Absolutes hang round your neck like a noose. After the Plymouth game I said we were watching the best football we’d seen from an Oxford team in over 30 years. I stand by that, but even before Saturday’s 3-2 reverse to Barnet, I was thinking that a statement like that needed careful qualification.
Firstly, I’m comparing five divisions of English football over 30 years. This is never going to be an exact science. The Conference promotion season was more enjoyable than most of our Championship campaigns, but were our non-leaguers a better team? Probably not. Would the Milk Cup winning team have beaten today’s vintage? Well, yes. But, as memorable as the Milk Cup was, our time in Division 1 (i.e. the Premier League) was characterised by a lot of struggle and a large number of defeats.
I can’t remember a period in which we’ve been presented with so many promotion challengers including a derby and a top of the table clash, and not only coped with it home and away, but coped with it with such panache.
Football has become an enjoyable thing to do again, which is remarkable because last season was the most stultifying experience. I didn’t got to Barnet, partly because of last season. When we were planning some time away in October towards the end of last season, I knew I was flying blind in terms of fixtures. The chances were that I’d be missing a home game and it didn’t bother me at all. What’s worse is that I’ve never felt like that before, last year I missed a home game in order to casually meet up with friends for a coffee. I haven’t done that before, missing games used to be restricted only to weddings and annual holidays. So as good as it’s been this season, last year was as terrible as it ever was. We don’t really know, still, which is the real Appleton team.
And this is the rub, ‘the best football in 30 years’ is a period of just fourteen games of which I’ve seen just 7. Jim Smith’s double title winners of 1984 and 1985 kept that kind of form going for two years, losing just two games at The Manor in 24 months. Promotion is brutal; by definition everyone that matters picks up points every week. You have to win to stand still; when others slip up, you have to win to gain advantage. It’s relentless.
The Barnet result reminds us of that fact; that any lapse of concentration will prove costly no matter who the opposition are, both in the context of a game and the context of the season. As good as the opening 14 games have been, we’ve got to keep this going for more than 30 more if we’re to achieve anything. It may be good for the defeat to Barnet to happened now, rather than in the middle of this month because it’s an early wake up call that there’s no slacking. It also puts the pressure on to get something out of Stevenage and that might be just what we need to focus the mind. It’s a sobering reminder that the coming weeks aren’t going to be easier than the last few games, just a different kind of difficult.