The news that James Roberts’ brother Ben had been killed in a road accident last weekend inevitably drew the comment that this was something that really puts football into perspective. It’s as if it’s not possible to calibrate the devastation and heartbreak of something like that against an arbitrary benchmark like football without it actually happening.
The club have chosen to hold a minute’s silence for the game against Wimbledon on Saturday rather before Tuesday’s derby. Maybe they couldn’t be sure that Swindon fans, with their emotional distance from the tragedy, would be able to put it into perspective after all?
It was difficult to contextualise the game in a number of ways. It was Swindon, our arch rivals, and we wanted to win, but it’s the JPT, nowhere near as important as the League. Winning would be great, but was defeat that bad? How far do you take the ‘hatred’ on this occasion? Enough for the game to be meaningful, but not enough for it to become a burden. It’s only the JPT and we had work, college and school in the morning.
Missing the point
Not everyone could rationalise it, of course. When someone smashes up a pub, hurting and scaring people in the name of their football club, is there a point afterwards when they quietly realise how utterly ridiculous they are?
Four arrests were made before the game; three were men over 40. There would be children and partners in their lives. Do they look at those people and think about what they’ve done? Do they think ‘why am I such a cretin?’ or is it ‘I’m such a hero for defending the honour of my football club’? How distorted do you have to be to think that? Presumably there is an motivation behind this, but when has anyone ever been impressed by a wheezing middle aged man breaking beer glasses and swearing indiscriminately? Do they ever think of the futility of it all?
Then there’s the daft charade of social media trolling where each side accuses the other of taking it too seriously. A game of one-downsmanship, if you like. The whole thing is a pantomime, but at the same time it has to mean something in order to be worth anything. Where’s the balance?
The big fans’ showdown came as the teams came out; a truly spectacular display in the East Stand which genuinely stunned in terms of scale and ambition. Our Swindon counterparts, who tried to drum up support for their display via social media and threatened to engulf the city in, um, stickers, unfurled some red and white ribbons which seemed to get tangled in the empty seats. They disappeared before the two teams had completed their handshakes while Oxford held firm.
A derby is won in the head; play to form and the result goes to form. But, if the occasion gets the better of you then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps the display helped secure the victory; confident, dominant, calm; both off and on the field.
We already knew they had problems, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how big those problems were. They started OK, like a decent League 2 side; like Portsmouth, or us. Passing was crisp, movement was good, but we matched them and they didn’t look a threat. Then Turnbull was sent off and they fell apart alarmingly.
There was bickering all over the pitch – a casual disinterest in the fact their defences were being breached time and time again. Vigouroux’s performance in goal was the most bizarre. The bloke is clearly slightly nuts, but his display seemed to reflect externally what was going on inside his team-mates’ heads.
Of course, a sending off is a blow, but plenty of other teams have adapted to playing us with ten men and done well; as we did with them when James Constable was sent off in 2012. Maybe it was a combination of that, and their current form, and the display, and their injuries and their record against us specifically. They were in chaos, an absolute shambles; at no point did they regain any composure.
Think of Di Canio’s Swindon, or McMahon’s; that was like defeating a caged animal. But last night they whimpered and we passed it around them. Perhaps we were just brilliant and we’re not used being just brilliant, but the lack of fight, plan or purpose after the sending off was startling. It’s not bravado to say that this was one of the worst teams, of any flavour, we’ve ever seen at the Kassam.
We, on the other hand, swept them aside. Passing was expansive, defensively we were robust. We looked a threat down both flanks. Jordan Graham looks a winger in the Beauchamp or Allen mould. Everything was slick and positive; I can’t remember us outclassing a team like that before and for it to be League 1 club, and Them, makes it more special.
I don’t like Swindon, it would be odd to have a rival that you did. Ultimately, it’s the rivalry I like; it’s probably the best derby in the lower leagues. I love the feeling of tension and the relief of victory, that it feels meaningful even when, ultimately, it probably isn’t.
We spend our lives putting things into context. Pretty much every job involves a process of rationalising and contextualising; making chaos and irrationality logical and systematic. Everything is a process of distilling things which are complex and difficult into a series of processes and procedures.
To be able to indulge in something as absurd as a football rivalry, and the joy and despair that comes with that is a luxury. It makes no sense outside the bubble of the rivalry and nor should it. Football doesn’t exist to put the death of a young man into context; no thinking person needs football to remind them of that. Football exists because senseless, pointless and frankly depressing things happen and it gives us a glimmer of purpose and hope to prevent us all from going completely mad.