Are we too middle class to succeed?

You can blame Dean Smalley or Ian Lenagan for any failings this season, but this is nothing new. Why are Oxford a club with a capacity to collapse so easily? Is there a darker reason we’re not prepared to address?

Timmy Mallet used to have a  joke where he’d say something clearly preposterous – ‘a cow’s favourite food is jelly’ – following up with the punchline; ‘and we know that’s a fact because we made it up ourselves.’

You might argue the same thing happens with Oxford fans – or all football fans for that matter – we know we’re the best fans in the world because we made it up ourselves. An away following is typically viewed to be ‘brilliant’ and ‘dedicated’ with no objective benchmark to prove that’s so. We can take 1000 or 12 to an away game and this is universally declared to have been amazing. Oddly, when home gates fall, that’s the team or owner’s fault, it’s definitely not the fans, they’re still brilliant.

After the calamitous own goal which saw us fall to defeat against Dagenham, it feels like the late season collapse is happening all over again. After an early season surge, we’ve fallen away and barring a significant change of form, we will slip out of the play-off places to another season in League 2. I still wouldn’t rule out a revival, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this collapse is terminal.

This isn’t unusual, in fact you might argue that it’s the Oxford way. It’s not specific to a manager or any players; we did it in 1995, 2004 and 2007. We’ve had other seasons which have been the other way around – a terrible start from before a late and futile dash of form at the end of the season. Promotions in 1996 and 2010 came about despite big chunks of faltering form. It’s been 30 years since we had a season which was excellent from start to finish.

If this is the Oxford Way, then one of the few constants in all of this is us, the fans. Is there something in the DNA of the club, carried from generation to generation that makes success all that much harder?

It’s quite possible; while players and managers are judged by their performances in a ruthless and unequivocal way, we are not objectively assessed at all. Greatness is bestowed upon us as fans by us based on little more than the fact we turn up to games.

A recent economic survey backed up many surveys about Oxford and the surrounding towns and villages. There is virtually no unemployment, we have one of the most robust local economies in the country and the general the quality of life is second to none. Oh Oxfordshire, indeed, is wonderful.

In short, if Oxford and Oxfordshire were distilled into a single person, they would be part of the very comfortable middle class. Of course, there is a range of ‘classes’ living in Oxfordshire, but they are still blessed with employment, high house prices and above average wages. Their equivalents in Manchester and Liverpool may not be any more skilled, but they will be significantly worse off. Even those working in ‘blue collar’ jobs do alright from living in Oxfordshire.

Class is an emotive subject, of course. I take it to be a way of describing the ‘natural order’ of any society. Toby Young says that the UK benefits from knowingly having a class system. All societies have stratification – haves and have nots – its almost a necessity. If everyone had everything they need, then the economy would fall apart.

Young argues that the UK’s conscious class system is far better than America’s stealthy unconscious system – the American Dream perpetuates the myth that anything is possible, when it clearly and demonstrably isn’t to most people. If you’re born poor, then statistically you’re likely to stay poor even though you are told that only by being rich can you be successful.

Anyway, Oxford has its middle class roots wrapped around every part of it. It’s not that everyone drives a Volvo and holidays in Tuscany. It’s just deep in our cultural capital; in the same way that the docks, Catholicism and Irish immigration weaves its way through the culture of Liverpool, for example. Oxford is a seat of great thinking and a source of scientific and medical innovation. If you haven’t been part of that, sure as eggs are eggs you’ve been influenced by it in some way.

The middle classes are the ‘professional’ class; accountants, lawyers, managers. They are paid to be objective and clear headed. Might that influence your attitude to your football club? Is it that when things go wrong we can simply rationalise it; it’s not that important, there’s always next week, and there are more important things in life.

Compare this, say, to Manchester United and Liverpool – the two most successful British clubs of the last 50 years. Both have working class roots; even if today it is barely perceptible in their modern incarnation. Going back decades life was hard; poverty was rife and, beyond the basic need to eat and have somewhere to live supporting your club became the end in itself. As such, having a successful club was a necessity; a failing club had a much larger baring on the general well-being of those who supported them.

While it may not be quite the necessity it once was – people of Liverpool and Manchester both enjoy economic privilege – but in order to gain entry to the club; to be a bona fide supporter of either club, you have to behave in a certain way. Part of that is a culture that winning is everything. After all, if you rationalise David Moyes’ reign at Old Trafford, it’s ridiculous to suggest he has failed. But when winning is a minimum expectation, then Moyes hasn’t a prayer. That raw expectation of success, I’d argue, is less evident at Oxford. Winning is good, but it is only football.

Of course there are passionate and dedicated fans at Oxford. There are zealots who think about the club constantly and will travel up and down the country as though that means something. But many, if not most, are not born that way; if Oxford United begin to fail, then there are many other similarly fulfilling things to do than worry about why it’s all going wrong. The ambivalence drifts onto the field and into results. This perpetuates any wobble – of which there is always going to be at least one in a season – and turns it into a sustained crisis.

Quite what we do about it, I don’t know. We can’t change who we are. Perhaps we need to use our middle class-ness to our advantage; if we are rational people, then we should write off freak own goals as just that, a freak. Instead we look forward with a clean sheet, as though nothing before has happened. It’s a 6 game season and we can still go up, I didn’t say we were beyond dreaming.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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