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?

That one’s for Chris Wilder

Everyone hates Swindon. It’s not just us. If you ask anyone to name a dank, soulless British town then people say Slough. Or Swindon. It is neither a quaint northern relic of our industrial past, a gleaming economic powerhouse, a seat of learning or innovation, or a monument to our establishment. It represents, if anything at all, the rigmarole of everyday life where nothing much happens.

Paolo DiCanio is very Italian. Italy is, in one sense, stylish, engaging and beautiful. But it is also morally and economically corrupted. In one sense we envy its ability to achieve the spectacular – Ferrari, Armani, Da Vinci – but we’re British and we like steadfastness so the erratic behaviour of Italy and Italians gets up our noses. Paolo Di Canio gets up our noses.

Di Canio and Swindon seem like such an unlikely match, but they are perfect for each other because they are so easy to dislike. It is, of course, unfair to tar every Swindonian and every Italian with the same brush, but it remains a fact that many people expressly don’t like the town or the man.

Our manager is dour and pragmatic; he talks about budgets and hard work. He is very British. People like Oxford; it stands for something that we, as a country, can be proud of; learning, innovation, saving lives, improving lives. Great things are achieved in Oxford. It is extraordinary, you ask someone to name a British town that represents great learning, people will say Cambridge. Or Oxford. We are the perfect counterpoint to Swindon.

I suspect that Di Canio and Swindon rather like their reputation, after all, if you can’t be loved, being hated is better than being ignored. The derby is a quintessential good versus bad story. It’s context; whether it be a cup final or Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has an endearing quality about it.

Last night’s derby was a builder; I’d set off early because of parking anxiety. But I parked easily, more easily than a league game. I was in the ground 30 minutes before kick-off. Swindon fans, who had presumably been escorted in, were loud, raucous and in plentiful number. We were nowhere to be seen. I thought I’d fallen into the trap of believing the hype. Nobody was really going to turn up to a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy 1st Round tie, Swindon or not.

Then suddenly, 15 minutes before kick-off the car park – already full of cars – filled with people. Coming from the direction of The Priory; it seemed the entire Oxford crowd were arriving together. They swarmed around the cars like a river. Pausing briefly to exchange insults with the Swindon fans in the ground. Then they poured into the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. Suddenly, bang on time, the noise was turned on and the place thundered into life.

The game was loud and energetic, but there wasn’t a cramp-inducing tightness in the muscles or the gnawing stomach grumbles. It wasn’t like the game last year. It was more like one of those early season League Cup games we used to land periodically against mid-ranking Premier League teams. A big game we wanted to win, but weren’t that fearful of losing.

As the minutes ticked by and penalties seemed to only logical way of getting us home at a reasonable hour, I’d pretty much settled on the idea that the draw was the right result. That way, regardless of the penalties, nobody could definitively make much of what the result meant in the great irresolvable debate of which club rules supreme.

I was enjoying the game, and the atmosphere, but drifted in and out of the specifics. In my head I was filing it away under ‘unremarkable, but fun’. The time ticked by towards the 90th minute and suddenly, from nowhere, James Constable was clear. He’d been OK, again, a decent target man, but not full of movement and threat. He could have taken it on, probably would have if his confidence had been with him. But he squared it, and there was Alfie Potter.

You couldn’t mistake the similarity to Potter’s goal at Wembley, just with Constable playing the Deering role. Wilder hooned down the touchline, exactly as he did at Wembley, stopping just short of giving himself wedgey and grass burns with an ill advised slide on the turf.

With all the talk of Wilder going to Coventry, winning the derby, in the last minute with a goal from two players who have been with him pretty much throughout, who he’s nurtured, protected, defended and battled for seems almost too perfect.

There may be more to come from him, this might be it, who knows? But perhaps this was a result for Chris Wilder. A testimonial to his achievements with Oxford. It means nothing in the great scheme of things; but it was a bloody fun load of nothing. 

7 step guide to winning a derby

There have been better performances and bigger results, but has there ever been a better story behind a game of football involving Oxford United?

Your dad will tell you stories of past games involving mythical beasts and feats of derring-do. You’ll listen in awe when you’re young, but as you get older, you’ll begin to question how close to the facts the story actually is.

Saturday’s game is the story you tell your children and grandchildren. And you won’t have to make up a word of it.

