Over Christmas someone posted a tweet about how quickly the feeling of returning to the warm bosom of the family home on Christmas Eve can turn to an overwhelming urge to throw acid over your family just for them wanting to watch Holby City two days later.
If last Saturday’s game against Newcastle was a loving family Christmas Eve and Friday’s transfer shenanigans was a fractious Boxing Day argument, then Blackpool was the first Sunday lunch together a few weeks later.
The Oxford United family returned to the dinner table where we’d laughed and loved, then argued about calling a Chinese takeaway a ‘Chinky’ and if Uncle Alan was ‘shoving it in everyone’s faces’ posting pictures of his new boyfriend on Facebook.
Gathered together at the Kassam, everyone was torn between the need grin and bear it and the urge to address unresolved arguments; about Fosu and Baptiste, about our failure to sign a right-back or our reliance on loans. Do we address the elephants as they sit quietly in the room? Should we get it all out in the open? Or do we just get on with it and leave the elephants be?
As a result, the atmosphere was as subdued as the family lunch; the gentle clanking of knives and forks, the chinking of glasses. The loudest noise of all was the aching silences as everyone trod carefully to avoid a mistake that would destabilise the precarious status quo.
Then, almost as if we were trying too hard to avoid one, there was a mistake, like your dad quietly muttering it was good to have some ‘proper British food’ and everyone thinking it was a reference to an old Brexit argument. John Mousinho and Josh Ruffels clatter into each other, giving Gary Madine a free run at goal. He takes an age, but slots home to put Blackpool 1-0 up.
A goal down could have ignited a barrage of arguments and recriminations, turning the air blue and the atmosphere toxic. People held their breath, bit their lips and hoped it might pass.
It did, then there’s a moment of levity that unites everyone, like mum bringing in a plate of Yorkshire puddings. The ball is worked to Sam Long whose cross drops to Marcus Browne to blast in the equaliser off Mark Sykes. Suddenly and briefly, it’s like the good old days again.
Everything is holding together. Just. We haven’t descended into a mass argument, nobody has stormed out. Perhaps it will be OK.
It gets better, dad cracks a joke that’s a bit close to the bone, but there’s a flicker of a knowing, unifying smile on his face. He knows his prejudices and his cantankerousness. Marcus Browne picks up the ball and curls it round a crowd of players into the top corner. The moment of pure quality brings us all together, momentarily.
But, now this new state of equilibrium has been reached, the second-half is slow and awkward; we’re pensive and don’t threaten much. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained. It’s a slog as the conditions neutralise any scope for craft or ability. There’s a tension in the air, it could get better, it could get worse, nobody is really prepared to risk anything just in case.
Time ticks by, nearly there. An unnecessarily heavy pudding is served to the over-stuffed guests. Custard? Yes, why not? The injury time board goes up. The family are putting their coats on and saying their goodbyes. Soon, you’ll be in the car and be able to release the tension, free to dissect everyone’s behaviour on your way home.
Then, just as you think you’re alone and got away with it, while putting a bag in the boot of your car, you quietly say to yourself that your dad is ‘a stupid old twat’. You turn around and he’s standing behind you with a Christmas present you’d forgotten, closer than you’d thought. Would he know it was a reference to him? Did he hear? If he did, he’s not saying. After all this, are you going to pay for your error at the death?
Deep into injury time Josh Ruffels woefully under-hits a back pass putting Madine clean through. Oh, god, this is it isn’t it? At the very death, this is the moment it all collapses in a heap. Improbably, his shot skims the outside of the post. We breathe again, let’s get out of here.
The final whistle goes, we’ve made it through. Mum turns to you quietly in the bustle of everyone leaving and says ‘You’ll be coming to us at Christmas won’t you? Your dad really likes you coming, you know.’ You smile a reassuring smile, it may not be always be happy and harmonious, but yes, we’ll be there next time and ultimately everything will be OK. Probably.