Match wrap: Ipswich Town 0 Oxford United 1

To paraphrase Half Man Half Biscuit, I was a pre-teen armchair Ipswich fan. When I was three, my dad let me choose my first football kit, and given the choice between old gold and black – his preferred Wolves option – and a blue and white ‘other’ – I picked the blue. When I asked who played in blue, dad said Ipswich Town and that was that.

It coincided with their glory years and fuelled many little obsessions I have about football. The FA Cup, flags, shirt number fonts, sponsors, penalty saves – Paul Cooper was the king – and a whole range of kit related things from away shirts to alternative coloured shorts.

I cried when Ipswich lost the 1981 FA Cup semi-final to Manchester City. Then they threw away the league title when they should have won it. They did win the UEFA Cup, but it was the beginning of the end of everything for me and them. In 1982, Oxford, who I’d been watching in real life, appointed Jim Smith. A few months later Ipswich manager Bobby Robson left for the England job sending them into a steep decline they’ve never really recovered from.

My transformation from Ipswich fan with an Oxford flirtation, to Oxford fan with an Ipswich past was all but complete. We soared as they struggled; in 1986, fresh from our Milk Cup win, we beat Arsenal to stay up sending Ipswich down in the process. It was kind of fitting.

Still, Ipswich Town v Oxford United holds a certain resonance for me. I can’t name any of their players, but I look at them as if staring through an opaque window at my lost childhood and the innocent wonder I used to find in football, most of which is lost never to be recovered.

With their brief period of glory bonded to my DNA somewhere deep down, I wasn’t expecting us to win on Saturday. A team like us, don’t simply go to Portman Road and beat a team like them. Ipswich were pre-season favourites for the title and still feel like an unobtainable benchmark we’d struggle to better. But, like a lot of teams that drop from the Championship, they’re clearly more damaged than they superficially appear. Even then, the club, it’s history and the ground still promotes something, for me, that is beyond us.

But, the win was a timely reminder of who we are and what Karl Robinson and the board have built. It has opened things back up for us as they go into free fall. It reminded me of our 1-0 win at Portsmouth in 2016 on the way to promotion. It wasn’t just the three points, it was the quality of the goal and management of the game in that setting that shows the maturity and potential we have.

It’s no coincidence that the core of Eastwood, Dickie, Brannagan, Gorrin, Henry and Taylor is back together, fit and healthy. That’s the unit that brought success earlier in the season. Keeping them all on the pitch at the same time has been the challenge. It’s a rare combination that we’ll struggle to maintain over the summer, so prepare yourself for more wailing about a lack of ambition, but for now, they have to be amongst the best in the division and we should just enjoy that.

The win turns what had been a daunting month into one of some promise. The remaining two games of February are both at home to lower placed teams and you get a sense there’ll be no complacency. We don’t feel like a team that does complacency. We’re the robust unit that lots of other clubs in this division aren’t, they trade off their great names and great histories, but they have a troubled soul. We probably shouldn’t forget that.

The season’s end is coming into view and it feels like after a brief wobble, we’re steadying the ship ready for the final charge. With fixtures starting to fall our way, we could build a head of steam that will take us into the play-off places leaving behind the more illustrious names the division has to offer. That is a memory that’ll be worth keeping.

Match wrap: Oxford United 5 AFC Wimbledon 0

There’s a romanticism about playing under the lights at Oxford which is a bit of a myth. It’s a treat to go out when most others are dutifully staying in, but a midweek game is typically cold and often wet, it’s watched through the slight foggy tiredness of a day’s work, the crowd is usually down on a normal Saturday leaving the atmosphere a bit empty and flat.

It wasn’t always like that, there was something slightly magical about the way The Manor, largely hidden from view during the day, set back from the London Road, lit up the night’s sky on a Tuesday or Wednesday night as everything else darkened. It was a beacon that enticed you into something joyful. Or maybe that’s just whimsy too.