But how, playing the best team in the league, in the richest vein of form in their history, with a team stripped of most of our best players, did we actually win on Saturday? Here’s Oxblogger’s 7 step guide to our derby victory.

Fascism
Paolo is a fascist. Fact. A cheap shot?

No, fascism is an ideology promoting unity through hard work and intolerance of non-compliance. Di Canio’s leadership philosophy inevitably draws on his deep-seated principles. After our win at the County Ground he admitted an admirable need to learn from the experience. His public spat with Leon Clarke earlier in the season resulted from Clarke’s reluctance to put in the work Di Canio demanded. Work and continuous improvement are basic principles of fascism. You won’t get many fans resisting calls for unity and hard work from their manager; you don’t have to be a fascist to be intoxicated by that dogma if you find success.

However, extreme ideologies assume stability, they promote a single path to a single destination. They assume unquestionably, that the path and destination are pre-determined. Their intolerant response to uncertainty is to reinstate the ideology through force, that is plan B. Compliance can justifiably be achieved through violence, if you’re a fascist. When violence isn’t an option, and things change, there isn’t a plan B.

As we will see, things changed a lot during the build up to, and the course of, the derby.

Swindon’s form
A lot was made of Swindon’s 10-game winning streak; a club record. Logically, this put them into a strong position going into Saturday’s game. But they’d never been in that position before, no manager in their history had been in that position before. The longer any record breaking run goes on the more likely it is to end. Each game brings new pressures that have never been experienced, by anyone, before.

The opposition’s attitude changes, complacency creeps in, tiredness, mental fatigue. As the challenges get more complicated the central tenet of Di Canio’s ideology, hard work, is not the only solution. The last thing you need during a record run is a rabid derby atmosphere introducing more variables. At their peak when they were apparently at their strongest, Swindon were increasingly vulnerable.

Peter Leven’s injury
Peter Leven has become a focal point of a lot of what we do. He’s in a goal of the season competition, he trends on Twitter, he takes all our set pieces, he’s a creative spark. Other players look to him, the fans look to him.

The early announcement of his injury last week served to change expectations; we wouldn’t win the game playing the Leven way because he wouldn’t be there. Without Leven, nobody knew how we’d beat Swindon. Some believed we couldn’t win. Di Canio; whose strengths of motivation through application, requires a stable environment, didn’t know either. Paradoxically, Leven’s injury played into Chris Wilder’s hands.

Jake Wright’s injury
After the Leven announcement, Jake Wright’s injury flew under the radar. Wright’s leadership skills are without parallel at Oxford. You rarely see a player so in control of his team. However, he also likes to play football, some of his passing along the back line is hair raising.

Wright’s injury allowed Whing to slot into the back-four. That changed the dynamic considerably. Whing is a no-nonsense fighter, he and Duberry set a different tone that spread throughout the team. Anthony Tonkin, lackadaisical in the Conference, suddenly became a ferocious pitbull. The back-four weren’t going to play football, they were going to block and clear their lines. The Oxford that we’ve been watching all season, was not the Oxford that appeared on Saturday.

Swindon fans
They may claim otherwise, but this was a big game. For many of us, our only interaction with the police is getting frustrated when they get stuck in the Tesco self-scan aisle buying a mid-shift chocolate bar. The neutralised zone built around the away end and coach loads of Swindon fans being escorted by a phalanx of police horses fed a frenzied atmosphere. We know that elements of both sides stepped beyond the mark; but overall, it was a fantastic spectacle.

They’ve got the LDV Autowindscreen Simod Cup Final and the prospect of the title. You can argue until you’re blue in the face as to which is most important. But, they won’t have a bigger, or more rarefied league game all year. This wasn’t conclusive proof that we are best; it was just another chapter in a saga.

In the same way that Celtic need a strong Rangers to thrive, Swindon and Oxford benefit from each others’ presence. The derby has defined our season both on and off the pitch. It was only because it was Swindon that things turned out like they did. 

James Constable’s sending off
Constable’s profile within this fixture had grown some way beyond what he (or anyone) could influence on the pitch. Everyone interprets things beyond what they see. Constable’s challenge on Devera was not malicious, it was barely worthy of a yellow card. The referee interpreted the reaction of the Swindon fans, players and the fact it was Constable to conclude that this was an aggressive action from a player who’d been affected by the pressure that surrounded him. Had it been any other player on the pitch, they wouldn’t have been sent off.

