I didn’t want to jinx anything, so I tried to keep the fact that our game against Wycombe was my first away game of the season. I needn’t have worried, we were brilliantly assured, as we’ve been all season. Better than being at home, that’s for sure.
When I post a blog onto this site, I normally send out three tweets for publicity, one a day. I don’t want to spam anyone, but I know that people face a cascade of tweets every day, and so it seems reasonable to give people three chances to spot that a post is there for them to read.
Last week, we played Portsmouth, so I wrote something about, well, Portsmouth. I tweeted it once and returned to the post a couple of hours later to find seven comments and over 700 visitors. That’s quite a lot for this blog. They were, of course, Portsmouth fans telling me what an idiot I was for deigning to take a view of their club. I didn’t think what I’d written was particularly incendiary; I basically questioned how long their team, which is really demonstrably poor, will sustain such a large following.
After that I didn’t bother with anymore promotion; I don’t need readers that much, and definitely not of that kind. It’s not why I write this stuff. I’m not sure why I write this stuff, but it’s not to be abused. I was left to question what’s the point was of doing something that just draws a load of abuse, and what kind of mess of a game is it that people feel it necessary to be so?
Anyway, fast forward a week and I found myself in the ‘Main Stand’ at Adams Park. You know that little section of away seating that exists in virtually every ground, the one you look at and wonder why anyone would choose to sit there? That’s where I was, down the side of the pitch; it wasn’t intentional, I bought online and I thought I was buying for the proper away stand – the Dreams Stand, or whatever it’s called. That’s where I’ve always been before.
It was a terrible angle to watch a game; pitch level, just up from the corner flag, but it gave me full sight of the massed ranks of our away following. Usually when you’re part of an away following, you don’t get the chance to see what you look like. At Arsenal years ago, I was on the front row with 5,000 Oxford fans behind me; I might has well have been on my own.
It was also my first sight of us away from home, and it was brilliant. Completely the opposite to the ‘tired of life’ atmosphere currently generated at the Kassam.
I got thinking, though, after Portsmouth fans at the Kassam and Oxford fans at Adams Park, after months of playing at home with glum defeatism; is away the new home?
Our form plays a significant part in answering that question, obviously. Although we left it late, we were superb all afternoon; we were in control before the sending off and kept the ball moving – with patience – afterwards. The goal was absolutely brilliant. And, for all those Wycombe fans who tried mocking us for taking so long to make the breakthrough. We didn’t play 10 men, we played 11 men, as always – it’s just one of them was stupid enough to get himself sent off. You were well and truly beaten.
But, it’s deeper than that. I don’t have a theology degree, and I don’t really need a theology degree to tell someone that football has many of the attributes of a religion, but it took someone with a theology degree to confirm that this view exists within the academic community.
Back in the 50s football clubs were physically at the heart of their communities. Stadiums towered over terraced housing. The stadium, of course, is the church. And in the past, those ‘churches’ were unique to your club. That’s because stadia in past were build in stages as clubs grew; each stand would be created using whatever the latest technique or style was. They were also built on the club’s success using the fans’ money. They were owned, physically and spiritually by the community and paid for by its graft.
Now Stadiums, are less likely to be owned by the club and therefore the fans. Either literally, in our case, or stylistically in the case of any club that has moved into a generic enormodome in the last 15 years. It’s like trying to build a connection with your local Tesco.
Stadiums increasingly are located next to a Tesco or Asda, or at least away from where supporters live. You have to drive, not walk, to your own home. It is no longer an extension of your local community.
Cars are important in other ways. The first game I explicitly remember going to as a de facto away fan was the 1981 FA Cup game against Coventry. It was an epic journey through market towns of South Midlands. Visiting my grandparents in Abingdon from Hertfordshire was a journey of the scale and complexity of at least two volumes of Lord of the Rings. It required us to stop for fish and chips on the way. Now, although it doesn’t always feel like it, our transport networks have improved. Oxford to Coventry can be done in no time at all. And, thanks to the Japanese, not only are the roads better, but cars are more comfortable and reliable.
Even though getting to away games is easier than ever before, simply going to a game is a victory. It’s that sense of being part of a movement. We’re so dissipated at home, we don’t walk to games together anymore, it’s car, game, car, there’s no congregation at home, but that’s all different away. We’re galvanised by simple things like we don’t quite know what we’re doing and by the fact that we’re viewed with such suspicion. As I walked into the ground on Saturday, I overheard some police looking down the road talking over the radio; they’d tracked a group of blokes all the way from the White Horse, a pretty rum pub about 20 minutes away.
And from that point, everything feels better. An away win can’t be matched at home, an away draw feels like a home win – a sense of satisfaction. A defeat is easier to take away.
Perhaps, home simply is no longer our home. We are a displaced army, our home is barely our home. We’re forced onto the road and that, it seems, where our club thrives both on the pitch and off it.