Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.

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 fixture: Swindon 2012 remembered

It was March 2012 and tensions had been building for months; animosity writ large. Oxford United and Swindon Town never were friends; never would be, but now the seething cauldron was boiling over.

The recipe was incendiary; Oxford and Swindon hadn’t met in the league at Oxford for just short of 11 years. Even then, in 2001, we were a ghost of what we’d been, a walking dead, preoccupied by our failure. That predictable defeat, in a season of demoralising defeats, meant almost nothing. You can’t kill a man twice. There’d been a brief reunion in the FA Cup in 2002 and a joyous 1-0 win thanks to a glancing header from Jefferson Louis, but meeting as equals, in the league, offered its own special pleasures; a sense of parity being restored.

In the intervening years we’d headed off on an odyssey into the non-league. Derbies against Swindon weren’t on our radar, promotion back to the Football League was our only goal. Then we did it and we enjoyed our first season back. This, our second, had the added bonus – they had just been relegated and finally, we’d meet again as equals.

But this only scratches the surface of the narrative; we’d won the first game at the County Ground in the previous August, the first win on their patch in 39 years and the return fixture offered the opportunity of a double. In the intervening months, they’d recovered from that setback to comfortably lead the division, but there was a score to settle. Even more, they were being managed by Paolo Di Canio, the vaudevillian comedy villain, a fascist, a foreigner. On the other bench was the gritty English working class grafter, Chris Wilder, a non-league worker bee made good.

Di Canio had the panache and media savvy to stoke the derby; Swindon Town was his super-ego, it was like they’d become possessed by his mania. He claimed that James Constable, the Oxford goalscoring saviour whose double had given us our famous win in September, was a wholesome boy from the West Country. De Canio claimed he was a charlatan, he wore yellow for money, but his heart was forever in Swindon. The fable Di Canio spun was that Constable’s dad had taken him to the County Ground as a boy.

Di Canio went further; in the January transfer window he tried to lure Constable to his team who were all set for League 1. The club reluctantly accepted a £200,000 bid, which angered fans. As a business deal, it was too good an offer to ignore. It would have been a great career move for Constable, but a seismic blow to us. To lose him would be one thing, to Swindon, Di Canio’s Swindon, would have been too much to bear. Despite a fraught few weeks, Constable resisted and stayed, cementing his legend.

In the intervening months Di Canio’s Swindon were dominant. Up to the game they’d won 10 in a row and losing just one in 21. Our own form was OK, 1 defeat in 13, but they were winning, we were drawing. We were steady and difficult to beat, if we could play to our best, perhaps we’d hold them. Four points from the two games would have felt like a victory.

Then it fell apart. Captain, Jake Wright was injured a couple of weeks beforehand, breaking up a solid partnership with Michael Duberry in the middle of defence. His deputy, Harry Worley, was injured in the run up to the game forcing holding midfielder Andy Whing to drop back into defence. Then full-back Liam Davis was ruled out and replaced by the less dynamic Anthony Tonkin. Whing’s absence in the middle turned into a crisis when mercurial playmaker Peter Leven got injured.

The team suddenly looked unfamiliar and disjointed with players being moved to fill gaps and others being drafted in from the margins. Where there had been guarded optimism about winning a double, there was now a fear that we would be humiliated.

The Swindon derby is the game the media love to ignore. Despite the theatre of the rivalry and the endless desire to show more games at all levels of football, somehow Swindon v Oxford is never selected for broadcast. Even YouTube doesn’t have any official footage of the game. It is a derby that happens only for those who attend, and it is stronger because of it.

Tickets evaporated the moment they went on sale. The kick-off was brought forward to lunchtime; an attempt by the authorities to minimise drinking time and any potential for trouble. The sun shone, the slight chill of the morning slowly dissipated. Overhead a helicopter whirred loudly monitoring the crowd, behind the North Stand a steel wall was erected and buses of Swindon fans were driven in with police outriders into their compound. It was threatening and thrilling.

