I’ve been buffeted by lots of little challenges this week; a routine trip to the hospital, a frustrating tussle with a local government department and a death which doesn’t affect me directly but reminds me of my own mortality. Lots of little glancing blows that wear you down as the week progresses.
Football on a Saturday comes as a big gulp of crisp, cold fresh air; it’s the routine, the simplicity of purpose, the shared values. I’m sure there are plenty of Oxford fans with terrible views, but for 90 minutes at least, we all want the same thing. It helps to iron me out when I’m feeling a bit crumpled.
More than just being reassuringly routine, going to games now has become an event. When the stadium is near-full and the adverts blink around the pitch, it’s easy to forget the open end and the world beyond the Kassam. We’re a long way from the cold soulless days of Grays Athletic or Woking in the Conference.
One of the joys of League 1 is the opportunity to play teams like Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton as equals. They’re all victims of the worst excesses of the Premier League, damaged goods at scale; like finding a pair of Air Jordan’s or a copy of Screamadelica in a charity shop – luxury at a bargain price.
That’s League 1 through and through, most players could play at a higher level but for their consistency and injuries. Success is determined by who can keep their players on the field and in-form the longest. It means the football can be highly entertaining while facing the constant jeopardy of a precipitous fall from grace.
After the thriller last week and against Sheffield Wednesday, it seemed too much to ask for another to be served up against Bolton. We guffawed about another slew of goals, last minute winners and controversial sendings off. Secretly, a dour 0-0 draw seemed more likely. Then, suddenly, we were off again – a sublime free-kick from Billie Bodin and then an immediate equaliser – another drive across the box, who’d have thought it? Both teams set off at a furious pace, leaving themselves open and vulnerable.
Despite the banks of noisy away fans, many of these bigger teams are like meeting a celebrity and finding they’re surprisingly normal. Bolton are clearly capable, but they’re like us; lots of talent with plenty of room for improvement. There was so much movement and so many adjustments of formation, at times it felt like there were way more than 22 players on the pitch.
Bodin’s second was as good as his first, Wanderers’ second as poorly defended as theirs. It was like two drunks swinging wild punches at each other with their trousers falling down. We’ve had two exciting home wins, they’ve won six out of seven, but you get a sense those trends will end abruptly. The game was breathtaking and appalling – how can a teams so obviously porous keep ignoring their failings?
It was difficult to know quite where it was going to end up, six-all? Nine-eight? The fourth official indicated just two additional minutes, and everyone suddenly seemed happy to drift into the break. When the half-time whistle went, it felt like we’d played for about five minutes.
Then, everything just deflated, like when you have that extra drink on a night out and realise you’ve gone too far. From being invincible and full of energy, you suddenly feel full and tired and your tongue is covered by a furry coating. Your sharp wit deserts you, you form words in your head, but can’t co-ordinate your mouth to actually say anything.
Nothing we could do could reinvigorate us. Herbie Kane turned into that bloke at your five-a-side night who played a couple of games in the Conference North in the mid-nineties. You could see his quality, but his discipline had gone and he looked mentally and physically tired. Cameron Brannagan had his standard mid-second-half tantrum, but even that seemed half-hearted, like he really just wanted to put on a onesie and watch Paw Patrol with a glass of milk.
In cycling it’s called bonking, in running it’s hitting the wall; the moment your energy reserves run dry and everything that was bright and colourful goes grey. We just can’t play like this without there being a crash at some point. We’re chasing games and knowing we need get a buffer of at least three goals just to win narrowly. The pressure to go into the last five minutes of games knowing that you’ve got to conjure up another piece of magic is mentally exhausting.
Then Steve Seddon lost his bearings, leaving Fossey free down the wing. His cross dropped to Bakayoko to tap home. Bakayoko is the kind of player I think we need – mobile and hardworking – but able to establish a bit of control when the ball is pinging around.
There were still eight minutes to play, but fans immediately started filtering out of the ground. It was like we’d had enough, too much excitement, even if we did grab a last-minute equaliser, we could live without it. After the last few weeks gorging on fine wines and rich food, we need a palette cleanser or two, a plate of beans on toast. Our next two home games against Cambridge and Burton will hopefully bring that, an opportunity to register a couple of more routine, less fraught wins. If football straightens me out when I’m feeling crumpled, you get a sense that the squad might need a bit of ironing before it heads into the final weeks of the season.