Dawn breaks and with it the fizz of social media; the relentless feed of an impending apocalypse is, for once, swamped; the drums of doom are silenced, it’s derby day; hear the clarion call.
The networks have chattered for days, the rules of engagement established – the times of trains, the pubs to drink in and, above all, the etiquette surrounding your allocated seat. We will drink and ride at dawn, but the mayhem and carnage will be meticulously organised.
Things have changed in recent years; once there was exchange, an angry banter between foes, their shadow, our cup final. On and on, round and round, an endlessly reductive debate over supremacy. Grinding the will of reason down to its stumps. But now Swindonians have retreated, like the siege of Leningrad, they are starving behind their defences, fearful of attack, hoping that they might bluff their way to survival. Things are not well in Wiltshire.
Oxford head west with a record to protect; a sixteen year winning streak – six in a row, don’t count the Checkatrade Trophy, count the JPT, ignore they are the same. History is written by the victors, let the history say it’s six in a row, heading for seven.
There is a bubbling confidence, a generation of Oxford fans who have never seen us lose any derby game, let alone one at the County Ground. They don’t remember taking Wayne Hatswell and Steve Anthrobus up the A420 as our champions in the fight. But green shirts, Domino internet and David Kemp are no more than vague jokes about a past that probably never existed. There are no photos of Guy Whittingham, it never happened. You weren’t there man, you weren’t there.
Winning at the dilapidated County Ground is so alien I can no longer face going there. My experience is universally miserable, the inhumane herding into the Stratton Bank, the vitriol and misery and, on one occasion, the unchecked racism, then once the defeat is confirmed, being released into the park to fend for yourself. You want a ruck mate? No thanks, a Mars bar and the heaters in my car will do just fine.
It’s more than that, is there another club in the country against who we are defending a 16-year record? A six match winning streak? I doubt it, not with our recent history. These winning streaks don’t happen to us against anyone let alone our biggest rivals. This is unusual, perhaps unique. I don’t like unusual, because unusual eventually reverts to something vaguely usual. And usual in this context means losing.
We seem to spend most of the opening half picking ourselves up from heavy challenges. Swindon have done their homework and know we don’t like it when it’s physical. It looks like they’re going to bully us out of three points.
To confirm my fears they score, usual is being restored, this extraordinary streak is being broken. It is, to some extent, a relief; the record, the dominance is a heavy burden and as the half progresses, that burden is heavier. The higher we climb, the more cataclysmic the fall. What’s worse, falling or waiting to fall?
I check Twitter a few times, switch on Yellow Player to listen to its intermittent, spluttering coverage. I actually lose contact for a few minutes. I do something else for a bit and then get in the car to run an errand, I switch the radio on and something has happened. I can’t quite tell what, Nick Harris’ tone no longer betrays a good or bad outcome, like he’s just seen too much football and nothing surprises him anymore. The noise of the crowd is so immense it could easily be another home goal. But, no, the fragments that are filtering through are being pieced together; it’s Sercombe, bionic Liam Sercombe with the equaliser. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t matter.
I’m sitting in the car listening to the immediate aftermath. I’m thinking a point is good, like in ’95 (my highpoint) when Mike Ford cleared off the line and shook the net with rage and we went ballistic in response. We’ll maintain a streak, not quite seven in a row, but still good. Then, as ambiguous as the first goal is, there’s an emphatic sonic boom from the radio, there’s genuine shock in Jerome Sale’s voice at what he’s just seen. Rob Hall has blown the place to pieces with a 25 yard drive. We lead, but we may well have irreparably broken our opponents too.
Swindon’s seething aggression which served them well in the first half bubbles over, Lawrence Vigouroux writes himself into folklore and breaks some kind of record by being the first goalkeeper to be sent off in both league fixtures. Probably ever. That would be a good pub quiz question if anyone can be bothered to check it out. In all honesty, it looks as soft as his red card at the Kassam, but we laugh anyway.
So, the unusual is extended or perhaps the new usual is established? Seven consecutive defeats is enough to break anyone’s spirit, Swindon were ragged in September, and wretched now. They were as poor as any team we faced last year. They may well be relegated and they might never recover. It happens. Given our comparative trajectories it could be years until we play them again. This might be the war to end all wars. It must be exhausting being a Swindon fan, living their club’s extraordinary capacity to lurch from one extreme to another – from surging through the divisions to scrambling to pay the bills. Can they bounce back again? Afterwards it’s revealed their director of football Tim Sherwood, who’s reputation is built on a vacuum of nothingness, was not at the game and didn’t pick the team. The coach cannot say why. Wreckage piled upon wreckage. The smouldering carcass of a club which once dominated us. They look crushed.