The government has paused its programme to return fans to stadiums pretty much wiping out the prospect of going to a game in October, and let’s face it, for some time beyond that. There are all sorts of implications for this, not least financial. But, in addition, it’s clearly a blow to the mental and social wellbeing of the club and those within it. Fans, players, owners and managers alike have been skittled by the news. While I can’t claim to have all this figured out, here are some ideas for dealing with the next few months as an Oxford fan.
Accept where you are
When Chris Wilder criticised Oxford fans for romanticising the Milk Cup win in 1986 some thirty years earlier, he was slated by all who heard him. He was also right. We were a Conference team, our standards had slipped and the sooner we understood that, the sooner we’d sort the problem out. Epidemics are not unusual, nor pandemics; they’ve been less widespread – as with MERS, or more deadly as with Spanish flu, but they’re really quite common and most generations will have to deal with one. The faster you accept it and take action, the quicker it’s over. You can fight the reality by looking for data to prove what you want – that this is some kind of trivial seasonal flu or a government conspiracy. You can find research that proves masks are useless or damaging. But, this where we are, at nature’s behest until science comes to our rescue. A story as old as time. As an Oxford fan it means the prospect of empty stadiums and streaming services for months to come, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it will be, but it is like it is today. A friend of mine once taught me a trick about cycling up a steep hill – there is a point where you drop to your lowest gear and the bike can’t help anymore, for a while it’s going to be painful, but not forever. Accept it, then get pedalling.
Don’t beat yourself up about missing football
Football is often trivialised because of its omnipresence; the money, commercialism, the endless analysis and discussion. We are frequently reminded of times when football is ‘put into perspective’ as though it has got above its station. There are people dying and you’re sad about missing football? That’s gauche and distateful. But, football clubs are social institutions affecting thousands of people which are centuries old. Oxford United as an institution that has lived through Spanish Flu, two World Wars and countless local, national and global crises. It gives people purpose and structure, its resilience gives them hope. These are institutions that suffer glory and tragedy, riches and poverty, they ebb and flow and pulsate and they still survive. You’re part of that success, like generations of people before you. It’s fine to be proud of it and to miss it and to want to protect it. The reason it keeps going is because it means something; it is possible to simultaneously be concerned about people dying and the absence of football and to be no less a person because of it.
Acknowledge what you have
The world is full of self-help books, a majority of them encourage you to ditch your past and create an often unattainable future. You change everything, transform your eating, ditch your bad habits and get increasingly miserable, so you take a break and all the things you were trying to rid yourself of come creeping back. You’re missing football, you’re missing the game, the routine, the little joys. You’re casting back to those memories, you cast forward to a time when it’s all over. And you want it to happen soon. But how are you now? Alive? Safe? Warm? Build from there. The club and social network that springs from it still exists. You still have the experiences that the club has given you – Nathan Holland’s last minute equaliser against Newcastle, Ryan Ledson slamming home at Charlton – indulge in that. If your mind wanders and your regrets and hopes and anxieties eat away, then stop and check. Are you OK now?
Find the next step
If there’s one overriding criticism I have of Boris Johnson it’s his endless hyperbole. Every financial pledge is ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS, every initiative will be world beating, everything will be fixed by Christmas, if not next Tuesday. Not only does that simply serve to constantly disappoint, it fails to deal with the next step which is, in fact, the most important. You might want to be in the East Stand screaming yourself horse with your friends, or travelling 165 miles for a drab goalless draw on a Tuesday night, but that’s not the next step. The next step might be to indulge an hour or six in Oxford United’s kit history, listen to a podcast, watch the goals from the 95/96 season on YouTube, you might even re-read old posts from this blog. If it brings you joy, that’s your next step. If you can afford it, buy a match pass for a game, or a new shirt, or an old shirt, or some other old tat, or just listen to the commentary on Saturday on the radio. Keep taking the next step, then, one day someone will announce a test event, and you might get to go to that, then an increase in capacity and then, step by step towards something we call normality. And, my goodness, imagine what that’ll feel like. But, for now, just focus on taking the next step.
You see it all the time, the old blaming the young, the young blaming the old, the left blaming the right, the right blaming the left, even the healthy dismissing the sick as cannon fodder. Blame is often placed on a faceless, nameless, probably non-existent ‘other’ – they’re not using their common sense, they’re not waking up to the tyranny. So, rather than blaming other people or acting on your personal instincts, stick with the yellow army. Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, limiting contact with others. Like you would turn up to a game for kick-off, sing in unison, contribute personally to a collective success. Do it for other fans and for the benefit of the club; because the club is made up of the young and old, the right and left, the sick and healthy. Do it for the people who retell stories of Joey Beauchamp, Jim Smith and Ron Atkinson, do it for the people who fill the stands with flags and banners to make the best atmosphere in the country. Do it for the joke on the train going to an away game which makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Do it for the old couple who find themselves at the bottom of a bundle from a last minute goal at Portsmouth. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people you blame; do it for the club.
Know it will get better
If there’s one thing that being an Oxford fan tells you it’s that you have to always believe that things will improve. I’ve sat in the Kassam car park staring through my windscreen at the those trudging through the turnstiles wondering why I bother. I’ve seen hundreds of games of football and, frequently, I’ve walked out of the ground having seen them lost. I know that I’ll be back the following week, looking forward to a win. Then imperceptibly, it does start to get better, a win becomes two, two become five, form becomes promotion. Then before you know it you find yourself in a full stadium watching Chris Maguire breaking from a corner sliding the ball to Kemar Roofe to chip home for a famous cup win, or Sam Deering and Alfie Potter exchanging passes on the way to redemptive glory at Wembley, or you catch yourself, eyes bulging, ashen faced, unburdened of your money, work and family stresses, gulping for air as a primordial guttural scream, the likes of which you could never muster voluntarily, cascades from your gaping mouth as down below Toni Martinez knee slides towards you and thousands of others who are hundreds of miles from home, pursued by his team mates in a moment of unified ecstasy. That’s the memory, that’s the moment. From Stafford and Merthyr to Swansea and Middlesborough. Remember, it will always get better.