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. 

Lockdown wrap: The calm before the storm

There’s an iconic moment towards the end of Empire Strikes Back in which Han Solo is set to be frozen in carbonite. Faced with imminent peril, Leia rushes forward to declare that she loves him. He replies by saying ‘I know’.

For me, what makes that scene is not so much Solo’s hubris, it’s not a characteristic Solo joke, it’s the fact that knowing he is facing death, he is enveloped by calm and clarity. He dispenses with the norms, rules and the niceties – where he might reciprocate or deflect Leia’s declaration – because he doesn’t need those anymore. Between that moment and his very likely demise, he can simply play it as he wants.

It’s a similar phenomenon that Jon Ronson talks about in his interview with Louis Theroux on the Grounded podcast. A notoriously anxious person, Ronson has become calm in the face of the pandemic, almost as if his brain has trained itself to deal with these situations. He isn’t panicking about the future, he’s just dealing with the now and the now has no rules. Knowing there are no rules means you can’t break them and any anxieties seep away.

There’s a sense of calm descending over Oxford United at the moment. The normal rules do not apply. The immediate aftermath of the lockdown is over; the battle to resolve the league season is done and now we’re less than a week away from the play-offs. We have no idea when we finally engage with Portsmouth whether we’re ready. The last few weeks have not been pre-season; which prepares you for 10 months of games. There’ll no opportunity to put right a poor result, all the effort to get to this point, to make the play-offs, survive the lockdown, revive the club and prepare for the games could be rendered pointless in the blink of an eye.

We don’t know who will thrive in this situation and who will collapse; like the anxious Ronson being super-calm, perhaps there’s someone at the club who has underwhelmed in front of crowds, who will find they’re suited to this situation. Imagine Jamie Hanson weaving his through six players to score a last minute winner at Wembley.

We don’t even know what it’ll feel like when we do kick-off; what happens if we feel nothing? What happens if what we support is not so much the team, but the spectacle, the culture that surrounds it? What if the game of football, even when your team is playing in it, is simply boring? What then?

And beyond that; with no indication of when fans might be back, it seems unlikely that any club will survive unscathed. Not knowing which division we’ll be in is a big factor; not making the Championship might result in swathing cuts, we may be a shadow of ourselves in a few weeks’ time. The board may simply be thinking that they just need to keep running the club as they are for a few more weeks before a recovery plan needs to kick in. We may, of course, find ourselves in the Championship. It’s possible that we’ll face a number of lumbering beasts struggling with sack loads of debt and, as a leaner operation, we could actually thrive. Something will be different next season. 

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has warned that he expects coronavirus to be around for another year, though his voice is increasingly drowned out by the excitement of restrictions being eased. Like your mum shouting to ‘use protection’ as you head off through departures for seven nights in Magaluf. We know something bad could happen in the future, but we’re focussing on the here and now.

So in the face of such peril, we buy cardboard cut outs of ourselves to sit in the stands and renew our season tickets without knowing when we might get to use them. The players were pictured sitting in individual paddling pools recovering from training this week. They’re playing full games with tackling, perspiration and touching, while observing social distancing rules off the field. Nobody knows how to get a team ready for a play-off in July during a pandemic when you haven’t played since March. The normal rules no longer apply, so we’re making things up as we go along. We’re pretending these little absurdities are normal, because the prospect of what is to come is unimaginable; it might be great, it might be awful, worst of all, it might be nothing. 

Like waiting for the second wave or a deep recession, we simply have to wait for the play-off to hit. In a few days’ time we’ll start to know whether the preparation has worked, whether watching football this way gives us the buzz we want. A storm is coming we don’t know how strong it is, we don’t know how destructive it might be, we may lose everything, we might not. There’s nothing we can do about it, for now, we wait. 

Lockdown wrap: Football – what now, what next?

Football. Is. Back.

Kind of. While the Premier League party got started on Wednesday, it feels like a welcome home celebration for someone back from a war. Everyone wants it to be OK, but you can’t fail to notice the rictus smiles and the slightly over-enthusiastic talk about how exciting it all is while the guest of honour stares vacantly into space, a shadow of their former self, haunted by its experiences, guilty that it survives while others suffer.

