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.

Midweek fixtures: A tribute to the Oxford United Ultras

It’s not unusual to forget something when you move house; the bread maker in the loft or the cat. When Oxford United moved from The Manor to The Kassam, we forgot to pack our soul.

Rewind.

Rageonline tells me it was January 2006 about 2.40pm, we were playing Darlington. I was sitting in my car facing the East Stand. It was cold so I took a punt at parking in the car park, when I got there, I had my pick of the spaces. Nobody had bothered to turn up. We lost 2-0.

Two weeks later we were playing Rochdale. The mood was sombre, the atmosphere was dead. We didn’t know it, but the Kassam-era was coming to an end. In a few weeks fans would be storming the stadium in protest; days after Nick Merry and Jim Smith would stride out as the public face of our new owners.

Amidst all the bleakness, spontaneously, the East Stand struck up a heavy rhythm – clapping, chanting and banging seats – it was loud and unrelenting, completely at odds with the meandering on the pitch.

For the rest of the season, although we were tanking on the pitch, the fans started reclaiming their club. At the Manor, we inherited it from our forebears; it’s stories, the giant killings, promotions, the players; all soaked into the walls of the old place. We left it all behind; we became consumers, even though what we were consuming tasted increasingly sour. The fans had to reimagine its relationship with the club.

This wasn’t the start of the Oxford United Ultras, who announced recently they were folding after ten years, but the idea of fan participation was starting to stir. Despite relegation to the Conference, the embers of that idea remained. A giant flag was purchased and unfurled in time for every crushing defeat and false dawn. It was a gallant attempt at creating atmosphere, but the problem was that the noise from the East Stand was muffled and nobody could clap when holding it up.

In 2007, Aldershot Town visited the Kassam. It was early in the season and they were flying. Their fans had hold of their destiny – they turned up in huge numbers, festooned with flags and balloons; a wall of red and blue, willing them to succeed. It was a carnival of the like I’d never seen before. In stark contrast, Arthur Gnohere handled comically in the box conceding a penalty. They won 3-2, then went on to win promotion back to the Football League.

It was a low, but things were looking up. Chris Wilder took over in 2008 and went on a run that nearly got us into the play-offs. We were docked five points for playing an ineligible player, exactly the number of points we fell short by. The injustice of it all ignited something.

The summer was a blur – Wilder brought together a squad full of flair and aggression. Constable, Green, Midson, Clarke, Creighton; names that would become legends.

Off the field things were moving; fan groups, partly fuelled by social media, were emerging, planning and plotting. First pre-arranged areas for home games, then flags, then more. Many of the groups died, or merged, it takes energy to turn pub dreams into reality. There’s an irony about ultra movements; they seem unruly and anti-social, but in reality they have to be organised and structured, funding has to exist, people have to do things to do things.

I’m not keen on military analogies, but we became like an invading army. We had James Constable, Mark Creighton and Adam Murray controlling things on the pitch and a cacophony of flags and banners filling the away end, the air was filled with yellow and blue smoke bombs, our relative size in the Conference had been a burden, now it was becoming an asset.

I’ve said before that I know players rarely support the team they play for, but I want their time at Oxford to be the best of their career. Lower league football can be unforgiving and spartan, the joy of playing with the backing of the Ultras must have been immense.

We swept to promotion on a sea of optimism and a riot of colour. Back in the Football League, despite a couple of memorable wins over Swindon, but the fun started to dwindle. The flags were still waved; banners appeared at the back of the stand. There was something, but it was a battle to keep the energy going, particularly at home.  

In 2016, though, the movement peaked. The year kicked off with the now fabled Austrian tour, it is easy to forget that we drew 0-0 playing in the previous season’s kit with no sponsor. What is memorable is the crowd, the bewildered looks on the faces of the players at the fervent optimism. Without that, the tour would have been meaningless.  

The plan for the season was uncompromising; we weren’t just going for promotion, we were going for everything. In the JPT we were once again drawn against Swindon. Although they were in a division higher, the balance of power was shifting. The aim was not to beat them heroically as we had in 2011 and 2012, we were going to dominate them on and off the field.

Something special was promised by the Ultras, though the details were kept under-wraps, immediately before the game it wasn’t evident what was planned. As the players emerged from the tunnel, from the top of the East Stand, a flag was unbundled and passed down to the front.

The ambition was staggering; it stretched from the top of the East Stand to the bottom, featuring a giant, angry ox with a robin impaled on one of its horns. I am rarely stopped in my tracks at football; years of following the same club and the same routine does that to you, but this was nothing short of breathtaking.

At the Swindon end, a banner was meekly held aloft, some streamers disappeared into the night sky; we’d won and hadn’t even kicked off.

The season was a blur; against Swansea another display in the East Stand, criminally ignored by live TV cameras, then for the final game against Wycombe, another.

