Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Portsmouth 2

In October 2017, an anonymous poster named ‘Q’ warned of a ‘calm before the storm’ on the online message board 4Chan. 4Chan users could post anonymously and without censure and it had become a heathen soup of racism, anti-Semitism and child pornography, an infinite game of one-downsmanship. The more grotesque the fantasy, the better it performed. For the disenfranchised and marginalised, it became home.

‘Q’ was a reference to a level of high security clearance in the US government. Through a series of posts, they painted a picture of an evil cabal of child eating paedophiles – including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – at the heart of US establishment. Q was fighting a secret war to have them brought to justice and executed and for Donald Trump to take America into a new utopia.

It was a hit, users played along, Q’s posts were vague enough allow them to be analysed and embellished. The best ideas – usually the darkest and most fantastical – took on a life of their own. 

The lucrative US conspiracy market got wind of Q’s success and started to promote it more widely. Donald Trump spotted its pro-Trump sentiment and gave it legitimacy. When the pandemic hit, and Q linked it to the great conspiracy, it offered a confused and frightened world a simplistic explanation. QAnon, as became was known, offered an alternative world which made sense because it’d been entirely made up. On January 6th thousands of people stormed the US Capitol, many carrying banners saying ‘Q Sent Me’. An alternative world had been created and people were living in it as though it were real.

I knew something was different as soon as I got to the ground on Saturday, the Grenoble Road was busy, but where I park was empty. I got out of the car and momentarily miscalculated where I was. I’ve parked there for fifteen years and managed to get lost on the way to the stadium. Perhaps that was the gateway to the another realm.

At the ground I met Dan and brinyhoof to talk podcasting. Dan updated us on his unlikely burgeoning relationship with a 90s Oxford legend. It was like that bit of the Beatles documentary where Paul McCartney creates ‘Get Back’ in front of our eyes. I wondered whether Peter Jackson might want to make an eight-hour documentary about the underwhelming podcast we might, at some point, make.

The meeting threw our timings, there was a large queue snaking out of the South Stand turnstiles. We said goodbye to Dan and joined the back of the queue. A steward asked if we were in the upper tier and ushered us in a side door. It was like we’d been invited into a special room at Olivander’s wand shop. I looked back, we were the only ones who’d been picked for special treatment, when I looked back a second time, brinyhoof had disappeared. 

For a moment, I wondered whether they’d taken him down. His arm’s in a sling from an operation, perhaps this is how they recruit stewards, by picking off the weak. Maybe in the weeks to come I’ll see him with all dead eyed in a high visibility jacket manning a fire escape.

Then he appeared, via a circuitous route and late, we were in. Nobody scanned our tickets, nobody knew we were there. Perhaps we weren’t, perhaps we’d strayed into an alternative reality.

The game started normally enough, we took the lead from Luke McNally, they equalised. Then in the centre circle, Joe Morrell’s foot went up, Cameron Brannagan’s head down, Brannagan dropped to the floor, presumably to emphasise the foul. The physios came on with a sense of urgency. Medical-football love a protocol, and anything involving a head injury triggers an emergency response, in years to come they’ll be accompanied by a full crash team. 

Ultimately it was nothing, there was a half-hearted protest, which was mostly performative. Mark Sykes gestured that Morrell had kicked Brannagan. It was like the scene in Do The Right Thing when Bugging Out’s Air Jordan’s get scuffed and his friends try to convince him it’s a racially aggravated assault. The ref didn’t seem to fall for it and wondered around calmly, then promptly sent Morrell off. Minutes later George Hirst clattered Elliott Moore in almost the same spot. Now that’s a red card. The referee seemed similarly non-plussed, but was he ready to reduce Portsmouth to nine men inside twenty minutes? No.

They’re down to ten men with 70 minutes to play, now it’s all about patience, chances will come as long as we don’t snatch at them. The game locks into a rhythm to the noisy incessant backdrop of bells and drums of the Pompey fans. It’s like being at a concert by the Acoustic Chemical Brothers.

At half-time there’s a delayed restart, a stretcher and trolley-bed are wheeled down the tunnel. Conspiracy theories are aplenty, there were fans in the tunnel. From the South Stand Lower? What were they doing, wandering around in their slippers? The cause is obliquely described as a ‘thing about a thing’ which adds to the surrealism.

