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.

Coming up: Swindon Town

The drop

Most games need context, some can exist in a vacuum; Oxford v Swindon in the JPT is very much the latter. This is not about progression in the tournament, it’s not even about settling any scores, it’s just an opportunity to dook it out with an old friend. A bar brawl rather than an officially sanctioned prize-fight. That’s figuratively, not literally, if you’re a hoolie moron.
There are those who talk about this being a distraction. If it is, then you would have to question our mental capacity to get promoted in the first place. What’s more, it’s here, it’s happening, we’ve got to deal with it.

I’ve been watching Oxford for over 30 years, I’ve seen one Milk Cup and four promotions; that’s a paltry return. Nine derby victories improves that return on investment considerably. We don’t play each other very often; we might as well enjoy it.

Any other business

Let’s be honest, we’re not getting much work done over the next couple of days are we? Whatever it is that you do, and let’s face it, most of us do nothing of any particular value to mankind, can wait until tomorrow. Or, if we win, it can wait until the day after that. So, why not use up the spare time you’ve got to read the Oxblogger series: 30 years of the Swindon Derby.

Old game of the day

So many to choose from; Wilder’s trilogy of wins? the 3-0 Beauchamp-inspired triumph of 1996? Too easy. How about this one? The good old days were rapidly coming to an end in 1999, we’d bought Dean Windass with money we didn’t have, the Manor was falling apart and a saviour by the name of Firoz Kassam was on the horizon.

But, this was a whole heap of fun.

From the blog

This got 3,500 views and was picked up by the Guardian:

“It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other.”

Read on

A tribute to Paolo DiCanio

While we seem to be steering into choppy and unchartered waters with poor finances, questionable PR decisions and variable form. Down the A420 things are similarly, and as always, more spectacularly in flux. Demanding to be centre of attention, once again, is Paolo Di Canio. If he does leave, perhaps he should be remembered fondly in Oxford as well as in Swindon.

It’s not been a great week; Ian Lenegan admitted that discussions hadn’t started on new contracts, we’re set to have a £450,000 defecit this year, Bridle are to end their sponsorship, the whole Luke McCormick thing, and then, fittingly, the defeat to Southend after dominating.

Down the A420 things haven’t been great either; the club have sold their prize asset, they’re set to have a new owner with less than sparkling credentials. If there is a tonne of money in that deal, then why sell your best player? And now, Paolo Di Canio is imploding.

It feels like we’re at the end of something. A golden period for the Oxford Swindon rivalry. At our end, it’s not necessarily Ian Lenagan or Chris Wilder’s fault. The economy continues to bumble along and the government’s austerity measures are digging in. Companies that have been steered through the recession are beginning to feel the pain. The middle classes are feeling the bite. It’s not quite that they’re  starving to death, there’s still enough money to buy quinoa, but for the casual football fan the decision whether to go to games; based on the weather, the need to get that rubbish down to the tip and the price; is becoming a little less compelling by the week. 

The period started at Wembley in 2010. If we’re talking about moments, perhaps it was when Isaiah Rankin skewed his shot wide at 2-1 when he should have tied the game up and broken our spirit. For them, it’s that little bobble in front of Charlie Austin as he bore down on goal in Swindon’s play-off final against Millwall. At that point, we were on a collision course.

The immovable object finally hit the irresistible force a year later, and everything that followed pivoted around two people. For us, it was James Constable, and I’ve done plenty on him and will, no doubt, do plenty more in the future. For them, it was Paolo. And, I have to confess something, I think he’s great.

Di Canio lifted the rivalry up from the norm; he’s the lightening rod for more intense media attention. And, he’s a fascist; how brilliant is that? A real, proper, ideologically evil nut job. He lit the bonfire by bidding for James Constable on two occasions. Constable resisted like Luke Skywalker repelling Darth Vader. It was a titanic struggle. When we beat them, first at the County Ground, and then at the Kassam with 10 men we defeated evil. It was perfect. The rivalry burned long and bright; they were more successful in the main, but we won the head to heads. The argument as to who was better was gloriously unresolvable.

But Di Canio is more than just a pantomime villain. Not only do I think he’s proved himself as a manager, but I like the way he runs his club. I saw both of our home wins, and although our performances were heroic, they were an excellent team playing attractive football. You can easily, and reasonably, argue that the success was fuelled by money they didn’t have, but Di Canio; although fortunate to have been given the funds, used them well. The ability to turn raw funding into a successful squad is not a just job is a skill that is often overlooked.

There’s more; he was hyperbolic – Constable being a Swindon fan; having an on-pitch punch-up with Leon Clarke, substituting his goalkeeper after 21 minutes, declaring that there should be a plaque put up in tribute to their win over Wigan, and claiming our rivalry was one of the most intense he knew. When he started he was a guest at the Swindon half marathon, taking a wrong turn during his ceremonial run, he ran the whole thing. More recently, he was helping clear their pitch when it snowed; buying all those who helped pizza as thanks. Fans love people with commitment, and here was someone whose commitment was almost maniacal.

