Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

Removed from the collective consciousness that is the 3pm Saturday kick-off and ignored by TV, it was fitting that the derby win was dumped into a football vacuum, meaningful only to those who truly understood it.

Ours is a derby that repels those not in the know; other derbies give the outsider reference points to help their understanding of the rivalry. At least you can empathise with derbies coming out of Sheffield, Manchester, Milan and Glasgow because we all know what it is to dislike our neighbours.

No such thing for Oxford/Swindon, this is a fiercely parochial affair. The clubs don’t share the same county, let alone the same town, and the likes of Wycombe, Reading, and the Bristol clubs are dotted around to confuse the picture geographically. Its name – presumably chosen by the Derby Naming Committee – is practically in code. Ask most people what the A420 is and they’ll shrug blankly – it’s a road, right? Radio 5 thought it was the M4 Derby.

In theory, there is a class divide but it’s hardly something that permeates the rivalry. Both sides consider each other to be ‘knuckle dragging, inbred scum’ as opposed to upper/lower class or Catholic/Protestant scum.

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.

The lack of meaningful games between the two clubs has contributed to its increased intensity. Previously there was little more than a nagging, depressing familiarity about defeats at the County Ground. Look at footage from 15 years ago and you can see empty seats in all parts of the ground. People simply couldn’t muster the energy to drive down the A420 for another panning – it wasn’t so much like being stabbed in the heart, more like grumbling irritable bowel syndrome.

Only in 1996 when Skinner and Baddiel started banging on how long it had been since England’s last triumph, did people start to actively quantify ‘hurt’. Nowadays most people know how many weeks of hurt it’s been since you scored from a left-sided set piece. 10 years ago if you asked someone how long it had been since we’d won at Swindon and the answer would typically be ‘ooh, a loooong time’. Somewhere along the line, it was given a label, a ticking clock – 36 years, 37 years, 38 years – it was hardwired into our psyche. Not even that permeated into the stat-hungry mainstream media. Sky was more interested in Paolo Di Canio’s sending off than the breaking of a hoodoo.

The A420 Derby, the 38 year-old voodoo, the bubble of the County Ground, the world looking at anything but what was going on in Swindon. A local derby for local people. The coming together of all these factors took us to Sunday and That Game.

At the brink of triumph, I still I fear that as the team and manager head towards immortality that we find out, in fact, that they are anything but. But each test, no matter how daunting, is confronted and smashed to pieces.

Constable, the soul of a club. The target of a mad fascist Italian manager. Is he on the brink of leaving? A Swindon fan? Off form and unhappy? If any or all of these are true, he remains the constant we can rely on. Football fiction is strewn with heroes rising, phoenix like, when a challenge is put before them. With everyone looking on him and his every move, there he is with the two goals that matter. Read any Roy of the Rovers story, and you’ll see James Constable’s Oxford career. In a cynical world, he’s a proper boyhood hero.

This is the football many of us fell in love with. Not through a TV lens, but live and without the voyeurs of armchair fans making comment and analysis about things they know nothing about. Those who saw it weren’t the privileged few with connections to large corporate sponsors. They were people who go to games every week. Football as a visceral, not intellectualised or media friendly experience.

Those outside the bubble caught only snatches of what was going on. I was one, I gave up on the County Ground years ago when all you got was cold, wet, bullied by the police and threatened with violence and then stuck behind a tractor all the way back down the A420. The football was secondary, the derby, as a sporting event, was virtually non-existent. Football needs mass media to survive, but there is something special about it being hidden from everyone but those who cared enough to be there. The scarcity of coverage, the stories from those who were there, this is how legends are created.

For us this was part of a Grand Slam – a Wembley win and a Swindon away win. What would complete it? A league title, perhaps? These require different effort, resources, skills – but in terms of the impact they have on the club and fans, this is the triple crown that could open the debate as to whether Chris Wilder is the best pound-for-pound manager we’ve ever had. Two down, one to go.

