Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

The wrap – Blackburn Rovers 2 Oxford United 1

This weekend felt like football was sorting out its affairs – relegations and promotions were decided, gongs were given out, fans were rewarding themselves for 10 months of slog. I went to see the finals of some junior football and there was a congratulatory sense among parents that the months of freezing cold mornings were over and it was time to celebrate.

Of course, our race was already run and minds were turning to the summer. It was the equivalent of waiting for your taxi to the airport in the hall while others fussed around doing last minute packing. There was, of course, some minor last-minute admin for us to complete – the equivalent of deciding to pack a sandwich maker just in case the hotel doesn’t have one.

Our principle role on Saturday was to act as a stooge to Blackburn’s promotion party; like the hapless opponents that make the Harlem Globetrotters look good.

In the end, we were more than just makeweights, but then Blackburn weren’t really chasing the title either. There was just a sense of ticking the box to complete the season – the mood was no different to the junior finals day I went to.

The most concrete assessment you can make about the game is that you can draw no conclusions – nine players were already omitted, although only Wes Thomas might have expected to start normally. Kane and Mowatt are going back to their parent clubs, a couple more were there to get experience, Ricardiniho was running down the clause in his contract. Others were probably playing their last game for us, but maintaining a poker face about it.

Ledson’s inclusion was a surprise, Karl Robinson claims he might now stay and that ‘the power of the fans’ is a key factor. It’s a nice idea, but that doesn’t seem likely – unless Ledson, and those around him, are incurable romantics.

My guess is that the deal with Preston isn’t as imminent as they initially thought, and Robinson is keen to play hard-ish-to-get to keep his fee high until a suitable deal can be done. If Preston do pull out, there are quite a few others who can easily pay what it will take to spring him from our grips. He’ll still go, I’m fairly certain of that.

The reaction to Robinson’s original comments about Ledson saw a significant shift among Oxford fans. In the past, these sales have been viewed with suspicion and anger, this time there was acceptance. Robinson’s tone helps – he’s pragmatic about how we need to operate if we’re to compete. Yes, we need to sell players, but we also need to buy judiciously. We are not spending beyond our means, but with the model we have, we can compete and hopefully succeed.

All this is to be resolved in the coming months, I don’t really miss football during the summer in the way others seem to. I quite like the feeling of release from the constant chug. The (slight) worry of relegation has gone away, and now there’s a bit of freedom to cleanse and refresh ready for another bash in August. 

The wrap – Plymouth Argyle and Blackburn Rovers

Plymouth Argyle 0 Oxford United 4
People, who are paid to do such things, once observed that if you add pot plants to an office, productivity increased. They postulated that it was something to do with oxygenation of the environment or a calming influence of nature. An idea that is still believed in some quarters today. After a while, productivity in these places dropped back to normal levels so they took away the plants. At that point productivity went up again. The only reasonable conclusion is not the relative qualities of the pot plants, but the restorative powers of change.

Saturday’s win was both a surprise, and not a surprise at all. After six games without a win, nobody could reasonably have expected such an emphatic victory over Plymouth. And all after a week which saw us lose two match winning players to long term injury.

Some were predicting the end of our season, and possibly every season after that, but that’s football for you. The injuries, in particular, instead forced a change of mindset and the removal of expectation. Had we traveled to Plymouth with a full-strength team and a winning run, then there was always the possibility of complacency setting in. Instead, there was almost a resigned belief that we couldn’t win, which gave those who did play the opportunity just to get their heads down and see where it took them. In this case, the changes, although negative, had a positive effect.

There have been countless occasions when runs have been broken by goals from usual sources and wins where you least expect them. Consider the derby against Swindon in 2012; a game which had Andy Whing playing centre-back in place of captain Jake Wright. Oli Johnson and Mark Wilson in midfield and Peter Leven nursing an injury on the sidelines. To make matters worse, barely 20 minutes in talismanic striker James Constable was sent off. From weeks of anticipation, all expectation was re-set to zero and any pressure was released. It allowed us to set to the task at hand and secure a famous victory.

So, while losing two key players is a problem in the long term, the mental re-set is created served us well.

Oxford United 2 Blackburn Rovers 4
I get the politics of leaving early. 0-3 down after 20 minutes is enough to tip the balance between watching a game and going home. By leaving early you miss the traffic, it’s generally more convenient and why should you sit and watch the misery when the outcome is inevitable?

At half time on Tuesday, a whole row in front of me went home at half-time, the only woman left on the row said, incredulously, ‘But, what about Jack’s goal?’ referring to Jack Payne’s strike moments before half time which offered a glimmer of hope.

That hope was never likely to see us claw back in the game, but I could wholly empathise. This is the other side of leaving early. If you want guaranteed success, then you go to the cinema or theatre where the outcome is scripted and fully controlled. Sport, of course, has no such guarantees and is all the richer for it.

The other day, a BBC commentator said that Manchester City were playing the best football in Premier League history and long may it continue because of the entertainment it provides. That’s great if you’re a Manchester City fan, or a neutral who watches the game simply as a display of skill and dexterity. But it somehow misses the point.