On Tuesday, I left the house at my normal time and parked in my normal spot. I say ‘normal’, I haven’t been able to park there for weeks due to the crowds we’ve been attracting. The weather and opponents, as well as the inconvenience of a Tuesday night meant the place was quiet. It was both unusual and, at the same time, familiar.

Tiger’s programme notes were terse, addressing the brooding criticism of the club since January. There was a sense that all the goodwill built up over a surge up the table and two good cup runs was crumbling in the wake of two lads leaving for Brentford.

But, from the opening moments it was clear that we were so much better than Wimbledon. A class above. For all the talk about tiredness, injuries and a lack of transfer activity, we outplayed and outfought them. There was no harrying the full-backs from the opening seconds, no break-neck counter attacks to fend off, things which seemed to come so easily to our more recent opponents were completely absent. Against others, it’s felt like we’d been found out, whereas, in fact, maybe we’ve just been playing a lot of very good teams.

As the goals started to flow, for the first time in a couple of months, I felt we could breathe. In that workaday atmosphere, we could just be who we are. It felt as normal as games against Newcastle and Manchester City feel abnormal. For weeks nearly all our games have felt like a teeth-grinding hold-your-breath rocket ride, this just felt like a game of football in the mould of which we’re more familiar.

It reinforced to me that this is League 1 with its two divisions – the Championship, even Premier League, aspirants, and the League 2 over-performers. When you’re only playing the teams at the top, it feels like you’re failing, but then you start facing the teams at the bottom it shows that it’s not all doom and gloom. Overall, it provides a much better perspective as to where we’re at this season.

Of course there’s more we could do; we could take more financial risks to bring in players or resist bids from others. That’s a choice, mostly for those whose money is at stake. Demanding that we take those risks implies we’re failing and that any degree of prudence is ignoring that particular reality. We’re not failing, we’re a good side who are still in with a chance of the play-offs, which may even bring about promotion. But those things aren’t an ambition in itself, it’s the by-product of progress and, if you look at the season as a whole rather than small segments of it, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t progressing.

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Sunderland 1

There was such a lot of focus on Storm Dennis on Saturday I wasn’t really prepared for the Sunderland game to go ahead. Unlike snow, which is more obviously disabling, rain and wind can cause havoc but games are rarely postponed. Perhaps I should have known better.

Wind can be enough to change the course of a game, particularly at the Kassam. I’ve said before that there is rarely one true ‘fair’ result, many games can go either way and it can take one moment to dictate which way that is. When you throw extreme weather into the mix, that moment may not be wholly the result of players’ abilities.

The Sunderland game was a classic in this respect. The weather added countless new dimensions to the game; a high clearance would blow the ball blow in one direction, a little lower in another. These conditions are not the same for both teams, as is often suggested; it changes in force and direction constantly. It’s largely down to luck as to whether you’re dealing with a tailwind, headwind or crosswind; each has to be dealt with differently.

They found the right thermal at the right time. Chris Maguire’s corner was a good one, but the wind helped turn it into something more dangerous. It wasn’t wholly down to luck, but nor was it wholly down to their ability. The differences between the teams were marginal.

The whole game was like surfers trying to catch a wave. Players had to look for the right thermal to get the ball to do what they wanted. Like surfing, you’ve got to have the ability to ride the wave, but you also need the wave and that’s not in your control.

For a while in the second half James Henry looked like he’d found the right thermals; his looping passes held up in the wind dropping for Agyei, Taylor and Browne. But otherwise, it was a dogged battle in which players played against each other and the conditions in the hope they might catch a break. They got theirs, we didn’t get ours and that’s what dictated the result.

Sunderland are like a rusty cruise ship ploughing into a harbour; there’s nothing particularly elegant about them, but they rely on their sheer size to maintain a steady pace towards the the play-offs. While we barely looked more finessed, there was little between us.

The fact we matched them should be evidence that writing off our season now is a mistake. Fans were quick to identify how difficult this month was going to be, but unforgiving when it turned out to be true. They recognised the impact the conditions might have, but ignored them in their post-match analysis.

