Perhaps the unique thing about Micky Lewis’ passing yesterday was that it would have had an effect on almost every Oxford fan. When ex-players and managers die, it can often only impact the proportion of supporters who saw the person live. With Lewis, you might remember him from his playing days barrelling around the midfield disrupting the flow of his opponents, but for others he was the bow legged bowling ball standing aside Chris Wilder on the touchline.
Even Jim Smith’s death in 2019, to some, was the passing of an abstract legend rather than a person, plus it wasn’t unexpected, he was 79 after all. We all know someone who is around Micky’s age, or we might be that person.
So, it’s no real surprise that the news engulfed the game against Charlton Athletic. I remember when Martin Aldridge died in 2000, who was just 25 at the time, the first Saturday home game was ironically against Blackpool, the team he was contracted to at the time. It offered an opportunity for the community to come together, the game was a focal point for all the confusing thoughts that go through your head when something like that happens.
These are difficult emotions – yes, there’s sadness about the person’s passing and sympathy for those it affects directly, but there’s also a calibration of your own mortality, a sadness about the passing of time and the guilt that you’re making it about you. None of these emotions are wrong; they just clamber over each other while you’re trying to process them.
Had we been able to go to the ground, there would have been an opportunity to remind ourselves that life does continue, that what you’re feeling is the same as what other people are feeling and that this is all OK. Football has always been about community and mental health; the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off evolved from the fact that factories would close at lunchtime and the workers would go to games as a way of letting off steam and recovering from the working week. They didn’t recognise it at the time, but it was a form of communal therapy in the same way a trip down the pub is.
Except of course we can’t go to grounds, we have to hide away and the process of reconciliation that we all need remains incomplete. For all the good football does, not going to football is better, for now. But, we’re all tired of it and it feels like the squad are beginning to tire both mentally and physically after a massively challenging year.
At the start of the season you could see how easy it would be to disengage if things weren’t working out well. In normal times, even in defeat, a game gives you something, something about routine and communion. Without that and without the results, it’s difficult to make the case for engaging with games beyond a deep muscle memory that you’re a supporter so you need to support.
It must be the same for players, for some they may be seeking a move or sensing the end of their contract. A defeat in an empty stadium is not likely to make much difference to anything. Motivation has to come from elsewhere.
As we enter Spring and the period of reckoning for the season, it looks like we don’t quite have enough to make it to the play-offs and it feels like we’re just a couple of bad results from cruising into the summer when we can recharge and hopefully complete the process back to normality.
Both Charlton and Peterborough were entertaining games and there was plenty to admire, it’s a massive credit to the manager and players that in what must be an eerie atmosphere that they are able to muster the motivation to keep going and play at the level they do. It would certainly be easier not to, for the season to ebb away.
Fitting, perhaps, that the game ended with a spectacular penalty save from Jack Stevens. I feel very sad for Simon Eastwood and the way his Oxford career appears to be winding down, but Stevens has been brilliant. His save illustrates the rewards of the work and dedication he’s put in. Penalty saves are easily dismissed, they’re often ‘at a good height’ and the keeper ‘guessed the right way’ but without the years of dedication, Stevens wouldn’t have had the agility to reach the kick even if the taker did give him the opportunity to make the save. Being a back up goalkeeper must be the hardest of all, there must have been times when over-taking Eastwood seemed impossible. But, he’s kept going and there’s no doubt he’s worthy of the number one slot and the plaudits he got from the save.
I remember being on the London Road during Micky Lewis’ time in the early nineties, we weren’t enthralled by the commitment of that team, ‘Horton-out’ would regularly tumble from the stands. We would moan and vent our anger at every conceded goal. Our financial problems were no excuse. But perhaps, we need to remember that even if the results don’t go our way and we don’t achieve our lofty ambition, there is still lots to appreciate from the hard work and dedication that keep the club going through trying times.