The magic of the FA Cup sometimes feels like having a fire hose rammed into your mouth. You’re forced to consume it in massive overwhelming quantities until you’d rather be dead than have to take any more.
Magic, like religion, is a convenient way of explaining things so complex and nuanced that you can’t come up with a rational explanation for it. The FA Cup offers the unique magic of possibility; that a non-league team can compete with a mega-giant of the game, but this is simply because it’s the only competition that doesn’t stratify or seed teams so that the big teams have to mix with the riff raff. And then there are the magic of shocks, but if you think about the thousands of games that have been played in 145 years of the competition, by the law of averages some of those games will have unexpected outcomes.
But what about that magical unerring belief anything can happen and that your name is on the cup? Yes, but every team starts every game in the FA Cup off the back of a win, it creates a sense of being unbeatable, that something is pre-destined. It is only when reality bites and you’re knocked out that the truth slams home.
All this ‘magic’ is what drives 3,500 people to travel 230 miles in the hope, against all the odds, that they will be witness to some kind of miraculous moment. It is a ludicrous, reckless gamble.
For forty-five minutes against Middlesborough it looked like normality was being stamped all over those hopes. The injustices of the Premier League, the dog muck of their excessive wealth rubbed into our faces. First through a clumsy penalty, then through a French Beninese reserve. The fact that a team like Middlesborough can sign a Beninese international to not play for them compared to our star player being imported from Motherwell illustrates the gulf that exists.
And at 2-0 that was pretty much that, or so we thought. Were we going to take an embarrassing beating? Maybe it was going to be even worse; maybe Middlesbrough would simply hold us while we huffed and puffed. A humiliation and humbling in front of our own fans, their fans and the TV audience.
But, Middlesbrough have the fourth worst form in the Premier League and Oxford the third best in League 1. If relegation and promotion were based on short term form – relevant in a one-off game like this – then we could easily be facing them as equals in the Championship. There may still be a gap, but the League 1/Premier League chasm can be reduced very quickly in the short term.
And with this secret still intact, plus a deepening muscle memory of belief, there lies an ember of hope. Chris Maguire ignites the fire when Guzan leaves a gap so large it might as well be a metaphor for his complacency. A little flick and it’s 2-1.
And then sixty seconds in which all the investment is worth it; every trip to St Albans or Tonbridge, every false hope signing, watching jealously as Steve Basham registers a hat-trick against us for Hayes and Yeading. A mass of fans who have travelled a combined distance equivalent to circumventing the globe 50 times, fans that have come in blind faith just to watch the game. Oxford swarm forward in audacious belief, the ball sweeps left to Maguire whose shot drops to Martinez. Goal.
The limbs, as they say, the limbs and limbs and limbs; cascading down the stands. Proper, decent people; the rich who hide their anxieties, the poor who fear the rich, people who live in darkened times, who pay taxes and mortgages, who fret about their futures, who lie awake worrying about their families are pulsing with joyous disbelief. As one, bonded through the decades, the shared experience that is often the trudge of defeat but occasionally the splatter of victory. This is the magic, right in this moment.
At the very moment the magic surges it begins to subside. Finally the re-adjustment comes and Stuani prods home for 3-2. Does it matter? For that blissful sixty seconds has created a fusion, an unbreakable bond that makes this marvelous club what it is and will continue to be.