In between, the back wall of the East Stand was festooned with banners featuring a myriad of opaque cultural references – Time for Heroes (acknowledged by The Libertines on Match of the Day), Always and forever, Remember 86, That Sweet City. Even for run-of-the-mill games, the ultras brought life to our soulless home by quoting Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.

Promotion brought another reward – yet another pair of derbies against Swindon Town. A critical aspect of any victory is the ability to surprise; following the giant flag, the Robins knew something was coming. Whatever was being planned, the Ultra’s response needed to be beyond good.

Again, a plan was hatched, preparation was needed. The night before, the Ultras gave every seat in the East Stand a flag. It must have taken hours. The morning of the game was miserable and drizzly, but there was a bigger problem; a great section of the flags had been removed. Swindon fans? Kids? The plan had been scuppered. Or had it?

This is where the Ultras’ work is underestimated; rather than just giving in, they were back in the stadium repositioning the flags, removing the broken ones, making sure everything was right.

And just before 3pm, the effect was heart stopping, a sea of colour another crushing blow before a ball was kicked.

There were so many other displays – against Manchester City, for our 125th birthday, but in the background, politics was playing its part. All displays are going to test health and safety rules, if they don’t, then they’re probably not worth doing. The club started moving the goalposts, the Ultras felt like they were being taken for granted.

Perhaps they just ran out of energy and money, but it seems like The Ultras, the visual spirit of the club, became a pawn in ongoing arguments between the club and the stadium company. Like a divorcing couple using their kids to emotionally blackmail each other. Just after their 10th birthday, it was announced the Ultras would be retiring their flags at the end of the season, but another altercation with the stadium company finally killed their spirit and they closed.

If the Oxford United Ultras’ only contribution was to bring personality back to the club after it had been stripped bare by its owners, that would have been achievement enough. But they grew so much beyond that, they created defining moments in the modern history of the club.

And then some; we live in a world of corporate football, where atmospheres are paid for and organised by billionaire owners. People applaud fan movements, and visual spectacles, if there was a better, more authentic, more spectacular, more ambitious fan group in the country than the Oxford United Ultras, I’ve yet to see them.

Games of Note: FA Cup Third Round

2017 – 3-2 Rotherham

Rotherham were on their knees in the Championship, we were buoyant in League 1, but there was still a giant killing to be had. Despite the scoreline, we swept them aside with panache.

2016 – 3-2 Swansea City

Michael Appleton’s finest moment? A true coming-of-age win over Premier League Swansea City.

2003 – 0-2 Arsenal

It wasn’t really about the result, it was about having a great day out at one of England’s great stadiums. That and what came before – a 1-0 win over Swindon and Jefferson Louis’ naked backside live on TV.

1997 – 0-2 Watford

It was the worst of times. The beginning of the end of a great team. The original tie was postponed because of a frozen pitch minutes before kick-off. The team had already been announced, notably omitting Matt Elliot from the starting eleven. He’d never play for us again, moving to Leicester City. In the re-arranged tie – delayed by a floodlight failure – we went out with a whimper.

1996 – 3-3 Millwall

The most fun you can have in East London is drawing with Millwall in the FA Cup with a last minute goal direct from a corner.

Better than Google – Oxford United v Swansea media links

The last week was an absolute media-bomb for the club, I couldn’t keep up with the coverage, so I started bookmarking stuff. I thought you might be interested as well.

Michael Appleton uses Swansea template to plot Oxford United’s graduation to top flight
Swans dumped out of FA Cup after Kemar Roofe scores twice
Oxford’s Kemar Roofe capable of returning to the top

Hands off Kemar Roofe, warns Oxford manager Michael Appleton
Kemar Roofe the hero as Premier League Swans knocked out by minnows

Oxford United’s Kemar Roofe dumps Swansea City out of FA Cup with double
Oxford United v Swansea City – As it happened
FA Cup: talking points from the third round
England’s lost boy John Lundstram back to his best at ambitious Oxford
FA Cup Third Round in Pictures

Oxford United beat Swansea – and Oxford’s fans single-handedly get the 2016 FA Cup underway
5 things we learned as Kemar Roofe stars to send Swans crashing out

Newcastle transfer target Kemar Roofe lifts Oxford past Swans
FA Cup Team of the Week

Oxford United’s FA Cup hero Kemar Roofe: I enjoy making clothes, but it’s time I fashioned a path back to the top…
Jonjo Shelvey involved in heated row with a Swansea supporter as Newcastle ready bid for the unsettled midfielder
Kemar Roofe is on fire! Talented midfielder puts top flight strugglers to the sword with second half double
Kemar Roofe scores brace as Us seal third-round shock at Kassam Stadium

Appleton eyes Man Utd after leading big FA Cup upset

Kemar Roofe scored twice as League Two Oxford knocked Premier League strugglers Swansea out of the FA Cup

Minute by minute coverage

Swansea wrap – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

We’d won before the game kicked off. A week of positive coverage in the press served as a comprehensive re-branding. Gone was mention of former, brief and increasingly forgotten glories, or our collapse into the non-league, there were no tired analogies relating to Dons or dreaming spires. We’ve moved from admired to shambolic to widely ignored, but, each new article portrayed us as full of innovation and intelligence; an archetypal next generation football club. It felt weird, but good.

