Maguire’s second goal was no fluke; the pitch was wet and slippery and a well-timed challenge was always going to offer a chance. OK, Vigouroux with a bit of composure might have chosen to drag the ball back allowing Maguire to slide past harmlessly rather than attempting to launch it under pressure, but if Maguire’s connection had been a goal-saving block at the other end of the pitch, it would have been viewed a moment of true class. Just because this was a goal scored, rather than a goal saved, doesn’t make it any less good.
The news that James Roberts’ brother Ben had been killed in a road accident last weekend inevitably drew the comment that this was something that really puts football into perspective. It’s as if it’s not possible to calibrate the devastation and heartbreak of something like that against an arbitrary benchmark like football without it actually happening.
The club have chosen to hold a minute’s silence for the game against Wimbledon on Saturday rather before Tuesday’s derby. Maybe they couldn’t be sure that Swindon fans, with their emotional distance from the tragedy, would be able to put it into perspective after all?
It was difficult to contextualise the game in a number of ways. It was Swindon, our arch rivals, and we wanted to win, but it’s the JPT, nowhere near as important as the League. Winning would be great, but was defeat that bad? How far do you take the ‘hatred’ on this occasion? Enough for the game to be meaningful, but not enough for it to become a burden. It’s only the JPT and we had work, college and school in the morning.
Missing the point
Not everyone could rationalise it, of course. When someone smashes up a pub, hurting and scaring people in the name of their football club, is there a point afterwards when they quietly realise how utterly ridiculous they are?
Four arrests were made before the game; three were men over 40. There would be children and partners in their lives. Do they look at those people and think about what they’ve done? Do they think ‘why am I such a cretin?’ or is it ‘I’m such a hero for defending the honour of my football club’? How distorted do you have to be to think that? Presumably there is an motivation behind this, but when has anyone ever been impressed by a wheezing middle aged man breaking beer glasses and swearing indiscriminately? Do they ever think of the futility of it all?
Then there’s the daft charade of social media trolling where each side accuses the other of taking it too seriously. A game of one-downsmanship, if you like. The whole thing is a pantomime, but at the same time it has to mean something in order to be worth anything. Where’s the balance?
The big fans’ showdown came as the teams came out; a truly spectacular display in the East Stand which genuinely stunned in terms of scale and ambition. Our Swindon counterparts, who tried to drum up support for their display via social media and threatened to engulf the city in, um, stickers, unfurled some red and white ribbons which seemed to get tangled in the empty seats. They disappeared before the two teams had completed their handshakes while Oxford held firm.
A derby is won in the head; play to form and the result goes to form. But, if the occasion gets the better of you then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps the display helped secure the victory; confident, dominant, calm; both off and on the field.
We already knew they had problems, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how big those problems were. They started OK, like a decent League 2 side; like Portsmouth, or us. Passing was crisp, movement was good, but we matched them and they didn’t look a threat. Then Turnbull was sent off and they fell apart alarmingly.
There was bickering all over the pitch – a casual disinterest in the fact their defences were being breached time and time again. Vigouroux’s performance in goal was the most bizarre. The bloke is clearly slightly nuts, but his display seemed to reflect externally what was going on inside his team-mates’ heads.
Of course, a sending off is a blow, but plenty of other teams have adapted to playing us with ten men and done well; as we did with them when James Constable was sent off in 2012. Maybe it was a combination of that, and their current form, and the display, and their injuries and their record against us specifically. They were in chaos, an absolute shambles; at no point did they regain any composure.
Think of Di Canio’s Swindon, or McMahon’s; that was like defeating a caged animal. But last night they whimpered and we passed it around them. Perhaps we were just brilliant and we’re not used being just brilliant, but the lack of fight, plan or purpose after the sending off was startling. It’s not bravado to say that this was one of the worst teams, of any flavour, we’ve ever seen at the Kassam.
We, on the other hand, swept them aside. Passing was expansive, defensively we were robust. We looked a threat down both flanks. Jordan Graham looks a winger in the Beauchamp or Allen mould. Everything was slick and positive; I can’t remember us outclassing a team like that before and for it to be League 1 club, and Them, makes it more special.
