Winston Churchill once said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Motivational speaker Jim Rhone says “If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” After scoring four penalties in a seven goal haul away from home at Gillingham, Cameron Brannagan says “It was mental out there”.
Seven goals is somehow the gateway to lunacy in football. If a team scores six it’s considered to be a dominant display, a meticulous deconstruction, something controlled and calculated, it sits in a realm of normality. Anything beyond that is a feeding frenzy, the difference between an assassin and a mass murderer.
A player scoring four goals is a freak; we have a word for scoring two – a brace – and three – a hat-trick. Four is just four, it’s so abnormal, we haven’t even found a way to describe it. So rare, we don’t need to try. In fact, in the world of Oxford United four goal hauls haven’t been scored by the usual suspects but by the outliers – Richard Hill and Tom Craddock. Years ago Paul Scholes was asked what his greatest experience in football was, he overlooked his international career and trophies saying it was seeing Frankie Bunn score six for Oldham in 1989. It’s other-worldly, transcending the norms of wins, titles and championships.
As a football fan, that’s the quest. The thing that Premier League billionaires don’t get, trophies are OK, but the real goal is to witness a freak. To be rewarded for your dedication. To be the one who stayed until the end to see Chris Allen make it 5-5 against Portsmouth in 1992 after being 5-3 down with a minute to go. Thirty years later, that game alone is the sole reason many people stay until the final whistle even when all seems lost, just in case.
The fact all four were penalties accesses a universe only usually available through hallucinogenics. The conditions you need to get more than one penalty in any game have to be perfect. It’s possible to win one marginal call; after that each one has to be increasingly obvious to be given. A referee isn’t going to be drawn into trouble with his seniors by pointing to the spot every time someone falls on the floor, particularly when it’s being awarded to the away team, that’s just human nature. I notice that the referee was Robert Madley, who was sacked by the Premier League 2019 after a video was released of him mocking a disabled person. He’s only just returned to English football and so is even more unlikely to be in the mood to facilitate a situation which brings him back into the headlines, unless he’s got no choice.
On top of that, you need a team with the imagination to take the opportunity when it’s presented to them. It would have been easy and normal to share the ball around with others, particularly once the game was out of reach. Brannagan might have put the ball in the net, but the others let him, they could see destiny in their grasp and didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. It was weird and unusual, but that’s what they wanted. And then, having been given the opportunities, you have to score them, which is easier said than done. Our penalty record is pretty poor.
Perhaps it’s right that Cameron Brannagan takes the headlines. In many ways, he’s a bit of an enigma; consistently in the fans’ top two or three players, but he doesn’t score lots of goals and he’s not a towering defender. He’s got a short fuse and can be very vocal, but is rarely given the captain’s arm band. Even some of his exquisite passing gets overlooked because we’re so used to seeing it. It’s not unusual for him to spray a ball thirty yards to barely a murmur of appreciation because that’s just what he does. Yet, he remains one of the most connected players to the fans.
His arrival in 2018 alongside Rob Dickie seemed to signal the fact we’d thankfully abandoned Pep Clotet’s international experiment and were returning to the Michael Appleton model of picking up young British players, developing them and selling them on. But, as Joe Rothwell, Gavin Whyte, Ryan Ledson, Shandon Baptiste and Rob Dickie have rolled through the system, Brannagan remains. Perhaps it’s part of his appeal, aside from his consistency and versatility. There have been rumours of moving to the Championship, and he may still go even before the end of the month, but unlike the others, nobody has come in with a bid the club can’t turn down. Moreover, he hasn’t agitated for a move, for someone who has always been impatient for success, that’s to his credit.
Sometimes, I think players need particular managers to perform. They understand the player as a person as well as a professional. I always felt that was the case with Chris Maguire, who only found consistency under Michael Appleton, but has been fitful elsewhere. Brannagan and Karl Robinson seem to go together; perhaps other managers are less certain of how to get the best out of him. Perhaps Brannagan actually enjoys being at the club and doesn’t see it as a stepping stone, like the others. It’s all to our benefit, when he’s fit, we have a midfield which consists of Brannagan plus two others. He can play further forward or sit back and let others play. He was probably the player more than any other that seemed destined for a couple of seasons before being sold on, but he’s become a mainstay of the Robinson era.
But, when he does finally leave, whether that’s tomorrow or when he’s 36 and his knees have gone, what would he leave behind? The memory of lots of players is more a feeling than a moment; Rothwell, Ledson and Dickie were good players, but did they have a landmark moment? A lasting legacy?
Now Brannagan has his his moment in history, he took us into the other realm, the other place, where national newspapers try to cobble together the story of a game they couldn’t be bothered to attend. Now, when his name is mentioned in the years to come, his four penalties at Gillingham will be the memory that everyone will recall. Everyone will claim to have been there. Maybe when they build the new ground at Stratfield Brake they can put four statues up of him stroking the ball home, one at each corner of the stadium. Kids will ask their parents why we have The Four Brannagans and they can tell the story of The Strange Day Out At Priestfield.
It is too easy to convince yourself that any out-of-the-ordinary event is a moment of history. People line the streets when an American president visits or a royal wedding happens. When interviewed, people say they’re here to witness ‘a little piece of history’. But, as special and unique as that moment feels at the time, it’s also something planned that will happen time and again. Real historic moments are unique and unexpected; you can’t plan to be in their presence. Most Oxford fans went to Gillingham out of duty or habit; the experience is notoriously one of the worst in English football and it’s a nightmare to get there, there’s no good reason to seek out history there.
But there it was, seven goals, four penalties by the same player, a unique and historic moment that will surely never happen again. It’s not often you get to say that.
Correction: The original post said that John Aldridge didn’t score four goals in a game, but he did, against Gillingham in 1985. The post has been amended.