It’s not often I wake up on the morning of a game not knowing whether I was going or not. On Saturday I was 175 miles from the Kassam Stadium; the race against time that followed made me consider a rarely discussed element of the game; being late and missing games.
I can easily get poetic about motorways and football. Football is the heartbeat of the country, fans are its lifeblood and motorways are the arteries. At risk of descending into Partridge-like parody, there’s an expectant thrill about motorway service stations at lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon.
There is something special about seeing a procession of overweight men in claret and blue shirts filing their way into the gents. As they pass, you focus on the badge nestling on the crest of their right moob. West Ham? Burnley? No… it’s… Scunthorpe! Then you have to scramble to find where they’re off to that afternoon. You check their result at full-time and then they dissolve back into being just another club that isn’t yours.
On Saturday, I was in Chester with work. A field in Chester before Chesterfield, I quipped. I’d known about this clash the day the fixtures came out in June. You often hear about people who can’t make particular games, but this doesn’t reveal the personal crisis that comes with the realisation that you’re missing a game. It’s not so much the fear of missing something brilliant, more the anxiety related to breaking a routine.
Usually, if I’m missing a game, I’m missing it. If I’m going, then I’m going. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to handle this one. The time at which I left was only partly in my control. But I have some emotional intelligence and that told me that jetting too early wasn’t going to pay dividends with my colleagues.
In the end I took a risk based approach, the most likely scenarios were that I left on time and missed the game, or I wriggled out early, pissed a few people off, and still missed the game. Given that the most likely scenarios involved missing the game; I figured I was better leaving at a time that minimised any discord with my colleagues.
I’ve missed games before; in 2004 I sat in traffic on the edge of Milton Keynes at 2.15pm knowing that I wasn’t going make our opening day fixture at Boston. Nine years earlier I went to St Andrews with my mate Pete for a potential title decider against Birmingham. We got stuck in traffic and couldn’t park. In a rush I got out of the car pushed the button on the door to lock it and slammed it shut. Just as I heard Pete slam the door on the other side I realised that I hadn’t taken the keys out of the ignition. We were locked out. For a moment I contemplated taking a risk and just head for the ground; the key issue could wait. We were passed by some kids who asked if we wanted them to ‘look after’ the car. We were naive, but not lobotomised, so we declined. We found a rough local pub, full, but silent apart from the radio blaring out the game (we conceded while I borrowed their phone).
By the time the RAC got the key out it was getting beyond half time and David Rush missed a penalty. Into the second half we were circumnavigating the ground trying to get in. We’d sold out our end so we had to get in somewhere else. The only tickets available we’re getting ridiculously expensive; especially for less than half a game that we were losing. I’d lost all sense of perspective, it was like I was trying fruitlessly to revitalise a dying dog while Pete tugged at my arm trying to persuade me it was over and that I should ‘just leave it’.
We drove home listening to the final moments of the game, which doubled up as their promotion party.
As well as missing games I’ve also travelled long distances for games. I was in Boston, Massachusetts 12 hours before our 2-1 win over Bury at the Manor in 2002. In 1998 I drove down from the west coast of Scotland for a game with Wolves.
On Saturday, I got away on time and plugged OX4 into the Sat Nav. It predicted my arrival as 3.30pm. I could eat into that, I thought, if I didn’t stop. But I did consider what is the latest time that it’s reasonable to turn up to a game?
I’d turned up late to games before, of course, who hasn’t? In 1994, coming back from university, I arrived late for our cup game against Chelsea. I arrived at the top of steps on the London Road terrace only to find myself tumbling down to the front as Joey Beauchamp poked the ball home to give us a 1-0 lead.
But that was a terrace, and you can merge your way anonymously into the stand at almost any time. With seating its different, people need to get out of the way. I was late for our relegation decider against Leyton Orient in 2006. My daughter was born at 9am that morning. Having spent the night weaning myself off the idea that I was going to go, we eventually realised at about 11am that there was little form me to do but to go. By time time I got out of the hospital (smashing a wing mirror off a parked car in the process), and got across Oxford it was gone 3pm. Nobody noticed and I didn’t care, everyone was preoccupied by events on the pitch.
Back in Chester, things weren’t going well. I’d been on the road for nearly an hour and had shaved off about 2 minutes from my ETA. The Worksop Town supporters’ trust coach went passed (3-2 win away at Nantwich). Football was starting to happen. Rationality was beginning to take hold of the situation. I was getting hungry, I couldn’t stop if I wanted to get back to Oxford. That meant missing out on lunch. On expenses. Which was not so much a luxury as a missed opportunity. I passed a service station and decided that if I hadn’t brought the ETA down significantly by the next services (12 miles away) I was giving up.
Reader, I failed.
I stopped, bought food, and set off again. I still hadn’t mentally discharged the idea of making the game. I was still calculating the average speed I’d need to make it, I was in Stafford and I was due to arrive at 4pm.
Birmingham killed me, of course. I passed Walsall (1-1 v Rotherham), you can see the the top of the main stand at the Bescott just off the M42. It was reassuringly sparsely populated. Then I slowed at the alter of traffic congestion; the RAC building. My next goal was to get into Radio Oxford’s range, it became bearable to listen to around 64 miles out. Not before Radio 5 Live described our game as the ‘hottest ticket in League 2’. Deaf to the withering qualifier ‘in League 2’ I felt a pang of jealousy. I was amongst normal people, counting down the miles to get home.
I’ve now missed two home games; I’ve only seen two of our eight matches this season. Both were underwhelming draws, meanwhile we’ve had our best start for years. Is this a season in which I’m simply destined to chase, and ultimately fail, our successes? Is this an analogy?