League 1 is split into two parts – teams who will yo-yo between League 1 and the Championship, and teams that will yo-yo between League 1 and League 2. Our current challenge is to get into the former. Success means having an outside chance of the play-offs; which is pretty much where we are at the moment.

Most teams in League 1 are damaged in some way; crippled by their former Premier League experience or stymied by the economic realities of sustaining themselves at this level. Few can resist periods of turbulence; as we’ve seen, most teams have been on alarmingly poor runs, but they’ve also been capable of strong surges. Like the ball on Saturday, a gust that throws us forward can suddenly turn into a headwind. As a result, teams including us, have been finding themselves at the top of the table before falling away again.

I actually think that 11th isn’t a bad place for us to be at the moment. Wycombe, for example, are now a known threat and teams no longer under-estimate them. If they’re to achieve anything this season, they’ve got to sustain their performances under intense pressure. We, on the other hand, may find we catch a tail wind as the weather improves which takes us close to the play-offs just at the right time. Upcoming fixtures, and recent performances, suggest that this is genuinely possible. Making the play-offs for most teams is now a question of if or when their surge will come at the right time.

Since the New Year results haven’t been great, but we’ve played mostly teams in the top group. We’re about to go through a period of playing teams in the bottom group. The performance against Sunderland suggests to me that any lost ground from the last few weeks can easily be made up. But we need to remember that making the play-offs isn’t a minimum requirement, it would be an genuine achievement.

Match wrap: Burton Albion 2 Oxford United 2

Back in 2009 I watched our game at Burton on some dodgy internet feed. It was a famous night; Burton were expecting to confirm their ascent to the Football League before Adam Chapman’s zinger of a free-kick ruined it all.

The picture was glitchy and blurred and surrounded by adverts of exotic looking large breasted women, sat in expensive sports cars who apparently were available for sex right now in a village two miles down the road from me. Last time I drove through there, the only thing available right now are some tulip bulbs which can be bought with a donation to an honesty box.

It was a novel immersive experience with a small community of Twitter early adopters sharing the feed around and Twittering inanely throughout the game.

Fast forward 11 years and we were back at virtual-Burton; the stream via iFollow is legitimate and paid-for, the large breasted distractions have gone, the Twitter community is bigger. The production is better but it’s still pretty poor; even paying £10 for the privilege, I like its raw appeal.

The experience opens you up to the real-time opinions and emotions of hundreds of people simultaneously. It’s an odd feeling, even at a live game amongst thousands, the number of people you talk or listen to is relatively small and most will share similar views to you, that’s why you hang out with them.

In a ding dong draw there was a huge range of emotions; from despair to frustration to anger, to disengagement, elation, acceptance and more. At least with a heavy defeat or rousing win it’s relatively easy to find a consensus, but a draw with mid-table Burton opens up a wider debate.

Personally, in the context of the season, I think the point is acceptable. Burton are a solid and robust team, Nigel Clough is the epitome of steadiness; they’re slap bang in the middle of the table and in their last five games they have drawn four times. You could argue that these are teams we should be beating, you can equally argue that Burton are a tough side and any away point against them is a point gained. On balance, not forgetting who we are – a team punching slightly above our weight – for me it’s a point gained.

Encouragingly I didn’t feel the result was down to fatigue or injuries, I thought we showed good energy throughout. Players like Cameron Brannagan, James Henry and Matty Taylor all looked like they were coming back to form and fitness. The failing was tactical, our fast moving possession passing game is prone to errors, and we’re particularly vulnerable early in games when our opponents are fresh. We’ve been caught several times now early in games conceding possession and giving away goals. What gives me grounds for hope is that this is more fixable than bringing injured players back to fitness.

