My first proper away game, where I was undeniably part of the away following, was an FA Cup game against Coventry City in 1982. Everything about it felt epic; the M40 wasn’t complete, so we went cross country and it seemed to take hours, we took a huge following having beaten Brighton in the previous round, there was trouble throughout the game which was so bad it was referenced in the Hillsborough report. While we lost 4-0, I loved it.
Standing in a queue for a coffee at Warwick services on Saturday, I became conscious of someone talking behind me. I turned to see a little boy, probably about three, and his dad. The boy was wearing the same Oxford shirt as my daughter and was commenting on it. There’s something I love about services on a Saturday lunchtime, the mix of fans criss-crossing the country to see their team. The little boy was joining the movement, perhaps for the first time. I hope that for him, this all was feeling as epic as my trip to Coventry.
On arriving we found ourselves nestled among the hoodlums and vagabonds of Oxford regulars. Hoods up, glaring menacingly, part excitement and tension, part toxic masculinity.
The world is split into two – those who sit in their allocated seat at an away game, and those who don’t. Behind me was an older couple, South Stand Upper regulars, for sure. They were the former, but that’s what makes an away following; that weird mix of people who wouldn’t normally spend time together.
Then as the warmth of a couple of hours in the car was seeping out and the cold creeping in, I could see the club’s SLO Kath Faulkner purposefully making her way into the stand as a song about James Constable struck up from behind. Eventually I spotted him, Oxford’s number nine. She weaved her way through the fans and deposited one of Oxford greatest players in amongst us; a genuine Oxford legend, about three seats away.
The faces of the regulars behind me, all grim and serious, beamed in awe; they may only have been in single figures when Constable was in his pomp, blasting us back to the Football League. His presence seemed to rekindle the child in them.
There we were; club legends, first timers, old timers, regulars and, well, we’re all irregulars when you stick with a club like ours.
How to judge the current incarnation of the team we’re here to follow? We’re in uncharted water to compare them to most norms of the club. The pace at which we play is bewildering, the results unprecedented, Walsall’s response was to pack everyone together in the hope of withstanding the storm. Despite the crowds of players in the middle of the park, Chris Cadden seemed to hide on the touchline, time and again, he was played down the flank, seemingly unnoticed by the Walsall defence.
Clearly the better team; what was needed was a moment to unlock their massed defence. One wedged pass by James Henry had me yelping at the audacity of it all, there were other moments of trickery which drew gasps.
The minutes ticked on, and though the result wasn’t in doubt, it seemed a question of whether it would be achieved over 90 or 180 minutes. It’s genuinely difficult to see where we’re weak at the moment, the biggest challenge could be our success and the volume of games we face because of it.
Then, in a flash, Chris Cadden finally found a new angle, one that Walsall hadn’t covered, James Henry flashed across and guided the ball into a tiny space between the ‘keeper and post. Like one of those drawings where a new image emerges if you stare at it long enough. Nobody had seen that pattern. 1-0.
The place erupted; it happened so quickly, I didn’t see who’d scored, I turned to see the regulars falling over themselves, and the couple in front of them becoming buried in the melee. The elderly chap was trying to protect his wife who appeared to have fallen over. There was no malice; while some were celebrating wildly, others were trying to give her space to recover.
Momentarily you worry; she could be hurt or even have collapsed, and then she popped up; her hood covering her face. She adjusted it so she could see, revealing a broad grin. She seemed to have enjoyed every moment; that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the South Stand, perhaps it’s why she chose to come in the first place.
And that was that; another win in a tournament whose value is built on its tradition. Old, young, legendary and anonymous all coming together for one purpose. In a world of division, the unifying power of a football club is truly a force for good.