The Kassam Stadium has been corralled by big trucks, small trucks, trucks with small satellite dishes, trucks with big satellite dishes, trucks whose only purpose, you imagine, is to transport other trucks. The BBC doesn’t do much football, but when it does, it stays done.
Pitchside, the FA Cup sits proudly on a plinth. There are blinding arc lights with three cameramen filming three people. One is undeniably Michael Appleton, his cheekbones defined in the bright light. There’s another bald pundit who turns out to be Alan Shearer. Master of Ceremonies is Gabby Logan looking part human rights lawyer, part stay-at-home mum; both an every-woman and no woman you’ve ever met.
In between short bursts of football chat she’s riffles through a clipboard straining to hold a mountain of paperwork. It’s difficult to imagine what it contains. A make-up artist jumps in enthusiastically to brush her hair, Logan doesn’t flinch, it’s all part of the job. Nobody gets the Mr Muscle out to buff Appleton or Shearer’s bald pates.
In between the rabble, the club’s SLO, Kath Faulkner weaves her way through a mountain of people busying herself uploading another vignette from the team’s warm up to social media. And there’s Chris Williams looking like a nightclub bouncer, who with Martin Brodetsky – Oxford United’s Waldorf and Statler – represent the very soul of the club.
Around the pitch the fancy flashing advertising boards are back promoting our game against Accrington Stanley, £20 replica shirts and prescription-free Viagra. We have a sleeve sponsor for the night that fixes scuffed trainers.
It’s clear the club is operating at the edges and perhaps beyond its current capacity. This is the fourth Premier League team we’ve faced this season, the second prime-time live TV game and the sixth 10,000-plus crowd. Emotionally, it feels like we’re at breaking point.
The mood is confident rather than arrogant or apprehensive. Ticketing and the close proximity to the first game means that most of the regulars around me are sat slightly out of position. It’s like when the binmen leave number seven’s wheelie-bin outside number nine and number nine’s food bin in number 22’s garden, everything is familiar but slightly confusing.
Three seats next to me are vacant until moments before kick-off. Normally they’re occupied by season ticket holders, but seconds before kick-off people I’ve never seen before turn up sporting half-and-half scarves.
I’ve made my peace with half-and-half scarves, they’re no different to souvenir programmes and if those attending get an ounce more enjoyment out of their experience from buying one, then that’s a small step closer to them coming back.
It becomes evident that the lady sat next to me is, in fact, a Newcastle fan. She sings quietly and un-self-consciously along with the Toon fans in the North Stand. It turns out she lived near Kevin Keegan back in the 80s, but I guess everyone from Newcastle says that.
The game starts and it’s clear that our confidence is well founded. We’re not overawed or being outplayed. They put pressure on Marcus Browne which limits his scope and press Josh Ruffels and Sam Long. While we struggle to break out as an attacking threat, if we are going to concede, you suspect, it’ll be because of a bad luck or a mistake.
The mistake comes on 15 minutes. Mark Sykes over-plays in midfield, loses the ball and Sam Longstaff races forward to fire home. It’s not a howling error and Longstaff has plenty more to do once in possession, but it’s enough to separate the sides. 15 minutes later, Marcus Browne loses the ball on the edge of their box, the referee is liberal in his appliance of the rules all night, but he’s right about this one; no foul. A long ball to Joelinto creates a one-on-one with Rob Dickie and it’s 2-0.
They’re efficiently good, though it’s closer to Rotherham than futuristic Manchester City space-football. Given that they’re a serviceable defensive unit, it looks like game over.
Quixotically we then find some fluidity; Jamie Mackie goes close, Sam Long has one headed off the line. It’s nice to see us play. What’s lacking is a driving force. Browne is squeezed out, Henry is injured and Baptiste has gone. Mark Sykes becomes an unlikely pivot around which good things happen.
There’s a quiet acceptance over half-time that we’re at journeys end. The main objective now is to avoid injuries and humiliation. The second half is scrappy; their early efficiency has deserted them but we’re stuck between attacking and conceding more on the break.