The return of football is more a cultural signal that things are improving than a genuine resumption in play. The postponements of games in mid-March shifted the national mood pushing us towards a long-overdue lockdown. Before that all the talk was about herd immunity and taking it on the chin; if the biggest beer monster at the frat party leaves because things are getting out of hand, you know it’s time to call a taxi. The re-start, like the re-opening of pubs and Primark, is a reassuring nod to normalcy. During the war, hope was signalled in a coveted pair of nylon stockings, during the pandemic, it’s a Chris Wilder glare during Aston Villa versus Sheffield United.  

The media understandably want to pretend its pretty much business as usual. Pundits talk energetically about tactics as though that’s always been the mainstay of the sport’s popularity. They talk about form like it’s been a week since the last set of games and not a quarter of a year. Whatever you do, don’t mention the crowd.

Above all it feels like what it is; the fulfilment of contractual obligations. Like an employee working their notice – present but disengaged. It feels like county cricket; there’s some kind of competition being played which is probably important to some, but nobody really cares about that; its presence is enough. 

I don’t mind the ambient noise played over the top of games to give them a sense of realism, although I watched some of Birmingham v West Brom on Saturday where they piped in a very distinctive chant on a loop which drew the noise into the foreground and became a distraction. But, it’s been quite some time since I last watch a Premier League game with any intent; normally, it’s on in the background and I glance up occasionally when the commentator’s voice rises. Like white noise played to get a baby to sleep; I’m happy for the faked noise keep me company and it doesn’t really bother me that the crowd isn’t there.

But, ultimately, it’s not the same. There are those who complain about that, unwilling to fully accept that we are not in the boss seat when it comes to dictating what normal is. As a result, everything is experimental – the giant video walls of fans watching from home, the cardboard cut-outs; some of it will work better than others, and hopefully it’s temporary. Even then, it may not be enough, someone once described football as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement. The crowd tells the story of the game, without the crowd, those long periods of boredom are exposed for what they are. Without crowds the once-mighty football machine could yet dwindle into insignificance.

It’s hard to get a real sense of what football in this period is going to feel like when you’re actively engaged, though we’ll find out soon enough. Am I excited about the play-offs? Am I disappointed that I won’t be there? The truthful answer is that I don’t know. I’m restless for the season to conclude but generally a bit exhausted by the world we’re in; I want to see us play, win and be promoted, but don’t feel I have much capacity process it or energy to get excited by it. Less so when I have to generate those feelings on my own.

It is perhaps a good thing that we only have to deal with the play-off shoot-out – a winner-takes-all short sharp hit of endorphins. I’m sure that winning would be fun, but sustaining interest over a nine or ten games through poor or just average form could have turned the whole experience into an ordeal.

So, we can look at it for what it is; a novelty, like those terrible TV shows that everyone produces at the moment with their guests on Zoom, or the charity singles cobbled together remotely usually involving Gary Barlow. We can pretend they’re brilliant and just like the real thing, even if they’re terrible. Perhaps all the romanticism that surrounds our proud nation’s spirit during the war, was, in reality, just people pretending that things weren’t awful, because acknowledging that they were was significantly worse.

The club have also tried to resume normal business – season tickets are on sale and the player of the season vote is up and running. It’s got to happen, someone, somewhere has got to resist the inertia and inject the energy to get things started again. I said last year at our 125th anniversary, that in a world where organisations frequently don’t last a year before failing or being subsumed into something else, that an institution that has lasted so long and engages so many has to be protected. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back.

But, let’s not pretend it’s easy. I had intended to write a post trying to encapsulate the previous paragraph, but found it difficult to muster the enthusiasm for a rallying cry. For all the emotive video of winning against West Ham, sticking six past Lincoln, or Josh Ruffels’ last minute goal against Shrewsbury, promotion, should it come, is never going to be the same. But then, I’ve been to big important games feeling like I don’t care whether we win or lose; my fight or flight instinct kicking in, preventing me from engaging until I absolutely have to. Once I’ve taken my seat, the feeling engulfs me, draws me in, and I’m there. I don’t feel it at the moment, but I’m open to feeling it as we approach kick-off.