The final argument is that will always be trotted out in the event of a defeat; any failing is the fault of the board, no better illustrated than through their decision to sell Tariqe Fosu and Shandon Baptiste. This is a convenient argument, but seems over-stated; Baptiste, for all his potential, only started nine league games this season, winning three. Brannagan, Henry, Gorrin, Forde and Thorne have all been as influential. Fosu also had his moments, but looked tired in the final weeks of his time at the club and, in my view, has been more than compensated with the arrival Holland and Browne. The only justifiable criticism is that the club haven’t replaced Chris Cadden.

Back in the summer we predicted a finish between 8th and 10th, we currently sit 10th. This is a division full of teams susceptible to extreme runs of form. For all the challenges that this month offers, the priority for me is as much about limiting losses as it is about making gains.

Match wrap: Peterborough United 4 Oxford United 0

If you know anything about the NASA Apollo Space Program, it’s probably about Apollo 13. An explosion in an oxygen tank resulted from a thermostat working at 28 volts when the rest of the system was working at 65. The system effectively pumped too much power through a narrow space, it’s failure meant the craft’s oxygen tanks were allowed to heat up to 1000 degrees when they were supposed to regulate at 80. Back at Mission Control, nobody noticed because their gauge only went up to 85.

There was always a chance that we’d take a pasting at Peterborough. They have the most potent attacking force in the division, we’ve just come off the back of a 120 minute marathon against a Premier League team with a raft of players just coming back from injury.

Like the oxygen tanks on Apollo 13, we’ve been overheating for some time now. You can analyse on-field stats to look at why, but also look at crowd sizes; ten 10,000+ crowds this season with at least two more to come. If that’s an indication of the mental challenge of constantly performing, it’s likely to have taken its toll.

The criticism of the team for the Peterborough performance and the outcry at Baptiste and Fosu’s sale is the equivalent of staring at the gauge which only goes up to 85 without realising the temperature has reached 1000 degrees.

There was a question on the Five Minute Fans’ Forum on Thursday asking how you persuade a child to follow Oxford rather than Liverpool when we keep selling our best players.

The over-rationalisation of football; first with money, now with technology like VAR, aims to iron out the imperfections in the game. It teaches you that you can get perfection where the fairest and most desirable result is the best team winning every time.

But football has never been like that; it’s always been about the balance of risk and reward. Of heating up enough to perform without destroying everything. If you’re a Liverpool fan, then with enough money and technology you can win every time. But these become Pyrrhic victories because they barely represent anything resembling a normal struggle to succeed.

Life is also not like that, most people cannot spend their way to a perfect life. If you want to live in a fantasy bubble where you can operate at 1000 degrees without consequences, then support Liverpool. If you want to enjoy a genuine struggle against the elements, then clubs like Oxford offer that experience. Being inside that experience, with everything that goes with it, will always be better than watching perfection from outside the bubble.

As a club we’re not far from operating at the outer reaches of what we can naturally achieve. We’re a 28 volt club amongst teams operating at 56 volts. Sure, we could have bought more reinforcements, or tried to hang on to Baptiste and Fosu, but would it have been worth the financial risk? Would it have been worth unbalancing the evident spirit within the club? That’s the eternal question; when cyclist Chris Boardman was asked how you gauge effort in a time trial his answer was ‘If you don’t think you can sustain the effort, slow down, if you think you can do more, speed up. The perfect answer to the question ‘can I keep going at this speed?’ is ‘I don’t know’.

And that’s the point; are our results due to a lack of effort? No. Are we going too fast? Maybe. Can we make it to the end? I don’t know.

In 2015/16 between the middle of January and the middle of February we won two, drew one and lost five games. We’d come off the back of an FA Cup and JPT run as well as a busy Christmas period and we were overheating. We recovered to gain promotion in what history remembers as a glorious year of unstoppable success. It wasn’t, but the thrill of achieving what we did was all the better for the difficulties we faced.

There were twelve Apollo Space missions, you might know two of them. Apollo 11 was an unbridled success that put a man on the moon. Apollo 13 was an unmitigated disaster saved by endeavour, ingenuity and human spirit. That’s the one they made the film about.