The teams eventually emerge and we’re back into the rhythm; we have all the possession to find a way through. We’re so comfortable, Brinyhoof says with a chuckle ‘What minute of injury time do we think Ronan Curtis will score the winner?’ At that moment they break and the ball drops to Curtis with acres of space in the right back position. You can almost see the ghost of Scott McNiven staring disapprovingly, it feels like practically every goal this season has come from that direction. We’ve practically abandoned defending that part of the pitch: McNiven’s Pocket. Curtis fires home.

Brinyhoof spends the next few minutes questioning whether he’s acquired magical powers. It’s like Spiderman testing his spidey-senses, firing webs against the wall and listening to a couple of ants gossiping. He’s impressed and frightened by his newly acquired powers. We really are in the another realm.

Stay calm. Portsmouth build a defensive wall as blue and odious as anything the northern Tories created in the 2019 election, but Mark Sykes is finding ways around them. We just need a pass to squirm through the crowd and the chance will come. 

Stay calm. Even Karl Robinson gestures to keep cool, everyone complies apart from Cameron Brannagan. He’s booked, mopping up a Luke McNally error and has a tantrum like someone hit his GCSE art project with a cricket ball. Marcus McGuane is readied, I suggest Brannagan might be a candidate to be replaced. 

Then he fires a long-range effort, which is smartly saved, it’s not bad and raises the spirits, but it’s born from frustration. He does this when the chips are down, he takes personal responsibility to sort it out. But, we need to play as a team and be patient, get the ball into the six-yard box for Matty Taylor, that’s the rational route to goal, we never score from distance. 

Inexplicably, the Portsmouth keeper manages to kick the ball out of play five times handing back possession, but as welcome as his help is, the clock is ticking, though it’s hard to know exactly when the game will end. 

The ball falls for Brannagan again, he looks up, he’s going to do it again, an angry drive. We prepare ourselves for a dutiful ‘ooh’, maybe it’ll got for a corner. He connects, but this one is sweet and pure and blisteringly fierce. This one’s different, breaking the sound barrier from 25 yards, busting the net. 2-2, mayhem. Hope.

After everything that’s gone on, a point seems reasonable. The board goes up to indicate 10 minutes of injury time. The ref’s been a curious mix of eccentric and dutiful. He ducked the second sending off, but his totting up of delays has been meticulous. A bloke in front of us left on 70 minutes, he’ll have missed half-an-hour of football to avoid the traffic. What a life. Mind you, nobody is quite sure when we’ll get home, a couple of people are texting to cancel their evening plans.

We continue to probe, poking at the dying carcass of the game, seeking signs of life. Nathan Holland picks the ball up. He’s a Premier League academy automaton isn’t he? Detached from the mayhem, he’s programmed to create low risk, high reward chances for others. He bustles around the flank to try and get some space to get a cross in. But, this club, it humanises you, gives you licence to do things differently. I glance into the box – Taylor’s there and Sykes and Winnall. Good. If he can get his cross in, then maybe…

I glance back, the ball is in the air, is it looping? Curling? I can’t work out whether it’s high or low, the angle from the South Stand obscures everything. It might be on target or on its way to the corner flag. The ball, relative to the goal, could be anywhere, we’re in a parallel world, it could literally be anywhere.

The trajectory is checked by the post bringing a degree of perspective, it’s close, but is it in? Did it go wide? Is it in play? Is it in the ninth dimension of Xargorn? The crowd react, the players react – it’s like loading up a file on a slow internet connection, the picture becoming clearer with each pixel and fragment of data. That’s in. It’s In. A goal. He’s scored. We’ve won.

I have to go to the club shop after the game, weaving through throngs of people chanting, buzzing at the spectacle they’ve witnessed. By the time I get back to my car everyone has gone, a calm descends. I start the car and even Radio Oxford are signing off, I’ve even missed Eddie Odhiambo talking about North Leigh or some such. I slip back into the real world. People seem go about their business as though nothing has happened. I take a breath. Who needs parallel world’s when the real one is this good?

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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