I don’t often write a post with a pre-conceived idea of how it might turn out. I usually write to figure out what I think rather than communicate a fully formed idea.
When I wrote about Micky Lewis at the weekend, it made me think about his contribution to the club. It’s easy to label him a legend, but why? He didn’t score crucial goals, lift trophies or manage us to promotion. In many ways, he was unremarkable; omnipresent but never a star. And yet, the impact of his death has hit harder than most.
He helped steer us through of two of the deepest crises the club have faced; the death of Robert Maxwell in 1991 and our period in the Conference. It seems trite to say he always gave 100% through those times, but he genuinely did. What’s remarkable is how long he managed to, emotionally and physically, sustain that effort when it would have been easier, and understandable, to give up. He seemed able to regulate himself so that he could give 100% without ever running out of energy.
That’s been a big theme this season; the empty stadiums have tested everyone’s motivation. The beauty of the Oxford Swindon derby is that it’s hidden from mainstream view; an illicit bare knuckle fight in a dank underground car park. Last night’s game should have been another secret gathering in an epic feud; a broiling mess of nerves in the run-up and the Stretton Bank full and noisy on the night itself.
But, there was no build up, no clamour for tickets, nobody tweeting about their journey, no great cavalcade of yellow down the A420. Derby games should start weeks in advance, I bought my iFollow pass twenty minutes before kick-off.
Instead, the empty County Ground looked tired, the pitch deluged with water from the sprinklers; an ugly spoiler tactic designed to bog us down and kill the spectacle. In the super-low-definition of my internet stream, the vibrancy of the derby was sucked dry.
I can’t pretend I was excited or nervous, the seven-in-a-row bubble had burst. We’d already died on that particular hill, although it had been pleasingly sullied by the laughably amateurish commemorative merchandise, like a desperate husband spoiling a romantic night-in with some highly flammable ill-fitting see-through negligee he’d bought off the market for £3.99.
There was a dull ache; a looking-forward-to-it/not-looking-forward-to-it vibe. There was still more to lose than to gain; we’ve established ourselves as the dominant force in the relationship, we’re not the plucky battlers who find glory in defeat, we had to re-establish The Way Things Are or face deepening humiliation.
Mustering the motivation was only part of it, we also had to regulate our energy; this season we’ve flooded our opponents and been caught out as we were against Swindon in November and MK Dons last month. Against better teams we’ve been forced to temper our enthusiasm to get forward and looked better because of it, but that was because of them, not us. Finding that controlled aggression on our terms has been an issue.
They were there to be beaten; their form is abject; their culture is toxic and their business is in turmoil. The challenge was not about them but us; to balance our natural exuberance with the need to sustain ourselves to a successful end.
Typically, we started like a train; better teams have double and treble-teamed Brandon Barker, letting him burn himself out until he’s no longer a threat. Swindon seemed unprepared for his pace, giving him space to knock the ball and run, gifting him a freedom he hasn’t had before. Just three minutes in, an effortless raking cross field pass from Elliott Moore pulled the Swindon defence apart allowing Barker to cut inside and drill home for 1-0.
The goal ignited Steve Kinniburgh in the commentary box, the aural equivalent of limbs on the Stretton Bank. Kinniburgh is the Oxford Mail Stand to his South Stand Upper colleagues. He’s perfect for these times, filling the gaps, roaring approval, growling in despair, riding the rollercoaster we all desperately want to be on. Suddenly, it was feeling more like a derby.
On the pitch the intensity continued to flow. Mark Sykes can sometimes look like he’s enjoying a game on his own in the park; but he powered into a challenge drawing a melee of players. Rather than be sucked in, he wandered around impassively while others pushed and shoved, it probably saved him from the red card Karl Robinson says he deserved.
Minutes later Elliott Moore was hacked down and the players came together again. If there’d been fans in the ground, they’d have been baying for blood. You don’t like to see players fighting, but really, you do, and especially tonight. The intensity was there and yet it still felt like we were in control of our emotions. That controlled aggression kept them occupied and wore them down but not at the expense of burning us out; a style right out of the Micky Lewis playbook.
In reality, the difference between the two teams was vast, but even those chasms aren’t always be enough; a flailing leg in the box threatened to scupper all the good work that preceded it. If there was any doubt before, the spot kick confirmed the end of one era and the beginning of the next. From those final ghastly moments in November to another wonderfully athletic save from Jack Stevens; the gloves have passed from one generation to the next.
Even before the kick was taken, that felt like a blip, like we still had more to come, even if they’d got back on terms. We weren’t burnt out and hanging on like in November, there was no sense of foreboding. If we had to go again, we would. It felt like they’d expended everything just to stay with us, but we had another gear to come.
That came eight minutes from time; all the groundwork of the previous eighty minute opened the play up for Dan Agyei. His strength and pace exploited their world weariness to double the lead. He wheeled away, celebrating in the same spot Rob Hall did when slamming home his winner four years ago.
The last-minute consolation was the death throe of a felled and weakened beast. Once upon a time Swindon were a seething monster we had to fell with guile and cunning, now they’re broken and beaten. The late goal heightened the pulse slightly, but you never really got the sense they believed that they could muster an equaliser.
A derby win to a redress of a momentary imbalance through the cold, controlled execution of a plan. A performance delivered on our terms; committed and intense, but with the staying power to seeing the job through. A proper job; Micky would have approved.