League football in July is not really my scene, it’s too early. Granted, every season has to start somewhere, but it feels disjointed and unfinished; holidays disrupt the rhythm of going to games, squads are incomplete and sub-optimised and results have no context. It’s like buying a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle from a charity shop, it’s daunting and you don’t know if you have all the pieces to complete it anyway.
Although Derby was high on my list of away-days from the off, when it came out as the first game of the season, I was disappointed. Normally, I’d give an opening day 200-mile round trip a miss, I’m not so engulfed in a frothing unquenchable desire for ‘The Football’ to make the effort.
But Derby versus Oxford is a family derby, my aunt and uncle are season ticket holders at Pride Park, we’re practically the Maxwells. The lockdowns mean we haven’t seen each other for years, so it was a rare opportunity to catch up, exchange news and gossip and compare notes about our football clubs. They even have a very convenient gym membership at the David Lloyd centre ten minutes from the ground, so we could benefit from the ample parking and pleasant bar area pre-match. I even had my nails done in the spa (I didn’t, but I could have done). Based on our experience, if Oxford can’t benefit economically and socially from a stadium development offering something similar, then there’s something deeply wrong.
I’d obviously been aware of Derby’s plight – financial collapse, mismanagement, skulduggery, administration, points deductions, relegation, then last minute deals, recovery, new players and a new dawn – but I hadn’t appreciated fully the damage it did along the way.
My aunt and uncle looked vaguely haunted, the collective wisdom of Twitter had suggested Derby had risen like Lazarus, ready to storm the division, but that wasn’t the impression I got. It’d been suggested they’ll run away with the division, but the more we spoke, the less convincing that seemed. They didn’t know the players, season tickets were distributed a week before the season started, there’s no payment plan in place, the kit has just been announced and has no sponsor, it won’t be available to fans until the autumn. They’d played three pre-season games, had four players at their first training pre-season session. I noticed later the lack of backroom staff warming the players up, unlike the larger clubs in the division, where each player seems to have his own coquetry of fitness coaches, tactical advisors and zen masters.
By comparison, we seem a model of stability. Leon Blackmore-Such, Amy Cranston, Wayne Brown, the little fitness guy who dishes out the Lucozade sport. Different kit, same people. We even wore alternative yellow shorts and socks which won’t be available in the club shop, which is exactly how it should be for a proper club.
They’d been saved, and for that they were relieved, but at what cost? There are many legal and financial hurdles to negotiate. How deep is the iceberg? How rotten is the core? How emotionally exhausted is everyone involved? Perhaps we did have a chance.
When we got into the stadium, the atmosphere was wild, Oxford fans as noisy and colourful as I can ever remember. Over 30,000 fans and this is lower league football. It’s easy to forget that we’ve become the patrons of the division, only Shrewsbury and Fleetwood have been in League One longer than us. We pick at the minutiae, but we were loud and confident, not a little team on a big day out, but a club comfortable with who it is, used to this kind of thing, readying itself for more.
It was difficult to hear beyond our own noise, but Derby fans seemed subdued, perhaps happy just to be there, feeling slightly uncomfortable – not sure about the division they were in or even their own players – like buying a pair of new shoes, where they feel like they’re wearing you rather than the other way around.
On the field, we looked like we’d shed our notorious flimsiness, no more elfin wingers like Sykes, Whyte and Holland being bullied to the margins. McGuane prowled the midfield with menace, Browne strong, probing and mobile, Finlay assured, and of course, the recently anointed religious artifact, Brannagan, buzzing around with a confident maturity tying it all together.
But we didn’t seem to know what to do with this new-found muscle. Like a steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessive unable to apply their strength to anything but posturing in front of other steroid filled, balloon-armed gym obsessives. We wouldn’t be bullied, but how do we win games like this?
Understandably, they too seemed unsure and for all the spectacle, the game seemed to meander without purpose, punctuated only with half-chances. Perhaps we were just all too happy to go through the motions, still a bit pre-season-ey – perhaps if we’d taken some more risks, we could have rattled them.
The game drifted beyond half-time and into the last half-an-hour and we moved into a phase of which the science is still to be established; how to use your five substitutes. It’s a completely different dynamic when you can replace half you team.
Derby manager, Liam Rosenior, moved first throwing on Louie Sibley. Almost instantly, the dynamic changed, Sibley’s movement started to stretch us. A defensive muddle gave them the first real opening, but they were denied by a heroic goal-line clearance from Brannagan. Who else?
Karl Robinson was unmoved, even as we wobbled he seemed unwilling to make a change. Now their fans were making the noise, maybe a sign that it was time for us to manage the game into submission. But, even if we were trying to do that, we didn’t seem to be able to grasp it.
Eventually, Murphy and Gorrin were introduced. Gorrin will need games after a long lay-off, Murphy’s movement suggested he could have an impact, but the connections weren’t there, we didn’t know the runs he’d be making.
Momentum was against us, we continued to wobble and backed off as Hourihane advanced on the edge of the box and let fly. A shot, a novel idea in an afternoon characterised by graft rather than craft. It was worth a try I suppose, the ball nestled in the bottom corner for 1-0. Cue: goal music.
We never really looked like getting back, with seven minutes added on, there was just enough time to enjoy the pantomime of sending Eastwood up and Brown on for a desperate last minute free-kick and us comically knocking the ball along our goalkeeperless back line before the referee brought the game to an end.
The whistle went, a cathartic roar filled the stadium, it was their moment and I don’t begrudge them it at all. But, based on our experience of League One promotion hopefuls, there’s work to do, they’re not the finished article but then, neither are we.