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.

Lockdown wrap: Analysis of League 1’s paralysis

I went to America a few years ago, flying into Boston Logan Airport we arrived around lunchtime. Feeling jaded, we headed over to pick up our hire car. In a tightly packed multi-story car park, we were shown to our new whip. It was a Qashqai, although the Americans feel the need to give it a bit of good ole’ American machismo by calling it a Rogue Sport. Grrr. 

Assuring the attendants that we were very experienced drivers we swerved their offer of a demonstration of the car. Inside, alone, we surveyed the cockpit; the car had no key, no gears and no handbrake. We turned the engine on with a button, then proceeded to push buttons and tug at levers in attempt to make the thing move. No matter what we did, it simply wouldn’t engage or move forward, so we had to sheepishly recall the attendants to show us round. 

“You can actually drive, sir?” one said. 

This is the fourth Lockdown Wrap and had been earmarked as one to look at what we might have learned from this period and how football might change in the longer term. I had assumed we’d be on some kind of glide path to resuming the season.

And yet, like sitting in that Rogue Sport, regardless of the buttons we press, the league seem incapable of moving forward. Is that in gear? No, it’s the windscreen wipers.

Let’s recap – last week the EFL issued their framework for resolution – quite simply, the league resumes or it will be curtailed with the retention of all relegation, promotion and the play-offs. To agree this, 51% of clubs would need to vote for it. So far, so late, so good.

Then on Friday, a week later, they resorted to type; the clubs had provided feedback on the proposals and now there would need to be a regulation change, which they would need to be agreed on the 8 June.

Into the void came yet another club with another ‘solution’. This time from Tranmere Rovers who are threatened with relegation. Their idea was, on top of a points-per-game system, a margin of error should be applied. if you sit outside that margin of error, you’re invited to take part in the play-offs regardless. That makes some sense, it starts to address Peterborough’s prime gripe, which is that their points haul to date is low because of how their fixtures have fallen. Crucially with the Tranmere, while they are all for applying this to promotion which doesn’t affect them, it shouldn’t apply to relegation, which does.

This looks like a brazen attempt to win votes from teams at the top with the specific objective of saving them from relegation. It also hides the fact that according to my rough calculations, historically teams are more likely to fall away towards the end of the season than they are to surge. So despite Peterborough’s assurances that the best is yet to come, they are statistically more likely to fall away.

You might assume that 10 weeks ago the EFL would have realised a regulations would need to be change. It wouldn’t be hard to insert a rule which allowed an alternative approach to resolving the season in the event of a significant problem.

You might also think that by now the EFL would realise beyond playing, there is no wholly accurate and fair resolution and what you’re looking for is the next best solution. Every option has a margin of error, but perfect solutions are not what we’re trying to find. A reasonable, if flawed, pathway forward is.

So, the earliest this is set to be resolved is the 8th June, which given the preparation time needed to get players back up to fitness, pushes any resumption deeper into the summer. 

Players are already being tested across the Football League for CoVid19 in preparation for some kind of resumption. Seventeen positive tests were returned across the Championship and League 2 last week, League 1 isn’t even involved. 

So, the bickering continues to kick the issue down the road, making the prospect of a full resumption increasingly unlikely. If the season does need to be curtailed, the EFL are backed into a corner, which will only increase the prospects of arguments. All the while, the EFL are sat in their hire car jabbing at the radio trying to turn on the headlights.

Originally, I thought I’d be writing about the longer-term prospects of us as a club and the league we play in or perhaps arguing the case for re-starting where there are doubts. Given the last few weeks it would seem that only government intervention can release the game from the grip of incompetence and self-interest. Given the bumbling administration currently in place at Westminster, you have to wonder if we’ll make it off the parking lot before the holiday is over.  

Lockdown wrap: The lunatics running the asylum

There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.

The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end. 

Peterborough are a two headed beast made up of owner Darragh MacAnthony and director of football Barry Fry. Fry, if you need reminding, once brought himself to near bankruptcy buying Peterborough before finding that he hadn’t bought them at all. In 2018 he was fined £35,000 and banned from football for betting irregularities. MacAnthony re-employed Fry, who would surely be unemployable in any other business, when the ban ended. MacAnthony himself was in court in 2012 accused of ‘theft by swindle and misappropriation of funds’ and was once forced by a court to pay an ex-employee nearly £160,000 in unpaid commission. 

The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.

MacAnthony announced via Twitter that he was speaking on behalf of a number of teams, including Oxford, in saying they wanted to play. Oxford confirmed that this is their preference though they’ve yet to confirm whether they support some of MacAnthony’s other plans such as forcing teams to forfeit games or suing anyone who doesn’t agree with him. Let’s not forget that Oxford are largely unaffected by almost all scenarios being suggested, so a neutral position is probably more favourable than promoting one so obviously biased.

