Lockdown wrap: Is it time to accept the Wycombe rivalry?

The Bucks Free Press, the local newspaper covering Wycombe ran an article this week documenting ‘The Wycombe/Oxford Derby’. I mean, TL:DR, obviously because, well, it’s not a derby, is it? Or, is it?

It’s a question that’s been picking away at me for some time; when does a derby become a derby? And, are we kidding ourselves? Tomorrow we play the biggest game in a generation against a local team for a prize neither could have dreamed of. It’s big, of course, but surely, it’s bigger because of who we’re playing.

Let’s get the basics out of the way; locality. According to Google, the distance from Kassam Stadium to Adams Park is 28.5 miles, from the Kassam to the County Ground? 33.4. It’s a fixture that is more ‘local’ than Swindon. Awkward. For completeness, Reading is 25.5 miles away.

But there’s much more to it than that, isn’t there? There’s the emotional response, the history. Nothing will replace Swindon as a rivalry for visceral pleasure. Once upon a time that was a near on annual fixture, but we’ve only played them four times in the league over the last nineteen years and Reading not at all. While that has helped grow the fierceness of the rivalry with those down the A420, with Reading it’s somewhat ebbed away. In the same period, we’ve played Wycombe 18 times. 

On a purely practical level, in order to find that regular endorphin hit of facing your deadliest foes, accepting Wycombe into the pantheon of ‘rivals’ seems logical. We always sell out the away end, meaning the atmosphere and the sweetness of the win is always good. But logical and practical isn’t enough, in fact, they’re truly the most incorrect metrics available.

A rivalry seems to intensify when you’ve forgotten what you’re arguing about. A friend of mine has started a new job and found two people in his team are engaged in a near 30-year war of attrition, about what, he can’t figure out. Certainly, it’s hard to pinpoint why Swindon and Oxford are rivals; there are few obvious class, religious or ethnic divisions between the two towns. We hate each other because we do, and we seem to like it like that.

I’ve only missed one Oxford v Wycombe league game since our first professional encounter in 1994. It’s harder to stir an emotional response when you can remember many of the details about your disputes. But it’s been 26 years, and for an increasing number of people, those early games were from a grainy, long lost era. As the details of the battles fade, the myths and legends appear. Maybe the fact every game can be found on YouTube leaves few gaps into which the mythology can seep.

One of the reasons few will accept the idea is that they perceive it would degrade us to take it on. Wycombe are ‘tin pot’ and have only been in the League since 1993, and our tenancy goes back much further. Except, it doesn’t does it? We’ve only been in the league since 2010, with our first stint going back to 1963. What we’ve both done is triumphed over adversity, grown from a low base. 

And that seems to be the nub of it; we seem unwilling to accept that Oxford and Wycombe’s paths have become increasingly entwined. This is another argument for accepting the rivalry; it heightens some of the great moments of our most recent history – 2016 promotion, Stuart Massey hanging off the crossbar in 1996, Nicky Rowe’s howitzer in 2014, Kemar Roofe’s awakening in 2016, Tom Craddock’s thirty yarder in 2012, Akinfenwa being sent off in 2019. Even some of the grimmer moments – the FA Cup in 2006, Matt Elliot being sent off in 1994, Hubert Busby Junior in 2000 have a certain je ne sais quoi. 

In truth, the fixture has been good to us, which may be to its detriment as a derby, perhaps there’s got to be a dose of misery. 

There’s also the fact that Wycombe are a good club; Adams Park has a quality not dissimilar to The Manor, they seem well run, and whilst there’s much to mock, Gareth Ainsworth has gone a great job getting them to where they are. After our last game at Adams Park, I walked back to the car chatting with a couple of Wycombe fans about how good the game had been, they were asking whether Cameron Brannagan was OK having been stretchered off. We all agreed it had been a splendid day out and a fair result. None of us were tear gassed. Swindon is a notoriously grim town, it’s been dogged with financial corruption and even had an openly fascist manager; as bad guys go, they’re world class. But, actually, is there anything wrong with having a rival that you actually quite like. If you think about Liverpool and Everton and their combined response to Hillsborough, it’s a rivalry enhanced by its shared sense of camaraderie.

