Midweek fixture: Shirt stories – the number seven

Different shirt numbers stir different emotions; they’re full of memories and meaning. Whenever I see a number on the back of a shirt, I leap to broad conclusions about the player and how they should play. 

Of the traditional 1-11, there are two numbers with an air of mystery; the number 4 has been rejected from the defensive line in preference to numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. And yet, it also doesn’t look quite right in midfield. Of course, Kemar Roofe wore it up front and that’s just not right.

The other number is seven; growing up it was the number of the team’s star player; a player who could do anything, transcending all others. George Best was before my time, but his legacy still resonated at Manchester United and Northern Ireland, England captain Kevin Keegan was the best in Europe and in Scotland there was Kenny Dalglish. Both Keegan and Dalglish played for Liverpool, the best team in Europe. All wore the number seven, they all scored goals but were so much more than strikers. 

Oxford never had a number seven in the same mould; George Lawrence would power down the wing during the mid-eighties firing us to countless cup glories and promotion. He never made it to the 1st Division, when it was worn by new signing Ray Houghton. Houghton was terrier-like with boundless energy and, of course, the scorer the second goal in the Milk Cup Final. Into the nineties, Jim Magilton took on the shirt, a player full of deft passes and subtle touches. For the 1996 promotion season the shirt often went to David Rush.

When squad numbers were introduced in 1999, the shirt was given to Matt Murphy. Murphy was one of the great curiosities of the era; part supersub, part goal machine, part boo-boy. He was endlessly frustrating, I remember one game where he could do nothing wrong for the first twenty minutes, including one audacious back heeled through ball which made the crowd grasp and him wince; he pulled up lame and had to be substituted. That summed up his whole Oxford career, even though despite all that, he’s still our 10th highest ever goalscorer.

In 1999/2000 the club began to rupture, we’d sold several key players and failed to sell others like Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell. The whole Jenga tower began to wobble. We narrowly avoided relegation and then tried to keep the failing squad together for the following year. Murphy took the number 7 shirt again in 2000/01 and finally the club collapsed in the most spectacular way possible conceding 100 goals and being the first team in the Football League to be relegated that year. At the end of that season, despite attempts to keep him, Murphy rejected us and left for Bury. It turned out that Murphy and Oxford had a curious symbiotic relationship – his career fell apart while we plummeted down the divisions. We were like conjoined twins, sharing the same vital organs.

In 2001/02 we moved to The Kassam Stadium and under manager Mark Wright the shirt was passed to Martin Thomas. Thomas signed from Brighton as part of Wright’s revolution. He was installed as the new club captain, meaning had the dubious honour of leading the side out for the first league game at the new stadium. Just fourteen games in, Mark Wright’s managerial career imploded in a blizzard of average results and accusations of racism. Thomas was collateral damage; his last game being Wright’s last game against Leyton Orient. New manager Ian Atkins dropped him for the next game and he didn’t play for the club again.

The following season Atkins handed the shirt to Chris Hackett. A local boy and sprint champion Hackett was mostly used as an impact substitute as he constantly threatened to breakthrough, but never quite achieved the necessary consistency. Without doubt there were moments; linking up with Dean Whitehead, Sam Ricketts or Jamie Brooks, players he’d grown up with were moments of joy in a period of Ian Atkins’ pragmatism and then the descent into madness under Graham Rix and Ramon Diaz.

Hackett survived three and a half seasons in the shirt. In 2005 after a pedestrian opening to the season under yet another new manager; Brian Talbot, the club which had acted like an attention seeking teenager threatening to take their life with an overdose of Tixylix, finally engaged in a moment of genuine self-harm. With the season apparently going nowhere, Firoz Kassam decided to cash in on his assets; Craig Davies was sold to Helas Verona, Chris Hackett to Graham Rix’s Hearts and Lee Bradbury was loaned out to prevent him earning an automatic contract extension. 

In their place Talbot signed a raw and pacey forward who’d impressed in two FA Cup games for Eastbourne Borough against Oxford. Yemi Odubade took the number seven shirt, his pace was blisteringly, but he lacked finesse and couldn’t carry the club on his own. Results collapsed and, despite the return of Jim Smith as manager, we plummeted to relegation from the Football League.  

2006 was the first season the Conference adopted squad numbers, and the shirt passed to Carl Pettefer, a ferret-like ball winner. Jim Smith packed his squad with ageing former Premier League players but Pettefer had a solid lower league pedigree and knew his role. So, while others came and went in terms of form and impact, Pettefer proved one of the most consistent, if unspectacular performers. The balance nearly worked with the club falling to a Conference play-off defeat to Exeter. The team never recovered from the blow of the penalty shoot-out defeat, Pettefer kept the shirt for the following season of struggle before moving on. 

