It’s been 1099 days since we last went to the Kassam Stadium for a genuinely mathematically meaningless game. Three days short of three years, when we played, well, Doncaster Rovers and, well, drew. We had a seventeen-year-old, Nico Jones, making his full debut in defence who marked the occasion with a good performance and an own goal. We were 11th with 60 points with a game to go (which we lost).
I don’t remember it, and I guess in time I won’t remember yesterday’s re-run which, of course, had James Golding in the role of defensive debutante. Only Jack Stevens’ athleticism prevented Golding from matching Jones’ feat of putting the ball into his own net.
Still, it was quite refreshing to take a breath, throw away the league table and see what’s what. Karl Robinson described it as a pre-season friendly, but it wasn’t even that, there were no weighted expectations, no anxiously looking for signs of what’s to come in the coming season. It was an opportunity to take stock.
Almost literally, Robinson purged the squad of players who wouldn’t be at the club next season, Mark Sykes being the most obvious persona non-grata, ending a curious relationship in which he teetered on the edge of leaving for League 2 before turning himself into a player who is expected to play in the Championship or Scottish Premiership next season.
It’s part of Robinson’s style; if he loves you, he really loves you, if not, then you’re designated other, an outsider. Think of his on-off-on love affair with Rob Hall, his cynical recall of George Baldock in 2016, his loyalty to Marcus Browne and Nathan Holland. You can see it in how others view him, Robinson can be despised by fans outside the club he’s at, but once inside your club, he’s perceived very differently.
It’s very deliberate, I suspect, one of Alex Ferguson’s qualities was his ability to convince his squads that everyone hated them. That’s absurd, of course, Manchester United were the biggest club in the world, loved by millions, admired by more. Ferguson convinced his players that beyond the club’s boundaries was a hostile land, they had to perform and stay inside the camp because there was no future outside it.
Robinson’s treatment of Sykes may as much be a message to the squad – a kind of blood sacrifice – as it is a swipe at Sykes himself. Don’t be surprised if he reappears at some point a la Gavin Whyte. But for now, the message is; do you want to be alone out there? Really?
Maybe there’s good reason to stay; the sun shone which gave a rare opportunity for fans to truly show their colours. You’ve got to be pretty fashion-forward to wear a bright yellow coat, so during the brutal winter months, the yellow army rarely shows more than a glimpse of its signature colour. Yesterday we looked vibrant, there were a lot of vintage shirts on show, a sign of our heritage. We turned up in good numbers. I suspect a proportion bought tickets a few weeks ago in anticipation of it being critical to securing a play-off spot or better, but still they came. We looked like a club.
We warmly applauded Golding and O’Donkor’s every touch, a habitual over-compensation to give them encouragement. Golding had an excellent game despite the momentary panic of nearly putting the ball in his own net. O’Donkor was enthusiastic, which is all you can ask for when you’re making your debut from the bench. There was a freshness about seeing them play, a freedom that we could be without fear of what it might do to the league table.
The central debate seems to be whether we’re moving forward. Measuring progress is hard, it’s not a specific data point – though many will point at a single thing that will ‘prove’ their personal view. Success is a basket of measures from which you deduce scenarios. The points total is better, the performances are better, but relative to others we’re worse, the club is more robust, but stability of the squad and the number of senior players at the end of their contract is worse than a year ago. It’s hard, but for me, at worst we’ve broadly ended up in the same place, with signs of improvement. I’m happy with the season and I’m happy with being in League 1. But that’s only for now, of course.
Nietzche says ‘Madness is something rare in individuals — but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule.” What he’s saying is that problems or solutions can rarely be found in individuals, they exist in the collective whole – in the connections between individuals. We don’t have any truly ‘bad’ players, one signing or loss of a player won’t materially change who we are. It hasn’t always been the case, when we’ve been less cohesive, it’s been easier to single out problems.
And this takes me back to a theme I wanted to touch on at the start of the season, but never got round to. I think of Marcus Rashford and his work feeding hungry children, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson promoting the work of nurses, Tyrone Mings calling out the hypocrisy of the Home Secretary, Karl Robinson during the pandemic, John Mousinho and his work on dementia through the PFA. I think of taking the knee before games to highlight the cancerous impact of racism, a cause the players won’t back down from despite criticism. All of that without the fact they are highly skilled professionals and amongst the healthiest humans in the world. Have we reached a stage where the football profession holds itself to higher standards than wider society? It’s not just about profile, these people don’t have to do it, they’ve got money and difficult jobs, there has to be a will to do it.
And that makes me think that the club will only move forward if everyone takes part and raises their standards, that’s not always by doing the big things. Perhaps it’s going to an extra game on a cold Tuesday when you’d rather be at home, shouting a bit louder, going to an extra away game, being friendly and funny to opposition fans when you’re there, buying a bit of merchandise, bringing a friend to a game, going to a women’s game, writing a blog (no, don’t do that). Success is not in the individuals, it’s in the whole.
So to the players, management, staff, owners, fans, media, podcasters, bloggers, mysterious Rage On maintainers, Oxford Kits illustrators, Yellows Forum arguers, the planners and politicians trying to secure our long term future, we should be happy and proud of what we’ve achieved. We started the season emerging from a pandemic, negotiated a scary re-emergence of the virus, the death of a legend, stepped forward in gaining a new stadium and had some thrills along the way. There’s work to do, but for now the summer is here, let’s not judge ourselves by whether we’ve gone backwards or forwards, but instead let’s simply enjoy what we’ve achieved.