Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

Yellows 2 Rushden 0

I needed to go again. I’d been before kick-off, but a pint and a pre-match coffee had gone right through me. It was that very same feeling I’d had against Exeter in 2007. This was nerves; not those excited butterfly nerves, just the deadening all-preoccupying feeling of needing a wee. This is the big-game feeling, we were 16 minutes in and it was all I could think about.

Hundreds of pounds of investment boiled down to bladder control. This was what buying the football product was all about. I could do that with 8 litres of Evian, a full tank of petrol and a drive up the M1.

The feeling subsided as it became clear that the occasion hadn’t got the better of us. Far from being leggy and anxious; desperately grinding and jamming gears, we were controlled and calm. We were showing up Rushden as a very ordinary collection of players who had been marshalled by a decent manager. Jefferson Louis, not a smart player at the best of times, was having no impact. We’d been undone twice at home by fine forward play – Iseyden Christie bullying Mark Creighton and Steve Basham showing his class – this wasn’t one of those occasions.

This was no epic struggle, like Swindon in 2002, it was the smooth execution of a well made plan. A clean movement through the gears; controlling, probing, creating chances, goals and then back to control again. If the initial wave of chances – through Green, Midson and Constable – didn’t produce goals, then the Diamonds defence were suitably beaten to allow Potter and Deering to come on and change the dynamic. We’ve been doing it this way all season.

It’s been, what, 14 years – the game against Peterborough – since we did that. Fourteen years since we’d had a good performance in a must-win game. Other games, even some of the great victories, have been characterised by their teeth grinding intensity. Where the needing of a wee simply won’t go away.

It was no fluke. On top of Kelvin Thomas’ business acumen and strategy lies sports science, on this lies tactics and shape and discipline, on this technique. It’s a series of measured, scientific, professional decisions designed to win games of football. It can take 14 years of trial and error to perfect.

Our lives are lived in straight lines distilled as much as possible into a series of binary decisions. The way our entire country is ruled is based on who we say yes to and who we say no to. As an extension, football is a business over which a science is overlaid. And we are totally compliant. We wait to buy tickets in straight lines, we queue for drinks in straight lines, we even go to games and sit in straight lines.

Games aren’t won by people who tumble over each other like delirious morons. And that’s the service right there. The players invest hours doing things you and I wouldn’t do if you paid us double what they’re on. They eat well, exercise for hours every day, potentially sacrifice the long-term stability of their families just to put the ball in the net and send us nutty. No other service offers that kind of return on your investment.

It’s not over, of course, but Wembley is different. No less important, but different. People outside the club are interested in your trip to Wembley. Some of the bastards will actually go to the game. The beauty of this win was that it was for you and me, for people who have stuck with it for all these years while the rest of the world continued their lives regardless and disinterested. My lasting memory of Monday was of the chaos in the Oxford Mail Stand as Matt Green’s goal rolled in. ‘What was it like?; people might ask. ‘Fucking amazing’ I’d say. But that doesn’t even describe the half of it and nothing I can do or say, no photograph or YouTube clip can come close to recreating it. That’s the sheer fucking poetry of the thing.

Rushden & Diamonds 1 Yellows 1

Like a battered wife who escaped her oppressive husband, we’ve been smiled at by a kindly looking man in the local shop this season. His eyes gave us an insight into a future, happier, more peaceful life.

But at the same time the prospect scares us; for some reason there are assurances that come with being abused. It’s not like you can be any more scared and the betrayal is evident, not hidden. When you’re at the bottom, you can’t fall anymore; could we bear to be built up only to be let down again? That would be the worst thing of all.

Confidence that we can be successful has been building all season. It’s taken a couple of knocks along the way, we’ve long been the beaten wife, so it is not a surprise that we overreact to a blip.

Thursday’s draw with Rushden proved that things are progressing in the right direction. Not just because we’re heading back to the Kassam on par, but because there’s a buzz and intensity that the players can ride on.

In 2007, we were much more fragile and headed into the play-offs in hope, not expectation (apart from, perhaps, a misplaced belief that we had a right to promotion). Despite holding a goal lead, we couldn’t sell the place out because we couldn’t bear the prospect of being disappointed again. As a result the players, exhausted from their season, tried to drag us through to promotion. They couldn’t do it, and we failed.

This time, we’ve sold the Kassam out and there is a belief that whether we succeed or fail, that the momentum is with us. We can achieve, we can be happy. There is no pressure, because we know that if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll make it – this season, next season… who knows? If it’s possible to take the pressure away, then we’ve done it. Monday is only partly about a win; it’s also about celebrating us as a community and a club. On paper, our position is worse than it was into the second leg than we did in 2007 yet we’ve sold 2,000 tickets more. The difference is that we’re now a club at ease with who we are. We all want to be part its journey and as a result the players have a great environment in which to succeed.

We have a date with the handsome man with the kindly smile on Monday; this time he wants us to stay the night. Can we dare to believe that he’s good in bed too?

Yellows 1 Rushden and Diamonds 0

James Constable is an instinctive footballer, a renegade and a maverick. If you put a false construct around him, he twitches and fights against it; like a child yanking defiantly at his school tie.

