We’d won before the game kicked off. A week of positive coverage in the press served as a comprehensive re-branding. Gone was mention of former, brief and increasingly forgotten glories, or our collapse into the non-league, there were no tired analogies relating to Dons or dreaming spires. We’ve moved from admired to shambolic to widely ignored, but, each new article portrayed us as full of innovation and intelligence; an archetypal next generation football club. It felt weird, but good.
I get to the ground over an hour before kick-off to find a contented buzz. It isn’t the rabid anxiety of a derby or must-win promotion or relegation decider. We’re comfortable in our own skin, happily wrapped up against the winter chill. Sunday morning is a very Oxford time of the week; when you get the papers (Observer, naturally), drink coffee and buy fresh croissants. It feels like that, just re-imagined through a football match. Inside, the place looks like the football you see on TV; an event rather than a duty, as someone on Twitter accurately surmises.
The game itself is intended as a benchmarking exercise; how does our newly publicised ‘ethos’ measure up against those we aspire to be like?
But, they declare a hand of disinterest by making 10 changes; a cynical financially motivated Premier League move. What kind of benchmark are we actually going to face?
They play Sunderland on Wednesday and Premier League survival is worth upwards of £100m from next year. I get that logic, but do they really need the demoralising shadow of a giantkilling hanging over them during a relegation fight? Wednesday had better be worth it.
As the stands fill, dotted along the back of the East Stand are the Yellow Army, a shadowy guerrilla marketing movement dedicating absurd amounts of time and money into making Oxford United fun. Like the SAS busting the Iran Embassy siege; they appear from nowhere, execute their plan and dissolve back into the shadows. As the teams come out they raise a banner that reads ‘Rise like the spirit of 86’. To so many, the Milk Cup is a thing of fact, but to many more it is now a beautiful part of our mythology. I like that.
When the whistle blows we’re confronted with the reality of a cup tie that someone has to win. Like having a new pair of shoes but not wanting to get them dirty; we don’t want to compromise our shiny new principles. We all know the template for giant killings; backs-against-the-wall defending, early-doors reducers, sticking it up ‘em, big bloke up front, sticky pitches and dollops of luck. But, with all the positive coverage we’ve had, we could hardly start kicking lumps out of them. On the other hand, our passing game, good though it is, isn’t going to out-gun a Premier League team. Is it?
A game they didn’t want to win and we don’t think we should. They pass the ball nicely while lacking intent, we stick to our principles and create some chances, but only half ones at best… the crowd quietens. It’s all very friendly and nonthreatening; an exhibition game. Johnny Lundstram tries to create things, but his passing game isn’t quite firing. Is it nerves? Or just that he has less space to work with than usual? Ultimately, it’s all a bit deferential; to our principles and our opponents.
If there is a difference, it’s demonstrated through Jonjo Shelvey. Not a dynamic or sparkling player, but efficient with the ball in the way others aren’t. I can see why managers like him but fans don’t. Premier League teams are, above all, efficient. Shelvey, with the ball, always does something that moves the play on. But, he has no pace and needs players around him to be effective, and that’s missing.
The pattern, though, seems set on 23 minutes; among the pleasantness; a moment of genuine class. Montero ties George Baldock in knots cleverly running him into Alex MacDonald, he changes direction, picks up a one-two and slots the ball home. It is, to some degree, a relief. If this is the destiny of the game, where were not going to be humiliated just victims of their fitful moments of class, that’s OK.
But, there’s that nagging feeling that if something can ignite our game, then we might actually do some damage. It happened against West Brom in the League Cup last year when Danny Hylton bundled the ball in the net for our equaliser, it rattled them so much it gave us space and we began to outplay them. But, can we generate a similar spark here?
There are signs; Kemar Roofe’s been busy up front, Lundstram’s passes start reaching their targets, Chris Maguire’s industriousness is having an effect. If we apply a little extra bite, Swansea are timid enough to let us take over and dictate the game.
Our moment comes from a very League 2 scramble. A Maguire corner drops to Liam Sercombe whose shot deflects to Jake Wright; the last man standing from our Conference days; 240 appearances, 0 goals. He swings an unrefined boot and draws a decent block from their keeper; had it gone in I’d have been on the pitch. Instead, it falls to MacDonald – a League 2 pitbull. His tenacity is already unsettling the Swans. He’s an irritant; a chintzy vase your mum gave you in a house full of clean lines and minimalist decor. He bombs into the box; a clumsy challenge sends him sprawling; Sercombe’s penalty levels the tie and we head to the break all-square.
We’ve learnt a lesson from the first half; if we attack the game, things happen. Let’s face it, their manager has sent out two messages; he doesn’t care if they win or not and the players he’s selected aren’t his priority. If we can shake them, we can win this. Lundstram, Roofe and Maguire have been playing against players like this for years, so there’s no lack of class. All that’s missing is someone to take the initiative. The Premier League artifice is crumbling before our eyes.
We go onto the front foot, Shelvey drops deeper looking for the ball, meaning he’s less effective as an attacking threat, he looks more lumbering and that seems to reflect on those around him. We gain greater territory; Kemar Roofe epitomises the new found resolve with a bouncing bomb into the bottom corner: 2-1. It’s like Luke Skywalker comparing the destruction of the Death Star to shooting womp rats back home; Roofe is just doing what he does, context is irrelevant.
It gets better, MacDonald jimmys away at a Swansea corner sending Maguire free sparking a counter-attack of lightening pace. There’s acres of space, Roofe chips in for a third. Delirium.
There’s a picture on the front of the Times with Roofe following the ball into the net, on his shoulder is MacDonald, what the picture doesn’t show, of course, is that not much more than five seconds earlier they were both defending deep in our box. Now, this is football.
Another moment of Premier League quality sees it come back to 3-2; Cork invents a new angle and plays in Gomes who has found a pocket of space on the right. The response for Swansea’s players and fans is oddly muted. Gomes’ reaction is to trot back to the centre circle as though he’s completed a training drill. What’s wrong with them? Are they paralysed by what to do? Do they stage a comeback – force a replay they scarcely want – or acquiesce to the mood set by their manager and just let the tie go?
Our legs turn to jelly for a few minutes and it looks like we might collapse. Matthew Syed talks about success being a balance of rigorously applied practice and the ability to create a feeling of invincibility. We’ve done the science bit, but our vision of success has a crack in it; is the real story here of gutsy no-hopers being gently overhauled by class and talent?
We need something else, an outlet; we won’t defend this lead for 25 minutes sitting on the edge of the box. Suddenly we have one, Callum O’Dowda appears to replace the tiring MacDonald. This is Oxford United in 2016; bringing on a £1m rated under-21 international as a substitute. If we give him the ball and licence to run with it, he’ll push Swansea back on his own.
But, we also need someone with a selfless work ethic; once the ball is at the Swansea end, we need someone to cause a nuisance and stop it coming straight back. Danny Hylton, almost forgotten in the last few weeks, comes on. Hylton’s nuts, of course, he’ll get in the way, chase everything, run half the length of the pitch, change direction and head to the corner flag. He just doesn’t care. Hoban too appears, adding more problems to Swansea’s demoralised back-line. When will this lowly League 2 team run out of players?
We see out the remaining minutes with little drama. Sweet Caroline booms around the stands. Oxford United reborn. The story is multi-layered, the relentless sense of duty of the fans, brave decisions in the board room, and the appliance of a footballing philosophy that’s at the very cutting edge. The narrative, however, is one which starts with a few hundred fans going to Wiener Neustadt in July and ends with a party for 10,000 in January. Perhaps though, just this once, this isn’t the end of the story, hopefully it’s just the end of the first chapter.