Before other events took over on Saturday, I was formulating an idea about how culture overrides tactics. Immediately before the win over Charlton, Karl Robinson’s selection was questioned by quite a few people. The received wisdom was that a lack of full-back cover coupled with Steve Seddon’s perceived lack of form had forced Robinson into adopting a tactic which might best be described as ‘so many wingers, so few wings’. His all-out entertainment plan looked a high risk way of facing a team like Charlton.
Which, of course, it wasn’t – there’s a culture instilled within the squad which pushes the team towards starting quickly. Eleven of our seventeen league wins this season have seen us score in the opening half-an-hour, six of our nine defeats have been in games where we’ve failed to make an early breakthrough.
That culture compels us to play with high energy, regardless of the tactics we play. It has consequences, it’s hard to sustain so we can become vulnerable, but it generally works, so even when the tactics seem wanting, we’ve got a chance. With Charlton, the quick start paid such dividends it’s hard to say whether the tactical adjustments made a significant difference or not.
We were quick out of the blocks against Crewe as well. It made sense to get amongst them, you feel any team floundering at the bottom of the table would be susceptible to an early breakthrough and were likely to crumble under pressure.
After a couple of early chances, the pressure eased, the patterns of play settled. This is the point where we’ve been caught out before or lost our way a little. Crewe, like Accrington a couple of weeks ago, don’t really need to prove anything, a point against the team fourth in the table would be a solid result, if opportunities come, that’s a bonus. If not, then so be it. They’re happy to wait for us to make mistakes.
Despite the lack of breakthrough, half-time came and there was nothing to worry about; the law of averages suggested a goal would come. But it didn’t and the game edged into that anxious period where you wonder whether we might run out of ideas.
That’s the point when something needs to change, but all our obvious impact players – Sykes, Whyte, Williams – were already on the pitch. Others – Browne, Bodin and Henry – were at home. Nathan Holland was an option, but you might describe the rest of the bench as ‘closers’ – better at closing a game out than sparking it into life.
It was hard not to think we could do with a Joey Beauchamp-type, who scored a critical goal at Gresty Road in the penultimate game of the 1996 promotion season, we could have done with his ability to turn games on their head.
And then I thought, he’d have probably hated that, I’m sure he loved to play and score, but to perform on cue, to ‘turn it on’, to commoditise his talent, these were big contributing factors which made life so difficult at West Ham and then Swindon. He just wanted to play for his favourite team.
It may ultimately be a necessity for a player to be able to do that, a product of being a professional, but does any flair player wants to be an impact player? It’s difficult to turn something which is instinctive into something which is conscious and controllable, even if the best players are the ones who can find consistency.
So, even if the desire is always to turn to any available elfin sprite who happens to be wrapped up in a padded sports coat and fluorescent tabbard, perhaps on this particular night it’s fitting that we ended up turning to the most unlikely game changer – Ciaron Brown.
I had filed Brown’s signing in a big box labelled ‘Bodies in the building’ – it reminded me of those long-forgotten announcements of Johnny Giles, Sam Allardyce’s grandson and pretty much everyone Michael Appleton signed in the first half of the 2014/15 season. We needed some defensive cover and were running out of time, Brown fitted the bill.
It was difficult to switch from the emotional outpouring of Beauchamp’s passing to the regular grind of League 1, but it was refreshing that an anti-Joey, a counter-cultural member of the squad should be the one to break the deadlock and seal the three points. It reminds us that heroes can come in all shapes and sizes.
It’s an unbearable truth that whatever is or has been written about Joey Beauchamp, it will always be inadequate. People will talk about his talent and his commitment to his club, his redemption story, the joy he brought and how he shaped and defined us as people. But, as much as you dig for the words and assemble them best you can, they will inevitably fall short of describing what he meant.
I suspect the tragedy is that Joey has always struggled to articulate his own purpose, to comprehend his own place in this complex web which is both rich and vibrant and equally meaningless. He was a fortunate accident; an Oxford boy with a talent who played for his hometown club. There’s no doubt that Oxford United fans loved him, but it was always articulated as the Joey Beauchamp who played football in the 90s. In many ways, that image wasn’t him, his image represented us, our hopes and dreams and our collective experience of the time. His greatest successes are recast as our greatest successes.
