My first away game was in 1982, 5th Round FA Cup tie against Coventry. My first away game experience was the moment we got out of the car having parked up near to Highfield. An Oxford fan sprinted past us pursued by a gang of Coventry fans. It was like a scene out of Green Street, or a template for most of Danny Dyer’s career. The day got significantly worse; we lost 4-0 but the whole experience was scarred by Oxford slinging seats over my 9-year-old head and onto the pitch. Just before the final whistle a hassled policeman told us to throw our scarves away if we wanted to get out of the ground safely.
In the intervening 23 years, I like to think I know football crowds, as intimidating as they can appear when at their most rabid, if you understand its ebb and flow, then you’re generally OK.
On Friday against Wycombe I got in the away end and tried to work out where I was sitting. I like to sit in my allocated seat, not because I want what’s rightfully mine, but because I can’t handle the rejection and humiliation when someone comes up and tries to claim the seat I’m sitting in. As I counted along the seats and rows I realised I was right in the middle of the middle, in amongst, what you might call, the hardcore.
But, I couldn’t get to it and the stewards were stopping people from getting into that area of the stand because it was too full. So I headed towards the more sedate and sparsely populated area of the stand towards the Frank Adams Stand, a doppelganger for our own South Stand.
We kicked off while large groups were still filing in; the uniform was familiar; Stone Island jumpers, Adidas trainers; the fashion of today, yet identical to how it was 20 years ago, which in itself was of the fashion of twenty years before that. They, presumably, wanted to take up position behind the goal, but they, instead, were ushered beyond that position. Soon, they were stood amongst me.
We kicked off and there was a tangible buzz amongst my new friends. They were bright, we were brighter; Rose; a revelation over the last 2 games, Roofe immaculate. The two combined playing the kind of football Appleton has dreamed about all season. 1-0. Carnage. The bloke standing next to me, a bag of jitters and yelps takes off his coat, throws it to the floor and screams a primal scream. Then, Rose and Roofe reverse to create a second. Mayhem.
This was a cue for the latecomers to poor down the stand and straight through the wholly inadequate perimeter fence; a series of crash mats held up by off-cuts of other crash mats. The instant collapse of the ‘wall’ exacerbates the problem as fans and stewards stumble over the barriers as they go flying. Nobody knows what’s going on, who knocked who and what was an accident and what was deliberate. There’s a confrontation with a steward and an Oxford fan throws a punch. Not cool. The steward to his credit doesn’t move, let alone retaliate. Ryan Clarke tries to call for calm from his goal.
Order begins to get restored, we’re 2-up and the mood in the stands is euphoric, nobody was expecting much from the day, which is probably why so many dawdled in from the pub 10 minutes after kick-off. We came in hope more than expectation. Stories are exchanged about great away days; Chappers’ free kick against Burton, Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar, the bloke next to me says it was a Good Friday game; I restrain myself from correcting him (it was Bank Holiday Monday).
Half time comes, this is on, we’ve been excellent. Nobody goes to football for half time entertainment, but Wycombe haven’t bothered and the place is strangely subdued given the frantic opening 45 minutes.
Second half and our frailties and their efficiencies intertwine and they pull a goal back. In the stands the banter subsides; it’s amazing how 2-0 can feels like heaven but 2-1 feels like you’re standing on the abyss. It’s not just about the potential to lose, it’s about the potential humiliation of losing from 2-0 up. But, we are invested in this now. On the way in, I was questioned by a drunk Oxford fan as to who I was following ‘are you Oxford?’ he said ‘I’m Oxford and I don’t have a fucking clue why I’m here.’
It was this kind of fixture; we came out of duty, but something was taking grip. We had celebrated 2-0 as if it were the title itself, and now that was under threat. As a white horse ambled across the hillside above the stadium, inside Adams Park.we needed this win, for the points, but more for the pride.
The game remained open though, they attacked, we hit them on the break and the clock ticked on. we attacked again, Hilton fell to the floor under a challenge, he stayed there but the game wasn’t stopping and he knew it. He jumped to his feet, one of those miracle recoveries that infuriates opposing fans. He looks up and and suddenly finds himself an option for Danny Rose; Rose feeds him and there’s Roofe with a scuffed shot across the goal. It was nothing like Tommy Craddock’s wonder strike of two years ago or Nicky Wroe’s beauty last year, but it goes in. More delirium.
Cushion restored, now it’s a question of seeing it out – game management – something we’ve struggled with all season. The clock skips on. Is there a fire drill? No, but there is a trickle of Wycombe fans making for the exits. Have they given up that ghost or are they just taking a prudent view on Wycombe’s match day traffic problems? The trickle becomes a flood; yes, they definitely think this is a done deal, and, the wisdom of crowds says that they must be right.
80 minutes turns into 85 into 89, a Wycombe strike canons off Mullins and then Clarke and goes for a corner; one of those incidents that convinces you that the gods of football are with you that day. But moments later and another far post cross and it’s 3-2. Those who are left in the Wycombe stands are buoyed, could they snatch an unlikely point? I have to remind myself that a point would have been a great outcome before the game, it wouldn’t feel like that given what’s gone on before.
The board goes up; 6 minutes; Wycombe roar, there’s a ripple across the Oxford end ‘where did that come from?’. And, for once, we’ve got a point; where DID that come from? Sure, we’ve slowed the game down, substitutes had walked off from the opposite side of the pitch; but everyone does that; but that sort of behaviour never usually results in six minutes. It just feels like it appeals to the referees sense of theatre.
But, those minutes drift by, Clarke collects high, hopeless passes with ease, each time it releases a moment of relief. The whistle goes, 3-2, it’s been nearly 10 years since we last dropped a point at Adams Park. Survival now seems almost a certainty. But the steel and fight offers the relief from an otherwise abject season. The players, sodden in the rain, look exhausted but elated. We are, for once, as one.
Shame it wasn’t a derby, really.