Apparently, drowning is a pleasurable experience. Something to do with the deprivation of oxygen and the feeling of euphoria that results. It’s a paradox, a bit like the idea that a trip to Wembley to see your favourite football team should be a miserable one.
I’m not just talking about the result. In fact, I’m not even talking about the result. The run up to the EFL Trophy final was full of soul searching and hand ringing. Tears (metaphorical or real) were shed, non-boycotters sent messages to boycotters like they were talking a depressive down from the window ledge of a tall building. Boycotters wrestled their consciences as they reconciled their split loyalties to their team and their principles.
Everything was so serious; this wasn’t the giddy mayhem of the past, the club and fan groups slogged away trying to sell tickets; the line that this might be the last trip to Wembley for a generation sounded like a threat; come to this because you might be dead next time. The sense of delirious fun of previous years was absent. This was about doing a job, winning the game and getting out before we could crack a smile.
Coventry fans seemed less distracted by the side-show; they have bigger problems to deal with, I suppose. Their 1987 Cup Final win aside, they haven’t finished in the top six of any division for 44 years. Even the perverse pleasures of relegation – that drowning feeling – have been largely absent given they’ve only gone down twice. They are, in effect, the saddest team in England; this was a rare chink of joy in the bleakness of their current and past experience.
But their troubles run deeper still; 85% of their matchday profit goes to Wasps Rugby Club, they have, effectively, no income. They want Sisu out, but Sisu aren’t going anywhere. They might try to escape to Coventry Rugby Club and their 4,000 capacity stadium, in short, they are stuck, suffocating in a vacuum.
So they gobble up as many tickets as they can get their hands on. Around the stadium there’s a distinctly retro feel about the shirts their fans are wearing – every era is represented, like a celebration of their past. Barely anyone seems to be in this year’s designs, none of them go to games anyway, I suppose. John Sillett is introduced to the crowd beforehand to raucous cheers.
Inside, the atmosphere amongst Oxford fans is rather less excitable, it’s almost complacent, the Coventry players appear to a deafening roar, we appear to warm applause. But surely once the game gets going, the difference in class will show?
We start slowly, which at first appears deliberate. Last year we started like a train, but ran out of steam at a key time. They scuff in an opener and we need to find another gear. But, it doesn’t come; we’re the better team but look less likely to win. Loads of possession but nothing is working, what’s going on?
Our game changers aren’t firing; this is our tenth game since the semi-final against Luton just a month ago. Marvin Johnson, who has started eight of them, looks lethargic and leggy. Chris Maguire is just back from injury, Ryan Ledson returning from international duty, Rob Hall is playing his seventh in eight and seems strangely blunted. We’re knackered and Wembley is draining any remaining energy we have.
Joe Rothwell, who has played just three games since Luton, is bright enough, dancing through challenges and threatening a break through, but he can’t do it on his own. Like against Bristol Rovers, where Michael Appleton made one substitution despite being 0-2 down at half time, the manager resists making changes. He knows he doesn’t have anything on the bench. The second smallest squad in the division, without Martinez, McAlney, Thomas or Martin and with MacDonald and Taylor long gone are blowing fumes.
Appleton’s only option is Liam Sercombe who has started just four times since Luton. As he warms up, they slot in a second and it looks to be all over. Sercombe comes out like he’s been fired from a rocket launcher. He doesn’t look like the type to get angry, but he’s like a snarling animal. Afterwards he retweets all the supportive messages he received, is he trying to make a point?
Coventry are tiring, it’s not been a defensive rear-guard, but they have been resolute. Cramping becomes endemic, suddenly they’re tiring more quickly than we are and the game evens up. Sercombe, inevitably, drills home for 2-1 and the game becomes ludicrously open. All discipline out the way, the last 15 minutes involve Curtis Nelson playing centre-forward and Simon Eastwood abandoning his goal. Rob Hall and Kane Hemmings break the Coventry defensive line but look unconvincing as they advance towards goal. Nobody is playing in their designated position anymore; Michael Appleton must be scratching his tattoos off at the sight of the chaos. There will be a chance, you feel and it comes in the 94th minute. Mayhem on the goal line, but nobody can put their foot through it and bring the equaliser. I’m not sure we’d have deserved it had it gone in or at least Coventry didn’t deserve to lose. They came to enjoy it, and we’d have spoilt their fun. That just didn’t seem right.
The aftermath is grim; fans who questioned whether they would attend at all vent forth at players for ‘not turning up’. Few players avoid the vitriol; some should never wear the shirt again. Oh my goodness. We’ve played 115 games in less than two seasons; won promotion, been to Wembley twice, won derbies and beaten teams in each of the top five divisions. The players and manager don’t get to pick and choose when and where they go to games, they don’t get to boycott things on points of principle, they turn up, home and away, capacity crowd or empty stadium and they have performed far more often than not. They didn’t today and that’s just the way it is, it’ll hurt them more than us in the long run. If it is another 20 years before we get to Wembley again, at least we’ll get to go. The players have the tiniest window to experience glory and it’s closing quickly.
Wembley is a rare treat, as is the team that has taken us there twice in a year. We’ve treated it like we’re dealing with a mundane chore. It’s time to get a grip.