Under Wilder and Kelvin Thomas everything is in place. We have a club with the cohesion and a force of personality that could go onto achieve many things. Wembley: done, Swindon away was the next step towards achieving unprecedented legend.

I thought this sort of thing disappeared with the naivety of youth. I was wrong. The only down side from Sunday is that, in terms of this fixture, if we win every derby game for the next 38 years, it will not get any better than this.

Do we really want to know more about players?

Sir Alex Ferguson is almost certainly correct in saying that footballers could do with choosing improving literature over Twitter, but he will almost certainly be ignored. Footballers live for the vaguely homoerotic surrounds of the dressing room and the inter-player ‘banter’ within.

Twitter has turned this fun filled roister-doister into a professional sport, although, anyone who has witnessed the exchanges between Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand will see that this apparently rich vein of self-affirmation consist of them arguing over which looks more like a horse.

This insight into the cosseted world of football proves that a player’s life isn’t really worth knowing about and that the most interesting thing they’ll ever do is on the pitch. It makes you wonder why we’re expected to care about the Ryan Giggs affair. The media paint Giggs as a manipulating superstar protecting his sponsorship deals, keeping it from his wife and the baying public. But the revelation is unlikely to make a significant material difference to his wealth, and it’s beyond all credibility to think that his wife only found out after the details were released on Monday. She looked someway short of distraught when walking the pitch after Manchester United’s final game against Blackpool on Sunday. One may reasonably assume that the Giggs’ are resolving any issues the affair has caused – which they’re entitled to do.

Giggs is probably just a bit embarrassed about it all, as you might be if, say, your neighbour caught you scratching your bum in the garden. He’s just been a bit of an idiot, particularly considering Imogen Thomas is one of the country’s more careless girlfriends having previously been subject of a leaked sex tape. But in the end, Giggs is what Giggs was; the finest footballer of his generation what he does in his spare time – whether that’s playing away or going to Tesco – is his business.

The separation of the footballer from the person is a tricky one. Twitter is a hugely positive force amongst Oxford fans with Paul McLaren, Harry Worley, James Constable, Tom Craddock, Ben Purkiss, Jack Midson and new signing Andy Whing all registered and engaging with fans. This builds trust and can only be good for the club, tweets between the players on the bus going to Shrewsbury gave a really nice added dimension to the match day experience.
But I’m not particularly keen on taking it much further than that. My only real experience of a professional footballer outside the stadium was spending some time with Mickey Lewis at a wedding. Whilst he was a lot of fun – at one point rear ending a chair in a deserted hotel bar telling some Wycombe fans of the ‘spanking’ he’d been part of in 1996, there was a point where I just fancied going to bed. I like Mickey, but I’m just not that hardcore and now I prefer the version which bowls around picking up cones before a game.
Adam Chapman is another who has challenged our moral fortitude. But as I said last year, we should maintain a dignified separation between Chapman the footballer and Chapman the dangerous driver. Football is not so important that it should be used as part of the justice system – rewarded to those who do well, or deprived from those who are bad. Prisons are a perfectly sufficient punishment, Chapman’s justice should be serving its course any time soon and, if we do see him in a yellow shirt again, he should be welcomed back as we would any player.
And then there’s Paulo Di Canio, who is a fascist off the pitch and taking over at Swindon Town on it. Should we really care? Certainly the GMB think so, and, well, it’s just a bit too easy to ignore. But footballers don’t engage in improving literature as Ferguson suggests they do; they engage in illicit sex, banal banter, dangerous driving and fascism.
Di Canio is perfectly entitled to his opinion, as misguided as it is. And Swindon are perfectly entitled to appoint him as manager, as misguided as that is. Perhaps it’s just in the nature of football culture and its environment that creates a higher proportion of morons. This may be specific to their type – studies have shown that American football college players are more likely commit rape because they are trained to be unthinking pack animals. Perhaps we only hear about the morons and that football mirrors the rest of the world in having a broad spectrum of views and types. Generally speaking it is probably advisable to keep the player and the person separate, as they say; you should never meet your heroes.