Success is threaded through the eye of a needle which, in a cruel illusion, gets smaller as you get closer. Like walking a narrowing mountain path where each step is more precarious than the last, each drop more vertiginous and lethal.
Imagine Joey Beauchamp shanking his 35-yard screamer over the bar in ‘96 or Michael Rankine arrowing his shot into the net at Wembley in 2010. Imagine Chey Dunkley’s bulldozing run being blocked against Wycombe in 2016. Moments where success becomes failure, where memorable seasons are forgotten. This is the eye of the needle through which we must now thread.
By the time we faced Portsmouth, there were no grass verges left, no Southends or Tranmeres against whom we could find our feet after a stumble. The path had narrowed and each subsequent step could only be the right one.
Before the second leg, Fraser Webster on the Fence End Podcast said that the current squad was the best he’d seen, particularly among those without a promotion to their name. I had a similar thought; only history will decide a classic line-up for 2020, but would we even get that far? Is there another great Oxford team without a promotion or cup to its name? Or can a team only be elevated when there’s a successful conclusion to cement its legend?
After the first leg, despite an away draw, it didn’t feel like we had the momentum we needed to progress. The sterile world we’re now in wiped away any emotional thrust. We’d been dogged rather than fluid and, beyond a couple of moments, our buccaneering style seemed to have been left in the old world. Pompey’s simpler approach appeared easier to re-start so while the result had been solid; the jerk forward, the impetus, wasn’t there. Excited for the second leg? Yes. Tense? Yes. Expectant? No.
The empty ground played its part, the curious kick-off time and the low sun of a summer tea-time added to the surrealism – part pre-season friendly, part end-season drama. As the game started, the patterns of the first leg threatened to repeat themselves. We looked like we were playing football, it just didn’t feel like it. Like hostages performing for their captors, it was a dutiful, soulless charade. As the game progressed and the pressure grew, it felt like each player could sense the red dot of a sniper’s sight dancing on their forehead; perform and you’ll live, one mistake and you’ll die.
James Henry looked sharper but Marcus Browne quieter, Sam Long refound his form, but Mark Sykes – so often a secret weapon – couldn’t fully engage. As much as we tried to find our path, we never quite seemed to.
Then, the ground gave way as we planted a foot on what we thought was firm ground; a goal. Harness brought the ball down and swept it home with Eastwood slow to react. The rocks cascaded down the ravine, a sinister reminder of our fate should we fail. Just as we looked set to fall, minutes later James Henry swung in a deep corner which looked harmless; inexplicably Ellis Harrison cut across Alex Bass, nodding the ball through his keeper’s hands and, by millimetres, over the line. The grasp at a tuft of grass, deeply rooted, strong enough to hold us, long enough for us to recover. We scrambled and regained our footing.
As the second half progressed, the dread gripped tighter; part fear, part fatigue. At home, Twitter fell silent, each minute passed, narrowing the path further, deepening the terror – a film noir of epic brooding silences punctuated by occasional yelps from the sidelines.
Come extra-time, we were no longer following a path, but a precipitous ridge on which to teeter. Each step felt less secure, but by now, going back was more dangerous, giving up was fatal, we had to progress. Chests tightened, breaths shortened, the wind whistled. We were at the crucible of the battle and still the path narrowed.
Fitness evaporated, muscles functioned on a vapour of memories. Browne, the matchwinner, replaced by Jamie Hanson, Sykes by Dan Agyei, Long by Woodburn, Gorrin by Mousinho. Each move lurching us deeper into the unknown, was there to be an unlikely hero or were we simply running out of bodies? The shadow of a season’s effort crept ominously over us.
All sense of time was lost in that extra period, perhaps it was minutes long, maybe days, the club tweeted that we were 130 minutes into a 120 minute game. No time like the present or simply no time at all. The silence got quieter still.
The referee blew; maybe it was time, maybe it was pity, our captors releasing us from the torture. Two deeply exhausted teams, lost in an eternal hell, throwing air-shots at each other for the benefit of no one until one or the other, or both, collapsed from exhaustion. Football couldn’t decide our fate.
The path ended at the edge of a chasm, on the other side, it restarted, meandering up to the summit and onwards to success. Below, was nothing but wispy clouds and circling birds of prey picking at the carcasses of those who’d tried and failed previously to leap across the ravine. It was time to jump.
Pompey’s spot kicks were metronomic, bottom right, bottom right, in between Ben Woodburn scored, his new crew cut giving the impression of a teenager wrongly incarcerated. His penalty offering a faint reminder of a former happiness, he smiles for the first time in months. Anthony Forde, marginalised, then integral, present, then invisible converts the second, Matty Taylor, slick and assured; the third. As each kick passes, we expend another player, Taylor’s kick rises all the way, the least decisive of the sequence. He styles it out, as strikers do, but we’re rocking. Where the game had been a physical test, penalties are a mental examination. Is this the edge? The hours Karl Robinson has dedicated to developing a mindset, a camaraderie, a football club. The psychoanalysts probing for insecurities and chasing down doubts, developing the thinking space to perform under pressure.
McGeeghan steps up, a great bush of bleached blonde hair, his run up is short, he strikes. Eastwood, who’s looked troubled throughout despite two good saves, throws himself to his right, the ball nestles in his midriff, he looks down at it; safe, secure, saved. We have the edge. Up steps John Mousinho, titanical and assured with a leg like a traction engine built for this time and place, his swing is true, the rattle of the net cracks through the silence and we’re creeping ever nearer. Hawkins’ goal saves the first match point before the ball is handed to Cameron Brannagan.
Brannagan places the ball on the spot; combative, aggressive, confident, a boy who has become a man with a future pre-written. He steps back and suddenly looks abandoned, a great unending universe surrounds him, his run up is long, there’s a gaping space between him and the ball, he waits dutifully for the referee. All around him is doubt and regret seeking a way in. The silence haunts every space. Keep it down, keep it straight. He runs up, a lifetime of dedication from the streets of Salford to the windswept fields of Horspath via the cosseted football factory of Melwood coursing through him, he strikes low and firm, the keeper chooses right and grasps desperately for salvation, but all he feels is air. The ball sneaks through and the net ripples, Portsmouth plummet into the ravine as we land on the other side.
We’ve lept, we’ve scrambled, we’re still alive, the path to the summit awaits. We ride at dawn.