Growing up, we had an unwritten family rule on Christmas Day; you didn’t leave the house. Leaving the house would be a waste. It would be dedicated to wholesome family pursuits of present opening (about 12 minutes) and TV (about 12 hours). Boxing Day was all about blowing away the thin film of dust that caked us as we sat around in our centrally heated house eating chocolate, staring at our presents and generally stagnating.
If we could, we’d go to the football. Before we moved to the area, we’d visit my grandparents in Abingdon and my dad would take me to The Manor. That novelty alone made it special. Afterwards, I’d thaw out with whatever Subbuteo accessories I’d been given, reenacting the day’s game as best I could with teams in Celtic and Motherwell colours, using my programme as a reference.
When I got older, I started to play football in the morning so Oxford games in the afternoon were associated with aching legs. I remember going to Molineux in 1996 with my dad to watch us lose to Wolves; a proper dads and sons day out. Going to football with dad pretty much ended five years later in 2001 when he moaned his way through our 2-1 defeat to Luton at the Kassam.
Most recently, Boxing Day games have been with friends, in 2003 I tore ankle ligaments playing in the morning, but decided to run it off. About ten of us managed to see Julian Allsop’s last minute winner against Leyton Orient which kept us top of the table. Sitting for two hours with the pain in my foot growing, I hobbled out of the stadium, but couldn’t make it back to the car. I couldn’t walk on it for over a week and still feel the pain now.
In 2015, I showed off our promotion winning team with pride as we swept past Exeter, the friend I was with asking eagerly who each player was, in awe at what he was watching.
But Boxing Day games have lost their attraction in the last few years. I enjoy the big crowd and its weird mix; whole families with excitable, but perplexed girlfriends and distant relatives bolted on. People sharing their left over Quality Street around during a lull in play. On Saturday I saw a bloke order a coffee go to the end of the counter to pick it up as though he was in Starbucks. There was a couple innocently drinking beer in the stand, something that’s been illegal for 35 years. But, knowing that results haven’t gone for us in recent years, the anticipation left me flat.
We’ve had three big crowds in the last week, so that novelty was gone, and a bit like Christmas Day, I now realise in my mind Boxing Day football is basically an amalgam of all the best previous Boxing Day experiences. No one game will ever surpass it.
Shandon Baptiste’s howitzer aside, the game felt flat. At times it played like an extended set of training drills with both sides playing good quality possession football. We know Michael Appleton is a great coach, but he can be too much of a purist. Karl Robinson has added that edge to our game, which is what allows us to compete against teams like Wycombe. Baptiste’s strike, Mousinho’s cynical, but necessary, foul and a Jamie Mackie cameo were the only signs of it. Otherwise we looked a bit tired.
There was a large group of non-regulars behind me during the game, groaning and shouting to ‘get it in there’ whenever we got close to the final third of the pitch. It was unusual to hear that kind of frustration as more frequent visitors are getting used to the idea of being patient in possession looking for the angles and the moments that make all the difference.
I guess if you haven’t seen us play often, accepting that the goalkeeper will roll the ball out to centre backs stood barely outside the six yard box is part of the challenge. Only with time can you be assured that this is all part of the plan.
I would miss Boxing Day football if it didn’t exist, I like the novelty and it’s place in the Christmas holiday period. I like the new faces. But, where us regulars are having to learn what good football at this level looks like, the day-trippers’ impatience for entertainment can be disruptive. It’s good to bag the three points and move on; to get back to something a little more normal. The three big crowds have been great, but we’re now at a point where performing in a one-off occasion isn’t our goal, our goals are more long term.