When that time passed, what did it leave him with? He wasn’t rich, outside the Oxford United community he was anonymous, in the swamp of 90s nostalgia-porn he was mostly the butt of the jokes. As a middle-aged man, a physical shadow of his former self, he could be forgiven for asking what the point was.
The point is that there is no point. We are the only species on earth that seeks purpose in our existence, that there must be meaning in the things we do. We have to have ‘careers’ and spend our time productively, we must leave a legacy.
Some keep digging around for a reason to exist, they dig so deep all they can see is the hole they’re in. They look up and see where they’ve come from and wish they were back there and had never started digging in the first place.
Football clubs help provide a sense of focus in this whirlpool of meaningless, they help to stop you digging. They hold our memories and feelings in trust; watching Joey’s goal against Blackpool transports us back, it makes us happy for having seen it and sad at the passing of time. In many ways that reminds us of our irrelevance. That singular moment, one I can remember with pin sharp clarity, is always slightly out of reach, try as you might, you can’t recreate it, not fully. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you stop trying to recreate it and simply celebrate it for what it is.
At least it happened and we can entertain each other with stories about what it was like to watch it. A football club is a great amorphous mass of memories. We feed into it and draw from it; we celebrate and despair collectively. But it is like a giant pyramid selling scheme – it only means something because what has gone before means something, and what went before that meant something. In some senses, Joey Beauchamp was at the top of that pyramid, while everyone else is caught up in the mania of this pseudo-meaningful existence, he faced the stark reality that as a once in a generation talent, an icon and a talisman, he was, in truth, just a person trudging through a long meaningless life heading for the inevitable cliff edge that we all reach eventually. Life is a boring story which ends badly.
But while that journey is long and hard and often unrewarding, we need to find things to do to fill it. We are currently fourth in the table and have just registered a sensational 4-0 away win at Charlton. In recent weeks we’ve beaten Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 and Gillingham 7-2. Even the defeats to Wigan, Bolton and Wycombe have provided a thrill. At the end of every week there is a game, the aim of that game is to win, however many Oxford fans there are in the world and whatever world view we have, we all, at least, share that goal.
Those games and that objective is meaningless without what came before, or what might happen after we’ve gone, and that belief sustains us. Without it, Cameron Brannagan’s 25-yard drive for 4-0 is just a man kicking a ball. Each win and each goal is given purpose because of Joey Beauchamp, Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton, Paul Simpson, Chris Allen, Ron and Graham Atkinson, Arthur Turner, Jim Smith, Ken Fish, John Shuker, James Constable, Kemar Roofe, Micky Lewis, Michael Appleton, Sam Long, Matty Taylor, Karl Robinson and every other person who has helped to sustain this club and community for 129 years.
For every player at the centre of that community, there will always be a period of reflection and melancholy as the memories morph into myth. Joey Beauchamp could be mesmerising, even now there are clips of him flying down the wing and cutting inside and I can’t imagine how he did it or imagine anyone else being able to do it. I can remember the sharp intake of breath when he did and the swell of noise coming from the London Road. He could also skulk around on the wing anonymously and people would berate him for it. He could play brilliantly, which is what we all remember, but he could play badly and off the field he had all the joys and terrors we all must deal with. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have one strand of your existence become your singular defining factor, or what it would then feel like when that defining factor finally leaves you.
My dad once went on a group tour of the Emirates Stadium, he was shown around by Arsenal legend Charlie George. George clearly loved telling stories of his playing days and my dad loved chatting to him. They’re both old men now, in many ways they’re equals, but they’d found a space that gave them a sense of fulfilment as they enter their final years. We’re not big enough to have the infrastructure to wrap everyone in that financial and psychological security blanket, but we must find better ways of supporting people like Joey.
A few years ago, Karl Robinson invited Beauchamp and James Constable to train with the current first team. It was a reminder to those playing what they were representing, the continuation of a rich golden thread. It was a masterstroke giving current players a reason to commit to the club. For a brief time it must have given Beauchamp and Constable a renewed sense of purpose and relevance as their lives transitioned to something else. Robinson talked about creating a players’ coffee club, a place for them to feel a new sense of connection with their contribution – not put on a pedestal as special guests or legends to perform for fans, but to continue to be part of something, a little bit less alone.
