I’ve come to realise that I don’t really watch games; I feel them. Only being at a game secures my attention and even then I can be easily distracted by what’s happening outside the Vue cinema. I don’t mean that I summons the spirits of Ricky Sappleton and Kristaps Grebis, Jimi Hendrix style. I mean I don’t have the patience for tactics or positioning; I would need to consciously figure out which wing Brandon Barker plays down. If a game is boring, I’m very likely to be reaching for my phone as it progresses in the background.
On Saturday I was invited to go on BBC Radio Oxford’s Wasn’t At The Game Show. This is their new post-match discussion programme and not, as I had to explain to a friend, a gameshow. I said yes and did what all normal people do; panicked that I didn’t have a single opinion or be able to string a sentence together. Mass media broadcasting is not my safe space, to be honest, I wouldn’t even list being with other humans as a forte.
Not wanting to be the sole reason for the government to #defundthebbc, I had to concentrate on the Plymouth game. I’d decided that it was the worst game to choose; every conceivable outcome was still in play; it could be a discussion about our play-off tilt or how we came up short. Key players were missing, would that be the central issue or perhaps those coming in would step up and have a defining breakthrough moment.
From the outset, the strategy seemed reassuringly obvious; Plymouth have been conceding a hatful of goals, but were in no danger of going down (I looked that up), we could use the pace of Dan Agyei and Mide Shodipo to get at them and break their feeble resistance. If we could get a goal or two, we could control things with the likes of Gorrin, Forde and Hanson coming off the bench to see the game out. Just call me Paul Merson.
Chances came early; we were getting the ball forward quickly down the flanks. It just needed a bit of quality, a James Henry moment, to make the breakthrough. Except James Henry wasn’t there, and that was the missing piece, that moment of quality. Step up Elliot Lee with a fiendish free-kick, a nightmare to defend: 1-0.
Despite the chances, they weren’t a busted flush, we needed more, I might end up looking at my phone when things aren’t going well and we sometimes assume footballers are uncaring mercenaries metaphorically doing the same, but you can’t play the game professionally without an innate sense of competitiveness.
The second goal didn’t come, we hadn’t broken them; the inevitable lull came immediately after half-time. In the plan, I imagine we were hoping to be keeping the ball and take the sting out of the game, if we could get to the hour mark we could bring on our defensive minded players to lock things down.
Instead, they began to press, we began to buckle. We were stuck between sticking to the plan and going for another goal. Like Glenn Close waking up in the bath in Fatal Attraction; was their efforts a last gasp of breath or do we need to strike the final blow? This is what we’ve missed this season, someone to make those decisions on the pitch. Before we knew it, it was 1-1 and the season was coming to an end.
Relieved of the quandary, the maths simplified; we needed another goal. The equaliser at that time, when there was time to do something about it, was just what we needed. We could have regressed and conceded in the 85th minute when there wasn’t time to react. Instead, we woke up, we’re at our best when we’re instinctive, going for goals, attacking for fun. We are nothing if not entertaining.
And that’s what we did, attacking their brittle defence, which is a real house of straw; a quick puff, a moment of quality from Mark Sykes and another from Matty Taylor and it’s 2-1. Sykes is a player I’ve struggled to characterise, I’d always assumed he’d be like Gavin Whyte – they’re both Irish, you know – but I actually think he could become more of a James Henry, linking and controlling the tempo.
The third confirmed the execution of a well made plan and the move to fifth, FIFTH? I logged onto Zoom to friendly acknowledgements from Robyn Cowen, Stevie Kinniburgh and Nick Harris. Cowen is part of a vanguard of female commentators – normalising what was once inconceivable – and a champion of the women’s game, Kinniburgh, a breath of on-air, fresh air this season and a natural analyst and Nick Harris is Nick Harris the voice of Oxford football for decades. Now the idiot had joined the meeting.
They were unpicking the outcome of the day; who had games in hand? Against who? Jerome Sale joined the meeting, the discussion started, I opened my mouth and a sentence of vague coherence came out. They nodded reassuringly and we were off.
I’d half expected an hour trying to figure out what a high press was, and who’d been running the channels, I still don’t really know what those things are. But, instead it was a friendly conversation with people who I felt I knew, but had never met. I sat in wonder as Kinniburgh tried to articulate every connotation of the outcome of the league. Enjoyed Cowan’s off-mic joking about how Karl Robinson would react to the result. Nick Harris still talks with a childlike enthusiasm for the club; just before we started I saw him telling someone excitedly off camera ‘We’re fifth, yeah, FIFTH!’ – there’s no performance in him – you imagine him having the same conversations in the pub as he does on the radio. He just seems happy to be guiding another generation of Oxford fans through the ups and downs of following the club. Jerome Sale was more analytical, like many of us, he can’t see a path to the play-offs with others’ games in hand, but, to paraphrase Kevin Keegan, you know ‘he’d love it if we do’. The quartet together represent us all – analysts and enthusiasts, pragmatists and dreamers, clued up and clueless.
The time whizzed by, I just about held it together and enjoyed a conversation with genuinely nice, like-minded people. Somehow I thought they’d have it all figured out, but they’re like all of us, excited and fearful, optimistic and pessimistic. They’re trying to find the solution, to know the outcome of the season before it reveals itself, like us they’re looking for an inflection in the voice of Karl Robinson or a historical parallel to explain what will happen next. Be reassured, they’re fans and they’re feeling it too.