The father of the bride at a wedding I once went to was heard to say ‘if a wedding made a marriage, I’d have spent more money on it’. Hopefully the bride didn’t hear him rationalise her day into a meaningless frivolity, though she knew what he was like.
It was the same thinking which threatened to derail our 125th anniversary celebrations. The symbolic changing of kit to the colours of Headington United was rationalised as the club ripping off the fans with an over-priced t-shirt. The national press put the boot in – attacking a cynical money making scheme that was nothing of the sort. It got to the point that the club felt the need to issue what almost amounted to an apology. Even the special pricing of £12.50 and £1.25 was questioned by some season ticket holders because they didn’t get a financial benefit from the game.
You can distill football down to its basic transactions – we pay money, we deserve value for that money. If we’re loyal we should get a reward like we’re buying something from Amazon. By extension, perhaps if we lose we should get a refund. If that’s the point of football – to get entertainment in return for money – then it has no point at all.
A special programme, a book from the Oxford Mail, a walk from The Brit to the Kassam, a huge display on the terraces, a parade of previous players; all can be rendered meaningless if you put your mind to it. But then, if you keep going with that thought, the whole thing is pointless. Like if a wedding doesn’t make a marriage; if football is just about getting value for money, then you’d be better going to the cinema.
In 1893 Dr Robert Hitchins and Reverend John Scott-Tucker walked to the Brittania Arms in Headington with an idea about how to occupy young men during the winter. Let’s break that down – they finished their day’s work, probably had something to eat and walked to a local pub to present an idea. You could do that today; walk to your local pub with an idea. Most likely it won’t last a week, let alone 125 years.
Before that idea, there wasn’t a football club, there was precisely nothing. We assume football clubs come into existence fully formed, part of the package that makes a major town or city. It’s just there, forever. But, perhaps millions of ideas for clubs fade and die before they’re born. Thousands last less than a few years, fewer still become institutions that last more than a century.
The idea evolved and grew, it engaged and consumed local people from a city to a county, it battled through two World Wars, countless financial difficulties, one attempted merger, it moved location, it played at the most prestigious stadiums, won national competitions and played and beat some of the best teams in the world. Above all, it was a common thread through generations of people.
The amber shirt, the programme, the walk, the banner, the former players and let’s not forget the win reminded me of how incalculably lucky we are to be part of that idea, to have benefitted from it and to contribute to its lasting legacy. When we die, if we treat it right, the idea will be passed onto to others. A tiny fragment of us, and what we created and curated while we were involved, will live on in the club. Saturday reminded me of that, and that’s why all the effort was important. A wedding doesn’t make a marriage, it reminds you of what you’ve achieved and what you need to protect into the future.
This isn’t a brand invented by venture capitalists and taken to market with a multi-million pound marketing campaigns, it’s an institution created, run and sustained by the people based on a simple idea. We are lucky that the idea endured; that there are people who pushed it through difficult times, who keep it alive, either by putting money into it, or through their endless energy, or just turning up for pointless games, or by playing. A mere interest in the club motivates the efforts of others. Thousands of people, keeping an idea alive, evolving it, changing it, growing it into something else and passing it on; all the while maintaining its core values.
Something for young men to do during the winter months is now something for young and old, men and women to do all year round. If you can’t play, you watch, if you can’t watch you listen, if you can’t listen, you validate just by being interested. Through all the frustrations and difficulties, hopefully it teaches people something about camaraderie, working to achieve things and dedication. Perhaps it changes people’s lives, or gives them moments of light in darkness. Perhaps it just acts as a distraction from a tough life. Maybe it’s just fun and a bit of a laugh with friends. Perhaps those friends help you from time to time. Somehow that simple idea, does amazing things. It’s pretty cool.
So, the 125th anniversary is our anniversary and should be embraced for what it is. Attacking it, cynically crushing or dismissing it damages us and what we stand for. If the club goes, it can’t be replaced, the history, the people, the club. We have a responsibility to treat it right, to pass on the idea we’ve inherited in the best possible way.