One of the tragedies of Joey Beauchamp is that he never got to see himself play, he wasn’t in the London Road when the ball hit the back of the net against Blackpool, or when he slotted home against Swindon, or saved us from relegation at Tranmere. Perhaps if he had, he would have stopped trying to find his path and purpose and would have realised he was already there.
I’ve been buffeted by lots of little challenges this week; a routine trip to the hospital, a frustrating tussle with a local government department and a death which doesn’t affect me directly but reminds me of my own mortality. Lots of little glancing blows that wear you down as the week progresses.
Football on a Saturday comes as a big gulp of crisp, cold fresh air; it’s the routine, the simplicity of purpose, the shared values. I’m sure there are plenty of Oxford fans with terrible views, but for 90 minutes at least, we all want the same thing. It helps to iron me out when I’m feeling a bit crumpled.
More than just being reassuringly routine, going to games now has become an event. When the stadium is near-full and the adverts blink around the pitch, it’s easy to forget the open end and the world beyond the Kassam. We’re a long way from the cold soulless days of Grays Athletic or Woking in the Conference.
One of the joys of League 1 is the opportunity to play teams like Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Bolton as equals. They’re all victims of the worst excesses of the Premier League, damaged goods at scale; like finding a pair of Air Jordan’s or a copy of Screamadelica in a charity shop – luxury at a bargain price.
That’s League 1 through and through, most players could play at a higher level but for their consistency and injuries. Success is determined by who can keep their players on the field and in-form the longest. It means the football can be highly entertaining while facing the constant jeopardy of a precipitous fall from grace.
After the thriller last week and against Sheffield Wednesday, it seemed too much to ask for another to be served up against Bolton. We guffawed about another slew of goals, last minute winners and controversial sendings off. Secretly, a dour 0-0 draw seemed more likely. Then, suddenly, we were off again – a sublime free-kick from Billie Bodin and then an immediate equaliser – another drive across the box, who’d have thought it? Both teams set off at a furious pace, leaving themselves open and vulnerable.
Despite the banks of noisy away fans, many of these bigger teams are like meeting a celebrity and finding they’re surprisingly normal. Bolton are clearly capable, but they’re like us; lots of talent with plenty of room for improvement. There was so much movement and so many adjustments of formation, at times it felt like there were way more than 22 players on the pitch.
Bodin’s second was as good as his first, Wanderers’ second as poorly defended as theirs. It was like two drunks swinging wild punches at each other with their trousers falling down. We’ve had two exciting home wins, they’ve won six out of seven, but you get a sense those trends will end abruptly. The game was breathtaking and appalling – how can a teams so obviously porous keep ignoring their failings?
It was difficult to know quite where it was going to end up, six-all? Nine-eight? The fourth official indicated just two additional minutes, and everyone suddenly seemed happy to drift into the break. When the half-time whistle went, it felt like we’d played for about five minutes.
Then, everything just deflated, like when you have that extra drink on a night out and realise you’ve gone too far. From being invincible and full of energy, you suddenly feel full and tired and your tongue is covered by a furry coating. Your sharp wit deserts you, you form words in your head, but can’t co-ordinate your mouth to actually say anything.
Nothing we could do could reinvigorate us. Herbie Kane turned into that bloke at your five-a-side night who played a couple of games in the Conference North in the mid-nineties. You could see his quality, but his discipline had gone and he looked mentally and physically tired. Cameron Brannagan had his standard mid-second-half tantrum, but even that seemed half-hearted, like he really just wanted to put on a onesie and watch Paw Patrol with a glass of milk.
In cycling it’s called bonking, in running it’s hitting the wall; the moment your energy reserves run dry and everything that was bright and colourful goes grey. We just can’t play like this without there being a crash at some point. We’re chasing games and knowing we need get a buffer of at least three goals just to win narrowly. The pressure to go into the last five minutes of games knowing that you’ve got to conjure up another piece of magic is mentally exhausting.
Then Steve Seddon lost his bearings, leaving Fossey free down the wing. His cross dropped to Bakayoko to tap home. Bakayoko is the kind of player I think we need – mobile and hardworking – but able to establish a bit of control when the ball is pinging around.
