Here’s a story that all fans have, a largely inconsequential by-product of following your team. It doesn’t illustrate any important point about the club or football or anything, which is why I like it. If you have a vaguely Oxford United related story about being a fan, let me know here and I’ll stick the best of them on the blog. In the meantime, read on…
It’s 1995 and though our form and promotion prospects are fading, next up is Birmingham City at St Andrew’s for what could be a midweek title decider.
I had passed my driving test three months earlier and my mum let me take her Renault 5, and my mate Pete, up the M40 for my first trip to St Andrew’s. We hit traffic on the edge of Birmingham and realise we’ve got our timings all wrong, we crawl through the rush hour and eventually spot the stadium’s floodlights glowing on the horizon.
The crowd is just short of 20,000 making parking difficult. Eventually, we find a spot in a residential road and, and having lost all sense of geography, we jump out in a rush. The car’s locking mechanism involves pressing a button in the door and slamming it shut. I do it just in time to remember that I hadn’t taken the key out of the ignition. Shit.
There we were staring at the car, willing it to spit the keys out. We’re invisible to the people streaming past to get to the stadium and in our shock, they are invisible to us. There’s a vague bubbling excitement of people in yellow and blue rushing by; nobody wants to be late for this one. Slowly the streets thin out and we’re left pretty much on our own with just the expectant crowd noise in the background. It sounds awesome, if only we were there.
Pete’s dad is a member of the RAC, this is pre-mobile phones so we find a pub to call him. The pub is a sparsely populated inner city boozer, and not what you’d call our natural habitat. There’s the slightly stale smell of ale and bodies; half-an-hour earlier it would have been heaving with fans. The barman stares at us, everyone stares at us, the game is booming out from the radio. We could get lynched here.
We ask the barman if he has change for a £10 note. Even that feels like a provocative act; these out-of-towners flashing their fancy tenners. While Pete is on the phone to his dad, they score, there’s a smattering of applause and shouting within the pub and I control the urge to swear. We phone the RAC. While we’re explaining the complicated predicament we find ourselves in, we get a penalty; YES. David Rush misses it; SHIT. We’re told to go back to the car – help is on its way.
Back at the car we find a group of kids milling around menacingly and I’m suddenly aware of how vulnerable we’ve become. The kids ask if there’s a problem, why are we hanging around a car when we should be at the football? We say there’s not a problem, hoping our obvious lying faces aren’t giving the game away. They ask if we’re football fans. We say yes. They offer to ‘look after the car’ for us while we go to the game. We’re not streetwise enough to know what that means, but not too naive to know they’re not just being neighbourly. If we say yes, we could lose the car, if we say no, they could kill us.
We say no, and thankfully they disappear into darkness. There’s another roar – 0-2, then the RAC man appears. He grabs a wire from his van, shoves it down a gap in the window and pops the car door open within 15 seconds. I grab the keys, ignoring how ridiculously easy it is to break into my car, and nearly kiss him. He completes some paperwork, files it under ‘idiots’ and goes to save someone in real distress.
By this point, I’ve lost my mind. Despite everything that’s happened I’m determined to go to the game and insist we make our way to the ground. At the stadium the turnstile is closed, it’s not all-ticket, so we’ve no right to get in. They suggest we try the ticket office. There’s a contented buzz coming from within the stadium, which means it’s half-time.
When we do find someone who will help, we’re told the away end is sold out. They have some seats in the main stand at an eye-watering price. They’re not together, just dotted around the stand. We’ve missed half the game, we’re 2-0 down, but we could buy those tickets… couldn’t we? I look deep into Pete’s eyes, shall we do this? After… everything?
“Mate…” he said looking straight at me, “It’s over”. He actually says this, and he’s right. We walk back to the car. We’re on the motorway in time to hear us concede a third and listen to the local commentators discussing what Birmingham need to do if they want to compete in Division 1 next season. We pick up Radio Oxford just in time for the post-match phone-in about how fucking awful everything is.