Lockdown wrap: What is a ‘real’ football fan?

It’s funny the things you miss about football, not so much the last minute winners or the five goal thrillers, those are the occasional rewards for your effort. It’s the little routines; the walk into the stadium, the announcement of the teams, the chat with your mates and afterwards the quiet post-match trudge back to the car hearing people deconstructing the game or saying things like ‘see Rotherham won again’. It’s the mundanity of the routine that we’ve been robbed of.

In the Absolute State of Oxford United survey last year, it turned out that fans who sat in the South Stand Upper went to most home games and were most likely to go to away games. This is the stand associated with Werther’s Originals, flasks of coffee and tartan blankets. It’s not all like that, I once saw someone updating their website on a Macbook Pro while waiting for kick-off.  

The point being that the football isn’t a high-tension, dangerous, violent experience. It isn’t occupied by purple-faced men overloaded with testosterone singing songs about English bombers.

I haven’t felt threatened at a game of football for years, perhaps decades; even in big derby games when tensions are most likely to froth over, trouble is marginal and elsewhere, for most, the same matchday routines remain.

Trouble happens, I was behind a brief punch-up in the snack queue at Coventry last season; it was over before it began, perhaps someone took offence to a chicken tikka pie.

They undoubtedly exist, the people seen attacking police and urinating over monuments yesterday, but they rarely exist in numbers that materially changes the football experience.

Most likely, you’ll see them at away games when the mix of fans is more randomised than at home. My general experience can be explained through our last two trips to Walsall. In the league towards the end of 2018/19 we were sat in a poor position to the right of the stand. About ten minutes into the game we were surrounded by a group of men arriving late, they couldn’t make it anywhere near the spot behind the goal they coveted and spent the game standing around us. Apart from jostling people out of the way to get a seat and goading stewards, they weren’t any trouble, they seemed obsessed with themselves, reassuring each other how brilliant it was being them. Most people were more interested in the game, which they only had a marginal interest in. They were noisy, but also invisible.

This season in the FA Cup we sat more centrally behind the goal; we got there early, behind us was an elderly couple – classic South Stand Upper types – and behind them another group of lads – East Standers – who got there early to put up flags at the back of the stand. A few minutes before kick-off James Constable came and sat about three seats away and the lads at the back sang songs and nudged one another excitedly. As the game progressed, the noise grew, we scored late on to win the game, the inevitable bundle of bodies engulfed the elderly couple. A couple of the lads tried to create space for the woman to steady herself, when she eventually did, she looked quite ruffled, but with a big smile on her face. 

The people in London yesterday are not even ultras like the guys at the back of the stand at Walsall. I’ve been to games where these pseudo-fans have arrived late and left minutes later after we’ve conceded, perhaps spending no more than 20 minutes in the ground. In the heyday of the Yellow Ultras, the real dedicated hardcore fastidiously organised the production of huge displays with thousands of flags. They got to the ground hours beforehand to lay everything out. They were probably too tired to throw a punch, even if they wanted to.

The people we saw on TV are a strangely pointless group; even if they register, they don’t contribute anything to a game. The football mainstream have long argued that they are in the minority and don’t represent the game, but it’s hard to overstate how inconsequential they are to the typical matchday experience. 

People have rightly questioned why they would apparently defend a statue of Winston Churchill while giving Nazi salutes. Or claim to be protecting important monuments while urinating on one dedicated to the heroism of a policeman. Or counter-protesting a protest which has already been cancelled.

These are people who go to football, but don’t watch it. Who shout racist and nationalist chants while supporting teams with a mixed nationalities and ethnicities. Who are aggressively heterosexual and frequently overweight while fetishising and idolising healthy dedicated young men. Who enjoy anarchy, but support teams built on hard work, process and science.

To call them ‘far-right’ is to suggest they are following some kind of thought through ideology, to call them football fans is to suggest they represent the culture surrounding the game. Neither seems to be true. The behaviour is so obviously contradictory and random, its only common thread seems to be doing things to upset people, to get a reaction, to gain some kind of social capital. A social capital few recognise as having any value.