There’s a nervous tension before big games, some deal with it by singing loudly and talking boisterously, others internalise their stress, their legs ache, they wrestle with their flight instincts. You want it to be over, but you want to stay.

The stands started filling early; parking anxiety does that, the players warmed up trying not to notice the hum of expectation.

From kick off, Swindon were flowing and dominant, but we were keeping it tight. Or were we? Difficult to know, it just felt like it; like we were containing DiCanio’s seething ball of energy. Every time an attack was snuffed out, or a pass over-hit, there were ironic, but relieved cheers.

After 10 minutes the ball dropped to James Constable just inside the Swindon half in front of their fans who were goading him for his misplaced loyalty. He span and seemed to break away. The defender behind him, who was touch tight, fell to the floor. The referee blew his whistle and there was a melee. It wasn’t clear what the referee was blowing for – a foul by Constable? Holding by the defender? Concern about a head injury?

It felt like the game needed this, a brief relief of tension, some pushing and shoving, and then back to it.

The referee weaved his way through a crowd of players to stand in front of Constable. He pulled out a card. Yellow? 10 minutes into a derby? Perhaps to calm things down. No. Red. Oxford’s already decimated team had been struck down – the loss of a player was enough, the loss of your talisman, the epicentre of the whole drama for months, the one person we were, in essence, fighting over. It was crushing.

The shock was palpable; Constable disappeared down the tunnel having extracted himself from a crowd of Swindon players and their mix of mock sympathy and apoplexy at the supposed violence Constable had dished out.

Had Constable elbowed him? Deliberately? It didn’t look like it, his arm was out, but their fans didn’t seem to react, but none of it was conclusive, everything was a blur.

Where now? Scott Rendell would forage alone up front, he was big and strong, but he had no pace to stretch them. We were embattled and would have no option but to dig in and defend.

We needed to settle to the task and defend until we were on our knees. But that was later, this is now.

Minutes later, we won a free-kick at almost the exact spot Constable had committed his foul. Lee Holmes, a tricky winger on loan from Southampton, swung in a high looping cross that dropped on the edge of the six yard box, as the Swindon back line watched the flight of the ball, Asa Hall ghosted in connecting on the half volley past the flailing limbs of the Swindon keeper who had been caught between catching the cross and blocking Hall. 1-0.

The crowd erupted, from a deep despair to this in minutes.

Big games, big goals, there’s a moment immediately after you take the lead in a big game when the play continues before you’re ready. While we contemplated that Hall’s goal had given us a buffer, something to defend, a chance for a draw perhaps, we suddenly become aware that Holmes had the ball down the left flank. If he was clever, he might get a corner, he jinks to his left and gives himself an inch to roll the ball across the six yard box, it’s a proper daisy cutter with no pace; somehow it evades everyone and trundles into the path of Ollie Johnson who pokes home for two. TWO.

TWO!

And now we really had something to play for. 20 minutes gone, down to 10 men in an already injury ravaged team against our local rivals, and top of the league, Swindon, who have just taken 30 points from 30.

We were playing for immortality. On the sidelines Paolo DiCanio is on his haunches, head in hands, all that hubris, his magic failing him at a moment he most needed it. Johnson has a boyish grin on his face as he scrambles to his feet, it’s all caught on camera, each photo becoming iconic.

The clock slows to a glacial pace; Swindon push and probe, but we hold resolute, if they do break through, Ryan Clarke is there to save us. They win a corner, a ballboy, Aidan Hawtin picks the ball up and holds it to run the clock down. Their striker runs over and pushes him, Hawtin holds firm. The crowd go bananas, Clarke breaks it up; it’s ugly but everyone is playing their part.

Half-time comes, the break should have an effect; it could break their flow or our resolve. The players return and we get back to work. There’s none of the drama of the opening minutes, thankfully, but every minute takes hours to pass.

