Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity. 

The great Gateshead Mandela dilemma

A joke is basically made up of two parts; both parts are truisms of some kind. The first part – the set up – provides some context for the joke; the second part – the punchline – in some senses appears logical, but provides an unexpected twist. The listener is wrong footed by the joke; tricked. That’s what they find funny.

The replay against Gateshead was approached with a degree of excitement; we were on telly, which is pretty much enough to get us excited. What became abundantly clear from the early minutes of the game, was that for a number of reasons, this was going to be the worst game in the history of mankind.

In reality, as the days have passed, the performance appears marginally more impressive. The weather was terrible, it went to extra time and we ended with six under 20s. It wasn’t nice to watch, but it was a job well done in adverse conditions.

Of course, most people would have looked at that fixture, quickly have reached the conclusion it wasn’t up to much and not bothered to tune in. We, on the other hand, had something invested in the fixture.

As the game meandered on, there was admirable gallows humour flitting around Twitter. We drifted into the second half and the tweets faded to nothing. We were like a married couple on their first night out together after a new baby; after checking that the baby was OK, then joking weakly about how everything had changed, we eventually fell silent unable to muster any meaningful conversation. It felt like our souls were draining away.

Then, in an improbable turn of events, Nelson Mandela died. And that was awkward. We were presented with a dilemma; do you ignore it until after the game, acknowledge the death of a iconic inspiration then return to, what was by some distance, a trivial game or give up on the game as a mark of respect and join in the global grieving?

There really is no rule book on how to behave in such moments.

Then, of course, there was The Joke; Oxford v Gateshead was the set up; the Mandela death was, and I don’t say this with any great pride, the punchline. Had the game finished him off? Was the combination of the worst game in the world and the death of Mandela the signal that we were entering a new dark age? Was the greatest tragedy of them all is that he died never knowing that Deane Smalley had put us through?

Now, when Oscar Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day with the defence that he’d done it by accident after being spooked by a noise, Jamie Cook tweeted:

Roses are red
Violets are glorious
Just don’t go surprising
Oscar Pistorius

Was that too soon? It’s not a joke that would have worked on any other day in history. He just had to get it out there. It was brave, potentially offensive, but it was funny.

Could we ‘do’ The Mandela Joke? We couldn’t really even discuss whether we could do the Mandela joke. But it was there to be told. When was the last time Oxford were on TV at the same time a global icon died? I’ve had a look and we weren’t even playing the night Rod Hull died.

But, here’s the thing. If you’re a global figurehead of peace, or even if you’re a beatified communist, as Nick Griffin charmlessly tweeted, you’re probably capable of distinguishing the difference between a light hearted joke and something offensive.

Griffin aside, who is evidently a gormless buffoon, Mandela’s legacy is pretty much a given; BT Sport really didn’t need to hurry away from their coverage in order to find out that Gary Mabbutt thinks he was a good man. Radio 5 Live dedicated practically all of Friday to people who had met him who would ‘never forget it for rest of my life’.

As if people forget they’ve met Nelson Mandela.

“Did you ever meet Nelson Mandela.”
“Um, er, no I don’t think I did.”
“What about this photo?”
“Wow, blimey, I don’t know, I’ve got a memory like a goldfish”

So, I really don’t see that solemn reverence is absolutely necessary when remembering someone’s life; particularly when that life has been 95 years old. Context is everything, of course, but making a light hearted joke is not in itself offensive. And that’s not just my guilty conscience speaking.

Back into the old routine?

There’s supposedly something special and different about the FA Cup, but something felt very routine about how it started to pan out. We can talk about tactics, performances, ability. But is the real problem familiarity?

 Ever since I moved my seat from the Oxford Mail stand to the South Stand in 2009 I’ve followed pretty much the same routine. When I get into the stadium I buy a coffee and take my seat where I eat a Yorkie bar. At one point I knew that I’d finish my coffee at 3.08pm. With that season being so ultimately successful, it became my ‘lucky’ routine.

