I was anxious about going on Saturday. The advice has been somewhat hazy – there’s been a vertiginous growth in covid cases driven by a new mutant strain, but you can still go to nightclubs. Nightclubs? For all I know the bloke who sits next to me could have been grinding away to club bangers with covid’s equivalent of Typhoid Mary. He’s in his seventies, but still.
All morning I waited for the news that the game had been postponed. Pretty much every other game had gone, and I figured it was only a matter of time before the Football League jacked the whole thing in. We seem to be creeping towards more restrictions as cases rise and it seems likely we’ll be back to iFollow before long. Unless you’re a ding dong who thinks this is a grand conspiracy, any debate about controls (not restrictions) is a euphemistic discussion on acceptable levels of death and suffering. If you’re against controls, then you accept large amounts of death, if you accept controls (few people are ‘pro’-them) then your tolerance to death is much lower. There’s no right answer to this, so rather than talking about abstract ideas of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ – let’s just debate what the number should be.
I digress. I figured as we’d be outside and there’d be a crowd but it wouldn’t be crowded, I’d go, I’m more worried about spreading the virus than catching it, and I haven’t been anywhere for a week, so on balance I figured it was OK. It might be last time in a while. During The Plague, theatres shut every winter to prevent viral spread, we might be experiencing the same sort of cycle.
I snaked my way through the sparsely populated SSU concourse, and into the stand, the person sat nearest to me was three seats away. Brinyhoof had prioritised family over football, the weirdo, and my usual seventy-year old neighbour was still extracting himself from the fumblings of Typhoid Mary. Perhaps.
It’s ironic that the game probably only went ahead because the away fixture last month didn’t. We’d been goaded for not playing the game against Wigan even though we didn’t have a fit goalkeeper, the pressure to show we were made of sterner stuff was too great. In reality, covid had ripped through the squad again, but you sense Karl Robinson felt he had a point to make in completing the fixture. Objectively, with four new cases, including Herbie Kane, Cameron Brannagan and Luke McNally, and a total of ten players out, we were surely within our rights to call for a postponement.
Our pride came before another fall; I looked over to the players warming up on the far side to see someone rolling around on the floor. Players muck around during warm-ups all the time, last week at MK Dons Karl Robinson lined up Simon Eastwood and Craig Short mid warm-up to find out who was tallest, and it initially looked like it was just more high-jinks. It was clear from the reaction of the coaches that something more serious was up. It couldn’t have been more serious; James Henry limped down the tunnel and suddenly we were eleven players down with just thirteen available who had first team experience.
Wigan were big, a great expanse that filled the pitch – it was like hobbits attacking orcs at Mordor. Only Elliott Moore looked like he could compete physically, like he’d been adopted as a baby to join our diminutive ranks. In the opening minutes we moved the ball around, finding gaps and making some early progress. The efforts only administered flesh wounds; if we broke one line, there was another one to slay. We couldn’t take them all.
You can see that Wigan are built for promotion; there are no bells and whistles, no deep philosophy, they’re a unit designed to generate results. They don’t feel they belong in League 1 and aren’t going to waste any energy trying leave a legacy that will live long in the memory of those left behind. Someone on the radio described it as anti-football, but football has never been solely based on entertainment, otherwise results would be decided by a jury, like in Strictly. You’ve got to enjoy the narrative – we were fast and clever, they were organised and strong.
Despite our early promise, a Wigan corner played to the back post caused mayhem as it was headed back into the centre for Will Kean to nod home. Twenty minutes later; Steve Seddon’s defensive header had all the strength of a toddler throwing a bowling ball. It lopped half-heartedly into the path of Max Power who slammed home for 2-0.
It was ominously efficient; we had the arsenal to compete, but maybe not for ninety minutes and certainly not to come back from a two-goal deficit. At what point would the collective spirit evaporate and write the game off? And when that happens, what damage might they do to us?
Some couldn’t watch, making for the exits as Wigan celebrated, the dark clouds of 2017 were gathering. Back then, the players had been thumped over the head by Pep Clotet’s ultra-technical playbook too many times and Wigan’s machinery rolled through us, crushing any remnants of pride with seven goals. Now, again, there seemed little to play for and it was starting to look like a question of how many they might score.
But Karl Robinson’s Oxford is a different beast, the orcs were winning, we were taking on board casualties, but we were not going down without a fight. As if the preceding half-an-hour hadn’t happened, we continued to dance through their defences. This time the combinations worked as Bodin, Whyte, Taylor interplayed to give Ryan Williams an opening to guide the ball home for 2-1. The people who’d left in disgust snuck back into their seats. We can see you sneaking in, we should have sung.
Bodin and Williams have both had fitful seasons, but were fully committed to the fight, there was no sulking, no capitulation, though you’d have forgiven them if there had been. Sometimes its not the first-teamer who tell you about the spirit of the squad, it’s those on the sidelines.
The goal galvanised the crowd, the usual sedate contented atmosphere at the Kassam gave way to one with more snap, more venom. Our tails were up and we had wrongs to right. The Wigan machine didn’t look vulnerable, just a bit cumbersome. For all they gain in power, they lose in agility. When the battlements hold firm they look impenetrable, but we’d found their weakness, the ventilation shaft in their Death Star, to mix megabucks film franchise metaphors.
The game moved at breakneck speed; we got to the hour mark looking on par, both teams now beginning to flag under the constant pressure, but you didn’t sense a truce was coming. They would soon hook their damaged and exhausted resources and bring in refreshed replacements. We had Dan Agyei, after that we were looking at veterans and children to take the fight on.
On the hour Anthony Forde, another fringe player, picked out a long ball on the right flank cutting inside and slid in a brilliant cross for Matty Taylor to equalise. I’ve criticised senior players for a lack of obvious leadership on the field, but Taylor has grown this season, he’s not just a hired gun, he’s talismanic. Impossible, improbable, glorious, everything has gone against us and it’s 2-2. We’re slaying the orcs.
Agyei’s introduced, and that’s it, that’s the totality of our reinforcements. We continue to look dangerous; even as the energy levels flash red, we look more likely to get the winner even though they always look capable of delivering one fatal blow. That moment comes with four minutes to go. James McClean, a Republic of Ireland international with nearly 90 caps, powers down the left flank – he represents a depth of ability we can’t compete with, not today. He cuts inside and drives home for the winner. His momentum takes him behind the goal where he arrogantly celebrates in front of the Oxford fans. In his moment of ecstasy he doesn’t realise that his winner is a hollow sham; his well-resourced promotion machine have scraped past a ramshackle ensemble of fringe players playing out of position. What a hero.
The whistle goes, the players drop to the floor. All that effort for nothing. But is it? When you strip away the results, the star players and the meticulous plans you see something of the real spirit in the club. Players with the will to put in maximum effort when they had every reason to cave in, fans roaring them on when they could have justifiably stayed at home. A defeat, perhaps, but one which revealed much about what we’ve become as a club.