As we turn for home, there’s a dawning realisation that we could win this, or we could concede and then capitulate to a humiliating loss. Why isn’t this fun? Scott Rendell is on his knees. He’s had to do the work of two men, but put in a shift of 10. Ryan Clarke struggles with his kicking; you know you’re in a game when your keeper gets cramp. Michael Duberry and Andy Whing, with a combined age of 65, are exhaustingly disciplined.

There are more scares, they just become less frequent. Minutes click by. At some point we start to believe that we will hold for a draw, despite being in the lead, and comfortably so, then we start believing we might just win.

The whistle goes, relief, a giant euphoric sigh. Everything about the game said we’d lose, but we’d won. It wasn’t three points, it was so much more.

Walking from the ground, the helicopters buzzing above, the noise of antagonism and celebration, there’s something inside me still expecting them to score. It’s barely past lunch time and most of the day’s games haven’t even started, I feel like going to bed. Hours later I can still hear the noise of the crowd ringing in my ears, and when that eventually dissipates, all that’s left is the feeling. Years later, it’s still with me now, it’s why we go to football.  


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.

Swindon wrap – Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

Dawn breaks and with it the fizz of social media; the relentless feed of an impending apocalypse is, for once, swamped; the drums of doom are silenced, it’s derby day; hear the clarion call. 
The networks have chattered for days, the rules of engagement established – the times of trains, the pubs to drink in and, above all, the etiquette surrounding your allocated seat. We will drink and ride at dawn, but the mayhem and carnage will be meticulously organised.
Things have changed in recent years; once there was exchange, an angry banter between foes, their shadow, our cup final. On and on, round and round, an endlessly reductive debate over supremacy. Grinding the will of reason down to its stumps. But now Swindonians have retreated, like the siege of Leningrad, they are starving behind their defences, fearful of attack, hoping that they might bluff their way to survival. Things are not well in Wiltshire.
Oxford head west with a record to protect; a sixteen year winning streak – six in a row, don’t count the Checkatrade Trophy, count the JPT, ignore they are the same. History is written by the victors, let the history say it’s six in a row, heading for seven.
There is a bubbling confidence, a generation of Oxford fans who have never seen us lose any derby game, let alone one at the County Ground. They don’t remember taking Wayne Hatswell and Steve Anthrobus up the A420 as our champions in the fight. But green shirts, Domino internet and David Kemp are no more than vague jokes about a past that probably never existed. There are no photos of Guy Whittingham, it never happened. You weren’t there man, you weren’t there.
Winning at the dilapidated County Ground is so alien I can no longer face going there. My experience is universally miserable, the inhumane herding into the Stratton Bank, the vitriol and misery and, on one occasion, the unchecked racism, then once the defeat is confirmed, being released into the park to fend for yourself. You want a ruck mate? No thanks, a Mars bar and the heaters in my car will do just fine.
It’s more than that, is there another club in the country against who we are defending a 16-year record? A six match winning streak? I doubt it, not with our recent history. These winning streaks don’t happen to us against anyone let alone our biggest rivals. This is unusual, perhaps unique. I don’t like unusual, because unusual eventually reverts to something vaguely usual. And usual in this context means losing. 
We seem to spend most of the opening half picking ourselves up from heavy challenges. Swindon have done their homework and know we don’t like it when it’s physical. It looks like they’re going to bully us out of three points. 
To confirm my fears they score, usual is being restored, this extraordinary streak is being broken. It is, to some extent, a relief; the record, the dominance is a heavy burden and as the half progresses, that burden is heavier. The higher we climb, the more cataclysmic the fall. What’s worse, falling or waiting to fall?
I check Twitter a few times, switch on Yellow Player to listen to its intermittent, spluttering coverage. I actually lose contact for a few minutes. I do something else for a bit and then get in the car to run an errand, I switch the radio on and something has happened. I can’t quite tell what, Nick Harris’ tone no longer betrays a good or bad outcome, like he’s just seen too much football and nothing surprises him anymore. The noise of the crowd is so immense it could easily be another home goal. But, no, the fragments that are filtering through are being pieced together; it’s Sercombe, bionic Liam Sercombe with the equaliser. It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t matter.
I’m sitting in the car listening to the immediate aftermath. I’m thinking a point is good, like in ’95 (my highpoint) when Mike Ford cleared off the line and shook the net with rage and we went ballistic in response. We’ll maintain a streak, not quite seven in a row, but still good. Then, as ambiguous as the first goal is, there’s an emphatic sonic boom from the radio, there’s genuine shock in Jerome Sale’s voice at what he’s just seen. Rob Hall has blown the place to pieces with a 25 yard drive. We lead, but we may well have irreparably broken our opponents too.
Swindon’s seething aggression which served them well in the first half bubbles over, Lawrence Vigouroux writes himself into folklore and breaks some kind of record by being the first goalkeeper to be sent off in both league fixtures. Probably ever. That would be a good pub quiz question if anyone can be bothered to check it out. In all honesty, it looks as soft as his red card at the Kassam, but we laugh anyway. 
So, the unusual is extended or perhaps the new usual is established? Seven consecutive defeats is enough to break anyone’s spirit, Swindon were ragged in September, and wretched now. They were as poor as any team we faced last year. They may well be relegated and they might never recover. It happens. Given our comparative trajectories it could be years until we play them again. This might be the war to end all wars. It must be exhausting being a Swindon fan, living their club’s extraordinary capacity to lurch from one extreme to another – from surging through the divisions to scrambling to pay the bills. Can they bounce back again? Afterwards it’s revealed their director of football Tim Sherwood, who’s reputation is built on a vacuum of nothingness, was not at the game and didn’t pick the team.  The coach cannot say why. Wreckage piled upon wreckage. The smouldering carcass of a club which once dominated us. They look crushed.