Di Canio’s uncompromising ideology was always going to be his downfall. When he arrived, most predicted that it was collapse in high farce, although I don’t think I was alone in thinking that it would probably happen in a matter of weeks, not years. The lower leagues are characterised by boom and bust, and Di Canio is similarly volatile. Eventually two would combust. That moment seems to have come.

We move on into a new era. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, just different. Of the two clubs, I suspect our future is fractionally more secure. We’ve demonstrated classic English conservatism throughout. For all Ian Lenagan’s failings; he steers a very steady course for the club, too steady for some. I doubt, however, that our future is going to see a meteoric rise up the divisions. They are faced with clawing back the excesses of the last few years with an owner who has been ploughing his millions into, um, Banbury United; currently lying 12th in the Evo Stik Southern Premier Division.

The way that Di Canio is carving out his exit, as the passionate leader being ousted by the very people he saved, he will no doubt always be remembered for putting together a great team and going on a great adventure. As an Oxford fan, I’d like to thank him too.

Administration: a tragedy or grand theft?

Swindon Town go into administration less than six months after being promoted from League 2. Laughing at them is the stock response to this kind of thing. But do we treat administration as seriously as we should?

There was a degree of trepidation in the run up to Lance Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. We edged towards the Friday showdown with a degree of fear. This was a man who took drugs to cheat on a grand scale, not a one-off pitch at glory, this was the best of all time, winning all the time, and cheating to do it. It was outrageous. Then, with evidence stacked up against him, he continued to deny everything, scratching and clawing at those who doubted his superhuman endeavour. What kind of animal was he? We were about to find out. Perhaps he would chew Oprah’s throat out.

The days passed and stories began to surface that he had confessed. The thing was, there was nothing new in confessing, we know all about that. What was more terrifying was that we might find out why he did it. This brought its own anxieties; was the reason so harrowing that our hearts would melt? Was Armstrong going to go from cancer victim to hero to villain to victim again? How were we going to reconcile all that? There’s always been the cancer thing; will we find that we’ve unjustly vilified a cancer survivor, what humanity is in that?

Sights were set firmly on Friday; edging towards it night by night. There he was, sitting there with Oprah, with a secret to tell. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, Nicole Cooke; a superstar of the women’s race; multiple Tour de France winner, World Champion and Olympic gold medallist announced her retirement at just 29. Well, not so much announced it; blasted us all to kingdom come with it. A statement running to nearly 5,000 words; crafted, structured, with subheadings.

She obliterated any sympathy we might have for Armstrong by focussing on his grand theft. As the Armstrong legend grew, you see, his triumphs siphoned money away from others; from women, from those who couldn’t perform because they wouldn’t or couldn’t cheat. It is not a morale judgement, it is fraud, theft, she said. She is very happy with her career; but she’s not rich. Her titanic performances over the cols of France and streets of Beijing will not secure her for the rest of her life. Not like Lance Armstrong, or Tyler Hamilton or any of the US Postal team complicit in this fraud who are now making millions from books, films and TV interviews with Oprah. Her statement is, frankly, breathtaking.

Last week we also found out that Swindon Town were considering administration as a way of securing their future. They are £15 million in debt with no obvious way of reducing those arrears.

Administration is often greeted in football terms; like a form of relegation. Depending on our allegiance we either laugh or sympathise with its victims. The impact is to sell star players and get a 10 point penalty. Boo hoo. As the now redundant employees of Jessops will tell you, administration is serious stuff. It’s the last step before complete liquidation.

Football clubs, even those in administration, seem able to avoid the real life consequences of bankruptcy. Since 1984 only Maidstone have liquidated in England whilst still a league club, and even they had barely even started in the football league. Chester, Darlington and Aldershot have all suffered hugely from financial collapse, but they were out of the league when they went under. Rangers, of course, in Scotland, are the biggest of all the failures; but it turns out that even that might have been avoided. If you’re out of the league it’s a different matter, but for football clubs in the league administration is a relatively minor blip.

So administration in football is treated like a semi-final cup defeat; so cruel, so sad, but ultimately of no real consequence. 

I wouldn’t normally reduce myself to commenting on Swindon Town’s financial plight. My allegiances are too loaded and I’m not so stupid to realise that I sound bitter. But Cooke had a point. Swindon have cheated, by buying success they couldn’t afford, they’ve stolen from others, including us. Not every administration case is the same; some clubs become beholden to ne’er do wells who strip the club of their assets, leaving them broke and unsuccessful. Like Wrexham. But we shouldn’t have sympathy for those who have knowingly spent money on short term success.

No doubt Swindon will be saved, they will almost certainly stay in League 1 next year, and perhaps they’ll have a Lance Armstrong day; a giant killing or Wembley appearance where they can shed tears of their struggle and redemption. Di Canio, if he stays, will spout forth about spirit and god’s will. Administration will have no consequence; it’ll just be part of their resurrection narrative.

I want Swindon to survive; I do. Derby games between us are fantastic. This isn’t about Swindon Town, it’s about the actions of football clubs all over the country. What they’ve done is hugely overspent, they got promoted off the back of it, which impacted us. The boasted and bullied their way to the title on money that didn’t exist. That’s a year of our own investment down the drain because one club are playing a suicidal game. Why should we fail because they choose to cheat?