It was March 2012 and tensions had been building for months; animosity writ large. Oxford United and Swindon Town never were friends; never would be, but now the seething cauldron was boiling over.
The recipe was incendiary; Oxford and Swindon hadn’t met in the league at Oxford for just short of 11 years. Even then, in 2001, we were a ghost of what we’d been, a walking dead, preoccupied by our failure. That predictable defeat, in a season of demoralising defeats, meant almost nothing. You can’t kill a man twice. There’d been a brief reunion in the FA Cup in 2002 and a joyous 1-0 win thanks to a glancing header from Jefferson Louis, but meeting as equals, in the league, offered its own special pleasures; a sense of parity being restored.
In the intervening years we’d headed off on an odyssey into the non-league. Derbies against Swindon weren’t on our radar, promotion back to the Football League was our only goal. Then we did it and we enjoyed our first season back. This, our second, had the added bonus – they had just been relegated and finally, we’d meet again as equals.
But this only scratches the surface of the narrative; we’d won the first game at the County Ground in the previous August, the first win on their patch in 39 years and the return fixture offered the opportunity of a double. In the intervening months, they’d recovered from that setback to comfortably lead the division, but there was a score to settle. Even more, they were being managed by Paolo Di Canio, the vaudevillian comedy villain, a fascist, a foreigner. On the other bench was the gritty English working class grafter, Chris Wilder, a non-league worker bee made good.
Di Canio had the panache and media savvy to stoke the derby; Swindon Town was his super-ego, it was like they’d become possessed by his mania. He claimed that James Constable, the Oxford goalscoring saviour whose double had given us our famous win in September, was a wholesome boy from the West Country. De Canio claimed he was a charlatan, he wore yellow for money, but his heart was forever in Swindon. The fable Di Canio spun was that Constable’s dad had taken him to the County Ground as a boy.
Di Canio went further; in the January transfer window he tried to lure Constable to his team who were all set for League 1. The club reluctantly accepted a £200,000 bid, which angered fans. As a business deal, it was too good an offer to ignore. It would have been a great career move for Constable, but a seismic blow to us. To lose him would be one thing, to Swindon, Di Canio’s Swindon, would have been too much to bear. Despite a fraught few weeks, Constable resisted and stayed, cementing his legend.
In the intervening months Di Canio’s Swindon were dominant. Up to the game they’d won 10 in a row and losing just one in 21. Our own form was OK, 1 defeat in 13, but they were winning, we were drawing. We were steady and difficult to beat, if we could play to our best, perhaps we’d hold them. Four points from the two games would have felt like a victory.
Then it fell apart. Captain, Jake Wright was injured a couple of weeks beforehand, breaking up a solid partnership with Michael Duberry in the middle of defence. His deputy, Harry Worley, was injured in the run up to the game forcing holding midfielder Andy Whing to drop back into defence. Then full-back Liam Davis was ruled out and replaced by the less dynamic Anthony Tonkin. Whing’s absence in the middle turned into a crisis when mercurial playmaker Peter Leven got injured.
The team suddenly looked unfamiliar and disjointed with players being moved to fill gaps and others being drafted in from the margins. Where there had been guarded optimism about winning a double, there was now a fear that we would be humiliated.
The Swindon derby is the game the media love to ignore. Despite the theatre of the rivalry and the endless desire to show more games at all levels of football, somehow Swindon v Oxford is never selected for broadcast. Even YouTube doesn’t have any official footage of the game. It is a derby that happens only for those who attend, and it is stronger because of it.
Tickets evaporated the moment they went on sale. The kick-off was brought forward to lunchtime; an attempt by the authorities to minimise drinking time and any potential for trouble. The sun shone, the slight chill of the morning slowly dissipated. Overhead a helicopter whirred loudly monitoring the crowd, behind the North Stand a steel wall was erected and buses of Swindon fans were driven in with police outriders into their compound. It was threatening and thrilling.
There’s a nervous tension before big games, some deal with it by singing loudly and talking boisterously, others internalise their stress, their legs ache, they wrestle with their flight instincts. You want it to be over, but you want to stay.
The stands started filling early; parking anxiety does that, the players warmed up trying not to notice the hum of expectation.
From kick off, Swindon were flowing and dominant, but we were keeping it tight. Or were we? Difficult to know, it just felt like it; like we were containing DiCanio’s seething ball of energy. Every time an attack was snuffed out, or a pass over-hit, there were ironic, but relieved cheers.