I don’t like Swindon, it would be odd to have a rival that you did. Ultimately, it’s the rivalry I like; it’s probably the best derby in the lower leagues. I love the feeling of tension and the relief of victory, that it feels meaningful even when, ultimately, it probably isn’t.
We spend our lives putting things into context. Pretty much every job involves a process of rationalising and contextualising; making chaos and irrationality logical and systematic. Everything is a process of distilling things which are complex and difficult into a series of processes and procedures.
To be able to indulge in something as absurd as a football rivalry, and the joy and despair that comes with that is a luxury. It makes no sense outside the bubble of the rivalry and nor should it. Football doesn’t exist to put the death of a young man into context; no thinking person needs football to remind them of that. Football exists because senseless, pointless and frankly depressing things happen and it gives us a glimmer of purpose and hope to prevent us all from going completely mad.
I’ve been watching Oxford for over 30 years, I’ve seen one Milk Cup and four promotions; that’s a paltry return. Nine derby victories improves that return on investment considerably. We don’t play each other very often; we might as well enjoy it.
Any other business
Old game of the day
But, this was a whole heap of fun.
From the blog
“It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other.”
There have been better performances and bigger results, but has there ever been a better story behind a game of football involving Oxford United?
Your dad will tell you stories of past games involving mythical beasts and feats of derring-do. You’ll listen in awe when you’re young, but as you get older, you’ll begin to question how close to the facts the story actually is.
Saturday’s game is the story you tell your children and grandchildren. And you won’t have to make up a word of it.
But how, playing the best team in the league, in the richest vein of form in their history, with a team stripped of most of our best players, did we actually win on Saturday? Here’s Oxblogger’s 7 step guide to our derby victory.
Paolo is a fascist. Fact. A cheap shot?
No, fascism is an ideology promoting unity through hard work and intolerance of non-compliance. Di Canio’s leadership philosophy inevitably draws on his deep-seated principles. After our win at the County Ground he admitted an admirable need to learn from the experience. His public spat with Leon Clarke earlier in the season resulted from Clarke’s reluctance to put in the work Di Canio demanded. Work and continuous improvement are basic principles of fascism. You won’t get many fans resisting calls for unity and hard work from their manager; you don’t have to be a fascist to be intoxicated by that dogma if you find success.
However, extreme ideologies assume stability, they promote a single path to a single destination. They assume unquestionably, that the path and destination are pre-determined. Their intolerant response to uncertainty is to reinstate the ideology through force, that is plan B. Compliance can justifiably be achieved through violence, if you’re a fascist. When violence isn’t an option, and things change, there isn’t a plan B.
As we will see, things changed a lot during the build up to, and the course of, the derby.
A lot was made of Swindon’s 10-game winning streak; a club record. Logically, this put them into a strong position going into Saturday’s game. But they’d never been in that position before, no manager in their history had been in that position before. The longer any record breaking run goes on the more likely it is to end. Each game brings new pressures that have never been experienced, by anyone, before.
The opposition’s attitude changes, complacency creeps in, tiredness, mental fatigue. As the challenges get more complicated the central tenet of Di Canio’s ideology, hard work, is not the only solution. The last thing you need during a record run is a rabid derby atmosphere introducing more variables. At their peak when they were apparently at their strongest, Swindon were increasingly vulnerable.
Peter Leven’s injury
Peter Leven has become a focal point of a lot of what we do. He’s in a goal of the season competition, he trends on Twitter, he takes all our set pieces, he’s a creative spark. Other players look to him, the fans look to him.
The early announcement of his injury last week served to change expectations; we wouldn’t win the game playing the Leven way because he wouldn’t be there. Without Leven, nobody knew how we’d beat Swindon. Some believed we couldn’t win. Di Canio; whose strengths of motivation through application, requires a stable environment, didn’t know either. Paradoxically, Leven’s injury played into Chris Wilder’s hands.
Jake Wright’s injury
After the Leven announcement, Jake Wright’s injury flew under the radar. Wright’s leadership skills are without parallel at Oxford. You rarely see a player so in control of his team. However, he also likes to play football, some of his passing along the back line is hair raising.