Swindon wrap – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0


The derby football can’t be arsed with. Oxford and Swindon have now played six times since 2011, all to near full houses, all good games, all with meaning, incident, narrative and purpose. Yet TV; so desperate to saturate schedules with live football, barely gives it a nod of attention. Even the police couldn’t be bothered to move the fixture this year presumably for fear of disrupting early morning showings of Sausage Party at Vue or the Kassam’s car boot sale on Sunday.
Apparently, this week perma-tanned transfer junky and Sky Sport ‘babe’ worrier Jim White said the game wasn’t a derby. White is so obsessively on-message at Sky, when BT launched its sports channels he fronted a spoiling telethon that visited every ground in the country to eulogise Sky’s imperious ability to undertake acts of grandiose buffoonery. White treated it like he was avenging the public flaying of Rupert Murdoch’s carcass. It’s fair to say that if White doesn’t think this is a derby, then he’s pretty much quoting Sky’s editorial policy.
Admittedly, there was something more underwhelming about the build-up this year even though it was still only the second home league fixture between the clubs in 15 years. The joy of the classic double-header in 2011/12 was perhaps deadened slightly by two no-less thrilling but distinctly less glamorous JPT games. Like having unforgettably acrobatic mind-blowing sex followed by two sessions of perfunctory rutting. The mess was the same, in the moment it was just as fun, but the memories were less vivid.
There was something particularly perfect about the 2011/12 derbies, a tinder box of contempt which had grown over a decade exploding into life. The evil Italian fascist against the doughty Englishman. A racist chicken arrabiata against a Yorkshire pudding. And, against all odds, good won out.
But, with Brexit, Donald Trump and the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the world is now a more confusing place. We have a professorial coach whose mean scowl and tattooed tree-trunk arms make him look like he’s been released from a state penitentiary. I mean, this is what intelligent, functioning adults look like nowadays but it still challenges the stereotypes we draw comfort from.
Swindon are historically schizophrenic, ludicrous highs followed by preposterous lows, but the 2016 vintage seems to be almost neither. I had to look up who their manager was such is the depth they’ve slipped to since the glamour and attention gained by DiCanio’s capture. It appears Luke Williams’ greatest triumph in football was developing Yaser Kasim and Raphael Rossi Branco. Me neither, but if you ever need a name for a character in a game of Grand Theft Auto, then any combination of Yaser, Kasim, Raphael, Rossi and Branco will work.
Unlike recent encounters, the day broke with rain sleeting down. A planned display, painstakingly laid out by dedicated Oxford ultras had been vandalised by people using the act as a proxy for having a girlfriend or being happy. But, despite the setbacks, there was a calmness; the rain would come; the display would be fixed, the game would be played.
And the display was fixed; last year’s giant flag was a truly breathtaking spectacle, this was at least on a par. I’ve said several times that I want Oxford players to be able to look back on their time at the club as the best of their career. As the players came out, I saw Wes Thomas, a journeyman of the lower leagues looking up at the sea of flags. Is it possible that he’s seen anything like it? Is there a club the size of Oxford, or some considerable size larger, that can put on such a fan-driven display in the UK? The Swindon fans threw a few streamers and looked defeated by comparison.
For the first time this season we started with purpose, Lundstram snapped away in a midfield Swindon tried to flood. Rothwell looked more focussed and Sercombe is getting the freedom he needs to do what he does. This three-tiered midfield worked like a dream. By comparison the Swindon midfield wilted almost immediately.
Ultimately though, this was Chris Maguire’s show; he has the arrogance and ability to make this sort of game his own. There were times when it looked like the whole game had been scripted just to showcase his ability; enraging the Swindon fans, taunting their players with his passing and then scoring the goals that made the difference.
Yes, the penalty looked soft and there were some questionable decisions which went our way. MacDonald probably should have been sent off for his unnecessary challenge on Vigouroux. But, what got lost in the noise is that this was our best performance of the season and the first time things really clicked into place.  