Stick with it, it’s what it’s all about.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 3

The Kassam Stadium has been corralled by big trucks, small trucks, trucks with small satellite dishes, trucks with big satellite dishes, trucks whose only purpose, you imagine, is to transport other trucks. The BBC doesn’t do much football, but when it does, it stays done.

Pitchside, the FA Cup sits proudly on a plinth. There are blinding arc lights with three cameramen filming three people. One is undeniably Michael Appleton, his cheekbones defined in the bright light. There’s another bald pundit who turns out to be Alan Shearer. Master of Ceremonies is Gabby Logan looking part human rights lawyer, part stay-at-home mum; both an every-woman and no woman you’ve ever met.

In between short bursts of football chat she’s riffles through a clipboard straining to hold a mountain of paperwork. It’s difficult to imagine what it contains. A make-up artist jumps in enthusiastically to brush her hair, Logan doesn’t flinch, it’s all part of the job. Nobody gets the Mr Muscle out to buff Appleton or Shearer’s bald pates.

In between the rabble, the club’s SLO, Kath Faulkner weaves her way through a mountain of people busying herself uploading another vignette from the team’s warm up to social media. And there’s Chris Williams looking like a nightclub bouncer, who with Martin Brodetsky – Oxford United’s Waldorf and Statler – represent the very soul of the club.

Around the pitch the fancy flashing advertising boards are back promoting our game against Accrington Stanley, £20 replica shirts and prescription-free Viagra. We have a sleeve sponsor for the night that fixes scuffed trainers.

It’s clear the club is operating at the edges and perhaps beyond its current capacity. This is the fourth Premier League team we’ve faced this season, the second prime-time live TV game and the sixth 10,000-plus crowd. Emotionally, it feels like we’re at breaking point.

The mood is confident rather than arrogant or apprehensive. Ticketing and the close proximity to the first game means that most of the regulars around me are sat slightly out of position. It’s like when the binmen leave number seven’s wheelie-bin outside number nine and number nine’s food bin in number 22’s garden, everything is familiar but slightly confusing.

Three seats next to me are vacant until moments before kick-off. Normally they’re occupied by season ticket holders, but seconds before kick-off people I’ve never seen before turn up sporting half-and-half scarves.

I’ve made my peace with half-and-half scarves, they’re no different to souvenir programmes and if those attending get an ounce more enjoyment out of their experience from buying one, then that’s a small step closer to them coming back.

It becomes evident that the lady sat next to me is, in fact, a Newcastle fan. She sings quietly and un-self-consciously along with the Toon fans in the North Stand. It turns out she lived near Kevin Keegan back in the 80s, but I guess everyone from Newcastle says that.

The game starts and it’s clear that our confidence is well founded. We’re not overawed or being outplayed. They put pressure on Marcus Browne which limits his scope and press Josh Ruffels and Sam Long. While we struggle to break out as an attacking threat, if we are going to concede, you suspect, it’ll be because of a bad luck or a mistake.

The mistake comes on 15 minutes. Mark Sykes over-plays in midfield, loses the ball and Sam Longstaff races forward to fire home. It’s not a howling error and Longstaff has plenty more to do once in possession, but it’s enough to separate the sides. 15 minutes later, Marcus Browne loses the ball on the edge of their box, the referee is liberal in his appliance of the rules all night, but he’s right about this one; no foul. A long ball to Joelinto creates a one-on-one with Rob Dickie and it’s 2-0.

They’re efficiently good, though it’s closer to Rotherham than futuristic Manchester City space-football. Given that they’re a serviceable defensive unit, it looks like game over.

Quixotically we then find some fluidity; Jamie Mackie goes close, Sam Long has one headed off the line. It’s nice to see us play. What’s lacking is a driving force. Browne is squeezed out, Henry is injured and Baptiste has gone. Mark Sykes becomes an unlikely pivot around which good things happen.

There’s a quiet acceptance over half-time that we’re at journeys end. The main objective now is to avoid injuries and humiliation. The second half is scrappy; their early efficiency has deserted them but we’re stuck between attacking and conceding more on the break.