Odubade reclaimed the shirt for a season under Darren Patterson, before Chris Wilder arrived to change everything. He gave the shirt to Adam Chapman, an eccentric playmaker from Sheffield United. Chapman scored a notable goal against Burton, wrecking their promotion party, then flitted around the starting throughout the 2009/10 season until captain Adam Murray suffered a season ending injury. Chapman took on the mantle, scoring a vital penalty against Rushden and Diamonds which put the club back on course for the season and a play-off final at Wembley. In the week running up to the game, it was revealed Chapman had been charged with reckless driving and was facing a period in a young offenders institute. Despite this, Chapman put on a man of the match performance as Oxford swept away York to regain their place back in the Football League. 

Chapman’s conviction meant the number seven shirt was vacated for the 2010/11 season. He returned the following season but was never quite the same, Wilder stuck with him for another two years before releasing him in 2013/14, handing the shirt to Sean Rigg, a consistent but unspectacular winger who lasted a year before leaving for Port Vale.

When Wilder left for Northampton Town, Gary Waddock briefly held the managerial post before the club was revolutionised in a takeover. New manager Michael Appleton passed the shirt to Danny Rose, a neat ball player who had spent some time at the club during the Conference years. As Appleton embarked on a radical campaign of culture change, Rose was a rare source of consistency. 

But, in 2015, Appleton was ready to fully unleash the power of his revolution. Rose suddenly seemed like an unspectacular journeyman in comparison to those around him. At Christmas, surprisingly, he was sold to Oxford’s promotion rivals, Northampton who were managed by Chris Wilder. 

Oxford were firing on all fronts; the league, FA Cup and JPT Trophy. Appleton brought in George Waring on loan from Stoke who took the shirt vacated position by Rose. Waring’s impact was limited to a single goal and a cameo in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final at Wembley and he left at the end of the season as the club celebrated promotion. 

For 2016/17 the shirt was given to Dan Crowley a loanee from Arsenal. Crowley came with a reputation and Oxford fans drooled over YouTube clips of his performances. Unfortunately a lack of discipline forced Appleton to concede that he needed to apply his ‘no dickhead’ policy and player returned to his parent club. In his place he signed Spanish striker Toni Martinez on loan from West Ham. Martinez, took on the shirt and made an immediate impact sweeping home a goal in a 3-0 demolition of Newcastle United in the FA Cup before scoring a memorable equaliser against Middlesborough in the next round.

With Martinez returning to West Ham and Michael Appleton moving on, new manager Pep Clotet handed the number seven to Rob Hall. Hall had been signed a year earlier, having spent some time on loan as a teenager from Oxford during the Conference years. Hall has kept the shirt for the last four years, and despite suffering a near career ending injury, he’s battled back and remodelled himself to become one of the most reliable players in the squad under Karl Robinson. Hall can always be relied on to pitch in with the odd key goal, not least against Sunderland in the League Cup last year. 

From Ray Houghton’s Milk Cup goal to Adam Chapman’s Burton busting free-kick, and from Toni Martinez’s equaliser at Middlesbrough to Rob Hall’s howitzer against Sunderland, the number seven has seen plenty of action over the years. It’s good to know that, in the possession of Rob Hall, it’s still in safe hands.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: The Taylor swift show

Sunday 26 July 2020

KRob may be ready to sign former target Garath McClearly from Donaldson’s Dairy. The 33-year-old attacker has been released by Reading and may be the man to fill the gap left by Jamie Mackie’s retirement last week. We understand this to mean someone whose legs have gone but will spend 20 minutes complaining to the referee about a fictitious cut on his head from a phantom elbow he didn’t receive from a centre-back he was nowhere near catching.

Monday 27 July 2020

The funeral of lifelong fan John Pattison was held in Abingdon on Monday. The whole thing had an Oxford United theme with the casket wrapped in yellow and blue. The service was held in a local Ben Abbey where John grew his Andy Whings to be with the Mark Angels. Keeping with the theme, the family said their goodbyes before departing for home to get beaten 1-0 by Bristol Rovers. 

Tuesday 28 July 2020

KRob is like a Dolly Parton Vegas show, no danger of rolling out a Somali nose flute orchestra, he’s just going to play the old hits. Stephen O’Donnell, a target in January, is back on the radar following the full-back’s release by Kilmarnock. O’Donnell’s selected quotes include: “I’m pretty relaxed just now…”, “…no point in getting carried away…”, “I’ll just keep calm” and “There’s no rush”. 