I don’t really believe in luck, so I had to rationalise the link between my routine and our winning. I ascribed the process to a sense of control and calm. A new confidence had been instilled by Chris Wilder and his new signings. I could peacefully drink my coffee because I couldn’t imagine needing to leap up, spilling it everywhere, in the opening 10 minutes as a result of a goal or berating a lapse in defence. If I could stay calm and the team could stay calm, then our quality would eventually shine through. We all played our part and it demonstrably worked. I’ve continued that routine even since, I even stop at a shop on the way to buy a Yorkie because the club have started selling Boost bars.

But, confusing correlation and causation is a dangerous thing. Certainly my lucky Yorkie/coffee combo correlated with success, but did it cause it? Evidently not, our three and a bit seasons in League 2 have been pretty average at home. This notwithstanding I’ve remained committed to the routine. Although I don’t believe in luck per se, I still need to give it a label. In my head it’s still called ‘lucky’, but not so much a luck that will help us win more that if I don’t do it, it will definitely mean we’ll lose. It is a comfort, perhaps even a memory of a happier time.

There are, perhaps, 5,000 Oxford fans with routines around going to games – behaviours which we might consider to be lucky others just ‘normal’. Either way, we are assured by routine behaviour but that breeds a certain behaviour during the game. This season, our routines include a struggle on the pitch; goals conceded, anxiety, frustration, resigned defeatism.

Danny Rose said as much on Saturday in the 2-2 draw against Gateshead. He felt that the opening goal shouldn’t have been a big deal – it was a first class strike – but it suggested to him; ‘here we go again’. Whatever routine the players and fans have gone through to get to that point, there was a familiarity in what was happening.

The response was increasing anxiety and tension. Jake Wright went off; typical of our ‘luck’. Fans routinely booed the team off at half time. Players stopped thinking hoiking massive cross field balls that bounced into nowhere. We got the yips when crossing, a simple passing game was abandoned in a panic.

Enter James Constable and Ryan Williams. Constable, of course, has plenty of credit in the bank and just his presence at half-time gave everyone a lift. He couldn’t fail, and because with him there needs to be no fear of failure, he got on with being James Constable; harrying, closing down and holding the ball up.

Williams has a little bit of credit, a bit of naiveté and a bit of ballsy talent. Again, he was positive and direct and that’s all it was going to ever take to create chances.

Their second goal, in many ways, was the best thing that could have happened. The people next to me left because, to them, the familiar routine was complete and they could go home to prepare for the start of its next cycle. In fact, the players were no longer ‘league 2 big boys’ or whatever label you want to give them, they were players who were simply losing a game. In a sense, they were able to relax.  

With all the expectations gone and impetus coming from Constable and Williams, the ability that is evidently there, began to show. Whilst I wouldn’t like to think we’d rely on this tactic too often, for once it worked.

The routines we currently have on and off the field don’t work. We know the players can play and the fans can do whatever it is fans do. All the ingredients are there, but whatever habits we have formed because they are ‘lucky’ or ‘normal’ or ‘right’ need analysing and unlearning. Because somewhere in there is the answer to our home form.

My coffee and chocolate routine has a ‘cocoa before bedtime’ feel about it. Does my little contribution become blunted by my routine? All those around me have little routines, and I know this because I see them every week, the aggregation of all these muted habitual responses is potentially massive. We have flags all over the stadium, because we’re a fervent vocal crowd, but flags are now draped not waved. We’ve changed the pre-match routine, but we’ve just put on some dance music and turned up the volume.

Is the closure of the Priory a factor? There needs to be somewhere for people to meet and get warmed up. It’s not about drink, it’s about camaraderie. Away from home, mustering points are arranged in advance. These can’t be official – the supporters bar is a worthy cause but anything official will be too sterile; it’s got to be fan lead.

It strikes me that what happens away is that something gets the party started. In part it’s about simply travelling with a group of the like-minded. It’s difficult to talk about these things without war-like references, and violence is not the point, but it’s an invading army.

