I was in the sixth form in the summer of 1990; A Levels were coming to an end, a new world of freedom and opportunity was opening up. I was working in a video rental shop and earning more money than I could ever have imagined – £4 an hour tax free. I could afford to go to the pub and still buy a pizza on the way home. I once bought four albums on cassette in a single shopping trip.
I’d watched the group games of Italia 90 at home with my mum and dad, which had been the normal way of watching football on TV for as long as I could remember. With Oxford United alumni, Mark Wright, heading home the winner against Egypt in the final group game, England limped through to the second round to face Belgium on the same night as the first post-A Level party of the season.
The party was at Ian’s house; the game wasn’t planned as a centrepiece, but we naturally congregated around the TV. I thought it would be funny to create a ticker tape welcome to the England team as they entered the field. As the tense tussle progressed deep into extra-time, the drink flowed everywhere. With penalties looming, David Platt span to volley home Paul Gasgoigne’s floated back-post free-kick for the winner and the whole place went bananas.
Rob, the school’s head boy, jumped up, a slosh of lager coming out of his can. The ticker tape and beer mix had turned the wooden floor into an ice rink and with no traction underfoot, he slipped, hitting his head on the corner of the TV, he sprang to his feet with a big smile on his face. The whistle went and the party started in earnest; we danced late into the night to the acid house tunes that had replaced Leonard Cohen and The Cure on the sixth form ghettoblaster. The following morning the ticker tape had dried like concrete to the floor, but we were long gone by the time the host was trying to chip it off the floor before his mum got home.
Suddenly, we were in a perfect storm of national fervour, newly found freedom and a favourable World Cup draw. Parties that coincided with England games had added kudos. With each game more girls seemed interested in our knowledge of Tony Dorigo and Steve Hodge; there were pretty ones, cool worldly ones and some that didn’t even play the violin.
The semi-final against West Germany was at James’ house; he was cool, arty, laid back, unassuming and good looking; everyone liked him and everyone was invited. His parents were bohemian artists and had no issue with the entire school descending on the house, they probably weren’t aware of the game. The place shook violently with expectation.
Beyond the historical record, I don’t know what happened in between, my next clear memory was of four of us alone in an empty village pub down the road sitting ashen faced as the colour of the world drained away. England were out. What happened to the party? Did everyone just leave when Chris Waddle skied his penalty? I just don’t know, it was like a light had been switched off.
We met up again for the 3rd place play-off at Pete’s house, ornaments had been removed from the front room in anticipation of a raucous night, but the magic had gone. We watched solemnly, hoping to recreate something of the previous nights. One girl came, Ian’s new girlfriend, a kind of man-of-the-match trophy for the performances of the eleven days since the Belgium win. She sat bored as he pawed away at her, they’d split up within a week.
If Tuesday’s loss to Blackpool was the dispiriting defeat to West Germany, then last night’s second leg was the third place play-off against Italy. An administrative necessity; a game that never was. Some fantasised about a record breaking comeback and Matty Taylor’s opening goal momentarily suggested it could happen, but it had been clear since Tuesday who was the more deserving team.
It’s hard to know whether we played better or if Blackpool were a bit more lax with their three goal cushion. We battled well and showed admirable spirit to stay in the game and salvage a draw. The two goals immediately after Taylor’s had me fearing the worst, there was a long way to go in front of a partisan crowd and the quality of the goals screamed for us to surrender, but we didn’t and that’s to be applauded.
We stood fast and at least put on a show, but in many ways we ended the season pretty much where we started. We end as second top goalscorers in the league, but with the eighth best defence, we’ve won once against the top nine. Perhaps as significant is the fact we’ve drawn fewer games than anyone in the top half of the table.
We do the exciting bits really well, perhaps as well as any Oxford team since the eighties; we score goals and win games, but when we need to shut up shop and take a point, that’s where we’re lacking. It was evident at Lincoln on the opening day and it was evident last night. The better teams – and Blackpool is one – don’t give away defeats cheaply or chase wins unnecessarily. Our ability to concede within minutes of scoring last night showed the lack of composure, even our more senior professionals – James Henry and Matty Taylor – had moments where they seemed to lose control, which could have been red cards.
I remember the feeling of the 1990 semi-final penalty shoot out, and the re-run at Euro 96. In those two tournaments Germany scored ten consecutive penalties and never looked like they’d miss. They were composed and calm, never losing sight of the ultimate objective; nobody tried to break the net, let alone clear the stand Waddle-like.
This lack of leadership and the composure that comes with it has been a lingering factor all season. When we’re free and on the front foot, playing teams who are technically inferior, we’re brilliant to watch, we want to score goals and entertain, but when we need to take a breath against the better teams, who is making that call?
We’ve certainly progressed from where we were; earlier in the season we’d never see the back four moving the ball around taking the sting out of the game, that’s been more evident in the last few weeks. Perhaps we’ll see this accelerate next season as players like Rob Atkinson and Elliott Moore gain more experience and confidence, but I still feel there’s an argument for bringing in a couple of experienced players to be around the squad who can come in and influence the mindset of the team when it’s under pressure.
Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. I’m not disappointed, this season was about getting through, the fact we’ve had so many great moments is a bonus. We’ve played more league games than any other team in the division over the last two seasons and had virtually no break. I hadn’t contemplated a trip to Wembley or Championship football and, in fact, feared a little what it might do to us – another crushing defeat or a season battling relegation. Each step forward seemed like another step towards a poison chalice, although that didn’t make it less enticing.
In truth, I’m a little relieved it’s over and that we can have another go in a league we know we can compete and develop in. It finally gives everyone a chance to rest, physically and mentally, and to prepare properly for the new season; which, hopefully, will be a little bit more normal and maybe a little bit more successful; we’re very close and that’s all we need.