Maguire’s second goal was no fluke; the pitch was wet and slippery and a well-timed challenge was always going to offer a chance. OK, Vigouroux with a bit of composure might have chosen to drag the ball back allowing Maguire to slide past harmlessly rather than attempting to launch it under pressure, but if Maguire’s connection had been a goal-saving block at the other end of the pitch, it would have been viewed a moment of true class.  Just because this was a goal scored, rather than a goal saved, doesn’t make it any less good.
And it was typical of Maguire, a demonstration of his class mixed with his ability to humiliate and demoralise the opposition. As we go higher up the league, this kind of savvy will be increasingly important.
Swindon by comparison look dead behind the eyes, not the vibrant seething beast of the Di Canio years, just a stagnating pool of ooze. They weren’t as bad as last year, but not far off. In the past, wins have felt like we were defeating a looming evil, but now it feels like defeating the common cold – once lethal, now moribund and benign.
Maybe they don’t feel the sense of occasion like we do, but if your opponents have a little extra purpose, you’ve got to find something to match it whatever the game. This isn’t us overstating the importance of the game, it’s just us enjoying the occasions that get presented to us in a way they clearly don’t. When they give up on games like this, you wonder how far their standards might drop.

By comparison, this was another calm execution of a well-planned process, dismantling their midfield and disrupting any game plan they might have had. 2012 may have been a high-energy rush of adrenalin, this was a demonstration of calm domination. For those of us who have watched these games for decades it feels odd to be in that position, but it’s no less satisfying because of it.  

Swindon Town wrap – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The news that James Roberts’ brother Ben had been killed in a road accident last weekend inevitably drew the comment that this was something that really puts football into perspective. It’s as if it’s not possible to calibrate the devastation and heartbreak of something like that against an arbitrary benchmark like football without it actually happening.

The club have chosen to hold a minute’s silence for the game against Wimbledon on Saturday rather before Tuesday’s derby. Maybe they couldn’t be sure that Swindon fans, with their emotional distance from the tragedy, would be able to put it into perspective after all?