There were still eight minutes to play, but fans immediately started filtering out of the ground. It was like we’d had enough, too much excitement, even if we did grab a last-minute equaliser, we could live without it. After the last few weeks gorging on fine wines and rich food, we need a palette cleanser or two, a plate of beans on toast. Our next two home games against Cambridge and Burton will hopefully bring that, an opportunity to register a couple of more routine, less fraught wins. If football straightens me out when I’m feeling crumpled, you get a sense that the squad might need a bit of ironing before it heads into the final weeks of the season.
I used to follow Andy Holt, the Accrington Stanley owner, on Twitter right up to the point where I came to realise that what he seems to advocate is that everyone should be exactly like Accrington Stanley.
They’re an anachronism in League 1, they’re not one of the larger clubs aiming for the Championship, nor are they like the bunch of teams who are likely to yoyo between the divisions indefinitely. They’re well run and successful on a meagre budget, but if we were all to follow the same model, football would be poorer as a result. It’s perhaps fitting that they sit absolutely mid-table.
It also makes them harder to play against, they don’t have the limitations of smaller clubs that allow us to pull them apart as we’ve done on a few occasions this season, they’re not going to have the single-mindedness to muscle us into submission like the better teams in the division. They barely have any supporters, so it’s not like you can stoke the atmosphere and turn their fans on them.
It was hard to know quite what our gameplan was on Tuesday. We started as though we were still playing injury time against Portsmouth. The weather seemed to create a sense of uncontrolled urgency and desperation. It played into their hands, while we raced around trying to create openings, they seemed happy to keep tempo. They paced themselves in such a way that they could keep up while not extending themselves. It meant that we were likely to make mistakes and they were likely to retain the energy to exploit them. It didn’t so much play to their strengths as play to one of our weaknesses.
It was mentioned in commentary that conceding goals is, effectively, priced into our style. We’ve only kept six clean sheets this season and have conceded two goals in six of our last seven games. In three of those seven, we’ve won in a thrilling way, in three others we’ve lost. On Saturday, my dad texted having seen what he thought was the final score, saying we’re not consistent enough for promotion (we were 2-1 down at the time). Having just seen the Portsmouth win, I thought he was mad, but looking at the last month or so, he may have a point.
In terms of sheer entertainment, I wouldn’t trade the last few weeks for the three points on offer yesterday, but I’m less convinced by the argument that we should have a way of playing that accepts we’ll concede goals and simply score more.
That principle: ‘if they score three, we’ll score four’ sounds good and full of dashing joie de vivre, but it can become tedious in reality. I once worked with someone who called themselves a disruptor and a maverick. That seemed quite exciting until he set up an unauthorised business unit clearing leaves from train lines – pretty much the opposite of what his employer did. He was fired and the mopping up took months.
The origins of the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ philosophy came from Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team of the mid-nineties. They were, perhaps, the most entertaining team of the modern era, one that won precisely nothing and whose architect is now looked on as a bit of a naive buffoon.
Karl Robinson has created, perhaps, one of the most entertaining squads we’ve ever had. It’s certainly the best Oxford team never to have won anything (so far). The best teams, whether it’s in the Premier League or in League 1 are intolerant to their weaknesses, even those that only occasionally materialise. Wigan are probably the best example in League 1 this season; they’re not willing to sacrifice points and promotion for style and principles.
Last night our usual fast paced, high possession game looked fragmented and disjointed. We only started to look like we were in control in the latter stages, by which point we were chasing the game and battling the worst of the conditions.
We’re effectively going into games knowing that we’ll concede, we might as well start games 1-0 down. That’s all priced-in and accepted, which is fine when you fire in two world class goals in the final moments, but less so when you’re sodden wet and chasing shadows.
Are we ready to adapt? I doubt it, and I’m not even sure if I want us to. We do serve up a very good product and I don’t know if I’m ready to give that up. But, if we do want to get promoted and, beyond that, survive at a higher level, any tolerance of weakness will ultimately cost us in the long term.
In October 2017, an anonymous poster named ‘Q’ warned of a ‘calm before the storm’ on the online message board 4Chan. 4Chan users could post anonymously and without censure and it had become a heathen soup of racism, anti-Semitism and child pornography, an infinite game of one-downsmanship. The more grotesque the fantasy, the better it performed. For the disenfranchised and marginalised, it became home.