Wright’s injury allowed Whing to slot into the back-four. That changed the dynamic considerably. Whing is a no-nonsense fighter, he and Duberry set a different tone that spread throughout the team. Anthony Tonkin, lackadaisical in the Conference, suddenly became a ferocious pitbull. The back-four weren’t going to play football, they were going to block and clear their lines. The Oxford that we’ve been watching all season, was not the Oxford that appeared on Saturday.
They may claim otherwise, but this was a big game. For many of us, our only interaction with the police is getting frustrated when they get stuck in the Tesco self-scan aisle buying a mid-shift chocolate bar. The neutralised zone built around the away end and coach loads of Swindon fans being escorted by a phalanx of police horses fed a frenzied atmosphere. We know that elements of both sides stepped beyond the mark; but overall, it was a fantastic spectacle.
They’ve got the LDV Autowindscreen Simod Cup Final and the prospect of the title. You can argue until you’re blue in the face as to which is most important. But, they won’t have a bigger, or more rarefied league game all year. This wasn’t conclusive proof that we are best; it was just another chapter in a saga.
In the same way that Celtic need a strong Rangers to thrive, Swindon and Oxford benefit from each others’ presence. The derby has defined our season both on and off the pitch. It was only because it was Swindon that things turned out like they did.
James Constable’s sending off
Constable’s profile within this fixture had grown some way beyond what he (or anyone) could influence on the pitch. Everyone interprets things beyond what they see. Constable’s challenge on Devera was not malicious, it was barely worthy of a yellow card. The referee interpreted the reaction of the Swindon fans, players and the fact it was Constable to conclude that this was an aggressive action from a player who’d been affected by the pressure that surrounded him. Had it been any other player on the pitch, they wouldn’t have been sent off.
Constable’s departure left Rendell up front on his own. All he had to do was hold the ball when it came to him, he did it magnificently. My man of the match. Di Canio had put so much emphasis on Constable, when he was no longer there, Swindon struggled to know who to worry about. We became a multi-headed beast for about five minutes. Johnson, Holmes and Asa Hall weren’t in Di Canio’s play book. Oxford, fierce local rivals playing in front of a massive partisan home crowd, were playing like an away team with players Di Canio had never seen before.
He didn’t react, he panicked. The situation was different to the one he’d planned. He substituted Cibocchi for Smith, and then Smith for Cox. They kept playing deep balls to the back post in the first half and passed and passed and passed to no great effect in the second. Had we gone at them, they may have picked us off. Had things gone through Leven and Constable, they’d have stifled that because it was too obvious. If we’d played the way we want to play, it wouldn’t have been as effective and the crowd would have got frustrated. As the situation changed, Chris Wilder was the one who reacted and the fans recognised the role they had to play. Wembley taught us that victory comes from patience.
Stripped of Wright and Leven plus Davis and Potter. Down to ten men through the loss of our talismanic striker after 10 minutes. With our match winning goalkeeper suffering cramp throughout the second half. Playing the league leaders on a 10 game winning streak in a local derby. The prospect of a draw, let alone a win, was distant to say the least.
They say that you can judge a team by its strength on the substitute’s bench – of the 10 players on the pitch; seven wouldn’t have been in the team had we played at Christmas. 3 wouldn’t have been in the team on Friday. You don’t throw those players together in that environment against that side and accidentally beat them.
This was the victory of a deep, cohesive and motivated squad, moulded by Wilder and funded by Thomas, who has created an off-the-pitch set up dedicated to winning games (yes, I mean you East Stand ball boys).
Di Canio’s Swindon is a good side, the best technical side we’ve faced. They weren’t as effective or efficient as Cheltenham, but they’re still likely champions. However, they are built on a simplistic utilitarian ideology that was exposed on Saturday lunch time because the world is not simple and things change. Yes, we won the derby, yes, we won the double. But more than both of those we demonstrated emphatically what the new Oxford United philosophy is about.
The first ever FA Cup tie between the sides was shown live on TV. The BBC, constrained by their contract to show games from the early rounds, seemed shocked to discover a game that had purpose and meaning.