These are unprecedented times, as they say, although, in a sense they’re not. There have been pandemics and epidemics before; lots of them. It’s just that most of us haven’t experienced them; although Derek Fazackerley experienced a polio lockdown in the 1960s, the only people old enough to have experienced the Spanish Flu pandemic probably can’t remember what they had for breakfast. A lack of collective experience is particularly damaging; one of the theories around China’s effective tackling of coronavirus is their experience of SARs, we on the other hand, were slow to realise that these things are real and tangible.
Watching It’s A Sin, the Russell T Davies drama about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, you’re reminded of all the same issues. The dismissal of its impact and belief it couldn’t happen to you. There’s a sequence detailing the conspiracy theories surrounding it, it’s possible there’s some dramatic licence to illustrate a contemporary point, but I definitely remember the conspiracies about its origins in monkeys and that it only effected gay people. It was an effective defensive mechanism as most of us weren’t gay monkey shaggers. On the other hand, I remember once seeing a packet of condoms in the bathroom of my grandparents (I mean, ew!). My grandad was a scientist; logic was his stock-in-trade and he knew we were all at risk.
Reading about the QAnon theory; a wild conspiracy encompassing everything from coronavirus to a left-wing cabal of pedophiles which has gripped parts of America, there are similar issues. The world is complicated – particularly at the moment – and regardless of your financial position, life can be hard. Figuring it out is beyond any one of us. We think we find clues, add them to things which look like they make sense, construct a world that works for us. AIDS and gay people, coronavirus and mortality data, QAnon and American election conspiracies, even Brexit and who is to blame for what is just one big conspiracy. If you share it on the internet, and you get a like or a reply, it’s like scoring a point, if your theory is extreme but gains traction, you can become seduced by the power and status it gives you.
It’s possible to construct and entire alternative reality, confirmed and expanded by people who are just like you. That confirmation turns nonsense theories into facts. Supporting a football club is a great example; most Oxford supporters nowadays never went to The Manor, but we share its mysticism and its part in slaying the giants of the game in the 1980s. We sing songs about being the by far greatest team in the world the world has ever seen, when we go to games, we go in expectation of a win every time. We confirm all these things even though we lost plenty of games at The Manor, are probably not the greatest team and will lose at least as many as we win.
We constructed a similar alternative reality around Fleetwood Town, after seven years of trying, they couldn’t be beaten. What’s more, there was no out-ball – at least the supposed Southend hoodoo had the distant memory of a Mark Rawle goal to act as a reminder that they could be beaten.
There’s little logic to hoodoos, perhaps Fleetwood’s geography makes it a slightly harder away trip on players and fans making a win more difficult, but that can’t explain all of it. Nobody who was involved in our first defeat to them is involved now, of course, so why would beating Fleetwood be so apparently impossible? The easiest answer is to build a conspiracy theory that they hold some kind of hex over us.
As well as the fact we’ve never beaten them and that they’re over 200 miles away I think it’s partially to do with Fleetwood as a club. Their ascent through the leagues has been artificially accelerated by cash investment, but despite being one of the success stories of the modern age, their back story is fantastically dull. There’s no celebrity owner like Salford, no scandal like MK Dons, no big cup upsets that have put them on the map, they’ve just stealthily moved up the league. It’s like the mass murderer who kept himself to himself, they’re quite creepy. I think I was slightly scared of what they could do to us, in fact the sending off of Charlie Mulgrew was quite a shock because it revealed they had a vulnerability, even if it was just to the rules of the game.
But it’s over, this season’s weirdness has broken many hexes and hoodoos, perhaps the lack of a crowd and the collective conspiracy theory it carried around has helped. We didn’t lug that baggage into Saturday’s game, it didn’t seep into the dressing room, Fleetwood were what they are; just another struggling, beatable League 1 team. We could have made it easier for ourselves, but I never thought they looked a threat.
That’s eight wins in a row now and we are in uncharted waters. If we win on Tuesday, and that is entirely possible, as far as I can tell (and my stats radar has been a bit off recently) that’s an all-time club record going back to, at least, the war. We’re no longer looking at our own records for clues to navigate this period, but national records – it appears that the all-time record is 14, but the fourth longest streak is 11.
We’re not far away, but it would still be a gargantuan task to reach eleven – perhaps as difficult to pick up those final three wins, as accumulate the first eight. Winning three games on the bounce is hard enough, plus, no team will under-estimate us now and we’ll only need a couple of players to lose a bit of form or get lulled into a false sense of superiority to turn a win into a draw or defeat.
Which means we are fairly close to having to manage the debunking of an entirely different conspiracy theory – the one that says we’re unbeatable. One pressure that isn’t there is the lack of a crowd; the sequence might have put a 1000 or more on the gate on Tuesday; the scramble for tickets against Doncaster and Bristol Rovers would have been huge. But, although the run crept up on us, this sequence will be quite a bubble to pop when it comes. The true test, and best indicator of whether this is a freakish sequence or indication of something more sustainable, will be how we respond when it ends. Are we the lunatic that sprints at the front of the London marathon for a few hundred yards just to get on TV or are we one of the elite runners? The next few games will tell us more.