The Oxford v Wycombe fixture is frequently entertaining and often meaningful, no more so than tomorrow, so is accepting the rivalry, and accepting them as equals such a bad thing? Is being ‘like Wycombe’ a team that has got to the brink of the Championship without financial doping or corruption such an awful label? It’s not the same kind of derby as the more traditional ones, but as tomorrow will show, it’s two clubs achieving something pretty phenomenal. Our histories entwined is perhaps something to be more proud of than we might like to accept.I’m not asking you to conjure up a visceral hatred on the level of Swindon. I’m asking that you might want to accept the possibility into your life. Could Wembley be the tipping point? You never know, it might make tomorrow even sweeter.

History of the Wycombe derby part 4

We’d finally dropped out of the league while ‘non-league’ Wycombe continued to shuttle between League’s 1 and 2. A temporary state, we thought, and it didn’t take long to get a chance to prove it. 

In November 2006 things were looking up; we’d were owned by a fan and managed by a legend. We were non-league, but we were unbeaten and brushing everyone aside. With our new set-up it was clear that non-league was a temporary state only. We were on the rampage, unbeaten from the start of the season with 15 wins and 4 draws. Having brushed past Dagenham and Redbridge in the qualifying round we drew Wycombe in the 1st round proper. Appearing in the FA Cup was important; it ensured that we maintained an unbroken place in the history of proper competitions.

There was something fitting about drawing Wycombe. Little Wycombe, the non-league upstarts. It was almost as if they had become a reference point. Courtney Pitt, a little shit of a winger who Graham Rix brought into the club was always the one player who we could mark our decline against. He was awful for us, but as we got worse every time he played us the more like Lionel Messi he became. Wycombe was the club that served that same purpose.

So when we were drawn against Wycombe, this was to be proof that we were, in fact, a league club, just one in the wrong division. Our form was excellent, so we went into it with a real sense of confidence; selling out the away end. We lost Andy Burgess and Rob Duffy before the game, both were interviewed on the radio with the Oxford throng audible in the background. It had a sense homecoming party; with Burgess and Duffy going on about how great it was to be back in the biggish time.

That was the first flicker of complacency that had crept into the season. We ignored that Wycombe, probably, fancied the win themselves. Above all, they were the higher ranked team. We would have to be on the money to get a result away from home. We didn’t play badly, but conceded. Gavin Johnson, one of the patched up old crocks Jim Smith was relying on to trudge through a winter of Conference sludge and get us back into the League scored from a free-kick. Momentarily, we believed the original hype. Seconds later Wycombe scored again and we were out. We drifted off into a wilderness of playing St Albans, Tonbridge Angels and the like. They would be playing in a League Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea.

It would be another 4 years before we would meet again. Finally we were back on the same footing following our promotion back into the league. The 2010/11 season was entered off the back of a sense of euphoria. We had become used to dominating sides in the conference, and there was a sense that we’d continue to do so in the future. A double promotion was on the cards.

Early season form was sobering. We smashed Bristol Rovers 6-1 in the League Cup, but we’d lost our first home game and drawn the other 0-0. We headed for Adams Park and left with another 0-0 away draw. While we were organised enough to maintain clean sheets, we weren’t savvy enough to score at the other end. Wycombe had just been relegated and were fancied for a straight return to League 1. An away draw and a blank sheet against a fancied team was considered a big positive.

By the time of the return the play-offs were becoming beyond us; we’d had a good crack at the season and done OK. Wycombe, as predicted, maintained their steady progress and as it’s often the case in League 2, that was enough to see them sitting in the automatic play-off positions.

By the end of that season, our principle role seemed to be to try to make a nuisance of ourselves at the top of the division. We raced to a two-goal lead which was just about deserved, in a microcosm of the whole season, they chugged their way back into it and in front of a mass of jubilant Wycombe fans equalised through John Paul Pittman. An entertaining 2-2 draw.

