Midweek fixture: A key battle at St Andrew’s (a fan story)

Here’s a story that all fans have, a largely inconsequential by-product of following your team. It doesn’t illustrate any important point about the club or football or anything, which is why I like it. If you have a vaguely Oxford United related story about being a fan, let me know here and I’ll stick the best of them on the blog. In the meantime, read on…

It’s 1995 and though our form and promotion prospects are fading, next up is Birmingham City at St Andrew’s for what could be a midweek title decider.

I had passed my driving test three months earlier and my mum let me take her Renault 5, and my mate Pete, up the M40 for my first trip to St Andrew’s. We hit traffic on the edge of Birmingham and realise we’ve got our timings all wrong, we crawl through the rush hour and eventually spot the stadium’s floodlights glowing on the horizon. 

The crowd is just short of 20,000 making parking difficult. Eventually, we find a spot in a residential road and, and having lost all sense of geography, we jump out in a rush. The car’s locking mechanism involves pressing a button in the door and slamming it shut. I do it just in time to remember that I hadn’t taken the key out of the ignition. Shit. 

There we were staring at the car, willing it to spit the keys out. We’re invisible to the people streaming past to get to the stadium and in our shock, they are invisible to us. There’s a vague bubbling excitement of people in yellow and blue rushing by; nobody wants to be late for this one. Slowly the streets thin out and we’re left pretty much on our own with just the expectant crowd noise in the background. It sounds awesome, if only we were there.

Pete’s dad is a member of the RAC, this is pre-mobile phones so we find a pub to call him. The pub is a sparsely populated inner city boozer, and not what you’d call our natural habitat. There’s the slightly stale smell of ale and bodies; half-an-hour earlier it would have been heaving with fans. The barman stares at us, everyone stares at us, the game is booming out from the radio. We could get lynched here.

We ask the barman if he has change for a £10 note. Even that feels like a provocative act; these out-of-towners flashing their fancy tenners. While Pete is on the phone to his dad, they score, there’s a smattering of applause and shouting within the pub and I control the urge to swear. We phone the RAC. While we’re explaining the complicated predicament we find ourselves in, we get a penalty; YES. David Rush misses it; SHIT. We’re told to go back to the car – help is on its way.

Back at the car we find a group of kids milling around menacingly and I’m suddenly aware of how vulnerable we’ve become. The kids ask if there’s a problem, why are we hanging around a car when we should be at the football? We say there’s not a problem, hoping our obvious lying faces aren’t giving the game away. They ask if we’re football fans. We say yes. They offer to ‘look after the car’ for us while we go to the game. We’re not streetwise enough to know what that means, but not too naive to know they’re not just being neighbourly. If we say yes, we could lose the car, if we say no, they could kill us.

We say no, and thankfully they disappear into darkness. There’s another roar – 0-2, then the RAC man appears. He grabs a wire from his van, shoves it down a gap in the window and pops the car door open within 15 seconds. I grab the keys, ignoring how ridiculously easy it is to break into my car, and nearly kiss him. He completes some paperwork, files it under ‘idiots’ and goes to save someone in real distress.

By this point, I’ve lost my mind. Despite everything that’s happened I’m determined to go to the game and insist we make our way to the ground. At the stadium the turnstile is closed, it’s not all-ticket, so we’ve no right to get in. They suggest we try the ticket office. There’s a contented buzz coming from within the stadium, which means it’s half-time.

When we do find someone who will help, we’re told the away end is sold out. They have some seats in the main stand at an eye-watering price. They’re not together, just dotted around the stand. We’ve missed half the game, we’re 2-0 down, but we could buy those tickets… couldn’t we? I look deep into Pete’s eyes, shall we do this? After… everything?

“Mate…” he said looking straight at me, “It’s over”. He actually says this, and he’s right. We walk back to the car. We’re on the motorway in time to hear us concede a third and listen to the local commentators discussing what Birmingham need to do if they want to compete in Division 1 next season. We pick up Radio Oxford just in time for the post-match phone-in about how fucking awful everything is.

Weekly wrap – Chesterfield, Birmingham City, Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town

Oxford United 1 Chesterfield 1

If this makes any sense, I remember our first game of the last season we had in League 1. The last season at The Manor, Denis Smith had a close season to forget; his attempts at re-signing many of the previous year’s crocks had failed and so, in their place, he signed an even bigger pile of crud. Things weren’t looking good.

In a season which would see finish bottom, concede 100 goals and, of course, get relegated, we opened against Peterborough at home. We dutifully applauding so many new signings that my hands hurt when we finished, though I barely knew any of them.

Though the mood and quality is somewhat different this time around, we have similarly replaced a whole team this summer. The consensus in the car was that Michael Appleton had a good summer with each new signing offering something new and exciting to the squad. The big question that hadn’t been answered in pre-season was whether he could make them gel.

Appleton kept most of his new toys hidden as Saturday’s selection smelt of, if not stability, then experience. It reminded me of our first home game back after the Conference against Bury. We’d expected to storm the division, but we got caught out by a team with more sophistication than we’d anticipated. We didn’t want the same thing to happen here and the focus on experience seemed to suggest that was at the forefront of Appleton’s mind too.

