Somehow, in the post-match reporting of our defeat to Manchester City, we achieved third billing in a two-horse race. On Radio Oxford people gushed about their pride in our performance as nationally Mikel Arteta’s move to coach Arsenal and Manchester City’s march towards the final pushed our contribution into the margins.
I got to the ground early due to social media driven parking anxiety. I’ve never failed to park at the Kassam, but when messages filter through about how busy it is around the ground I find myself praying that I can squeeze in.
I headed, unecessarily, straight into the stadium. There was a smattering of people milling about; the East stand with its new mural and display cards looked resplendent, new animated advertising boards twinkled. There was a buzz of media, security and cameras. It was a little glimpse behind a curtain to see what we could become.
Once the cameras were turned on and the nation, subject to a subscription, tuned in, the advertising boards promoted hair loss clinics, erectile dysfunction, beer and betting; jimmying away at male pre-occupations. You can buy the Manchester City kit via Amazon we were told, the modern world is a hellspace.
In truth, I quite like Manchester City; at least I admire their dedication to perfection. But they seem like a lottery winner racked with guilt and anxiety at the status they’ve gained; trapped in their own world. Each goal was greeted with muted celebration; seconds after the ball had hit the net, their fans were still and quiet. These were the celebrations of an IT sales team after securing the renewal of a moderate contract. Winning is just business as usual. Their transformation over the last decade is like someone knocking down a ramshackle thatched cottage and building a boxy modern three bed house in its place. As they creep towards perfection, they become less interesting, perhaps less interested.
The Carabao Cup has become such an odd competition; three games from Wembley and it’s still not about playing your best team. The aim is to play the weakest winning team you can get away with. The media talk about how the Premier League weaken their teams, ignoring our own starting eleven features several players who only feature sporadically in the league.
We’d had a fun ride; beating Peterborough, the late rally against Millwall, the annihilation of West Ham and edging past Sunderland while wondering how many wake up calls they need to realise and own their failings.
The quarter-final took the adventure to a new level, like a hang glider caught on a freak thermal edging towards the stratosphere. Exhilarating though it was, as the air thinned, we tipped from a thrilling risk to an inevitable death.
Beforehand, a tribute to Jim Smith. So often a minute’s silence, or its modern affectation, the minute’s applause can feel like it’s a forced duty. This felt necessary and authentic; declaring Jim Smith for ourselves, imbibing his spirit into the club where he can rest.
The template was set early; they were faster and more progressive, they didn’t stretch for over hit passes or fumble with the ball as though it were alive. It was all simple and incisive; the early goal looked ominous.
Time ticked by slowly; dragged by a creeping dread that we were going to get mauled. The conditions helped and hindered in equal measure. Crosses billowed out beyond the corner flag. Chances wafted away in the wind.
Half time was a relief; a 1-0 thrashing. A potential, though unlikely opportunity to re-group and address the imbalances, or at least contain the damage.
The tourists, the half-and-half scarves, the irregulars, the place was crawling with them, with the result settled, half-time was an opportunity for an extended midweek beer, they thought; the second half could wait.
Seconds into the half though, back on the pitch Daniel Agyei fell theatrically. Shandon Baptiste took a rolling free-kick that should have been called back, Matty Taylor cut across his marker, youthful talent beaten by streetwise experience. A swing at their glass jaw and a connection. 1-1.
Mayhem. Jubilation. Fear? We’d tapped the hornets nest. We were back in it and at the same time, we were also toast.
It wouldn’t last and didn’t. Sterling twice gets on the end of those precise, incisive moves which make us look like a park team. Then they lose focus, or perhaps we lose inhibitions. Encouraging forays forward merge into half chances, which merge into full chances, which merge into 20 minutes of attacking dominance.
If it were a tighter game, we probably wouldn’t have been given the opportunity, but after two flat performances, our swagger was back. And against the champions of England.
A second goal might have changed things, but it didn’t come, the window of opportunity closed. All told, no injuries, a competitive performance and an injection of confidence. The best defeat since losing the Middlesborough in 2017. Can it propel us through Christmas, the transfer window and our injury crisis? Could it catapult us through to promotion? Midst the talk of Arteta and City, maybe we walk away with nothing, perhaps, everything.