GLS senses we’re about three weeks away from him standing outside KRob’s house, stripped to the waste in the dead of night with a four pack of Tennents shouting “TAKE ME BACK KARLY, I’VE CHANGED”. Any final thoughts?

“I’m still pretty relaxed…” 

That’s fine Stephen, that’s fine.

Elsewhere, The Mirror are speculating that Wunderkind Ben Woodburn could be for the chop at Liverpool. Apparently games against Accrington, Lincoln and Tranmere are no longer considered adequate preparation for a Champions League campaign against Juventus and Barcelona.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Oxford are reportedly in a ‘battle’ with Portsmouth for the signature midfielder Ethan Robson. Robson was recently released by doe eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald’s Sunderland. You probably won’t remember Robson from the lavish Netflix documentary about how one of Britain’s biggest clubs triumphantly finished 51st in the League. Robson played eleven games for the Mackems to fire them out of the Championship into League 1 and spent last season on loan at Grimsby Town, taking them to within a point of 14th in League 2. Fans are asking whether this might be the second coming of Gary Twigg.

Thursday 30 July 2020

He’s got a deep freeze, TVs and David Bowie LPs… KRob’s been hawking sulky sixth-former, Rob Dickie saying that his price ‘gone up’. There hasn’t been a bid yet but the price is definitely higher than that and maybe as high as ‘undisclosed’. 

Meanwhile, Tiger excitedly took to Twitter to not announce a major new signing. It feels like the time GLS boasted to his friends that he was getting Action Man for Christmas, before getting a ‘Special Reservist Colin’ doll from the local market.

Elsewhere, Arsenal keeper Emiliano Martinez has been telling his remarkable story from poverty in Buenos Aires to the Arsenal first team. Martinez’s big break was ‘doing a Mike Salmon’ on loan at Oxford in 2012 when he conceded three goals in his only game on loan against Port Vale. After this, his career hurtled downwards towards Saturday’s FA Cup Final.

Friday 31 July 2020

Turns out that Tiger’s tantalizing Twitter tattle was trailering the terrific transfer target Taylor. The former Woodstock Town strike and one-time Bullet Baxter to Josh Ruffels’ Zammo Maguire, who is famously averse to vaporous non-renewable energy sources, has signed a three-year contract.

We live in strange times, Trump, Brexit, coronavirus, so it seems somehow apposite that the one-man parallel universe Danny Hylton is still a Championship player having signed a new two-year contract with  Luton Town

Elsewhere, Watford don’t think there’s nobody, like Chey Dunkley.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Emiliano Martinez became the first ex-Oxford goalkeeper to win an FA Cup Final since Milija Aleksic after Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Chelsea. Martinez said that winning the world’s most prestigious trophy was OK, but nothing compared to the thrill of playing with the one and only Tony Capaldi at Vale Park in 2012.

Elsewhere, Tyrone Marsh has signed for Stevenage while two hundred and seventy three year old Dannie Bulman has signed a new contract at Crawley. Bulman says he’s already putting dubbin on his boots and smoking 30 woodbines a day ready for the new season.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Wycombe Wanderers 2

We are a speck living on a grain of sand for the blink of an eye. A global pandemic infecting millions barely registers as an event in human history – half-a-million have died from coronavirus – a generation defining moment – one person for every 116 that died in World War 2. We are inconsequential, yet we strive for purpose. 

Our over-developed brains are so big we’re born prematurely to fit through our mother’s pelvis. They give us the capability to invent medicines and vaccines meaning our lives need purpose for longer. Some turn to god or their job or suicide, if they don’t see the point, some turn to the community that coalesces around their football club; hooking on and becoming part of its story.

Beginning, middle, end; that’s how it’s supposed to work. But really it’s messy and unending, rambling and contradictory. It disappoints often and thrills occasionally. 

This season has been the messiest; a story about stability spiralled into a sprawling adventure; West Ham, Lincoln, Manchester City, Fosu, Baptiste, Newcastle, Shrewsbury and then, nothing. Then arguments, finger pointing, resolution, re-write, re-start and conclusion. 

It’s fitting that a story so devoid of structure might end with a mangled mess in a hauntingly quiet cavern. You can turn an office into a bar or a house into a shop, but a football stadium can only be a football stadium. Empty Wembley is just empty Wembley; no greater reminder of the gaping void this season has become.

Our experiences are instead piped through the TV; Sky’s subscription model needs predictable, crowd pleasing, linear stories about heroes and villains, where the heroes win every time.