It was difficult to contextualise the game in a number of ways. It was Swindon, our arch rivals, and we wanted to win, but it’s the JPT, nowhere near as important as the League. Winning would be great, but was defeat that bad? How far do you take the ‘hatred’ on this occasion? Enough for the game to be meaningful, but not enough for it to become a burden. It’s only the JPT and we had work, college and school in the morning.

Missing the point

Not everyone could rationalise it, of course. When someone smashes up a pub, hurting and scaring people in the name of their football club, is there a point afterwards when they quietly realise how utterly ridiculous they are?

Four arrests were made before the game; three were men over 40. There would be children and partners in their lives. Do they look at those people and think about what they’ve done? Do they think ‘why am I such a cretin?’ or is it ‘I’m such a hero for defending the honour of my football club’? How distorted do you have to be to think that? Presumably there is an motivation behind this, but when has anyone ever been impressed by a wheezing middle aged man breaking beer glasses and swearing indiscriminately? Do they ever think of the futility of it all?

Then there’s the daft charade of social media trolling where each side accuses the other of taking it too seriously. A game of one-downsmanship, if you like. The whole thing is a pantomime, but at the same time it has to mean something in order to be worth anything. Where’s the balance?

The big fans’ showdown came as the teams came out; a truly spectacular display in the East Stand which genuinely stunned in terms of scale and ambition. Our Swindon counterparts, who tried to drum up support for their display via social media and threatened to engulf the city in, um, stickers, unfurled some red and white ribbons which seemed to get tangled in the empty seats. They disappeared before the two teams had completed their handshakes while Oxford held firm.

Chasing shadows
A derby is won in the head; play to form and the result goes to form. But, if the occasion gets the better of you then you’re on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps the display helped secure the victory; confident, dominant, calm; both off and on the field.

We already knew they had problems, but I don’t think anyone anticipated just how big those problems were. They started OK, like a decent League 2 side; like Portsmouth, or us. Passing was crisp, movement was good, but we matched them and they didn’t look a threat. Then Turnbull was sent off and they fell apart alarmingly.

There was bickering all over the pitch – a casual disinterest in the fact their defences were being breached time and time again. Vigouroux’s performance in goal was the most bizarre. The bloke is clearly slightly nuts, but his display seemed to reflect externally what was going on inside his team-mates’ heads.

Of course, a sending off is a blow, but plenty of other teams have adapted to playing us with ten men and done well; as we did with them when James Constable was sent off in 2012. Maybe it was a combination of that, and their current form, and the display, and their injuries and their record against us specifically. They were in chaos, an absolute shambles; at no point did they regain any composure.

Think of Di Canio’s Swindon, or McMahon’s; that was like defeating a caged animal. But last night they whimpered and we passed it around them. Perhaps we were just brilliant and we’re not used being just brilliant, but the lack of fight, plan or purpose after the sending off was startling. It’s not bravado to say that this was one of the worst teams, of any flavour, we’ve ever seen at the Kassam.

We, on the other hand, swept them aside. Passing was expansive, defensively we were robust. We looked a threat down both flanks. Jordan Graham looks a winger in the Beauchamp or Allen mould. Everything was slick and positive; I can’t remember us outclassing a team like that before and for it to be League 1 club, and Them, makes it more special.

Making sense

I don’t like Swindon, it would be odd to have a rival that you did. Ultimately, it’s the rivalry I like; it’s probably the best derby in the lower leagues. I love the feeling of tension and the relief of victory, that it feels meaningful even when, ultimately, it probably isn’t.

We spend our lives putting things into context. Pretty much every job involves a process of rationalising and contextualising; making chaos and irrationality logical and systematic. Everything is a process of distilling things which are complex and difficult into a series of processes and procedures.

To be able to indulge in something as absurd as a football rivalry, and the joy and despair that comes with that is a luxury. It makes no sense outside the bubble of the rivalry and nor should it. Football doesn’t exist to put the death of a young man into context; no thinking person needs football to remind them of that. Football exists because senseless, pointless and frankly depressing things happen and it gives us a glimmer of purpose and hope to prevent us all from going completely mad.