The Bucks Free Press, the local newspaper covering Wycombe ran an article this week documenting ‘The Wycombe/Oxford Derby’. I mean, TL:DR, obviously because, well, it’s not a derby, is it? Or, is it?
It’s a question that’s been picking away at me for some time; when does a derby become a derby? And, are we kidding ourselves? Tomorrow we play the biggest game in a generation against a local team for a prize neither could have dreamed of. It’s big, of course, but surely, it’s bigger because of who we’re playing.
Let’s get the basics out of the way; locality. According to Google, the distance from Kassam Stadium to Adams Park is 28.5 miles, from the Kassam to the County Ground? 33.4. It’s a fixture that is more ‘local’ than Swindon. Awkward. For completeness, Reading is 25.5 miles away.
But there’s much more to it than that, isn’t there? There’s the emotional response, the history. Nothing will replace Swindon as a rivalry for visceral pleasure. Once upon a time that was a near on annual fixture, but we’ve only played them four times in the league over the last nineteen years and Reading not at all. While that has helped grow the fierceness of the rivalry with those down the A420, with Reading it’s somewhat ebbed away. In the same period, we’ve played Wycombe 18 times.
On a purely practical level, in order to find that regular endorphin hit of facing your deadliest foes, accepting Wycombe into the pantheon of ‘rivals’ seems logical. We always sell out the away end, meaning the atmosphere and the sweetness of the win is always good. But logical and practical isn’t enough, in fact, they’re truly the most incorrect metrics available.
A rivalry seems to intensify when you’ve forgotten what you’re arguing about. A friend of mine has started a new job and found two people in his team are engaged in a near 30-year war of attrition, about what, he can’t figure out. Certainly, it’s hard to pinpoint why Swindon and Oxford are rivals; there are few obvious class, religious or ethnic divisions between the two towns. We hate each other because we do, and we seem to like it like that.
I’ve only missed one Oxford v Wycombe league game since our first professional encounter in 1994. It’s harder to stir an emotional response when you can remember many of the details about your disputes. But it’s been 26 years, and for an increasing number of people, those early games were from a grainy, long lost era. As the details of the battles fade, the myths and legends appear. Maybe the fact every game can be found on YouTube leaves few gaps into which the mythology can seep.
One of the reasons few will accept the idea is that they perceive it would degrade us to take it on. Wycombe are ‘tin pot’ and have only been in the League since 1993, and our tenancy goes back much further. Except, it doesn’t does it? We’ve only been in the league since 2010, with our first stint going back to 1963. What we’ve both done is triumphed over adversity, grown from a low base.
And that seems to be the nub of it; we seem unwilling to accept that Oxford and Wycombe’s paths have become increasingly entwined. This is another argument for accepting the rivalry; it heightens some of the great moments of our most recent history – 2016 promotion, Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar in 1996, Nicky Rowe’s howitzer in 2014, Kemar Roofe’s awakening in 2016, Tom Craddock’s thirty yarder in 2012, Akinfenwa being sent off in 2019. Even some of the grimmer moments – the FA Cup in 2006, Matt Elliot being sent off in 1994, Hubert Busby Junior in 2000 have a certain je ne sais quoi.
In truth, the fixture has been good to us, which may be to its detriment as a derby, perhaps there’s got to be a dose of misery.
There’s also the fact that Wycombe are a good club; Adams Park has a quality not dissimilar to The Manor, they seem well run, and whilst there’s much to mock, Gareth Ainsworth has gone a great job getting them to where they are. After our last game at Adams Park, I walked back to the car chatting with a couple of Wycombe fans about how good the game had been, they were asking whether Cameron Brannagan was OK having been stretchered off. We all agreed it had been a splendid day out and a fair result. None of us were tear gassed. Swindon is a notoriously grim town, it’s been dogged with financial corruption and even had an openly fascist manager; as bad guys go, they’re world class. But, actually, is there anything wrong with having a rival that you actually quite like. If you think about Liverpool and Everton and their combined response to Hillsborough, it’s a rivalry enhanced by its shared sense of camaraderie.
The Oxford v Wycombe fixture is frequently entertaining and often meaningful, no more so than tomorrow, so is accepting the rivalry, and accepting them as equals such a bad thing? Is being ‘like Wycombe’ a team that has got to the brink of the Championship without financial doping or corruption such an awful label? It’s not the same kind of derby as the more traditional ones, but as tomorrow will show, it’s two clubs achieving something pretty phenomenal. Our histories entwined is perhaps something to be more proud of than we might like to accept.I’m not asking you to conjure up a visceral hatred on the level of Swindon. I’m asking that you might want to accept the possibility into your life. Could Wembley be the tipping point? You never know, it might make tomorrow even sweeter.