From the outset, it was clear we weren’t the story of the play-off final; the plucky no-hopers of Wycombe and their unlikely ascent to the Championship was the chosen narrative. Like a straight-to-video family movie about a high school baseball team full of fat kids and outcasts led by a failed wannabe rock star in red cowboy boots. 

The script was pedestrian, the acting formulaic, the actors played their parts devoid of chemistry; like water and oil, two styles that didn’t mix. We moved the ball comfortably, they sat and waited.

After eight minutes of shadow boxing, the first engagement; a Wycombe corner. Everyone knew the plan, a deep cross to the back post. Eastwood flapped, beaten by the prospect as much as the delivery. Stewart attacked at the back post and in it flew. 1-0.

That’s Wycombe, sickeningly efficient. Sky offered spurious football metrics including ‘width per passing sequence’ – an unfathomable measure made worse by its expression as a percentage. In every carefully selected category, we were ranked best in the division, they were the worst. The tale of the tape showed that they would fail, unless the divine hand of the footballing gods smiled on the misfits from the valley of chairs. Oh, the romance.

After the goal, the game snapped back to its original pattern, we had the ball, they held their shape; the spectacle defaulted to two tactical units trying to outfoxing each other. We passed and prodded, pulling Wycombe out of shape, it worked, for a bit; there was a moment for Sam Long, then one for Marcus Browne. 

By half-time, I was fairly comfortable that we were still in it. We were never going to win the game inside the opening 20 minutes and we were doing the right things to fashion a genuine chance or two. We just needed to find the angle. All season we’d been searching for it; James Henry threading a ball through a crowd of players, Shandon Baptiste raking a cross-field pass, Marcus Browne surging menacingly down the flank. Could anyone find the angle nobody else could see and make the breakthrough?

In the end it came from Mark Sykes, who’d been enjoying space down the flank throughout, his shanked his cross inadvertently finding a trajectory up, over and beyond their ‘keeper and into the net. For Sky, the disappointment was palpable, the gutsy no hopers were going to stay gutsy no hopers; the failed fat kids weren’t going to win the trophy and kiss the girls after all.

Moments later James Henry did what he does; suddenly he found himself in an acre of space inside the box with just the keeper to beat, but rather than shooting he threaded a ball across the goal. Why didn’t he shoot? Maybe because a weighted crossfield ball to Matt Taylor had become a tried and tested way to goal; it worked at Ipswich, Walsall, Portsmouth and against Accrington, why wouldn’t it work now? Only this time, Stewart – an absolute giant throughout – toed it wide. Minutes later, Rob Dickie’s header went close; we were pressing, it was coming. 

And then the grim inevitability; a failed penalty claim in our box seemed to cause a lapse in concentration, the ball was lashed forward and looked like it had gone out of play, Marcus Browne claimed the throw, the ref waved to play on. A long ball forward dropped over Elliott Moore and into a space filled by the powerful Fred Onyedinma; Simon Eastwood paused, then decided to come, the striker’s toe touched the ball, the clash was unavoidable. It was clumsy, messy and fatal.

The penalty dispatched, we succumbed to our fate, the fight ebbed away, the endless months of battle finally broke our spirit. Wycombe had won, Sky had won, the joy we forced ourselves to believe was there, had gone. 

And at that, we evaporated from the scene, our purpose was spent. The slick footballing aristocrats beaten by the plucky misfits. The narrative swept through like a tidal wave. No moment to reflect on Rob Dickie’s last game? Cameron Brannagan? Matty Taylor? Marcus Browne? No chance to say goodbye. No opportunity to applaud Karl Robinson’s dedication, his endless enthusiasm, his boundless energy to reach deep into the soul of the club, extract its essence and channel it through his team. In the year we lost John Shuker, Womble and Jim Smith, the most fitting tribute to them all had fallen just short. 

TV were keen to remind us that Wycombe only had nine players at the start of the season; even Gareth Ainsworth tried to explain that while true, the intervention of a new owner in June had given him the funds to rebuild. These were not the outcasts and fat kids after all, they couldn’t be, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, it does them a disservice. The interviewer pleaded with Ainsworth to succumb to his idea that Wycombe were the new ‘Crazy Gang’. Ainsworth resisted, perhaps Wimbledon’s abusive bullying culture in the 1980s is not a look he’s going for. 

The game trended briefly on Twitter; “Wycombe promoted to the Championship for the first time” ran the headline alongside the keywords “Wycombe” and “Akinfenwa”. The cartoonish Wycombe substitute came on to amble around ineffectively for half-an-hour before shoehorning himself into the centre of the celebrations. The man who ripped the ball from the hands of his teammate in the 2016 play-off final for Wimbledon to score a decisive last minute penalty was, again, keen to make his team’s success all about him. What a character.

