It’s been a grim week which even football’s restorative powers have struggled to remedy. There was the melancholy of Joey Beauchamp’s passing last week, then wave after wave crashing over the top of it with every new morsel of information coming from Ukraine. The unrelenting bad news, you imagine, is the kind of thing that eroded Joey’s ever-weakening resistance.
I remember Joey’s return to Oxford after his spell at Swindon, I’d expected the stands to be full and for him to put on a proper show. In fact, the crowd was about average for the season and Joey was largely anonymous. He was still recovering from the previous 18 months and the emotional wreckage that it had left behind. It felt like outside of a small hardcore, few people really cared that he was back. It made us feel small and insignifcant. My fear was that history would repeat itself and a stark reality would be shone in our faces reminded us that none of this means anything. Not really.
I wasn’t looking forward to Saturday; I didn’t have the compulsion to ‘be there’, I was tired of wading through the treacle of the week’s events, the idea of going to a game seemed pointless and indulgent. I feared any planned tribute would ultimately fall short and come over as mawkish and that we would have to comply even if it didn’t really reflect how we feel. I even feel uncomfortable writing about how ‘we’ feel. Do we even have a right to feel something? This isn’t our tragedy, we’re simply observers, are we complicit in making it all about us?
I pulled onto the Grenoble Road and saw the sun bouncing off the roofs of the parked cars. I can estimate the crowd size based on how far down the road the cars stretch; it was clearly going to be big; it was reassuring that, at least, we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves. Any big statements about how we feel or what it meant wouldn’t echo around a half-empty stadium and drift into the sky.
Inside the ground, the mood was different to normal, the person sat next to me arrived about 10 minutes before kick-off and asked if he’d missed anything. The game was an after-thought, a long way away.
There was a hubbub of activity by the tunnel, Karl Robinson was very visible and there were bouquets of yellow flowers. The club’s academy players lined the pitch and Peter Rhodes-Brown steered us gently through the proceedings. As the crowd sang his name, a sombre hymn, a giant surfer unravelled revealing a huge image of Joey celebrating a goal. These pictures are now so familiar, moments frozen in time, they no longer capture a memory, more a feeling. There he was, happy, doing the only thing he wanted to do, to play for his football team, score goals and entertain people.
Joey’s daughters were invited to lay their wreaths behind the East Stand goal. As the applause rippled, the girls walked stoically, breaking clear of other members of the family. Did they just want it to be over? The walk seemed to take forever, us celebrating the passing of a legend gave way to two young girls who’d lost their dad and who would now have to make sense of it all. Was all this for him? For them? For us? For the abstract idea of club and community? My hope is that they will come to realise that, quite simply, they’re not alone.
Before the minute’s applause academy players were invited to join the players in the centre circle; the strands of the club’s past, present and future, pulled together, strengthening the bonds that help us get through.
Then, there was a lull, a mood-shift, nobody quite knew how to navigate from the large abstracts of life’s challenges to the comparative meaningless of a game of football. When does mourning give way to pragmatism? What do you do? Should we lean into the emotion of the day, seeking symbolism where there isn’t any? Or do you shut it out and pretend everything that had come before didn’t happened. Was that even possible?
We started with two strikers, both Oxford fans, and without wingers; psychologists would have a field day. The unfamiliar system meant that passes went astray and our usual fast start didn’t materialise. After six minutes Sam Smith, a player with as much talent as Joey Beauchamp had in this toe – the injured one that ended his career – poked home to give Cambridge the lead. He peeled away in a moment of unfettered boneheadedness and goaded the Oxford fans in the Jim Smith Stand.
Rather than sparking a response, the game dragged on, passes were played into spaces where players no longer stood, Matty Taylor drifted wide to give himself and Sam Baldock space, at one point he was sitting at left-back as we tried to break forward. In truth, it was a bit of a mess. Had the week finally caught up on us?
The equaliser came, a low bouncing cross from Ryan Williams, a feint from Baldock and Matty Taylor was there to slot home. A reprieve rather than a revival, it felt like we were still trying to figure out the system in real time. We were sluggish and disjointed.
As the hour approached, Karl Robinson had seen enough, substitutes were readied just as another mistake led to another Sam Smith goal. It wasn’t a day for frustrations or anger, not towards your own team, but we seemed to be sleepwalking to a defeat which just didn’t seem to matter in the circumstances.
Cameron Brannagan claimed the second equaliser and, at least, we seemed to bring Cambridge to heel. As fragmented as we were you couldn’t imagine them creating a third opportunity. Any other week this should have been a routine victory, but it wasn’t any other week. The good things that were happening were flowing through Ryan Williams, who fed Mark Sykes to set up Sam Baldock for the third, then they reversed roles to give Brannagan the fourth. It hadn’t been great, but we’d dragged ourselves through it. Life is full of symbolism, isn’t it?
It didn’t really matter, of course, the game was a distraction, a necessity around which we could build a moment of symbolic communion. This was about one person and his timeless legacy, about re-establishing the bonds that help us navigate the vagaries of our lives. The artist Banksy is attributed with saying that everyone dies twice – once when we breathe our last breath and again when their name is last spoken. After Saturday, we can be assured that we may have lost Joey once, but we’ll never lose him again.