It’s been 18 years since the first Oxford Wycombe game in the football league with the next instalment due on Saturday, what is the story of the fixture?
The thing about the Oxford v Wycombe derby is that nobody can agree if it’s a derby in the first place. Oxford to Wycombe is 31 miles down the M40. Oxford to Swindon is 33 miles. Also, we’ve played Wycombe 16 times since 1994, twice more than we’ve played Swindon. But I doubt anyone would call Wycombe more of a derby than Swindon.
What Swindon has over the Wycombe fixture is history. The Swindon rivalry dates back to before we were born. So, is the problem the lack of myth? Other derbies span generations; stories get passed down and embellished. These add significance to every fixture. However, speaking as someone who has missed just one league game between the clubs, myths struggle to establish themselves when you know the facts, especially when there’s always permanent reference via film of every game?
The first time the clubs met (aside from a few non-league games in the 1950s) was in 1994. Wycombe had been promoted a year before. Like many promoted non-league clubs in those days, they were well run but considered plucky amateurs. Oxford never considered them a threat. Not least because we were mainly still mincing around the Championship.
1994 changed that; we’d been relegated (although in our heads we were still a Championship club), they had been promoted and were full of wide eyed wonderment. In our heads the script was straight forward, they would have a nice day out at a big club, and then we would brush them aside like the amateur no-marks they were.
Wycombe fans packed the Cuckoo Lane end, bless their hearts, look at their excited faces. There was a capacity crowd, the largest the fixture has attracted to date. It felt like a cup tie, but we knew the outcome; we’d let them have their special day out, then we’d smash them on the park and we’ll all go home happy.
And then they scored. We were in such a stupor, having completely underestimated Wanderers’ ability, that we simply didn’t get going. In the second half they scored again with a well worked goal. It was a considerable jolt, we’d lost three times in the league prior to that defeat and were pretty set on bouncing back to the Championship with ease. We took 2 points in the next eight games, winning just seven more games all season including the return, our first visit to Adams Park in the April.
Adams Park is a strange place; it’s situated at the end of a seemingly interminably long road that runs through a trading estate. At the point you feel like you’ve gone the wrong way the road ends with a set of iron gates and in front of you are rolling hills and a neat little ground. We returned still full of expectation, but were undone by the early dismissal of Matt Elliot when the Wycombe attack exploited his one weakness, his pace. A ball over the top and Elliot was left floundering. He pulled the striker to the floor, we screamed with the indignation of a crowd that knew the referee had made the right decision. They scored shortly afterwards, perhaps even from the resultant penalty. I don’t remember.
The season’s capitulation; a feature of too many seasons to follow, didn’t dent our ambition to return to the Championship at the second attempt a year later. The first game, at the Manor, was in late October. We’d won just four league games, the hangover from the previous season seemed to be lingering. That season, and promotion, would be remembered for the late post-Christmas charge, but the Wycombe game held much significance in that success. They humiliated us 4-1 and again we just didn’t get going; but, it would be our last home defeat of the season. Something in that result jolted the team into action; and the home form created a platform from which that remarkable late season run could develop.
Within that run – 1 defeat in the final 16 games – brought perhaps the most iconic moment of the fixture. Up until that point, the game had become analogous of our time in the lower league; we’d anticipated success, even expected it, but were continually sucker punched into defeat by teams we might have thought inferior.
We returned to Adams Park with a degree of trepidation. David Rush opened the scoring at the home end in the first half, in the second, in front of a maniacal Oxford support we added two more; one from Stuart Massey and a piledriver from substitute Paul Moody. This was a classic win of that surge, we’d peppered them continuously, and just when they couldn’t take anymore, would introduce the galloping beast that was Moody to terrorise them some more. He scored 6 goals from the bench, and when he wasn’t doing that he was simply coming on to demoralise defeated opponents. The third goal agaisnt Wycombe triggered the classic picture that lived long in the memory; Stuart Massey hanging off the cross bar and Paul Moody’s arab spring.
Five more games and promotion was won; we’d returned to the Championship and the Wycombe game was put on hold for more than three years.