On the hour Browne goes down and Karl Robinson instantly replaces him; it feels like he’s conceding defeat. We’re not always perfect, but we’re still playing with a signature style. Some of their passing is indistinguishable from the Conference; four or five times the ball simply runs out of play. Still, they have the two goal buffer and we have little in response, so it matters not.

The game becomes painful, Newcastle fans sing songs at Alan Shearer who is holed up in a black box that makes for a studio in the corner – ‘They’re perpetually stuck in the 90s’ says someone near me. But, Shearer is the most glamorous thing about the game, if I was watching this on TV, I’d be channel surfing for Live At The Apollo on Dave, even if it featured Jason Manford.  

The clock ticks on, we’re tiring on and off the pitch. Nathan Holland is mainlining energy gels. With Matty Taylor just back from injury and Dan Agyei and Liam Kelly barely having 90 minutes of football between them this year, even our fresh legs don’t have fresh legs.

Five minutes to go, through all the scrappiness we draw a foul 25 yards out. Liam Kelly stands over the ball, he has the stature of Sam Deering, so the distance looks about three times what it is. Physically we’re drained, but this is a purely technical challenge so we have a chance. Kelly exquisitely lifts the ball over the wall and past the keeper for 2-1. He dutifully trots back to the centre-circle, but a smile on his face shows how pleased he is with it. It’s almost identical to Chris Maguire’s goal at Middlesborough three years ago. Look what happened then.

But that’s fanciful hope rather than expectation. As we tick into injury time, we win another free-kick in the centre circle. Suddenly everything is simple; equalise or lose heavily. Simon Eastwood abandons his goal to make a nuisance of himself up front. Kelly pitches the ball to the back post; Sam Long who’s put in an exhausting shift, pops it up, Eastwood stares into the sky trying to locate it like a village cricketer blinded by the sun. His bewilderment disrupts the Newcastle back line allowing Ruffels to win the second ball which drops to where Nathan Holland is loitering. Holland watches it fall from the night’s sky, swings a boot and connects.

Now we’re in the hands of destiny. The ball arrows its way through a narrow alleyway of opportunity. I’m right behind it; gravity brings the ball down, potential energy transfers into kinetic energy via biomechanics. A confluence of science, a moment of liquid poetry, the ball hits the net and the place implodes. If we’re going down, it’s going to be with grenades and flamethrowers. Holland celebrates like he’s from the 50s with both hands in the air. The stadium is carnage, like a coach crash in an ice storm; bodies are everywhere, shoes are lost, grannies thrown into the air. Even with its imperfections and gaping open end, sometimes The Kassam can feel like home. For moments, live on national TV, the world can see why we do what we do.

And then, the reality. As the final whistle goes, a person on my row nudges past and doesn’t come back, his cup of Horlicks beckons. We start extra-time brightly and threaten again with Dan Agyei. But it can’t be sustained and we run out of puff; only Sykes seems to maintain the intensity, growing more influential as the minutes tick by. Our only option now is to survive to penalties, even with precious few natural penalty takers on the pitch. George Thorne comes on looking like the banjo-tech from Mumford & Sons, it’s good to see him back, but he’s a long way from fit.

Conceding is, perhaps, inevitable and it comes eventually from Saint-Maximin, who is built like an American wrestling figurine. With five minutes to go and no energy to respond, hope slips away. They celebrate wildly; but given the preposterous financial gap between the two clubs, they should be beating us and it shouldn’t take three and a half hours to do it. Exhausted and heroic, the cup dream is over. It’s been a heck of a run.

There are times this season when it feels like we’ve been on loan to somewhere else – the Carabao Cup, Premier League, Sky Sports and the BBC. We depart in a blaze of glory in front of the nation; there’s no better way to fail. Tomorrow, it’s back to normality and the simple reality of seven games in 21 days. Perhaps the 5th Round wasn’t much of a prize after all.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Blackpool 1

Over Christmas someone posted a tweet about how quickly the feeling of returning to the warm bosom of the family home on Christmas Eve can turn to an overwhelming urge to throw acid over your family just for them wanting to watch Holby City two days later.