For example, Southend’s owner Ron Martin has called for the season to be voided for the purposes of ‘sporting integrity’. By extraordinary coincidence, voiding the season would save Southend from relegation. Southend are sixteen points from safety and may even be caught by Bolton who started with no players and minus-12 points. But, Martin argues, by not playing the remaining games we would never know if Southend could suddenly find title winning form, and that wouldn’t be fair, would it? 

OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID. 

Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.

If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.

Only in the last few days have the EFL finally provided a framework for resolution. But, if the Oxford Vaccine Group can start developing a vaccine for Disease X – an unknown virus which will cause a pandemic before it happens, you might think that the EFL could have come up with a democratic method for resolving ‘Critical Issue X’ – a massive unknown problem which would affect the entire league. It seems not, there appears no established decision-making protocol for proposing or choosing possible resolutions, it’s taken weeks to come up with one inviting the shysters and vagabonds into the vacuum.

Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.

What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.

There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.  

Lockdown wrap: The club’s world class response to the lockdown

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of our Conference Play-Off Final win against York. You may have noticed. I wonder what how it might have been marked in normal circumstances. A livestream? A podcast? We might have been basking in the glory of a 2020 promotion season, maudling at throwing away a golden opportunity, preparing for another shot at the play-offs and Wembley. Sure, we would have marked the occasion, but would it have enjoyed the same prominence in our consciousness, would we have come together on a Saturday afternoon if there had been the distractions of normality?

There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, about who they played when they were the first and only club around. The answer is obvious; themselves. Sheffield FC was a club in the truest sense; a place for people to gather with a common interest. Only later came the notion that clubs would send representatives to play against other clubs. Later still that we might pay those representatives. Even later than that was the idea of football as a business separated from the original concept of a club.

The lockdown has removed the business of playing games from our lives and revealed the club on which we’re built. The club’s response has been nothing but exemplary; the branded facemasks, players and management phoning vulnerable and lonely fans, the podcast, the mental health advice. I don’t pay much attention to other clubs, but if the biggest ones are doing the same thing, even with their gigantic marketing machines, it hasn’t permeated my consciousness.

The club could have simply folded in on itself; mothballed its activities until it all passes. Oxford United is a small business, shutting the shop would have been perfectly acceptable. 

Karl Robinson contributes a lot to that; he has always got the concept of a club from his Liverpool days. In fact, when times have been hard for him on the pitch he’s almost too much of a fan; too involved. He wants to please, to entertain, he wants to create something meaningful. His wife is a health and wellbeing adviser and the club have been quick to respond to the mental health challenges evident across its community. Listening to Dan Harris and Gary Bloom talking about the welfare of players, from juniors to the first team, and the duty of care they have to them is as reassuring as it is impressive. Most of the youngsters in their charge won’t make it to a professional football pitch, but they will all walk amongst us in society.

None of this could happen without the support of the club’s sponsors; Tiger and the rest of the board. When you have ‘foreign owners’ – it’s easy to think of nefarious means and dirty money – that fans are consumers and stadiums are real estate. But the owners confound that unfair assumption.

The club’s regular podcast has been a particular joy; the limitations of technology and the detachment from the corporatisation of the club means that the discussion is authentic and candid whether it’s talking to Paul Moody or Ryan Clarke about mental health or giggling incessantly about The House In Kidlington or naked kickabouts in 2016. 

It’s not just boorish lad speak, while Simon Watts bonds things together, Chris Williams is often master of ceremonies, a fatherly figure both proud and exasperated by those in his charge. He’s spent time with them all and knows them as people. Fans have a very simplistic relationship with players and managers – to most Ian Atkins was a tactical caveman, Williams introduced him as ‘the man who taught me everything about football’. With him is Kath Faulkner, one-part club insider to two parts fan and Jack Brooks brings his experience from professional cricket, bridges the gap between those paid to do the job and those paying. 

And in essence, that’s the club; people who have been in and around it for years. Our representatives – the players – come and go. I’ve always said that all I want for players is for their experience to be the best of their career. That they take a little bit of the club with them and tell others about how good it was. Listening to Mark Creighton describe the excitement of Wembley, Steve Kinniburgh taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere against Luton in 2009 or Alex MacDonald’s memories of playing in derbies makes you feel like we can achieve that goal. It’s also the bonds that still exist between them – Chey Dunkley’s deference to Johnny ‘Uncle Muls’ Mullins, even when Dunkley’s career is on an upward trajectory. Or how the class of 2010 listened to Ryan Clarke as talked about mental health – confiding with Alfie Potter at Northampton, and Adam Murray chipping in with warm words of support. And then, click, Clarke is describing Matt Green as ‘a cannon and a mess’ on a night out and everyone is laughing with him. Normal guys, with otherwise normal lives, nice people who work hard and sometimes do silly things. There isn’t one that I haven’t liked.

Those within the club should be proud of their response to the lockdown, it could easily have been different and we probably wouldn’t have complained if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If there is to be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud, then the reminder of what a football club is and should be may be one if its lasting legacies.