Take the rules of football; confronted with those, he expends huge amounts of energy fighting against them. His arms outstretched, his head tossed back, bickering and picking up bookings.

As a captain he cuts a figure of frustration. By contrast, Chris Hargreaves ‘facilitated’ the sending off of Bygrave against Histon. He empathised with the referee, gesturing as if to say ‘we can’t be tolerating such insolence’. He understands his role is to make friends with the authority figures, representing his team’s views, getting decisions to work his way.

Contrast this with Constable’s skippering during the win over Rushden. He’s the consummate child pulling against the fussy and officious referee ‘parent’. The referee displays none of the respect and empathy he showed with Hargreaves, instead he treats Constable like a baby, ignoring his tantrums, and therefore his position as the representative of the team.

And then, of course, there are penalties. This is the most constrained way of scoring goals. Presented with the need to go through a learnt process of putting the ball in the net from a spot twelve yards from the goal is not in his nature. See, by comparison, Chapman, who benefits from having no brain of any note. The endless gamesmanship by Rushden had no effect on Chapman, he probably wasn’t aware that it was in anyway related to him and what he had to do. If you threw a ball at Constable and told him to stick it in the net without thinking, then he’d do it every time. Get him to constrain his exuberance and energy and he’s not nearly as effective.

Constable needs to be freed from these constraints; leading the team and taking penalties. Even leading the line, he’s much more effective when playing with a footballer like Midson who can give him a platform that allows his natural talent and instinct for goals to flow.

Rushden and Diamonds 1 Yellows 3

Not to piss on anyone’s parade, but the (albeit superb) win over Rushden hasn’t taken us anywhere. My crude, but oddly accurate (so far, 8 out of 12 results right), predict-o-meter still has us finishing in 9th. Unfortunately we don’t seem to have enough games left to bridge the gap and although we may yet make an appearance in the top 5, this achievement will eventually be eroded.

Beating Rushden doesn’t bridge the gap, although it has prevented it from growing. To reduce the gap we need to take points where we wouldn’t otherwise expect to. According to my formula that’s top 10 teams: Stevenage, Histon, Burton and/or Wrexham.

Winning the games against the likes of Rushden is not an option. Which is what makes this such a horrible experience. The titanic effort of the team, the magnificent achievement of Chris Wilder in turning the team around is still some way from meaning anything. The 2008/9 season will go down in history as us being an unremarkable mid-table team.

The return of our deducted points would make a big difference, of course. But that’s not going to happen. The Conference will play this one as long as possible. If, as is likely, the internal review has revealed processes riddled with human error and arcane systems, to go through the humiliation of giving points back will undermine the whole league and its credibility going forward. If they can push the publishing of their review into the summer, the fire in the belly of Oxford, Mansfield et al will have subsided and life will return to normal.

Yellows 2 Rushden and Diamonds 1

I know a bloke who knows a bloke who plays down the same golf club as Ian Lenegan. I also once spent a night at my sister’s wedding drinking with Mickey Lewis – a night I vowed that, as funny and charming a bloke as Mickey is, I would never befriend an ex-professional footballer. I may have done these things; but I’m not part of any Oxford United in-crowd, still, why didn’t anyone tell me that we don’t like Nick Merry anymore?

The response to Nick Merry’s resignation as chairman – even from those you would expect to have been more supportive (new chairman Kelvin Thomas and Darren Patterson) has been surprisingly negative.

Merry’s legacy will be the revitalisation of Oxford United ‘the club’- a group of people with a similar focus. Its been shaken on a number of occasions; but in comparison to the fractured culture under Firoz Kassam, Merry’s contribution should be recognised.

The business and the team, of course, are in a worse position. The biggest criticism one might level at Merry was to do with his wide-eyed optimism. His were the decisions of a fan – bring back Jim Smith, save us from relegation, buy stadium, enjoy back-to-back promotions like the good old days. Plan A was based wholly on Jim Smith; there was no plan B.

Firoz Kassam is a stubborn and ruthless businessman and it would appear, from corporatehospitalityfood-gate, that Merry does not command the respect needed to resolve the stadium purchase problems. Kassam is probably not really into Merry’s sports jacket, car salesman, slightly Americanised burr style. Let’s hope that Kelvin Thomas is, if not an equal to Kassam at the negotiating table, a credible adversary.

So, there’s been a lot of negativity around the club of late. The talk going into yesterday’s 2-1 win over Rushden and Diamonds was about how Darren Patterson was a defeat from the sack (again). But looking at the performance, it’s clear to me that Patterson has the ability to do well – subject to the finances being such that we can bring in extra players when needed.

We shouldn’t be going into games worrying about failure; I suspect Histon, in fifth, aren’t yet panicking that they’re only 8 points off relegation. Which demonstrates just how tight this division is, so you can look at us being 1 point off the relegation zone or 7 points off the play-offs. Three years ago the gap at the end of September from play-offs to relegation was 12 points, two years ago it was 11, and Morecambe, who ended up promoted, had 16 points, just one more than us.

We are not alone in having financial problems, we’re a small squad, but a good team. If Nick Merry’s legacy is to mean anything, we should be looking at the season as a challenge to be excited about, not a series of disasters waiting to happen.