Another weekend, another win. But why so far from home? On the surface everything looks great, but is this a love unrequited?
I was talking to someone about the misconceptions around the relationship between Oxford and Cambridge while at a work event last week. She works for an Oxford-based company and told the story that once she’d had a recruitment company tell her they’d found the perfect candidate ‘just down the road’ … in Cambridge.
I know, I said, I’m an Oxford United season ticket holder and when we play Cambridge, I’ve heard people say ‘Woh, bit of a local derby’. It’s crazy.
As an aside, I’m not sure this is entirely true. It’s more likely a combination of a number Oxford United-related conversations over the years that have misrepresented the club; in particular the erroneous perception that we have a close relationship with the university. Add to this a dash of Tim Russon who once introduced a highlights package with the line ‘Oxford versus Cambridge is most famously known as a boat race, but it was more like a boot race as the two teams met on Tuesday night at The Manor’. But my story was illustrating a broader point; the facts were a side issue.
Anyway, like a stolen 1969 Mustang shooting a red light through a crossroads in Grand Theft Auto, a bloke standing with us cut across the conversation flow. ‘How’ there was a slight air of incredulousness in his tone, which I sensed may have been because he too was a Oxford season ticket holder ‘have you come to be an Oxford United season ticket holder?’
Stand back, I’ve got this one sorted, I thought. I’ve rehearsed a credible, but self-deprecating explanation for this. I don’t have convenient shorthand like a Manchester United fan might – ‘I saw our Champions League win in Barcelona in 1999 and it changed my life’ (omitting the appendage ‘on TV’) or ‘I saw George Best in ’68 and I cried’. My explanation is more prosaic. My dad lived in Abingdon and was a fan from back in the Headington United days, when I moved to the area in the early 80s, I started following the club just as it headed into the glory years. By the time we peaked the club had me in a vice-like grip as we bombed down and out of the league. Rather like getting on a plane heading for the holiday of a lifetime, only to find yourself plummeting into the Himalayas once on board. It’s a coherent story for why I, an otherwise rational human being, have spent a good proportion of my adult life following failure.
On Saturday we notched yet another win hundreds of miles from home. I’ve seen only two home games this season, both of which were underwhelming draws. Despite decades of dedicated service, our best start in years has happened in places where I am not. It’s like there’s some kind of Illuminati conspiracy designed to prevent me from enjoying us being successful. Which begins to beg the question; does my football club hate me?
I don’t mean in the sense of being against modern football, where clubs tolerate fans simply because they provide an aesthetic backdrop for the TV show that’s played out on the field. I mean in the sense of Oxford United as an anthropomorphised partner or spouse who we love, but who never seems to love us back.
Certainly whilst captured in the tractor beam of the club, I have experienced years of misery and disappointment. There is no rational explanation for why this is my 20th season with a season ticket and 38th season since my first ever game (I was very, very young). But, every time I begin to have doubts, the club offers me an olive branch to me to keep following. I go still go to turgid mid-week defeats because it builds some sort of capital that makes the highs event higher. Supposedly.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve witnessed the glory years of the mid-80s, the promotion of 1996, and Wembley in 2010. In between have been years of Spartan nothingness. Whilst each peak has offered its own special memories, each has had less significance: a major domestic cup, a second place in the third division and a play-off to simply just to take our place in the Football League at all.
It’s like the disinterested husband who buys his wife a beautiful array of fresh flowers when he first meets her, then after 10 years of marriage he resorts to some supermarket blooms on her birthday, by their 20th anniversary it’s just a droopy set of daffodils from the garage if he remembers and the price is right. Whilst she is grateful for the occasional glimpses of interest he shows her, she’s also profoundly sad that her value to him has degenerated so.
We declare our love for Oxford every weekend – we love you Oxford, we do – but does it love us back? As I stare at the radio every Saturday with Jerome Sale screaming ‘And that just about seals it’, part of me is thinking; why isn’t this happening at home? I begin to wonder whether this is unrequited – does the club just want us to iron its clothes and cook its dinner whilst quite literally, and metaphorically, scoring while playing away from home?