’s youth team of the early 2000s.We may even be seeing a slight tilt towards the ladies game; it’s not unheard of, for a period the best football team in Doncaster were the fabled Doncaster Belles, not the broken Rovers.
But, there is nothing glorious about supporting us through these grey days. It’s self-harm, a cry for help, but help never comes, nobody cares. There is no one person or thing that has caused it. We were going to stall sooner or later; there’s only so much forward momentum we can muster from our promotion from the Conference, or from us as ‘the great’ Oxford United.
Perhaps the only people we can look at to change is us; bring back the flags, bring back the songs, bring back the unbridled positive support. Who knows, it may drag us out of the darkness quicker than waiting for a knight in shining armour to do it for us.