As a football fan, I would happy sacrifice Manchester City’s slick passing for a five way title scrap which went to the last kick of the season. Recently the documentary 89 was released about Arsenal’s amazing last minute title win over Liverpool. The uncertainty of the destination is what made history, not the quality of football on display. And that’s what makes great sport.

I can only remember us coming back from 0-3 down once. It was 1985 at the Manor and we were being trounced by Ipswich. I remember a John Aldridge hat-trick and cascading down the terracing of the London Road as the winner went in. YouTube offers no clues as to the details of the goals, but that’s kind of what makes it special; the feeling is imprinted on me so deeply that even like on Tuesday, being 0-3 down at half-time leaves me glued to my seat. Perhaps, one day, that feeling might return, even if I have to wait over 30 years to feel it.

It is not the guarantee of success that drives a fan to football, it’s the hope, but it’s the hope that kills us all.

Blackburn Rovers wrap – Oxford United 0 Blackburn Rovers 3

As the FA Cup progresses things get harder on three fronts; you’re more likely to draw a better team, teams begin to take it more seriously because of the opportunities it offers and they’re less likely to under-estimate lower league opponents because they know that, on their day, they can beat anyone.
Following the win over Swansea, we didn’t draw a better team in Blackburn, but I suspect we would have given them a better game had we drawn them in the third round when we were more of a surprise. 
They came and played the tie as though it were a Championship game. The midfield was so packed that, at times, it looked like they were playing a 4-6-0 formation. It suffocated our danger men. In the end, we were average and made three mistakes, they were average and didn’t. It’s one of the revelations of the book Inverting the Pyramid that tactics in the modern game focus not so much on winning, but on not losing. And that was Blackburn through and through; be strong, don’t make mistakes and make your chances count. It’s telling that the goals came from two set plays and a bad mistake. As both Michael Appleton and George Baldock noted, we were never carved open.
It was effective, of course, not negative, just underwhelming. It’s slightly depressing to think there’s a culture in English football of teams who rely on muscle and set pieces to survive. But then, that’s Blackburn, one the great ‘meh’ teams of English football, a team without the ambition or resources to move forward and who are fearful of falling further behind. Paul Lambert has acquired a reputation for mediocrity and his employers aren’t exactly known for their long term rational management. I guess he’s in preservation mode; a couple more disastrous tenures and he could fall out of football for good.
It’s existing, but is it living?
It’s a dilemma that we might face at some time in the future, whether you push on or hold your position. But that’s not us at the moment. As the press coverage shows, we’re an interesting and innovative club, exciting to be around. In so many ways we succeed spectacularly, I suppose it’s only normal that, occasionally, we’ll get it all a bit wrong.
If we’re the hipsters’ club du jour, then the farewell to George Baldock showed our metrosexual side. It was a genuinely sweet moment. Is this the product of the internet age? Social media gives us the perception that we have a closer relationship with players than before. When the child who got Baldock’s shirt at the end of the game thanked him live on the radio, was it because Oxford and Baldock have developed a unique bond or just because mobile phones and digital communications allows this sort of thing to happen? 
There is a bit of a feeling in the air that the nature of the defeat and Baldock’s departure is the sign that something is ending. Reality biting or destiny calling. This is all nonsense; the last few months have been the product of a relentless dedication to a process. It’s easy to become distracted by the idea that there are mystical powers playing a part in dictating our future. 
Tuesday brings to a close an extraordinary period; despite only being 90 minutes from Wembley, I remain strangely relaxed about whether we progress or not. There is an increasing chunk of me that wants to get back to the reality of the league. Away from the pressure and disruption of big crowds, the intrusion of the press, the speculation about our players. As much as the big set-piece games are fun; in the end, I just want us to get promoted. 

Coming up: Blackburn

The drop

Before the mid-eighties there were two things I knew about Oxford United’s history from my dad; the first was that the journey from Abingdon to the Manor Ground in the 60s was so epic you had to take a packed lunch to survive it, the second was The Blackburn Game.
My dad eulogised about The Blackburn Game as the high watermark in Oxford’s history. Blackburn Rovers, 1st Division giants chasing the title, playing Oxford United; Football League novices when even getting into the Football League was a miracle due to its arcane election system. In front of a crowd of 21,700 at the Manor – a terrifying number in a ground that had a capacity of less than half that when it closed – Oxford ran out 3-1 winners. There’s a brilliant account of the game here.

All this was pretty much swept away with the eighties glories,  consigned to people like my dad comparing pretty much everything that happened to The Blackburn Game. which is a bit sad because the Pathe News footage of the game is fantastic.

Anyway, they’re back, Blackburn that is, but few will look back on this in a similar vein. I almost see this as being a ‘free’ game after the trials of recent weeks. We’ve proved our point in the Cup against Swansea, if we win then the adventure continues, if we lose we can leave with our heads held high. 

Old game of the day

Ladies and gentlemen; The Blackburn Game.