On the hour Browne goes down and Karl Robinson instantly replaces him; it feels like he’s conceding defeat. We’re not always perfect, but we’re still playing with a signature style. Some of their passing is indistinguishable from the Conference; four or five times the ball simply runs out of play. Still, they have the two goal buffer and we have little in response, so it matters not.
The game becomes painful, Newcastle fans sing songs at Alan Shearer who is holed up in a black box that makes for a studio in the corner – ‘They’re perpetually stuck in the 90s’ says someone near me. But, Shearer is the most glamorous thing about the game, if I was watching this on TV, I’d be channel surfing for Live At The Apollo on Dave, even if it featured Jason Manford.
The clock ticks on, we’re tiring on and off the pitch. Nathan Holland is mainlining energy gels. With Matty Taylor just back from injury and Dan Agyei and Liam Kelly barely having 90 minutes of football between them this year, even our fresh legs don’t have fresh legs.
Five minutes to go, through all the scrappiness we draw a foul 25 yards out. Liam Kelly stands over the ball, he has the stature of Sam Deering, so the distance looks about three times what it is. Physically we’re drained, but this is a purely technical challenge so we have a chance. Kelly exquisitely lifts the ball over the wall and past the keeper for 2-1. He dutifully trots back to the centre-circle, but a smile on his face shows how pleased he is with it. It’s almost identical to Chris Maguire’s goal at Middlesborough three years ago. Look what happened then.
But that’s fanciful hope rather than expectation. As we tick into injury time, we win another free-kick in the centre circle. Suddenly everything is simple; equalise or lose heavily. Simon Eastwood abandons his goal to make a nuisance of himself up front. Kelly pitches the ball to the back post; Sam Long who’s put in an exhausting shift, pops it up, Eastwood stares into the sky trying to locate it like a village cricketer blinded by the sun. His bewilderment disrupts the Newcastle back line allowing Ruffels to win the second ball which drops to where Nathan Holland is loitering. Holland watches it fall from the night’s sky, swings a boot and connects.
Now we’re in the hands of destiny. The ball arrows its way through a narrow alleyway of opportunity. I’m right behind it; gravity brings the ball down, potential energy transfers into kinetic energy via biomechanics. A confluence of science, a moment of liquid poetry, the ball hits the net and the place implodes. If we’re going down, it’s going to be with grenades and flamethrowers. Holland celebrates like he’s from the 50s with both hands in the air. The stadium is carnage, like a coach crash in an ice storm; bodies are everywhere, shoes are lost, grannies thrown into the air. Even with its imperfections and gaping open end, sometimes The Kassam can feel like home. For moments, live on national TV, the world can see why we do what we do.
And then, the reality. As the final whistle goes, a person on my row nudges past and doesn’t come back, his cup of Horlicks beckons. We start extra-time brightly and threaten again with Dan Agyei. But it can’t be sustained and we run out of puff; only Sykes seems to maintain the intensity, growing more influential as the minutes tick by. Our only option now is to survive to penalties, even with precious few natural penalty takers on the pitch. George Thorne comes on looking like the banjo-tech from Mumford & Sons, it’s good to see him back, but he’s a long way from fit.
Conceding is, perhaps, inevitable and it comes eventually from Saint-Maximin, who is built like an American wrestling figurine. With five minutes to go and no energy to respond, hope slips away. They celebrate wildly; but given the preposterous financial gap between the two clubs, they should be beating us and it shouldn’t take three and a half hours to do it. Exhausted and heroic, the cup dream is over. It’s been a heck of a run.
There are times this season when it feels like we’ve been on loan to somewhere else – the Carabao Cup, Premier League, Sky Sports and the BBC. We depart in a blaze of glory in front of the nation; there’s no better way to fail. Tomorrow, it’s back to normality and the simple reality of seven games in 21 days. Perhaps the 5th Round wasn’t much of a prize after all.