‘Q’ was a reference to a level of high security clearance in the US government. Through a series of posts, they painted a picture of an evil cabal of child eating paedophiles – including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – at the heart of US establishment. Q was fighting a secret war to have them brought to justice and executed and for Donald Trump to take America into a new utopia.
It was a hit, users played along, Q’s posts were vague enough allow them to be analysed and embellished. The best ideas – usually the darkest and most fantastical – took on a life of their own.
The lucrative US conspiracy market got wind of Q’s success and started to promote it more widely. Donald Trump spotted its pro-Trump sentiment and gave it legitimacy. When the pandemic hit, and Q linked it to the great conspiracy, it offered a confused and frightened world a simplistic explanation. QAnon, as became was known, offered an alternative world which made sense because it’d been entirely made up. On January 6th thousands of people stormed the US Capitol, many carrying banners saying ‘Q Sent Me’. An alternative world had been created and people were living in it as though it were real.
I knew something was different as soon as I got to the ground on Saturday, the Grenoble Road was busy, but where I park was empty. I got out of the car and momentarily miscalculated where I was. I’ve parked there for fifteen years and managed to get lost on the way to the stadium. Perhaps that was the gateway to the another realm.
At the ground I met Dan and brinyhoof to talk podcasting. Dan updated us on his unlikely burgeoning relationship with a 90s Oxford legend. It was like that bit of the Beatles documentary where Paul McCartney creates ‘Get Back’ in front of our eyes. I wondered whether Peter Jackson might want to make an eight-hour documentary about the underwhelming podcast we might, at some point, make.
The meeting threw our timings, there was a large queue snaking out of the South Stand turnstiles. We said goodbye to Dan and joined the back of the queue. A steward asked if we were in the upper tier and ushered us in a side door. It was like we’d been invited into a special room at Olivander’s wand shop. I looked back, we were the only ones who’d been picked for special treatment, when I looked back a second time, brinyhoof had disappeared.
For a moment, I wondered whether they’d taken him down. His arm’s in a sling from an operation, perhaps this is how they recruit stewards, by picking off the weak. Maybe in the weeks to come I’ll see him with all dead eyed in a high visibility jacket manning a fire escape.
Then he appeared, via a circuitous route and late, we were in. Nobody scanned our tickets, nobody knew we were there. Perhaps we weren’t, perhaps we’d strayed into an alternative reality.
The game started normally enough, we took the lead from Luke McNally, they equalised. Then in the centre circle, Joe Morrell’s foot went up, Cameron Brannagan’s head down, Brannagan dropped to the floor, presumably to emphasise the foul. The physios came on with a sense of urgency. Medical-football love a protocol, and anything involving a head injury triggers an emergency response, in years to come they’ll be accompanied by a full crash team.
Ultimately it was nothing, there was a half-hearted protest, which was mostly performative. Mark Sykes gestured that Morrell had kicked Brannagan. It was like the scene in Do The Right Thing when Bugging Out’s Air Jordan’s get scuffed and his friends try to convince him it’s a racially aggravated assault. The ref didn’t seem to fall for it and wondered around calmly, then promptly sent Morrell off. Minutes later George Hirst clattered Elliott Moore in almost the same spot. Now that’s a red card. The referee seemed similarly non-plussed, but was he ready to reduce Portsmouth to nine men inside twenty minutes? No.
They’re down to ten men with 70 minutes to play, now it’s all about patience, chances will come as long as we don’t snatch at them. The game locks into a rhythm to the noisy incessant backdrop of bells and drums of the Pompey fans. It’s like being at a concert by the Acoustic Chemical Brothers.
At half-time there’s a delayed restart, a stretcher and trolley-bed are wheeled down the tunnel. Conspiracy theories are aplenty, there were fans in the tunnel. From the South Stand Lower? What were they doing, wandering around in their slippers? The cause is obliquely described as a ‘thing about a thing’ which adds to the surrealism.
The teams eventually emerge and we’re back into the rhythm; we have all the possession to find a way through. We’re so comfortable, Brinyhoof says with a chuckle ‘What minute of injury time do we think Ronan Curtis will score the winner?’ At that moment they break and the ball drops to Curtis with acres of space in the right back position. You can almost see the ghost of Scott McNiven staring disapprovingly, it feels like practically every goal this season has come from that direction. We’ve practically abandoned defending that part of the pitch: McNiven’s Pocket. Curtis fires home.