Finally, to this season. We headed for Adams Park; Wycombe were suddenly the ones struggling, our form was fluctuating wildly, but we hit them in a purple patch. James Constable, Tom Craddock scored from sweet strikes and Johnny Mullins nipped in at the near post for a third. The 3-1 win was the most comprehensive since the promotion win at Adams Park in 1996. It looked like we were going to challenge the play-offs while they looked in desperate trouble heading for relegation.

And so to today, the latest instalment of the derby that isn’t a derby. Much of that is down to Oxford fans’ denial of our position. I suspect had the Glory Years not happened, then the Wycombe fixture would have been considered more important than it currently is. In reality, we’ve been a lower league team for a very long time now and Wycombe Wanderers increasingly represents a key marker for our progress.

History of the Wycombe derby part 3

It started as a fixture that pitted the big boys of Oxford against the plucky amateurs of Wycombe. Eventually Wycombe became a barometer by which we could measure our decline; while they largely stood still we slipped and slipped. 

If the previous four fixtures were the diagnosis of a terminal disease, the next four were the death itself. Over a period of two years we were managed by a convicted child molester, the South American Alex Ferguson and his army of shaman and a barely articulate non-league sergeant major. Oh dear.

Apparently we drew the fixture under Graham Rix in 2004, which was, again, live on Sky. I don’t remember anything about it; but that was what it was like around that time. By the time we entertained them at the Kassam for the first time on New Year’s Day we were into the Ramon Diaz farce. With the club suffering from a terminal disease, the arrival of Diaz was a palliative trip to Disney; a fantastical promise, which started with the arrival of new fangled training techniques (Tommy Mooney gushed about training with two balls), there was a thoroughly modern management team and a swathes of homesick disinterested teenage South Americans.

The game on New Year’s Day was notable for the sending off of Chris Hackett for violent conduct; a man less aggressive than Peppa Pig. A late Steve Basham goal gave us our first home win against Wycombe at the sixth attempt. The New Year, the new management regime, everyone left optimistic that the corner had been turned.

Of course, it hadn’t. The Diaz era descended into grand farce, results petered out and the relationship between Diaz’s team and Kassam disintegrated amidst rumours that one or the other had reneged on a pre-appointment deal relating to the sale of the club and ground. The closing game of the season saw the storming of the Kassam as Diaz’s team; fired after the penultimate game of the season, attempted to gain entry to the ground.

Before that final game, Brian Talbot was introduced as the club’s new manager, he mumbled something about double promotions and shuffled off to plan the grand resurrection. I was an Ipswich Town fan when I was really small and Brian Talbot was a member of their FA Cup winning team. I had a lot of empathy for him; he had also steered Rushden to promotion on a sea of money. He seemed like as good a solution as any. But then again, all Kassam’s appointments seemed like the solution at the time.

In the following August Wycombe returned to the Kassam with the defected Tommy Mooney partnering Nathan Tyson up front. Mooney had been a hero the year before having not only signed from Swindon, but also proving to be the best striker we’d had in years. He left after one season, it’s a sign of the state we were in that we were so accepting of his move.

We hung onto their coat tails as they ran us ragged. But we edged in front early on, conceded twice and then nabbed an equaliser through Dean Morgan (Who?). As is often the case, a decent result against a decent side gave hope of a good season. Form was moderate up until Christmas, Kassam sold Craig Davis to Verona, Chris Hackett to Hearts and prevented Lee Bradbury from playing so that he didn’t trigger and automatic contract renewal.

Like hibernating hedgehogs, we packed away our spikes for the season and settled down for a nice winter snooze. We snoozed our way through a 2-1 defeat at Adams Park with Yemi Odubade, a panic buy from Eastbourne who had run us ragged in a Cup replay a few weeks earlier, scoring his first goal. There was disillusionment about the club and management, and everyone decided that there was always next year and another rejuvenating managerial appointment around the corner. We won three more games all season and fell out of the league in a fog of complacency. Now Oxford were the little non-league fighters and Wycombe the established league club. How things had changed.