If last Saturday’s game against Newcastle was a loving family Christmas Eve and Friday’s transfer shenanigans was a fractious Boxing Day argument, then Blackpool was the first Sunday lunch together a few weeks later.

The Oxford United family returned to the dinner table where we’d laughed and loved, then argued about calling a Chinese takeaway a ‘Chinky’ and if Uncle Alan was ‘shoving it in everyone’s faces’ posting pictures of his new boyfriend on Facebook.

Gathered together at the Kassam, everyone was torn between the need grin and bear it and the urge to address unresolved arguments; about Fosu and Baptiste, about our failure to sign a right-back or our reliance on loans. Do we address the elephants as they sit quietly in the room? Should we get it all out in the open? Or do we just get on with it and leave the elephants be?

As a result, the atmosphere was as subdued as the family lunch; the gentle clanking of knives and forks, the chinking of glasses. The loudest noise of all was the aching silences as everyone trod carefully to avoid a mistake that would destabilise the precarious status quo.

Then, almost as if we were trying too hard to avoid one, there was a mistake, like your dad quietly muttering it was good to have some ‘proper British food’ and everyone thinking it was a reference to an old Brexit argument. John Mousinho and Josh Ruffels clatter into each other, giving Gary Madine a free run at goal. He takes an age, but slots home to put Blackpool 1-0 up.

A goal down could have ignited a barrage of arguments and recriminations, turning the air blue and the atmosphere toxic. People held their breath, bit their lips and hoped it might pass.

It did, then there’s a moment of levity that unites everyone, like mum bringing in a plate of Yorkshire puddings. The ball is worked to Sam Long whose cross drops to Marcus Browne to blast in the equaliser off Mark Sykes. Suddenly and briefly, it’s like the good old days again.

Everything is holding together. Just. We haven’t descended into a mass argument, nobody has stormed out. Perhaps it will be OK.

It gets better, dad cracks a joke that’s a bit close to the bone, but there’s a flicker of a knowing, unifying smile on his face. He knows his prejudices and his cantankerousness. Marcus Browne picks up the ball and curls it round a crowd of players into the top corner. The moment of pure quality brings us all together, momentarily.

But, now this new state of equilibrium has been reached, the second-half is slow and awkward; we’re pensive and don’t threaten much. We don’t want to lose what we’ve gained. It’s a slog as the conditions neutralise any scope for craft or ability. There’s a tension in the air, it could get better, it could get worse, nobody is really prepared to risk anything just in case.

Time ticks by, nearly there. An unnecessarily heavy pudding is served to the over-stuffed guests. Custard? Yes, why not? The injury time board goes up. The family are putting their coats on and saying their goodbyes. Soon, you’ll be in the car and be able to release the tension, free to dissect everyone’s behaviour on your way home.

Then, just as you think you’re alone and got away with it, while putting a bag in the boot of your car, you quietly say to yourself that your dad is ‘a stupid old twat’. You turn around and he’s standing behind you with a Christmas present you’d forgotten, closer than you’d thought. Would he know it was a reference to him? Did he hear? If he did, he’s not saying. After all this, are you going to pay for your error at the death?

Deep into injury time Josh Ruffels woefully under-hits a back pass putting Madine clean through. Oh, god, this is it isn’t it? At the very death, this is the moment it all collapses in a heap. Improbably, his shot skims the outside of the post. We breathe again, let’s get out of here.

The final whistle goes, we’ve made it through. Mum turns to you quietly in the bustle of everyone leaving and says ‘You’ll be coming to us at Christmas won’t you? Your dad really likes you coming, you know.’ You smile a reassuring smile, it may not be always be happy and harmonious, but yes, we’ll be there next time and ultimately everything will be OK. Probably.