I don’t remember a lot about our eight game winning streak in 1982/83 – the last time we won more than six in a row – but I do remember bits. I remember the 5-2 win over Folkstone in the FA Cup because Folkestone was where we caught the ferry to go on holiday and I couldn’t fathom why they’d have a football team. I remember beating Newport 2-1 because we went a goal down and Radio Oxford got the ‘prayer mat’ out; something they’d do if we needed a bit of luck. When we equalised I shouted in my kitchen ‘COME ON OXFORD’ to the obvious amusement of our neighbour raking leaves in the garden next door. I also remember the run ending in a cup game against Torquay; their mascot had ‘½’ on the back of their shirt, which I thought was hilarious. Don’t look at me like that, I was young.
I do remember the feeling; like we were in a pocket of air with no resistance. We breezed through games, nothing was too difficult we were floating, weightless. I got a similar sense of that last season when we beat Lincoln, West Ham and Gillingham. And yes, that was only last season.
I’m not getting the same feeling from the current run. Partially, because it’s been so fragmented with postponements but mostly because we are not of it, we are not within it, we are watchers from afar.
I know I’m not alone in feeling this lockdown more than the previous ones, football fans are winter-people, football, for me, straightens out the wrinkles and frustrations of the working week. Working can be complex and frustrating; football and going to games, is simple and unifying. In the winter, when it’s dark, cold and gloomy and those frustrations hide in the shadows, the weekend’s game is a beacon. As mentally refreshing as any spar weekend. I know people who don’t like football and hate winter, I’ve always loved it, particularly January. Where they look to the skies to see if the sun is lingering a little longer, signalling the oncoming of spring, I just have to look to the floodlights each weekend to provide direction.
There’s no doubt I prefer a lockdown with football than without, I look forward to the game and enjoy the wins, but I don’t lose myself when the ball hits the back of the net and, at the final whistle, I unplug my laptop from the TV and get on with whatever needs doing. I miss walking down the concrete steps and getting mildly frustrated behind a hobbling septuagenarian who descends like they’re returning from the summit of Everest. I miss walking past a shadowy group catching up on the day’s results… ‘I see Plymouth won again…’ without ever knowing why that might be important to them.
I’ve no doubt the players feel the same; playing football each weekend will still bring them purpose and fulfilment, but the sense of occasion is gone. I doubt many footballers try to articulate their cultural purpose, but I bet they miss it when it’s not there.
I see Oxford fans on Twitter sharing the odd conspiracy theory about Covid, snippets of data and information that appear to confirm what everyone desperately wants; a lessening of its threat and a return to normal. But building that narrative only makes it worse, we begin to believe what is not true; that this will magically disappear or that the risks are overstated, and that will just mean the road to recovery will be longer and more painful. It’s a bit like the woman I read about in a local paper a couple of years ago who turned down chemotherapy in preference for a diet of carrots to fight her cancer. Yes, really and no, it didn’t work. The loss of prominent Oxford fans to the virus surely brings it home that this isn’t some abstract threat, it’s very real and immediate.
I know that data is misinterpreted, I know the virus is real, but I still look to the horizons for a glimmer of hope that this will simply end and the world will click back into place. It’s only natural. I want to go back to games, we have away games at Ipswich, MK Dons and Swindon coming up, in our current form, these would have been epic adventures.
But, the prospect of returning to normal this season seems to ebb away with every passing day. Perhaps a very limited number of people will be allowed in during late spring, but surely the government will be more cautious this time and the unlocking will be so gradual, the season will be nearly over by the time it’s safe to return.
At work, we’re currently planning on six month cycles, nobody is planning their next career move, they’re not even planning their next summer holiday. To cast too far forward just brings uncertainty, regret and anxiety. The answer, then, is to pull back; did we get through today? Are we OK right now?
It’s much the same with this season; our regret comes from not being immersed in the narrative, the feeling of detachment creates a feeling of more detachment. Rather than pining for the whole – a late season charge to the play-offs, an away day for the ages, we just need to take each game as it comes, however it comes. The days will turn into weeks, which turn into months and into years and gradually everything changes.
Perhaps just taking each game at a time is how we’ve dragged ourselves back into form. It feels like the current run has sneaked up on us. The Swindon defeat, our last loss, was so brutal it could easily have signalled the end of our season. Just keep clear of relegation and sack off the season as a whole. Instead, yesterday we looked fluid and cohesive, we’re no longer chasing shadows, we’re playing on the front foot, confidence flowed through everything we did. It’s massive credit to the players and manager that they’ve turned it round. There are tougher games to come, but improbably, the play-offs don’t seem such a distant prospect. The win was great, I just missed that feeling of my toes thawing out in the car on the way home.