I’ve watched more of Oxford United this season than any other year. The only League, FA or League Cup game I’ve missed was our home draw to Hull City. I mused at the time about what would it take to break the spell of logging into games. It’s not as if time, distance, money or the opportunity to do something else was going to determine my availability to attend.
We’re led to believe that as proper fans we shouldn’t be able to get enough football, it flows through our veins. In fact, if you don’t consume it in vast quantities, you are not a proper fan.
I can’t think of anything else which you are expected to love and, at the same time, never have enough of. Everyone needs a break from their family, children, partners and we love them no less because of it. I love curries and yoghurt, but the prospect of eating them all the time in vast quantities is daunting.
When the team was announced yesterday, there was an instant buzz of speculation. I’ve said before that I tend to look at who’s playing up front, everyone else pretty much looks the same every week. The team is like breakfast TV presenters; I’ve only recently realised that they change throughout the week and that there’s even a pattern to their working week. If you’d asked me who presents BBC Breakfast, I’d have said that Charlie Stayt, Naga Munchetty, Louise Minchin and Dan Walker were on every day. Turns out there’s a rotation system.
Aficionados of the game’s tactical nuances buzzed at Dan Agyei playing on the wing and Anthony Forde in a slightly advanced wing-back role, and the appearance in midfield of Joe Grayson in midfield. A groupthink evolved at the gravitas of the experiment.
Perhaps, though, the reasoning for the selection was simpler; we have Lincoln City on Friday and injuries to key players. In theory, even a slightly weakened team should have been competitive against a team in Northampton’s position, so saving your best assets for the tougher game at the end of the week makes a lot of sense. The tactical adjustments, maybe, was not part of some grand revolution, but an attempt to get a little bit more out of what Karl Robinson had available. A bit like dinner on a Thursday when all you’ve got is a cauliflower, half a pot of cream and the prawn cocktail crisps nobody eats from the multipack. You have to experiment to get something that isn’t a bland inedible mess.
It didn’t work, of course, but this was our 18th game in two months; that’s the equivalent of 40% of the season in 20% of the time. It’s not as if there’s been a lot of variety in that to carry us through; no big crowds or cup games to make the sequence feel less relentless. Add to that the everyday challenges of a lockdown, which will impact the players as much as it does anyone else. It’s not surprising that we’re mentally and physically fatigued by the season, I’m tired just being anchored to the iFollow schedule. Last week Karl Robinson talked about taking the hand brake off, which I agree with in principle, but it’s similar to saying how lockdown offers a great opportunity to learn a new skill. Nice idea, but in reality do I have the energy to learn to crochet?
Add to this that there’ll be players who know their time at the club is coming to an end or that their injuries will only allow them to make a token effort as the season reaches its conclusion. It just feels like it’s catching up.
It was always likely that teams would reach this point earlier than in previous seasons; the normal buzz of playing in front of a crowd isn’t there, the prospect of it producing of gaining a promotion or play-off spot ebbs away, it’s just game after game after game.
But maybe we need to be kind, perhaps we need to recognise that the players and management face the same challenges that we do. They’re not pantomime horses there to be flogged until they’re no longer of use to us. It was always possible that this would become the season that never was and that the goal was as much about surviving as thriving. Maybe there’s more to come before the year is out, but maybe not. And maybe that’s OK.