A group of lost, pointless, directionless people, desperate to find an identity, to have a purpose. They’re almost 100% male, 100% white, usually English and they look like they’re in their 40s while behaving like horny teenagers. The behaviour is almost comical, they think they’re notorious and dangerous to know, in fact they’re usually ignored or laughed at. There’s something about the experience of some white, males that makes them fearful of being considered pointless, but unable to find a way of having a point. For me, it’s no coincidence that the same demographic has a high suicide rate.

Like the label ‘far-right’ with all its notoriety, labelling them football fans offers a quick convenient answer, like they’re guardians of some ancient tradition. But these simplistic labels also risks ending the debate and leaving the problem unresolved. These are people who are frightened of something (being forgotten?), incapable of functioning in society. It’s not just about the safety of minority groups or the cohesion of society as a whole, it’s about the happiness of those who have come to lead such a pointless existence. Maybe football has a role in all this; a way of trying to find out how someone might get to such a worthless state.

Lockdown wrap: Black Lives Matter – an Oxford United perspective

On Thursday, I woke in the night feeling a bit overwhelmed with All The Things. If it wasn’t the pandemic, it was the recession, if it wasn’t the recession, it was civil rights unrest. 

This week I could write about the EFL’s ongoing ineffectiveness, but they’ve been ineffective, so not much has changed. Then I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement. I thought long and hard about it; maybe I could celebrate Oxford’s black players, but would it be too tokenistic and trite? It’s a bit ‘white privilege’ to feel like you have a licence to judge.

Then I saw comedian Desiree Burch talking about how overwhelming it feels to change society, she suggested that reflecting on your own views and actions was a heck of a start. So I did, and this is what I came up with…

When I first started watching Oxford United there was a player called Joe Cooke who captained the club for a period. My tactical awareness was limited; sometimes he played up front and sometimes centre-back. He was physical, fast and strong, but the real reason I knew his position was because he was the only black man in the team.

Joe Cooke might have been the first ‘real’ black person I was aware of. I knew people like Pele, Muhammad Ali and Cyril Regis but they were other-worldly, in rural Oxfordshire, there were very few black people around. Cooke might have been Oxford’s first black player, certainly one of the first. In every sense he stood out.

A few years later, when I started going to The Manor regularly we were spearheaded by striker Keith Cassells. Cassells scored a bucketload of goals, the fans sang a song to the tune of a British Airways advert about him. He was physical, fast and strong. And black.

Cassells moved to Southampton; then came George Lawrence. Lawrence was a powerhouse, his thighs, smothered with Deep Heat, shone under The Manor lights. He would maraud down the wing, terrifying defences. The roar as he attacked down the flank lives with me now. Lawrence was physical, fast, strong. And black. 

Later would come Chris Allen; silky across the grass. There was a joke about having to put a Unipart advertising board up so he knew which direction to run. He was a whippet; physical, fast, strong. And black. More recently, there was Chey Dunkley, one of my favourite players from our promotion season – physical, strong, fast. And black. 

Over 40 years, it’s been a recurring theme; the adjectives used to describe black Oxford players were often physical. But with Cooke there was Shotton, with Cassells; Foley, Lawrence had Brock, Allen had Beauchamp, Dunkley had Wright. These players were usually described as technical, clever or leaders and were all white.  

I genuinely loved Cooke, Cassells and the others, they provided some of the most exciting times as a fan. Dunkley’s goal against Wycombe, his Cruyff turn at Wembley. Lawrence terrifying Manchester United and Arsenal on famous nights at The Manor. I have preconceptions of them, they’re all positive, but they exist.

It’s the preconceptions where the issue lies. Imagine tiny fragments of preconceptions building up over centuries. Imagine them often being negative and being held across millions of people; not just the physical, but cultural; preconceived ideas about criminality, violence, intelligence and rationality all fusing together, building a picture of what we think a black person is.

Then imagine this being enforced, then reinforced over and over. Packed down under layers and layers of preconceptions until it becomes a rock, a solid, undeniable, fact. Then imagine it being confirmed by people you trust, people with similar misconceptions – friends, family – and the governments and institutions here to represent and look after us. Over and over again. Right up to the point where you can kneel on someone’s neck and kill them and somehow justify the act in your head.