I get to the ground over an hour before kick-off to find a contented buzz. It isn’t the rabid anxiety of a derby or must-win promotion or relegation decider. We’re comfortable in our own skin, happily wrapped up against the winter chill. Sunday morning is a very Oxford time of the week; when you get the papers (Observer, naturally), drink coffee and buy fresh croissants. It feels like that, just re-imagined through a football match. Inside, the place looks like the football you see on TV; an event rather than a duty, as someone on Twitter accurately surmises.

The game itself is intended as a benchmarking exercise; how does our newly publicised ‘ethos’ measure up against those we aspire to be like?

But, they declare a hand of disinterest by making 10 changes; a cynical financially motivated Premier League move. What kind of benchmark are we actually going to face?

They play Sunderland on Wednesday and Premier League survival is worth upwards of £100m from next year. I get that logic, but do they really need the demoralising shadow of a giantkilling hanging over them during a relegation fight? Wednesday had better be worth it.

As the stands fill, dotted along the back of the East Stand are the Yellow Army, a shadowy guerrilla marketing movement dedicating absurd amounts of time and money into making Oxford United fun. Like the SAS busting the Iran Embassy siege; they appear from nowhere, execute their plan and dissolve back into the shadows. As the teams come out they raise a banner that reads ‘Rise like the spirit of 86’. To so many, the Milk Cup is a thing of fact, but to many more it is now a beautiful part of our mythology. I like that.

When the whistle blows we’re confronted with the reality of a cup tie that someone has to win. Like having a new pair of shoes but not wanting to get them dirty; we don’t want to compromise our shiny new principles. We all know the template for giant killings; backs-against-the-wall defending, early-doors reducers, sticking it up ‘em, big bloke up front, sticky pitches and dollops of luck. But, with all the positive coverage we’ve had, we could hardly start kicking lumps out of them. On the other hand, our passing game, good though it is, isn’t going to out-gun a Premier League team. Is it?

A game they didn’t want to win and we don’t think we should. They pass the ball nicely while lacking intent, we stick to our principles and create some chances, but only half ones at best… the crowd quietens. It’s all very friendly and nonthreatening; an exhibition game. Johnny Lundstram tries to create things, but his passing game isn’t quite firing. Is it nerves? Or just that he has less space to work with than usual? Ultimately, it’s all a bit deferential; to our principles and our opponents.

If there is a difference, it’s demonstrated through Jonjo Shelvey. Not a dynamic or sparkling player, but efficient with the ball in the way others aren’t. I can see why managers like him but fans don’t. Premier League teams are, above all, efficient. Shelvey, with the ball, always does something that moves the play on. But, he has no pace and needs players around him to be effective, and that’s missing.

The pattern, though, seems set on 23 minutes; among the pleasantness; a moment of genuine class. Montero ties George Baldock in knots cleverly running him into Alex MacDonald, he changes direction, picks up a one-two and slots the ball home. It is, to some degree, a relief. If this is the destiny of the game, where were not going to be humiliated just victims of their fitful moments of class, that’s OK.

But, there’s that nagging feeling that if something can ignite our game, then we might actually do some damage. It happened against West Brom in the League Cup last year when Danny Hylton bundled the ball in the net for our equaliser, it rattled them so much it gave us space and we began to outplay them. But, can we generate a similar spark here?

There are signs; Kemar Roofe’s been busy up front, Lundstram’s passes start reaching their targets, Chris Maguire’s industriousness is having an effect. If we apply a little extra bite, Swansea are timid enough to let us take over and dictate the game.

Our moment comes from a very League 2 scramble. A Maguire corner drops to Liam Sercombe whose shot deflects to Jake Wright; the last man standing from our Conference days; 240 appearances, 0 goals. He swings an unrefined boot and draws a decent block from their keeper; had it gone in I’d have been on the pitch. Instead, it falls to MacDonald – a League 2 pitbull. His tenacity is already unsettling the Swans. He’s an irritant; a chintzy vase your mum gave you in a house full of clean lines and minimalist decor. He bombs into the box; a clumsy challenge sends him sprawling; Sercombe’s penalty levels the tie and we head to the break all-square.