History of the Wycombe derby part 2

In 1996 we returned to the Championship and left behind the small-time derby against Wycombe. It would be a brief restbite. Just over three years later, once again relegated and this time in terminal decline, we met again.

High Wycombe is topographically odd town. It sits deep in a valley; its growth came from chair makers who whittled the surrounding woodlands to make furniture. Now, people who live in High Wycombe live on slopes. Your neighbours house is often five feet higher or lower than yours. On either side of the valley are well to-do towns like Marlow, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Henley. It leaves what a friend of mine describes as ‘Valley People’.

You can often find a town’s true character by watching its town centre during a week day. This is when the what might be described as ‘normal’ people are doing normal things, like working. What’s left are the people who make a particular town different. In Oxford, for example, the place is full of students and bohemia. Oxfordshire market towns are a sea of grey hair. In High Wycombe, there is a noticeable number of people with limps and pirated Formula 1 merchandise. These are Valley People. Initially they were physically stuck in the valley, as the rich escaped into the surrounding villages; now they’re economically stuck as the house prices prevent them from moving beyond the town’s boundaries.  The character has changed in recent years because of the Eden shopping centre. This has drawn in Ugg Boot wearing privately-schooled girls and their skinny-jeans wearing boyfriends from the middle class surrounds, but they stay safely located in the shopping centre and rarely venture any further.

Generally speaking, Wycombe Wanderers are a friendly, well run club, whereas Oxford have been a basket case in recent years. When the teams met after a three year hiatus in 1999, we were in full free fall mode. Firoz Kassam was in charge and in what, again, was a microcosm of our wider situation, we played three times in 5 months, each time with a different manager. Oddly, however, we came out of those games unbeaten.

The first was under Malcolm Shotton, the dying days of what had promised to be a glorious return, a nondescript 0-0 draw at the Manor was significant only because it was our first point at home in the fixture. Under Mickey Lewis we won on penalties in the LDV Vans Trophy with the spot kick being scored by giant Swedish error-magnet; goalkeeper Pal ‘porn star’ Lundin. Lundin wrote himself into minor folklore by doing an aeroplane celebration around a sparsely populated stadium; it was like watching a vulcan bomber finding somewhere to land. With Denis Smith reinstalled we then went to Adams Park and snatched a 1-0 win with a Joey Beauchamp goal. It was as depressing as an away win could ever be. The goal aside the game was terrible; it was cold and grey and the three points were clearly a blip in what was otherwise a terminal and terrible decline.

The final capitulation happened the following year. It was the most terrible of seasons, and the only one in which Oxford, Swindon, Wycombe and Reading would be in the same division. In the six derbies that season we lost all of them. The first game against Wycombe was at Adams Park on a Friday night in September. To add to the indignity; the game was shown on Sky.

I was working in London and arrived late, the interminable walk more interminable than ever. We were already a goal down at that point. At half-time Richard Knight; the season’s player of the year despite conceding over 100 league goals, was replaced by Hubert Busby Jnr. The Canadian’s absurd name a sign of the the nonsense of the era. He didn’t have a proper ‘keeper’s shirt, but instead wore a training top. Busby’s momentary heroism was that he saved a penalty, which had to be retaken. He conceded the retake and we eventually lost meekly 3-1.

By the time we met at The Manor we were managed by David Kemp and had become so insular we were like a troubled teenager sitting in our bedroom listening to The Cure and contemplating suicide with a bottle of Tixylix, just to make a point. We lost 2-1, they celebrated, we didn’t care. Somehow for us, their happiness was just a shallow facade; they weren’t a real football club like us; one that was suffering. It was hideous.

At the end of that season we finally dropped into the bottom division, while Wycombe would continue to flirt with the division above. And we moved from The Manor and into our new dawn of glory at the Kassam. But that’s where we stuck, just waiting for something good to happen to us. Even if it was only that Wycombe might one day drop to a similar level.

History of the Wycombe derby part 1

It’s been 18 years since the first Oxford Wycombe game in the football league with the next instalment due on Saturday, what is the story of the fixture?

