It’s the 25th anniversary of our 1996 promotion; presumably the club would’ve done something to mark the occasion in another year, but it seems to have passed quietly. I realise now that the nineties was similar to how my parents experienced the sixties. It was a cultural explosion and a time of happy abandon. 1996 was pretty much its peak – as well as our promotion in May, Euro 96 was in June and Oasis’ era-defining concert at Knebworth in August. It wasn’t for everyone, but it was a pretty special time.
Understandably, the ‘96 promotion is held up as a halcyon campaign, a benchmark of what can be achieved. It pivoted on a remarkable end of season run which took us from mid-table to second in a period of a few months.
The defining moment was an Easter double-header against Blackpool on the Saturday and Wycombe on the following Monday. The contrast between the two games couldn’t have been more stark. The Blackpool game was tense and tight, cold and grey, at Wycombe, it was springlike, joyous and carefree. The two wins, with Joey Beauchamp’s 35 yard smasher and Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar transformed the run from one of hope to one of expectation.
After a 1-1 draw with Notts County we seemed to smash through every barrier put in front of us; 2-0 against Bristol City, 6-0 against Shrewsbury, 2-1 against Crewe and a promotion securing 4-0 win against Peterborough. Blackpool picked up two points in the same period – a story which is often forgotten – they contrived to lose the last three games of the season meaning we were promoted by a point.
You’ll often hear reference to this campaign when we’re hovering outside the play-offs with indifferent form. It’s like the 5-5 draw with Portsmouth in 1992 – there are fans who stay to the bitter end of games just because of that game. It doesn’t matter what mess you’re in, there’s always a chance.
This season has felt like one of those that needs to be constantly referenced back to 1996; we just need a run like that one to give us the momentum to propel us in the play-offs. Then, you never know.
The only similarity with ‘96 is that this weekend’s Easter fixtures seem to have been pivotal in setting a final descent to where we’ll end up this year. Unlike in 96, it’s some way off where we want to be.
Yesterday’s defeat to Accrington, following Friday’s defeat to Sunderland, confirmed what’s been coming for a long time. We weren’t completely awful, we just weren’t quite firing. But, we’ve lived in hope of a 1996-style revival and dramatic run to success. For weeks we’ve been ‘only three points’ off the play-offs ignoring the fact that, at the top of the table, you need to win two to three games for every point you need to claw back.
The 1996 mindset, coupled with the 2010 play-off, another promotion secured at the last gasp, seems to have created a mindset that this is the way we, Oxford United, get promoted. Resulting from an extraordinary run, a pivotal moment, by the skin of our teeth. That seems to be the Oxford way.
But promotion don’t need to be like that, it doesn’t need to be against the odds, the best teams don’t sneak their way to success, they become an unrelenting winning machines. That focus, gives you the headroom in case something fails. At the moment, one mistake or a couple of injuries, and we’re out of it.
What does that mean in practice? We need to develop a nasty streak. We are incredibly easy to like; we play good football, we’re entertaining to watch, we treat our fans well. Our young players get their chance to develop, local players are regulars, there are few, if any, players that we don’t like.
Karl Robinson will often refer back to the all-conquering Liverpool team of the mid-eighties. In some ways he sees Oxford being the centre of a community in the way Liverpool were then. But, they were also a nasty team; physical, bullying, unrelentingly demanding. John Aldridge, no wall flower and very much a successful Liverpool player in that era found the atmosphere around the club intimidating. As a player, if you didn’t meet the squads exacting standards, you were rejected from the pack.
It’s a choice, ultimately, do we evolve slowly, sticking to our values, taking our chances when they come, or do we demand success and become intolerant to failure? If we choose that path, it’s going to be difficult and disruptive, players we like become assets that need to perform or leave. It makes me uncomfortable to be like that, there are few players I’d want to show the door because they’re not good enough, but the reality is that they’re demonstrably not good enough.
We don’t need to follow that path, of course, we can continue in our current vein and I’m torn. History tells us that there will be opportunities and successes down this path. While they’re great when they come, patience is everything. When you consider we haven’t won a league title for 36 years you have to think; how long do we tolerate the Oxford Way?