Some call Wycombe ‘anti-football’, which implies its cheating to play the way they do, in reality it’s like drinking a kale and blueberry smoothie; you have to admire the efficiency even if you can’t stand the taste. Their achievements are to be applauded, but a a fairy tale it’s not. The resolution of the season has left a wasteland of acrimony from Peterborough to Tranmere, and broader financial ruin for many other clubs. Wycombe will be giddy on their success, but are ill-equipped for the Championship. One of their players said they would enjoy every moment of it; but the novelty of losing 20-30 games a season will wear thin eventually. If they’re lucky, they’ll do a Burton and bounce back to a less elevated normality, but they could do a Yeovil and collapse completely.

And deep down, there is some solace in a deeper relief that we didn’t make it, at least not this way, I wasn’t convinced we were ready to be promoted anyway; a year in the Championship would have been exciting on one level, demoralising on another. I was stuck square between those stools.

I would have taken it; it’s disingenuous to say otherwise, but there will always be an asterisk against any team’s achievements this year. It’s a relief that it’s ended. Those fragments of memories are now just that; there is no denouement, just a series of messy strands, unfinished tales, frustrating near misses and a vaguely tragic end. But the real stories don’t have happy endings and convenient conclusions. They bind you more closely together and urge you to try it again, it doesn’t feel like it now, but it maybe the better way. 

Lockdown wrap: Is it time to accept the Wycombe rivalry?

The Bucks Free Press, the local newspaper covering Wycombe ran an article this week documenting ‘The Wycombe/Oxford Derby’. I mean, TL:DR, obviously because, well, it’s not a derby, is it? Or, is it?

It’s a question that’s been picking away at me for some time; when does a derby become a derby? And, are we kidding ourselves? Tomorrow we play the biggest game in a generation against a local team for a prize neither could have dreamed of. It’s big, of course, but surely, it’s bigger because of who we’re playing.

Let’s get the basics out of the way; locality. According to Google, the distance from Kassam Stadium to Adams Park is 28.5 miles, from the Kassam to the County Ground? 33.4. It’s a fixture that is more ‘local’ than Swindon. Awkward. For completeness, Reading is 25.5 miles away.

But there’s much more to it than that, isn’t there? There’s the emotional response, the history. Nothing will replace Swindon as a rivalry for visceral pleasure. Once upon a time that was a near on annual fixture, but we’ve only played them four times in the league over the last nineteen years and Reading not at all. While that has helped grow the fierceness of the rivalry with those down the A420, with Reading it’s somewhat ebbed away. In the same period, we’ve played Wycombe 18 times. 

On a purely practical level, in order to find that regular endorphin hit of facing your deadliest foes, accepting Wycombe into the pantheon of ‘rivals’ seems logical. We always sell out the away end, meaning the atmosphere and the sweetness of the win is always good. But logical and practical isn’t enough, in fact, they’re truly the most incorrect metrics available.

A rivalry seems to intensify when you’ve forgotten what you’re arguing about. A friend of mine has started a new job and found two people in his team are engaged in a near 30-year war of attrition, about what, he can’t figure out. Certainly, it’s hard to pinpoint why Swindon and Oxford are rivals; there are few obvious class, religious or ethnic divisions between the two towns. We hate each other because we do, and we seem to like it like that.

I’ve only missed one Oxford v Wycombe league game since our first professional encounter in 1994. It’s harder to stir an emotional response when you can remember many of the details about your disputes. But it’s been 26 years, and for an increasing number of people, those early games were from a grainy, long lost era. As the details of the battles fade, the myths and legends appear. Maybe the fact every game can be found on YouTube leaves few gaps into which the mythology can seep.

One of the reasons few will accept the idea is that they perceive it would degrade us to take it on. Wycombe are ‘tin pot’ and have only been in the League since 1993, and our tenancy goes back much further. Except, it doesn’t does it? We’ve only been in the league since 2010, with our first stint going back to 1963. What we’ve both done is triumphed over adversity, grown from a low base. 

And that seems to be the nub of it; we seem unwilling to accept that Oxford and Wycombe’s paths have become increasingly entwined. This is another argument for accepting the rivalry; it heightens some of the great moments of our most recent history – 2016 promotion, Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar in 1996, Nicky Rowe’s howitzer in 2014, Kemar Roofe’s awakening in 2016, Tom Craddock’s thirty yarder in 2012, Akinfenwa being sent off in 2019. Even some of the grimmer moments – the FA Cup in 2006, Matt Elliot being sent off in 1994, Hubert Busby Junior in 2000 have a certain je ne sais quoi. 