Brinyhoof spends the next few minutes questioning whether he’s acquired magical powers. It’s like Spiderman testing his spidey-senses, firing webs against the wall and listening to a couple of ants gossiping. He’s impressed and frightened by his newly acquired powers. We really are in the another realm.
Stay calm. Portsmouth build a defensive wall as blue and odious as anything the northern Tories created in the 2019 election, but Mark Sykes is finding ways around them. We just need a pass to squirm through the crowd and the chance will come.
Stay calm. Even Karl Robinson gestures to keep cool, everyone complies apart from Cameron Brannagan. He’s booked, mopping up a Luke McNally error and has a tantrum like someone hit his GCSE art project with a cricket ball. Marcus McGuane is readied, I suggest Brannagan might be a candidate to be replaced.
Then he fires a long-range effort, which is smartly saved, it’s not bad and raises the spirits, but it’s born from frustration. He does this when the chips are down, he takes personal responsibility to sort it out. But, we need to play as a team and be patient, get the ball into the six-yard box for Matty Taylor, that’s the rational route to goal, we never score from distance.
Inexplicably, the Portsmouth keeper manages to kick the ball out of play five times handing back possession, but as welcome as his help is, the clock is ticking, though it’s hard to know exactly when the game will end.
The ball falls for Brannagan again, he looks up, he’s going to do it again, an angry drive. We prepare ourselves for a dutiful ‘ooh’, maybe it’ll got for a corner. He connects, but this one is sweet and pure and blisteringly fierce. This one’s different, breaking the sound barrier from 25 yards, busting the net. 2-2, mayhem. Hope.
After everything that’s gone on, a point seems reasonable. The board goes up to indicate 10 minutes of injury time. The ref’s been a curious mix of eccentric and dutiful. He ducked the second sending off, but his totting up of delays has been meticulous. A bloke in front of us left on 70 minutes, he’ll have missed half-an-hour of football to avoid the traffic. What a life. Mind you, nobody is quite sure when we’ll get home, a couple of people are texting to cancel their evening plans.
We continue to probe, poking at the dying carcass of the game, seeking signs of life. Nathan Holland picks the ball up. He’s a Premier League academy automaton isn’t he? Detached from the mayhem, he’s programmed to create low risk, high reward chances for others. He bustles around the flank to try and get some space to get a cross in. But, this club, it humanises you, gives you licence to do things differently. I glance into the box – Taylor’s there and Sykes and Winnall. Good. If he can get his cross in, then maybe…
I glance back, the ball is in the air, is it looping? Curling? I can’t work out whether it’s high or low, the angle from the South Stand obscures everything. It might be on target or on its way to the corner flag. The ball, relative to the goal, could be anywhere, we’re in a parallel world, it could literally be anywhere.
The trajectory is checked by the post bringing a degree of perspective, it’s close, but is it in? Did it go wide? Is it in play? Is it in the ninth dimension of Xargorn? The crowd react, the players react – it’s like loading up a file on a slow internet connection, the picture becoming clearer with each pixel and fragment of data. That’s in. It’s In. A goal. He’s scored. We’ve won.
I have to go to the club shop after the game, weaving through throngs of people chanting, buzzing at the spectacle they’ve witnessed. By the time I get back to my car everyone has gone, a calm descends. I start the car and even Radio Oxford are signing off, I’ve even missed Eddie Odhiambo talking about North Leigh or some such. I slip back into the real world. People seem go about their business as though nothing has happened. I take a breath. Who needs parallel world’s when the real one is this good?
It’s 1982, I’m in my mum and dad’s kitchen looking for food. It’s Saturday, the day of the The Big Shop. The cupboard is full of crisps, cheese and Coke (and vegetables and fruit, but that’s not important). My dad despairs at the fact we eat all the food, but isn’t that what it’s there for? To be eaten?
Radio Oxford is parping away on the radio, the presenter is playing a steady stream of middle of the road pop staples. He has the ‘prayer mat’ out. I’m never sure if that’s a real thing or not, but it means Oxford are losing at Newport. A song ends, ‘It looks like the prayer mat has worked as we head to Somerset Park to talk to Nick Harris.’
