When I played football at primary school, we’d get the last hour of the day off in order to fit the game in before darkness fell. Games were on Wednesdays; you’d have lunch and then freewheel through to 2pm when you were fished out from class in order to prepare for the game. We departed like soldiers off to war; petals were thrown at our feet and teachers bowed down to us.
For away games we might be away even earlier. The journeys would be epic; sometimes as far away as Chinnor; about 10 minutes away. We once even went to Berinsfield, a distance Google tells me is about 14 miles away. Nowadays that sort of distance would require an overnight stay to prevent muscle atrophy or DVT.
This was natural selection; in the privacy of your own school work it wasn’t possible to truly work out who was top dog. In sport, it was unequivocal. Eggy Evans and Flid Davidson would be left behind along with Woggy Lawrence. These are actual nicknames we legitimately and openly referred to them by. I don’t know whether the teachers were aware that the only Asian kid in the school was known, always affectionately, as Woggy or Wog, but if they did, they didn’t seem to mind. It was a different time.
Anyway, with greatness bestowed upon us, we would disappear only to reappear the following morning with tales of derring do from distant primary schools of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
I had always imagined that being an England international was very similar; although I’m fairly certain they didn’t have to change into their kit on the plane to an away game. The general principle was the same – on a Saturday night, Brooking, Keegan and the rest would pack their bags and leave the humdrum of their club changing room for the exalted environs of the England ‘camp’. I loved the idea of England being camp – a tented village where Ron Greenwood and Don Howe would plot the downfall of Luxembourg or Poland. The camp would be set up half way around the world (Norway, for example) the raid would happen on a Wednesday, news of its success would be broadcast only on the radio, and the players would return heroes the following Saturday.
The point was that the domestic calendar wasn’t disrupted; playing for England was a reward for being the best, an addition to your domestic commitments. At some point it was decided that this was a barrier to international success and, as has been emphatically demonstrated at every tournament since, the domestic calendar was cleared to give the true greats of the English game the space to express themselves and come home dripping with silverware. That’s the equivalent of closing the whole school in order for the school team to play.
In even more recent times, those internationals don’t even seem to happen on the date that’s been cleared for them. Presumably this is some kind of experiment with TV audiences, although a less bloated, more competitive qualifying programme would have a greater impact in maintaining people’s interest.
Saturday’s are cleared of domestic football; and because the Premier League is now global that fixture clearance runs throughout the top two divisions. And then, England don’t even play. Where once the international games were a bawdy weekend in Amsterdam; the international weekend has become a meandering insipid long weekend in the Cotswolds with your girlfriend which starts on Thursday and drifts sometime into the following week.
What remains is the Eggy Evans’ and Flid Davidson’s of football; League’s One and Two. Sky pulls one of those games out as if to make an example of the ineptitude. On Saturday, presumably on the spurious reasoning that this was a varsity clash; Saturday was us against Cambridge.
It’s as if that fixture is a demonstration of the incompetence of what’s left over when you remove ‘world class’ Premier League from the calendar; hate the Premier League? OK, try watching this shit on a weekly basis. And when it comes to ineptitude, we have again demonstrated that we’re the Eggiest of all the Eggy Evans’.
The game completed a trilogy of appalling performances live on TV after Port Vale, Southend and now this – three games, three defeats, eleven goals conceded, one scored. Three different managers, three identically awful results.
There’s some indication that even some Oxford fans weren’t aware the game was on, so it’s difficult to believe that anyone but the truly demented or housebound were interested from a neutral perspective. But, despite this, TV magnifies the problem and reinforces our growing irrelevance.
Live football needs a narrative and context, and on TV it needs to be unsubtle for the neutral to engage with it. In a division starved of publicity, anything goes – spuriously constructed local derbies, top of the table clashes, even vague notions of nostalgia; for example the attraction of Wimbledon v Oxford in 2011; an opportunity to remember halcyon days of the 1980s. Increasingly, for us, these narratives become less plausible – it’s difficult to look on us as a big team with Wembley glory in our past or a team resurrected from the Conference and going places. We are, well, nothing much.
The implication of that is the growing ambivalence towards the club; the media is less attracted to you and so are the sponsors, and, ultimately the fans become disinterested. Perhaps it will act as a wake up call as to our parlous state. All the talk of Plan B being Plan A, sticking to The Principles and judging the new owners by their actions is just vacuous boohockey. The game against Cambridge would have had less impact had it not been on TV, but maybe now our failings have been the subject of public consumption people will begin to learn the lesson that we are failing fast.