We looked solid enough, Wes Thomas is a kind of Danny Hylton character; he doesn’t make sense context of the squad in general, but looks reliable. Ribiero’s injury was a blow, but Sam Long seems to have had a growth spurt and looked completely settled in his place. The loss of Dunkley was a worry, but it doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for long.

Difficult to know whether we looked at home in League 1. Chesterfield were certainly better than most of League 2, and Swindon from last year, but not a patch on Millwall or Barnsley. With Ched Evans’ signing causing consternation and a laughable crisis involving a fake raffle to deal with, they presumably, like us, will look on mid-table security as success. If they are the benchmark for mid-table, then we should be fine and maybe should hope for more from the season.

Nobody is really expecting promotion, though it would be nice, so ticking off the points rather than storming the division is perfectly acceptable. With three away games coming up, a point is OK. Nobody wants to get to September with people pining anxiously for Hylton, Roofe, Wright, Mullins and O’Dowda.

Birmingham City 0 Oxford United 1

So, for the third year running, we delivered a League Cup giantkilling barely worth of its name. Nobody really knows what Birmingham City are; Premier League pretenders? Relegation certainties? Neither? Can we truly benchmark the result in terms of its achievement? Can we really call this a giantkilling?

City made nine changes from their opening game against Cardiff, such is the sniffiness of Championship managers towards the League Cup. They will talk about the league being a priority as if that sort of pragmatism is supposed to impress us. There are typically three trophies to play for per season (League, FA Cup and League Cup) and on average each team will win a significantly less than one of them. For most teams a couple of memorable wins is what leaves a season in the memory and the cups should offer those moments. But, the idea of glory being is lost on most managers who choose to effectively ignored the cup in order to concentrate on standing still.

I like the Appleton mentality that every game is there to be won, it plays to both the romantic notion of a football team wanting to win every game they play, but, more importantly, it creates a template in which the team learns how to win games. There are precious few players, if any, who can decide when to perform and when not so developing a habit of winning has to be an advantage. Whatever the benefits of resting players are they have to be balanced against the lost opportunity to practice winning games.

Honorable mention has to go to Liam Sercombe. The departure of Jake Wright in the summer brought an era at the club to a close. It wasn’t immediately obvious who might take the captain’s armband when the likes of Sam Long and Josh Ruffels are the longest serving members of the squad. Sercombe must have been in the running for the job.

It’s not so much that he leads by example; he just does what comes naturally with seemingly endless energy. If he’s like that at home, it must drive his fiancé mad, but it must also be completely infectious for young players at the club. If they plan to model themselves on anyone, it’s not the superstar pretentions of the Premier League, it’s the boundless enthusiasm of Liam Sercombe where they should look.

Sercombe has been in the middle of everything that’s been good about the club over year or so, his goal against Birmingham was another chapter in a stellar Oxford career.

Bristol Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

… And just as Sam Long and Liam Sercombe emerge as heroes of the first week, they conspire to make a significant contribution to our first defeat of the season. Brilliant.

The response has been, as you might expect, completely binary. From the innate confidence of promotion to the abject failure of defeat. We are in trouble, or perhaps not.

Frankly, who knows at this stage? I don’t, and nor do you.

Rovers are a bit of a benchmark for us, we’ve always competed at roughly the same level, so a defeat probably feels like we’re falling below a perceived watermark. However, they held onto their core squad and star striker, and we didn’t. So they’ve started the season a bit more established, whereas we’re likely to evolve into it.

Talking of strikers, the good news is that Kane Hemmings got off the mark, which is important despite the result. The figures may be moderate in wider footballing terms, but transfer fees are an unequivocal measure of perceived quality. Goals are an unequivocal measure of the return on that investment. As a striker that brings a pressure that other players won’t feel. If the goals don’t come, then everyone gets restless and the pressure builds. Dealing with that pressure takes a special mindset.

If the goals do come then the pressure goes away. A few more goals in the coming weeks and another jigsaw puzzle will be slotting into place.

It’s been an OK week, and not one that should have been wholly unexpected. One win, one draw, one defeat; fairly predictable. It could have been any order. We were always likely to start more slowly than last year and it was always likely to be a bit harder. This is no time to jump to any conclusions.

Fleetwood Town 2 Oxford United 0  

Some people seem to suggest that our defeat to Fleetwood is a sign of impending crisis. That’s two defeats in a row, meaning we’ve taken only a point from three games, time to panic.

But, in every sense, it is too early to tell whether this is how our season will pan out. It is only our third league game, we’ve only had one game at home, and, lest we forget, we are playing in a higher league. This seems to be one of our problems; we’re ‘only’ playing Fleetwood, a team that we ‘should’ be beating. But we forget that while they don’t have any heritage at this level, the team is there on merit and by definition they, like everyone else in the division, are going to be harder to defeat than  the teams we faced last year.

When will we know our direction of travel? Looking at the fixtures, I don’t think we’ll have a clear picture until October at the earliest. The early season is fraught with difficulties,  MK Dons, Sheffield United and Bolton away, Swindon at home. Things look more settled into October, but it’s not until January that we start to play batches of teams more like us. We might need to be patient, while the team find their feet.

Perspective and cool heads are needed right now, as Michael Appleton says, it’s time to focus on the basics. That said, with Brighton next Tuesday and Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United away the following Saturday, a nerve settling result over Peterborough will do everyone the power of good this weekend.