‘1-1!’ barks a gravelly voice at the other end of a telephone line ‘Trevor Hebberd with the equaliser!’ ‘COME ON!’ I shout at the radio as Harris concludes his update. I look out the window to see my neighbour leaving her house, she’s looking back over her shoulder at me, smirking.
When I was at university in 1992, I had a radio that could only pick up a distant crackly reception when it was sitting in the corner of just one room in my house. Any movement and the reception would be lost and I would have to readjust its position with the precision of a landing a probe on Mars. Even when it doesn’t move, the waft of a turned page of my NME can somehow interfere with the reception.
Through the static and constant readjustments, I work out we’re 5-3 down against Portsmouth with barely a minute to play. I’m only picking up snippets during breaks in play of the main commentary from Anfield, Elland Road or wherever. I’m just waiting for confirmation of a grisly defeat.
‘News from the Manor…’ says a distant crackly voice. I sit up instinctively, the signal dissolves into a fuzz of interference. I re-position myself: left arm 32 degrees, right leg slightly elevated. By the time I’m back in position, the news has passed and I’m resigned to a defeat.
The following lunch time, after a morning of lectures, I finally get to see a newspaper, I riffle through the news and hone in on the classified results. Oxford United 5 Portsmouth 5, an epochal moment in the club’s history, our greatest recovery.
Fast forward to 2008, the mood is buoyant, Chris Wilder’s reignited a new faith in the club and the distant prospect of the Conference play-offs still lingers. I load up Twitter, the nascent ‘micro-blogging’ website, to join a small friendly community of fans following our game at champions-elect Burton Albion.
Someone shares a link to a stream, I click on it to be confronted by a dizzying array of adverts promoting gambling, porn and malware, it’s seizure inducing. In the middle is a small window with a game of football being played. We’re live at an expectant Pirelli Stadium, I share the link, we’re all in.
A script has been written that Burton would win and secure a triumphant promotion to the Conference with us as compliant bystanders. Oxford win a free-kick outside the Burton box, this is where we create the illusion of this being a competition, rather than a coronation. Enfant terrible Adam Chapman stands over the ball mischievously as the Burton defensive wall jostles into position. In his mind, the script is going in the shredder.
Chapman steps up, arcing the ball around the wall and into the left hand corner of the goal. The away end explodes, Twitter explodes, a shared euphoric experience; we couldn’t be there, but we’re totally there.
And so to 2022, our evolution of following games from a distance brings us to iFollow, a functional and flawed life saver. An icon of the pandemic. I log on to see the familiar fixed camera shot of a lower league stadium. It takes a moment for the feed to catch up and for the image to become clear. The spots on the screen are a miscellany of coaches, groundsmen and stewards milling about in anticipation of the game.
Once the game is underway, for twenty minutes the ball fizzes around, a white noise of half-completed passes, mis-controls and deflections. It’s like an orchestra tuning up; purposeful, but discordant, desperate for someone to bring proceedings to some kind of order.
Elliott Moore is like a praying mantis, stalking his six yard box, swatting flies and other threats from the Wigan attack. He extends a limb and steers the ball to Mark Sykes. Instinctively, Sykes tries a trademark flick to turn his marker. It’s a risk, inviting a turnover of possession. He trusts himself and darts past, bustling his defender who loses balance and falls to the floor. Sykes sucks in the oxygen of freedom.
He draws his next opponent and releases Cameron Brannagan. The timing is immaculate causing the Wigan defence to scramble. They’re getting in each others’ way, while we slice through them. Brannagan takes the ball in his stride, beats his first man, cuts across another and draws a third before releasing Sykes at the edge of the box. It’s a moment of interplay which recalling memories of Deering and Potter at Wembley.
It’s fluid and complex with no room for error; don’t think, feel. Sykes, slides the ball to his right for the ever-reliable Matt Taylor to clip the ball into the net.
I yelp a primordial involuntary noise which I have to explain to those sitting quietly watching a recording of the Bake Off Christmas special on the TV. ‘We’ve scored’, I explain inadequately, ‘But… it… was…’
I’ve got nothing; I can’t explain the moment, how Sykes may not have been at the club a day earlier or how we’d spent an anxious month wrestling to keep Brannagan, or that Matty Taylor is a local boy who had to leave town to seek his fortune and was now back. Or that football, even from a distance can be intricate and exquisite perfection in a way that words cannot adequately explain.