After 10 minutes the ball dropped to James Constable just inside the Swindon half in front of their fans who were goading him for his misplaced loyalty. He span and seemed to break away. The defender behind him, who was touch tight, fell to the floor. The referee blew his whistle and there was a melee. It wasn’t clear what the referee was blowing for – a foul by Constable? Holding by the defender? Concern about a head injury?
It felt like the game needed this, a brief relief of tension, some pushing and shoving, and then back to it.
The referee weaved his way through a crowd of players to stand in front of Constable. He pulled out a card. Yellow? 10 minutes into a derby? Perhaps to calm things down. No. Red. Oxford’s already decimated team had been struck down – the loss of a player was enough, the loss of your talisman, the epicentre of the whole drama for months, the one person we were, in essence, fighting over. It was crushing.
The shock was palpable; Constable disappeared down the tunnel having extracted himself from a crowd of Swindon players and their mix of mock sympathy and apoplexy at the supposed violence Constable had dished out.
Had Constable elbowed him? Deliberately? It didn’t look like it, his arm was out, but their fans didn’t seem to react, but none of it was conclusive, everything was a blur.
Where now? Scott Rendell would forage alone up front, he was big and strong, but he had no pace to stretch them. We were embattled and would have no option but to dig in and defend.
We needed to settle to the task and defend until we were on our knees. But that was later, this is now.
Minutes later, we won a free-kick at almost the exact spot Constable had committed his foul. Lee Holmes, a tricky winger on loan from Southampton, swung in a high looping cross that dropped on the edge of the six yard box, as the Swindon back line watched the flight of the ball, Asa Hall ghosted in connecting on the half volley past the flailing limbs of the Swindon keeper who had been caught between catching the cross and blocking Hall. 1-0.
The crowd erupted, from a deep despair to this in minutes.
Big games, big goals, there’s a moment immediately after you take the lead in a big game when the play continues before you’re ready. While we contemplated that Hall’s goal had given us a buffer, something to defend, a chance for a draw perhaps, we suddenly become aware that Holmes had the ball down the left flank. If he was clever, he might get a corner, he jinks to his left and gives himself an inch to roll the ball across the six yard box, it’s a proper daisy cutter with no pace; somehow it evades everyone and trundles into the path of Ollie Johnson who pokes home for two. TWO.
And now we really had something to play for. 20 minutes gone, down to 10 men in an already injury ravaged team against our local rivals, and top of the league, Swindon, who have just taken 30 points from 30.
We were playing for immortality. On the sidelines Paolo DiCanio is on his haunches, head in hands, all that hubris, his magic failing him at a moment he most needed it. Johnson has a boyish grin on his face as he scrambles to his feet, it’s all caught on camera, each photo becoming iconic.
The clock slows to a glacial pace; Swindon push and probe, but we hold resolute, if they do break through, Ryan Clarke is there to save us. They win a corner, a ballboy, Aidan Hawtin picks the ball up and holds it to run the clock down. Their striker runs over and pushes him, Hawtin holds firm. The crowd go bananas, Clarke breaks it up; it’s ugly but everyone is playing their part.
Half-time comes, the break should have an effect; it could break their flow or our resolve. The players return and we get back to work. There’s none of the drama of the opening minutes, thankfully, but every minute takes hours to pass.
As we turn for home, there’s a dawning realisation that we could win this, or we could concede and then capitulate to a humiliating loss. Why isn’t this fun? Scott Rendell is on his knees. He’s had to do the work of two men, but put in a shift of 10. Ryan Clarke struggles with his kicking; you know you’re in a game when your keeper gets cramp. Michael Duberry and Andy Whing, with a combined age of 65, are exhaustingly disciplined.
There are more scares, they just become less frequent. Minutes click by. At some point we start to believe that we will hold for a draw, despite being in the lead, and comfortably so, then we start believing we might just win.
The whistle goes, relief, a giant euphoric sigh. Everything about the game said we’d lose, but we’d won. It wasn’t three points, it was so much more.
Walking from the ground, the helicopters buzzing above, the noise of antagonism and celebration, there’s something inside me still expecting them to score. It’s barely past lunch time and most of the day’s games haven’t even started, I feel like going to bed. Hours later I can still hear the noise of the crowd ringing in my ears, and when that eventually dissipates, all that’s left is the feeling. Years later, it’s still with me now, it’s why we go to football.