During the Conference years I’d get a mild anxiety about us scoring in the first eight minutes of a home game. My routine was so established that 3.08pm was when I finished my pre-match coffee meaning holding a hot drink as Matt Green gave us early lead would have me at sixes and sevens.
There were far fewer disruptions to the pre-match routine in those days; you could park in the same spot, rarely had to queue and there were fewer people to bump into. I could leave my house at 2pm confident in the knowledge that by 3.08pm I’d be draining the last of my cup.
Now the matchday routine is determined by a long list of Covid rules, so many that I was worried that I might miss some. I suspect Covid rules are like the old saying about advertising; we know that only some of it works, which just don’t know which bits. While face masks and social distancing are clearly effective, I suspect the benefits of not throwing a ball back to a player is marginal. All in all, now is not the time to quibble, let’s just do everything to sort this out and figure out the science later.
Returning to the Kassam on Tuesday night wasn’t quite the fantasy I’d imagined when the lockdown first happened. I’d pictured a jubilant, throbbing crowd full of dashing Brycreamed Tommys kissing unsuspecting landgirls in bright red lipstick in the street. Somewhere between VE Day and Rochdale at home.
Instead, the return is necessarily cautious and gradual, the virus won’t surrender, it needs to be killed off and that takes time. I was torn between wanting to get back to football and it shattering my illusions by being awkward and underwhelming. I figured I needed to lean into it, surrender myself to the rules which are there for a far greater good.
It’s an undoubtedly a more sanitised experience, the pre-match hubbub is missing; the bubbling of conversation isn’t there, simply standing together is a risk so everything is geared towards funnelling you to and from your seat. Nathan Cooper takes to the PA to warn people against facing each other when going to the toilet creating a troubling mental image of people peeing on each others shoes in the gents.
Ultimately, compliance is absolute and not a burden. No liberties are being taken away although wearing a mask with glasses is a challenge. When I secure my mask tightly enough, it minimises the misting, but doesn’t stop it completely. For much of the game it feels like I’m watching through a thin fog, which is just preferable to following a number of vividly coloured blobs chasing a small white blob around a big green blob.
The atmosphere, though, feels familiar and genuine, voices aren’t as muffled as you’d think so despite its size, it feels like a proper crowd. It helps that fans are spread across all three stands creating an illusion of being more than the permitted two thousand that are here. With people sat in their bubbles, there’s no artificial symmetry you see at some games with fans regimentally sat in vertical rows one behind another. It all helps.
It’s the gaps where you really notice the difference. There’s usually a continuous ambient hum from the crowd, but when the action lulls, the stadium falls into near silence. It does give you an opportunity to hear the players and managers going about their business. I’m struck by Elliott Moore barking instructions at Alex Gorrin by calling him ‘Alex’ rather than ‘Gorro’ or some culturally appropriated nickname, like ‘Manuel’.
At one point the Northampton keeper launches the mother of all Hail Mary goal kicks deep into the Oxford half. The Cobblers manager Keith Curle screams ‘GO! GO! GO!’ at his front four as they chase the ball, trying to locate it dropping from the sky like happy labradors in a park. Sophisticated, this is not.
Curiously, I found I can read a lot from the general noise of the crowd, not just the roar of a goal or chance, but the less obvious hum. Normally, you can sense a change in atmosphere towards half-time, the sound of thousands of people trying to organise who’s buying the Bovril and what flavour crisps you want – which is always ‘whatever they’ve got, but not prawn cocktail’. During the first half I realise without those audible signals, I lose track of where in the game we’re at.
At the start, the players dribble out onto the pitch without fanfare. The taking of the knee can look tokenistic on TV but feels real and necessary in real life. Mide Shodipo holds his fist in the air, a reminder to the almost exclusively white crowd that this stuff happens to him and people like him. Racism not some abstract notion invented to annoy white people, it’s very real. Taking the knee is a political statement, make no bones about it, its message is to force change, those claiming to misinterpret it are choosing that path. It’s not simpering left wing woke-ism, people are bored of this shit. Taking the knee reminds us to make good decisions.
Once the game gets going, you realise it’s the immersive wide screen 4k experience of being there that you’ve missed the most. Going to games allows you to appreciate the endeavour and effort, even in a strange way, the pettiness. At one point a Northampton player throws the ball away while the referee isn’t watching and we are appalled and outraged, someone behind me calls the referee a ‘prick’; it’s great.
At first the performance mirrors the atmosphere, it’s good but a little disjointed, like we’re still trying to get the glue to set on this team. Marcus McGuane is a bull in ballet shoes; he looks like he should be used as a battering ram, but there’s a cultured ball player trying to get out, he just seems to lack a decisiveness which will turn his good work into chances. It’s not just the new players, James Henry seems a bit lost in the margins and Matty Taylor is either isolated or disengaged. It’s all not quite happening.
On the touchline, though, Karl Robinson seems calm, his only animation is due to his exasperation towards the referee, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned. As with last season, it needs something, or someone, to bond all the good stuff together.
It comes, perhaps surprisingly, from Sean Clare, John Mousinho’s half-time replacement. Mousinho, it’s reported, is walking a tight rope, with the prospect of season ending surgery should his knee give way. When he goes down holding it, some assume his career is over. Robinson afterwards says Mousinho feels he was letting the side down. His performance doesn’t come across like that, but perhaps his body is just not doing what he wants anymore. It reminds me of one of Wayne Brown’s last games where his playing career seemed to end in front of our eyes, we chastised him in frustration, but it must have been awful for him.
It takes bravery to get down the flanks when you’re a full-back, you need to trust your team mates to cover for you and not berate you if you mess up, Clare seems to be growing in confidence and glides down the flank looping a ball to the back post for Matty Taylor to nod home for the first goal. The squad head to Clare rather than Taylor to congratulate him, then everyone comes together, bringing Clare into the fold gives us cohesion.
From then on, it becomes comfortable, Shodipo seems to only score one type of goal; cutting in from the left and sending a bouncing bomb into the bottom right hand corner for 2-0. Dan Agyei comes on and crosses with his first touch for Matty Taylor to head home the third. The two crosses from Agyei and Clare are so good, Taylor almost seems embarrassed to take the glory of putting the ball in the net, though there’s plenty for him to do on both occasions.
By this point we’re totally outclassing our opponents, confidence and the fluidity of last season is back. Josh Ruffels seems to be playing the role of jazz full-back, a defender who is given licence too act as an improvised attacking force with a free reign.
Then, into injury time Agyei picks the ball up again, glides past two players and bends in the fourth. It’s reminiscent of the win against West Ham with the joy of a perfect finale, the best goal of the night. Altogether it’s a thoroughly satisfying and convincing win; it’s not West Ham, of course, it’s Northampton Town, and while, in many ways, this falls short of the glory of that night, in others, given the intervening 291 days since I was last here, it’s better.
Afterwards we’re funnelled back out of the ground, the players are clapping the fans, but the steward needs us out so I’m gone before they get to us. Once out of the stadium, out of the grips of The Rules, people remove their masks and trudge back to their cars, I’ve missed that trudge more than I could have imagined. We’re not quite back in the old routine yet, but just being back will do for now.