At home, there’s the routine is more mundane. The party never starts. Something needs to happen outside the ground. Let’s look at what others do, let’s have a plan, not one thing, lots of things, not one game, every game, refine, refine, refine. Could tailgate parties be an answer? Not exactly party of British football culture? What do the Germans do? Everyone looks at Dortmund.

I don’t know what the on-pitch routine is but everything needs looking at. There’s a template away from home which seems to work. Are the players arriving at the ground too late? Do they eat together? Away from home they might be together 24 hours before a game, their outside world disappearing as they become an army on the march. If they met up an hour or two earlier, would that help? It’s worth looking at.

Professor Richard Wiseman studies the psychology of luck. He found that there is no such thing as ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’. On average, everyone has roughly the same number of positive and negative experiences. Those who consider themselves to be unlucky are those who don’t respond to change. Those who are stuck in a routine are the ones who feel bad times hardest. Perhaps it’s time to break the old routine?

Yellows 2 Gateshead 1

When we eventually find out that the Premier League is, in fact, completely staged for the purposes of TV we will feel a little like we felt for most of today. We won’t be so much surprised but relieved and betrayed. Betrayed by the time and effort we’ve invested in it, but relieved that the hyperbolic and bullshit is, in fact, the product of scriptwriters not normal human behaviour operating in the real world.

For much of today’s win over Gateshead we seemed to be going through our paces; dominating, taking the lead, inevitably conceding in ‘controversial’ circumstances. Once that happened I think most people were envisaging that we’d trudge off to find that Stevenage and Luton had both had thumping wins ruling us out of the title race completely. Inevitable, as nothing good ever happens to us. Even James Constable admitted that he’d spent the last 10 minutes wondering what would be said in the changing room after the final whistle.

It was like we’d all conceded that the curse was in place and that, in some way, it was a relief to finally succumb to it. We thought we’d learnt the lessons of three years ago; strengthen when you can, don’t underestimate the opposition, don’t rely on ‘league quality’. We taken all the right actions and yet still we’re going to get pushed out of it. There was an acceptance that the conspiracy was complete and that it didn’t really matter what we did, we’d forever fall short.

Few seem convinced that Matt Green’s last minute winner was the turning point, but it’s nice that the Stevenage game still means something. And, if we can pull it out of the bag, then yes, suddenly the machine might splutter into life propelling us forward.

And this is how we go into Tuesday; unlike previous must-wins, there’s little anxiety of defeat, more a gentle hope of success. This could work in our favour. Or is that being too hopeful?

Gateshead 0 Yellows 1

Before last Tuesday, can you remember the last time we lost away to Mansfield? Me neither. Games merge from one to another: defeat draw win win draw defeat blah blah blah. How did we get on against Salisbury or Crawley or Kettering last year? No idea.

Individual results are meaningless, which is why I don’t understand people who can dip in and out of their club. The game makes more sense the longer you engage in it. The result of a single game makes no sense unless it’s put into the context of a season. The season makes no sense unless it’s in the context of years of hope and despair.

On a global level, the Mansfield defeat should be seen as a positive thing. The nitty gritty of the result will eventually be lost to history, but it’s served as a safety valve from the building mental pressure of record runs and the fear of that first defeat.

The trick, of course, is the ability to get it all back together after the valve has been released. It’s a mental rather than physical release; somehow you’ve got to maintain the physical intensity, whilst accepting the mental benefits of an occasional setback. It’s easy for physical and mental laziness to set in, which is at the root of Chris Wilder’s outburst against Eastbourne. Worse still, you lose the physical edge and the mental sharpness over compensates creating anxiety and fear – which is pretty much where we’ve been in the last 10 years.

So, following the Mansfield defeat, we travelled to Gateshead mentally cleansed but needing to get back on the winning trail. Sometimes, it’s just about getting there, winning and getting out. Which is exactly what we did. If we can dig out, say, 4 points in the next week we can get back into a series of winnable games thereafter. It should mean that the Mansfield result will have served us well. Who cares how we performed, nobody will remember it anyway.