In truth, the fixture has been good to us, which may be to its detriment as a derby, perhaps there’s got to be a dose of misery. 

There’s also the fact that Wycombe are a good club; Adams Park has a quality not dissimilar to The Manor, they seem well run, and whilst there’s much to mock, Gareth Ainsworth has gone a great job getting them to where they are. After our last game at Adams Park, I walked back to the car chatting with a couple of Wycombe fans about how good the game had been, they were asking whether Cameron Brannagan was OK having been stretchered off. We all agreed it had been a splendid day out and a fair result. None of us were tear gassed. Swindon is a notoriously grim town, it’s been dogged with financial corruption and even had an openly fascist manager; as bad guys go, they’re world class. But, actually, is there anything wrong with having a rival that you actually quite like. If you think about Liverpool and Everton and their combined response to Hillsborough, it’s a rivalry enhanced by its shared sense of camaraderie.

The Oxford v Wycombe fixture is frequently entertaining and often meaningful, no more so than tomorrow, so is accepting the rivalry, and accepting them as equals such a bad thing? Is being ‘like Wycombe’ a team that has got to the brink of the Championship without financial doping or corruption such an awful label? It’s not the same kind of derby as the more traditional ones, but as tomorrow will show, it’s two clubs achieving something pretty phenomenal. Our histories entwined is perhaps something to be more proud of than we might like to accept.I’m not asking you to conjure up a visceral hatred on the level of Swindon. I’m asking that you might want to accept the possibility into your life. Could Wembley be the tipping point? You never know, it might make tomorrow even sweeter.

Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Portsmouth 1 (aet – Oxford win 5-4 on penalties)

Success is threaded through the eye of a needle which, in a cruel illusion, gets smaller as you get closer. Like walking a narrowing mountain path where each step is more precarious than the last, each drop more vertiginous and lethal.

Imagine Joey Beauchamp shanking his 35-yard screamer over the bar in ‘96 or Michael Rankine arrowing his shot into the net at Wembley in 2010. Imagine Chey Dunkley’s bulldozing run being blocked against Wycombe in 2016. Moments where success becomes failure, where memorable seasons are forgotten. This is the eye of the needle through which we must now thread.

By the time we faced Portsmouth, there were no grass verges left, no Southends or Tranmeres against whom we could find our feet after a stumble. The path had narrowed and each subsequent step could only be the right one.

Before the second leg, Fraser Webster on the Fence End Podcast said that the current squad was the best he’d seen, particularly among those without a promotion to their name. I had a similar thought; only history will decide a classic line-up for 2020, but would we even get that far? Is there another great Oxford team without a promotion or cup to its name? Or can a team only be elevated when there’s a successful conclusion to cement its legend?

After the first leg, despite an away draw, it didn’t feel like we had the momentum we needed to progress. The sterile world we’re now in wiped away any emotional thrust. We’d been dogged rather than fluid and, beyond a couple of moments, our buccaneering style seemed to have been left in the old world. Pompey’s simpler approach appeared easier to re-start so while the result had been solid; the jerk forward, the impetus, wasn’t there. Excited for the second leg? Yes. Tense? Yes. Expectant? No.

The empty ground played its part, the curious kick-off time and the low sun of a summer tea-time added to the surrealism – part pre-season friendly, part end-season drama. As the game started, the patterns of the first leg threatened to repeat themselves. We looked like we were playing football, it just didn’t feel like it. Like hostages performing for their captors, it was a dutiful, soulless charade. As the game progressed and the pressure grew, it felt like each player could sense the red dot of a sniper’s sight dancing on their forehead; perform and you’ll live, one mistake and you’ll die.

James Henry looked sharper but Marcus Browne quieter, Sam Long refound his form, but Mark Sykes – so often a secret weapon – couldn’t fully engage. As much as we tried to find our path, we never quite seemed to.

Then, the ground gave way as we planted a foot on what we thought was firm ground; a goal. Harness brought the ball down and swept it home with Eastwood slow to react. The rocks cascaded down the ravine, a sinister reminder of our fate should we fail. Just as we looked set to fall, minutes later James Henry swung in a deep corner which looked harmless; inexplicably Ellis Harrison cut across Alex Bass, nodding the ball through his keeper’s hands and, by millimetres, over the line. The grasp at a tuft of grass, deeply rooted, strong enough to hold us, long enough for us to recover. We scrambled and regained our footing.

