There’s a romanticism about playing under the lights at Oxford which is a bit of a myth. It’s a treat to go out when most others are dutifully staying in, but a midweek game is typically cold and often wet, it’s watched through the slight foggy tiredness of a day’s work, the crowd is usually down on a normal Saturday leaving the atmosphere a bit empty and flat.
It wasn’t always like that, there was something slightly magical about the way The Manor, largely hidden from view during the day, set back from the London Road, lit up the night’s sky on a Tuesday or Wednesday night as everything else darkened. It was a beacon that enticed you into something joyful. Or maybe that’s just whimsy too.
On Tuesday, I left the house at my normal time and parked in my normal spot. I say ‘normal’, I haven’t been able to park there for weeks due to the crowds we’ve been attracting. The weather and opponents, as well as the inconvenience of a Tuesday night meant the place was quiet. It was both unusual and, at the same time, familiar.
Tiger’s programme notes were terse, addressing the brooding criticism of the club since January. There was a sense that all the goodwill built up over a surge up the table and two good cup runs was crumbling in the wake of two lads leaving for Brentford.
But, from the opening moments it was clear that we were so much better than Wimbledon. A class above. For all the talk about tiredness, injuries and a lack of transfer activity, we outplayed and outfought them. There was no harrying the full-backs from the opening seconds, no break-neck counter attacks to fend off, things which seemed to come so easily to our more recent opponents were completely absent. Against others, it’s felt like we’d been found out, whereas, in fact, maybe we’ve just been playing a lot of very good teams.
As the goals started to flow, for the first time in a couple of months, I felt we could breathe. In that workaday atmosphere, we could just be who we are. It felt as normal as games against Newcastle and Manchester City feel abnormal. For weeks nearly all our games have felt like a teeth-grinding hold-your-breath rocket ride, this just felt like a game of football in the mould of which we’re more familiar.
It reinforced to me that this is League 1 with its two divisions – the Championship, even Premier League, aspirants, and the League 2 over-performers. When you’re only playing the teams at the top, it feels like you’re failing, but then you start facing the teams at the bottom it shows that it’s not all doom and gloom. Overall, it provides a much better perspective as to where we’re at this season.
Of course there’s more we could do; we could take more financial risks to bring in players or resist bids from others. That’s a choice, mostly for those whose money is at stake. Demanding that we take those risks implies we’re failing and that any degree of prudence is ignoring that particular reality. We’re not failing, we’re a good side who are still in with a chance of the play-offs, which may even bring about promotion. But those things aren’t an ambition in itself, it’s the by-product of progress and, if you look at the season as a whole rather than small segments of it, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t progressing.