The thing about the Oxford v Wycombe derby is that nobody can agree if it’s a derby in the first place. Oxford to Wycombe is 31 miles down the M40. Oxford to Swindon is 33 miles. Also, we’ve played Wycombe 16 times since 1994, twice more than we’ve played Swindon. But I doubt anyone would call Wycombe more of a derby than Swindon.

What Swindon has over the Wycombe fixture is history. The Swindon rivalry dates back to before we were born. So, is the problem the lack of myth? Other derbies span generations; stories get passed down and embellished. These add significance to every fixture. However, speaking as someone who has missed just one league game between the clubs, myths struggle to establish themselves when you know the facts, especially when there’s always permanent reference via film of every game?

The first time the clubs met (aside from a few non-league games in the 1950s) was in 1994. Wycombe had been promoted a year before. Like many promoted non-league clubs in those days, they were well run but considered plucky amateurs. Oxford never considered them a threat. Not least because we were mainly still mincing around the Championship.

1994 changed that; we’d been relegated (although in our heads we were still a Championship club), they had been promoted and were full of wide eyed wonderment. In our heads the script was straight forward, they would have a nice day out at a big club, and then we would brush them aside like the amateur no-marks they were.

Wycombe fans packed the Cuckoo Lane end, bless their hearts, look at their excited faces. There was a capacity crowd, the largest the fixture has attracted to date. It felt like a cup tie, but we knew the outcome; we’d let them have their special day out, then we’d smash them on the park and we’ll all go home happy.

And then they scored. We were in such a stupor, having completely underestimated Wanderers’ ability, that we simply didn’t get going. In the second half they scored again with a well worked goal. It was a considerable jolt, we’d lost three times in the league prior to that defeat and were pretty set on bouncing back to the Championship with ease. We took 2 points in the next eight games, winning just seven more games all season including the return, our first visit to Adams Park in the April.

Adams Park is a strange place; it’s situated at the end of a seemingly interminably long road that runs through a trading estate. At the point you feel like you’ve gone the wrong way the road ends with a set of iron gates and in front of you are rolling hills and a neat little ground. We returned still full of expectation, but were undone by the early dismissal of Matt Elliot when the Wycombe attack exploited his one weakness, his pace. A ball over the top and Elliot was left floundering. He pulled the striker to the floor, we screamed with the indignation of a crowd that knew the referee had made the right decision. They scored shortly afterwards, perhaps even from the resultant penalty. I don’t remember.

The season’s capitulation; a feature of too many seasons to follow, didn’t dent our ambition to return to the Championship at the second attempt a year later. The first game, at the Manor, was in late October. We’d won just four league games, the hangover from the previous season seemed to be lingering. That season, and promotion, would be remembered for the late post-Christmas charge, but the Wycombe game held much significance in that success. They humiliated us 4-1 and again we just didn’t get going; but, it would be our last home defeat of the season. Something in that result jolted the team into action; and the home form created a platform from which that remarkable late season run could develop.

Within that run – 1 defeat in the final 16 games – brought perhaps the most iconic moment of the fixture. Up until that point, the game had become analogous of our time in the lower league; we’d anticipated success, even expected it, but were continually sucker punched into defeat by teams we might have thought inferior.

We returned to Adams Park with a degree of trepidation. David Rush opened the scoring at the home end in the first half, in the second, in front of a maniacal Oxford support we added two more; one from Stuart Massey and a piledriver from substitute Paul Moody. This was a classic win of that surge, we’d peppered them continuously, and just when they couldn’t take anymore, would introduce the galloping beast that was Moody to terrorise them some more. He scored 6 goals from the bench, and when he wasn’t doing that he was simply coming on to demoralise defeated opponents. The third goal agaisnt Wycombe triggered the classic picture that lived long in the memory; Stuart Massey hanging off the cross bar and Paul Moody’s arab spring.

Five more games and promotion was won; we’d returned to the Championship and the Wycombe game was put on hold for more than three years.

Next… Part 2