As the second half progressed, the dread gripped tighter; part fear, part fatigue. At home, Twitter fell silent, each minute passed, narrowing the path further, deepening the terror – a film noir of epic brooding silences punctuated by occasional yelps from the sidelines.

Come extra-time, we were no longer following a path, but a precipitous ridge on which to teeter. Each step felt less secure, but by now, going back was more dangerous, giving up was fatal, we had to progress. Chests tightened, breaths shortened, the wind whistled. We were at the crucible of the battle and still the path narrowed. 

Fitness evaporated, muscles functioned on a vapour of memories. Browne, the matchwinner, replaced by Jamie Hanson, Sykes by Dan Agyei, Long by Woodburn, Gorrin by Mousinho. Each move lurching us deeper into the unknown, was there to be an unlikely hero or were we simply running out of bodies? The shadow of a season’s effort crept ominously over us. 

All sense of time was lost in that extra period, perhaps it was minutes long, maybe days, the club tweeted that we were 130 minutes into a 120 minute game. No time like the present or simply no time at all. The silence got quieter still. 

The referee blew; maybe it was time, maybe it was pity, our captors releasing us from the torture. Two deeply exhausted teams, lost in an eternal hell, throwing air-shots at each other for the benefit of no one until one or the other, or both, collapsed from exhaustion. Football couldn’t decide our fate.

The path ended at the edge of a chasm, on the other side, it restarted, meandering up to the summit and onwards to success. Below, was nothing but wispy clouds and circling birds of prey picking at the carcasses of those who’d tried and failed previously to leap across the ravine. It was time to jump.

Pompey’s spot kicks were metronomic, bottom right, bottom right, in between Ben Woodburn scored, his new crew cut giving the impression of a teenager wrongly incarcerated. His penalty offering a faint reminder of a former happiness, he smiles for the first time in months. Anthony Forde, marginalised, then integral, present, then invisible converts the second, Matty Taylor, slick and assured; the third. As each kick passes, we expend another player, Taylor’s kick rises all the way, the least decisive of the sequence. He styles it out, as strikers do, but we’re rocking. Where the game had been a physical test, penalties are a mental examination. Is this the edge? The hours Karl Robinson has dedicated to developing a mindset, a camaraderie, a football club. The psychoanalysts probing for insecurities and chasing down doubts, developing the thinking space to perform under pressure.

McGeeghan steps up, a great bush of bleached blonde hair, his run up is short, he strikes. Eastwood, who’s looked troubled throughout despite two good saves, throws himself to his right, the ball nestles in his midriff, he looks down at it; safe, secure, saved. We have the edge. Up steps John Mousinho, titanical and assured with a leg like a traction engine built for this time and place, his swing is true, the rattle of the net cracks through the silence and we’re creeping ever nearer. Hawkins’ goal saves the first match point before the ball is handed to Cameron Brannagan.

Brannagan places the ball on the spot; combative, aggressive, confident, a boy who has become a man with a future pre-written. He steps back and suddenly looks abandoned, a great unending universe surrounds him, his run up is long, there’s a gaping space between him and the ball, he waits dutifully for the referee. All around him is doubt and regret seeking a way in. The silence haunts every space. Keep it down, keep it straight. He runs up, a lifetime of dedication from the streets of Salford to the windswept fields of Horspath via the  cosseted football factory of Melwood coursing through him, he strikes low and firm, the keeper chooses right and grasps desperately for salvation, but all he feels is air. The ball sneaks through and the net ripples, Portsmouth plummet into the ravine as we land on the other side. 

We’ve lept, we’ve scrambled, we’re still alive, the path to the summit awaits. We ride at dawn. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

Like a first attempt at intimacy after infidelity, the first night out after the death of a close family member, the first football since March was always going to feel different. We had to try it, a tentative step back towards normality, but what would that moment feel like? Nobody knew.

For most of the week, I didn’t feel anything, I was briefly swamped by a wave of ennui, tired of the world we currently live in. The constant rumble of catastrophe just beyond the horizon, and for many, in plain sight. The football seemed both pointless and distant. As the wave washed through, I held my breath and swam, I got on with it, until I resurfaced, because that’s what you do; that or drown, I suppose.

Football has always been a constant; while life oscillates – and it oscillates more wildly than ever now, the prospect of a game has always soothed the volatility, calmed the waters. It’s just there, something to aim for each Saturday, a rock to cling to. Then it wasn’t there and we drifted on a great swell of grim statistics, predictions and opinions about death and money and human rights. Now it’s back. Would crowdless, inaccessible football have the same effect? Would it provide that soothing balm? I kind of needed it to; but wasn’t sure it would.     