We’ve learnt a lesson from the first half; if we attack the game, things happen. Let’s face it, their manager has sent out two messages; he doesn’t care if they win or not and the players he’s selected aren’t his priority. If we can shake them, we can win this. Lundstram, Roofe and Maguire have been playing against players like this for years, so there’s no lack of class. All that’s missing is someone to take the initiative. The Premier League artifice is crumbling before our eyes.

We go onto the front foot, Shelvey drops deeper looking for the ball, meaning he’s less effective as an attacking threat, he looks more lumbering and that seems to reflect on those around him. We gain greater territory; Kemar Roofe epitomises the new found resolve with a bouncing bomb into the bottom corner: 2-1. It’s like Luke Skywalker comparing the destruction of the Death Star to shooting womp rats back home; Roofe is just doing what he does, context is irrelevant.

It gets better, MacDonald jimmys away at a Swansea corner sending Maguire free sparking a counter-attack of lightening pace. There’s acres of space, Roofe chips in for a third. Delirium.

There’s a picture on the front of the Times with Roofe following the ball into the net, on his shoulder is MacDonald, what the picture doesn’t show, of course, is that not much more than five seconds earlier they were both defending deep in our box. Now, this is football. 

Another moment of Premier League quality sees it come back to 3-2; Cork invents a new angle and plays in Gomes who has found a pocket of space on the right. The response for Swansea’s players and fans is oddly muted. Gomes’ reaction is to trot back to the centre circle as though he’s completed a training drill. What’s wrong with them? Are they paralysed by what to do? Do they stage a comeback – force a replay they scarcely want – or acquiesce to the mood set by their manager and just let the tie go?

Our legs turn to jelly for a few minutes and it looks like we might collapse. Matthew Syed talks about success being a balance of rigorously applied practice and the ability to create a feeling of invincibility. We’ve done the science bit, but our vision of success has a crack in it; is the real story here of gutsy no-hopers being gently overhauled by class and talent?

We need something else, an outlet; we won’t defend this lead for 25 minutes sitting on the edge of the box. Suddenly we have one, Callum O’Dowda appears to replace the tiring MacDonald. This is Oxford United in 2016; bringing on a £1m rated under-21 international as a substitute. If we give him the ball and licence to run with it, he’ll push Swansea back on his own.

But, we also need someone with a selfless work ethic; once the ball is at the Swansea end, we need someone to cause a nuisance and stop it coming straight back. Danny Hylton, almost forgotten in the last few weeks, comes on. Hylton’s nuts, of course, he’ll get in the way, chase everything, run half the length of the pitch, change direction and head to the corner flag. He just doesn’t care. Hoban too appears, adding more problems to Swansea’s demoralised back-line. When will this lowly League 2 team run out of players?

We see out the remaining minutes with little drama. Sweet Caroline booms around the stands. Oxford United reborn. The story is multi-layered, the relentless sense of duty of the fans, brave decisions in the board room, and the appliance of a footballing philosophy that’s at the very cutting edge. The narrative, however, is one which starts with a few hundred fans going to Wiener Neustadt in July and ends with a party for 10,000 in January. Perhaps though, just this once, this isn’t the end of the story, hopefully it’s just the end of the first chapter.

Coming Up – Swansea City

The drop

Kassam’s First Law: If we’ve played you at the Kassam in the league, you’re not a big team, so said one wag on Twitter.

I remember Swansea coming to the Kassam looking like they would be heading out of Football League, now they’re the biggest team we’ve faced since Aston Villa in the League Cup in 2002. I overheard someone say recently that they thought we could beat Swansea, but didn’t think we will. I thought that summed it up nicely.

What is going for us is that we have the best team we’ve ever had at the Kassam. That’s not saying much, but it’s a good start. Also, we handle the big Kassam occasion much better than we used to as the game against Swindon and Exeter show.

Swansea are struggling and their minds will surely be on their game against Sunderland on Wednesday, as well as their ongoing survival battle. I’m guessing they’ll play a weakened team; the stakes are too high in the league for them to be concentrating on FA Cup at the moment. It’s also an interesting decision for them not to have properly replaced Gary Monk. It feels like a ‘survival’ decision to me – they want someone to organise and not lose too many points rather than a new manager who is going to turn the place upside down (which may be what is needed). We showed at West Brom last year – who had Alan Irvine in charge at the time – how it’s possible to rattle a Premier League team that’s struggling, I’m hopeful we can do the same again.

But, are we just a bit too Premier League-light? Our passing style wouldn’t look out of place in the top flight, but obviously there’s more to it than that. Have we got the pace, strength, tactical guile and consistency to  impose our style on them? More importantly, do we have the defence, particularly in the middle, to cope with their attack?

I hope so, but I’m also hoping for a result either way. Neither team needs a replay.

Old game of the day

We were once subject to a micro-giant killing against Swansea in the Third Round 23 years ago. The video doesn’t show it, but I’m fairly certain that Chris Allen was the Oxford player who missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out. Time for revenge?