Most people never get to that point, of course, but most, myself included, judge people based on the mess of their experiences. I have watched a disproportionate number of strong, physical and fast black people playing football. That is big part of my experience of black people and, unchecked, could form a big part of my preconception. It is my responsibility to challenge those experiences deconstruct what my brain thinks it knows. 

We all do it; we all judge things based on preconceptions. It’s how the brain processes things quickly – it takes a quick snapshot, applies a liberal dose of preconception and decides on an action. People dismiss their own views as being unfettered by preconceptions. ‘All lives matter’ is the sobriquet used by those opposing the focus on black people. It sounds logical and correct, but it ignores the evidence that black lives appear to be preconceived as significantly more disposable, in other words, they matter less. 

My preconception of physical, strong, fast black footballers is fairly benign but not to be ignored. Sprinter Linford Christie spoke about how a media obsession with his ‘lunchbox’ – a bit of a joke, but ultimately a racial stereotype – drove him to distraction. Differentiating people based on the colour of someone’s skin is what creates racism. Most white people don’t abuse or attack black people, but we’re all bombarded with information that drives us to pre-define what a black person is. That’s very likely to influence your actions and the actions of others.

It’s not always violent, it’s not always abusive, it’s not even always negative, but those preconceptions are evidently wearing, debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. I’ve been in work situations where people have pre-judged me with little opportunity to challenge or prove them wrong, it’s maddening. Imagine that, but handed down over centuries, chipping away until the anger boils over and there’s little to lose from taking action, which is where we are today.

I need to check my preconceptions constantly and attack my illogical conclusions, recognise the narrowness of my experience and that those experiences, though no less ‘real’, are not the same experiences as others. And despite all that, despite driving my subconscious into my consciousness and picking those thoughts apart I still have preconceptions based on race. And that is not to apologise for people’s racism and excuse them from their actions, it’s to promote the idea society moulds you long before you realise it’s having an effect on how you act. There is a responsibility on us all to challenge those ideas, break them up and push them aside. It’s a life’s work. 

When I reflect, one of the reasons I really like Chey Dunkley during 2015/16 is not his physicality, it was his backstory. He once described himself as the club mascot because he couldn’t get a game, his first start that season against Bristol Rovers was shaky and he should have been sent off, but he’d posted pictures pre-season working on his fitness, he was studying for his degree, I liked him because of how hard he was working to get to where he wanted. By April he was doing Cruyff turns at Wembley and the next month scoring against Wycombe to win promotion. It’s such a great story, I so want him to play in the Premier League.

Anti-racism rhetoric can come across as preachy; it’s easy to dismiss it as ‘woke’ or politically correct. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that even if you’re tired of the ethical and moral arguments, if you feel you ‘get it’ and wish people would stop scoring moral points, there is a perhaps an additional point that pre-judging people is generally ineffective. 

I don’t want to judge the motivations of racists and apologists, but I can categorically say that I have a personal responsibility to keep my pre-conceptions in check and adjust my behaviour. My experience of black people and black culture is only positive, my upbringing and environment has encouraged me to be accepting of things I haven’t experienced and be liberal towards others. I know that every time I’ve tripped up and prejudged people based on broad brush ideas of gender, sexuality, nationality or ethnicity, I’ve been wrong – not just morally and ethically wrong – though that as well – but materially, objectively and factually wrong.

Cassells became senior award winning policeman, Lawrence a football agent, Allen a professional coach retained by three of the best managers we’ve had – Wilder, Appleton and Robinson. Chey Dunkley has a sports science degree from the country’s top university in the subject. Smart, capable people, not just physical, strong and fast people. 

Perhaps you don’t pre-judge people, but when I stop and think, I know as much as I don’t want to; I do. Judging people on their appearance is natural, but it’s also an ineffective way of drawing conclusions about them. But, there it is, pre-judging – racism – I’m certain it exists in all of us to some extent and impacts the lives of many people, which is why it’s important to keep explicitly reminding yourself that black lives matter.