I chose not to force it, I would lean into it, see what happened. As we edged towards the game, there was a stirring, a sense that something was happening. Even if it wasn’t going to be the same, it was going to mean something. By the time we got to Friday it was difficult to ignore; and, thankfully, it was genuine. For me, the Premier League is wallpaper, an entertainment medium, its return broke up endless re-runs of Come Dine With Me and Taskmaster. It was fine, but it didn’t help me in understanding how I would feel when it meant something more. 

Of course, it was weird. Necessarily weird, but the fact the club were there meant something. A welcome old friend, one which is stoic and strong and dependable, a brief moment of hope. Frankly, there have been times when someone returning from Asda with a carload of shopping has made me feel like this, but it was no less welcome. 

Tactically, strategically, operationally; there are no reference points as to how you handle this. The play-offs are notoriously hard to predict anyway, the science is poor. But with the fitness, the lack of crowds, the drinks breaks, increases in substitutions and the proximity of the games, how do you play it? Had the stands been full at Fratton Park, you’d expect to bed in, defend for your life, perhaps try to snatch a goal. But with two games effectively on neutral territory; do you stick to the script or go toe-to-toe? 

At first it felt like we were trying to play the tie like a 120-minute game. Ease in, don’t blow up too early let the quality come, but it was too slow; James Henry couldn’t quite get his feet to do what his brain wanted them to do, passes were under hit, then over hit, players who would normally be making runs didn’t seem to be there. What looked like a controlled start, evolved into a stodginess. What looked like absorbing pressure, became desperate defending.

But then, is football always like this? Scrappy and disjointed? Does a crowd create the illusion of fluidity? Were we doing OK? More in control than it appeared? After about quarter of an hour the ball finally made it out to Marcus Browne. Where Henry is a master of trigonometry, Browne is a master of cartography. Give him the ball and he’ll find the quickest route from A to B; he surged down the wing, stretching the Portsmouth defence and opening us up to move the ball around, suddenly we looked more comfortable.

But there was little doubt that Portsmouth had adapted better; later Wycombe would sweep aside Fleetwood in the other semi-final, the most physical and straight forward team in the league, just getting on with it. This is no time for complexity. The Portsmouth goal was a product of a simpler plan; drive forward, find gaps, when they appear, test the keeper; Simon Eastwood looked rusty at first, so any shot was worth it. After half an hour, having already been saved by the post, they scored.

But you can’t sustain that directness for a whole 90 minutes, if we could weather the storm, there’d be chances. The euphoria of the breakthrough seemed to release the rush of adrenaline that fuelled their intensity. Almost immediately we looked more comfortable, they looked like they needed a breather, but we were just getting going, we moved the ball around, and it started to feel normal again. 

This might offer some clues as to how to play these games – before the Premier League season resumed Pep Guardiola said his team were ready for their first game, it was after that they weren’t ready for. A physical, direct style is easier to prepare for, harder to sustain, unlocking the riddle of a high paced passing game needs game time to get right. As the games progress over the next week, the physical may naturally ebb away as tiredness creeps in, the influence of technique and tactics may grow as the muscle memory twitches, remembering what it has spent years learning. 

This should grow the influence of James Henry and Matty Taylor. That would play to our advantage; the second leg and a potential final against Wycombe looks, on paper, to be a physical test, but by the time we face them, will Portsmouth and Wycombe have the legs to last the distance? Perhaps you need to look at the longer game – if you can survive the physical battle, will technique make the difference? Wembley is a big pitch, it might suit us.

Browne always looked most likely to make the difference, quick feet and an uncluttered mind, he found a path through their midfield and terrifying their defence. His quality is in the clarity of his thinking, while others try to play politics with each other, he sees the gap, the obvious answer, and goes for it. 1-1.

I yelped and scared the cat; it meant something. Thank goodness.

Portsmouth claimed numerous penalties; but none were as clear cut as they later claimed. VAR would have given them, claimed Paul Warne in the studio. Yes, the endlessly maligned fussy mood killer would have given them. But is that what you want? A game decided by precision technology and a fastidious addiction to the rules? We’re trying to raise people’s spirits here, give them hope.

While we have to be happy with a draw, home advantage won’t make much difference, so the outcome is still up in the air. But, in a sense, that’s fine, I’m happy that there’s a story here as much as anything. Had we won, we might have been swept up in the joy of the win, creating an illusion of everything being fine. Had we lost heavily, I’d have been lost in the futility of getting to this point in the first place. We stirred, it meant something, it was fine, we will survive; the spirit lives on. There’s something worth fighting for, it’s going to be OK.

For a few more days, at least.