Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of our Conference Play-Off Final win against York. You may have noticed. I wonder what how it might have been marked in normal circumstances. A livestream? A podcast? We might have been basking in the glory of a 2020 promotion season, maudling at throwing away a golden opportunity, preparing for another shot at the play-offs and Wembley. Sure, we would have marked the occasion, but would it have enjoyed the same prominence in our consciousness, would we have come together on a Saturday afternoon if there had been the distractions of normality?
There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, about who they played when they were the first and only club around. The answer is obvious; themselves. Sheffield FC was a club in the truest sense; a place for people to gather with a common interest. Only later came the notion that clubs would send representatives to play against other clubs. Later still that we might pay those representatives. Even later than that was the idea of football as a business separated from the original concept of a club.
The lockdown has removed the business of playing games from our lives and revealed the club on which we’re built. The club’s response has been nothing but exemplary; the branded facemasks, players and management phoning vulnerable and lonely fans, the podcast, the mental health advice. I don’t pay much attention to other clubs, but if the biggest ones are doing the same thing, even with their gigantic marketing machines, it hasn’t permeated my consciousness.
The club could have simply folded in on itself; mothballed its activities until it all passes. Oxford United is a small business, shutting the shop would have been perfectly acceptable.
Karl Robinson contributes a lot to that; he has always got the concept of a club from his Liverpool days. In fact, when times have been hard for him on the pitch he’s almost too much of a fan; too involved. He wants to please, to entertain, he wants to create something meaningful. His wife is a health and wellbeing adviser and the club have been quick to respond to the mental health challenges evident across its community. Listening to Dan Harris and Gary Bloom talking about the welfare of players, from juniors to the first team, and the duty of care they have to them is as reassuring as it is impressive. Most of the youngsters in their charge won’t make it to a professional football pitch, but they will all walk amongst us in society.
None of this could happen without the support of the club’s sponsors; Tiger and the rest of the board. When you have ‘foreign owners’ – it’s easy to think of nefarious means and dirty money – that fans are consumers and stadiums are real estate. But the owners confound that unfair assumption.
The club’s regular podcast has been a particular joy; the limitations of technology and the detachment from the corporatisation of the club means that the discussion is authentic and candid whether it’s talking to Paul Moody or Ryan Clarke about mental health or giggling incessantly about The House In Kidlington or naked kickabouts in 2016.
It’s not just boorish lad speak, while Simon Watts bonds things together, Chris Williams is often master of ceremonies, a fatherly figure both proud and exasperated by those in his charge. He’s spent time with them all and knows them as people. Fans have a very simplistic relationship with players and managers – to most Ian Atkins was a tactical caveman, Williams introduced him as ‘the man who taught me everything about football’. With him is Kath Faulkner, one-part club insider to two parts fan and Jack Brooks brings his experience from professional cricket, bridges the gap between those paid to do the job and those paying.
And in essence, that’s the club; people who have been in and around it for years. Our representatives – the players – come and go. I’ve always said that all I want for players is for their experience to be the best of their career. That they take a little bit of the club with them and tell others about how good it was. Listening to Mark Creighton describe the excitement of Wembley, Steve Kinniburgh taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere against Luton in 2009 or Alex MacDonald’s memories of playing in derbies makes you feel like we can achieve that goal. It’s also the bonds that still exist between them – Chey Dunkley’s deference to Johnny ‘Uncle Muls’ Mullins, even when Dunkley’s career is on an upward trajectory. Or how the class of 2010 listened to Ryan Clarke as talked about mental health – confiding with Alfie Potter at Northampton, and Adam Murray chipping in with warm words of support. And then, click, Clarke is describing Matt Green as ‘a cannon and a mess’ on a night out and everyone is laughing with him. Normal guys, with otherwise normal lives, nice people who work hard and sometimes do silly things. There isn’t one that I haven’t liked.
Those within the club should be proud of their response to the lockdown, it could easily have been different and we probably wouldn’t have complained if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If there is to be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud, then the reminder of what a football club is and should be may be one if its lasting legacies.