Constable’s departure left Rendell up front on his own. All he had to do was hold the ball when it came to him, he did it magnificently. My man of the match. Di Canio had put so much emphasis on Constable, when he was no longer there, Swindon struggled to know who to worry about. We became a multi-headed beast for about five minutes. Johnson, Holmes and Asa Hall weren’t in Di Canio’s play book. Oxford, fierce local rivals playing in front of a massive partisan home crowd, were playing like an away team with players Di Canio had never seen before.

He didn’t react, he panicked. The situation was different to the one he’d planned. He substituted Cibocchi for Smith, and then Smith for Cox. They kept playing deep balls to the back post in the first half and passed and passed and passed to no great effect in the second. Had we gone at them, they may have picked us off. Had things gone through Leven and Constable, they’d have stifled that because it was too obvious. If we’d played the way we want to play, it wouldn’t have been as effective and the crowd would have got frustrated. As the situation changed, Chris Wilder was the one who reacted and the fans recognised the role they had to play. Wembley taught us that victory comes from patience.

Oxford United
Stripped of Wright and Leven plus Davis and Potter. Down to ten men through the loss of our talismanic striker after 10 minutes. With our match winning goalkeeper suffering cramp throughout the second half. Playing the league leaders on a 10 game winning streak in a local derby. The prospect of a draw, let alone a win, was distant to say the least.

They say that you can judge a team by its strength on the substitute’s bench – of the 10 players on the pitch; seven wouldn’t have been in the team had we played at Christmas. 3 wouldn’t have been in the team on Friday. You don’t throw those players together in that environment against that side and accidentally beat them.

This was the victory of a deep, cohesive and motivated squad, moulded by Wilder and funded by Thomas, who has created an off-the-pitch set up dedicated to winning games (yes, I mean you East Stand ball boys).

Di Canio’s Swindon is a good side, the best technical side we’ve faced. They weren’t as effective or efficient as Cheltenham, but they’re still likely champions. However, they are built on a simplistic utilitarian ideology that was exposed on Saturday lunch time because the world is not simple and things change. Yes, we won the derby, yes, we won the double. But more than both of those we demonstrated emphatically what the new Oxford United philosophy is about.

30 years of the Swindon derby – part 5

The first ever FA Cup tie between the sides was shown live on TV. The BBC, constrained by their contract to show games from the early rounds, seemed shocked to discover a game that had purpose and meaning.

The ground was full and noisey, into the cauldron of hate entered an insane warrior with a maniacal look on his face, the tension that had hung over the fixture exploded, spitting its venom across the stadium. Weeks of malice, weeks of fans exchanging abuse, and now this. He sprinted unabated at the Swindon fans shaking his fists? A man hiding behind an allegiance to a football club, kissing the badge on his shirt, hollering his manic ramblings through his beak.
Ronny the rocking Robin was Swindon’s mascot; a six foot three inch robin sprinting around, sliding on his knees, banging on advertising hoardings and leading the away fans’ singing. Quite frankly, he pissed all over Ollie the Ox.
You’ve got to give them their victories when they deserve them, I suppose.
Three years earlier I’d stood on the terraces at the Manor with chest pains as we narrowly avoided relegation. A year later we shipped 100 goals, were relegated by April and I was shrouded with a simple gloom. I’d been feeding my habit with an evermore dirty, diluted drug. Each time I used it I hoped for one of those old buzzes, each time I was left sullied and unfulfilled.
Ten minutes before  kick-off the air was filled with Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, it was ear splitting. Then they put on some Euro pop and the stadium began to jump, the whole place began to sing, and wave, and dance. The stand shuddered under my feet. That used to happen at the Manor, but that was because it was about to fall down, this was because there was a wall of noise enveloping the whole stadium.
A lump came to my throat.
I’d watched Oxford since I was three, seen them at Wembley, seen them beat Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea but in the last four years I’d watched the club die under the weight of crippling debt and piss poor karma. I stood on the terraces seeing the sands of the club’s life slip through my fingers. Then, suddenly, it woke up again, and I had no idea how much it meant to me.
We hadn’t even kicked off.
We played like an away side, absorbing pressure – although we were top of Division 4 at the time, Swindon were flying high in Division 3. At half time Mark Lawrenson urged Oxford to show some ambition. The game was there for the taking.
We didn’t. Ian Atkins’ teams didn’t do that. We played for territory in the hope that the platform of a set piece might offer an opportunity. Just after the hour mark Scott McNiven lobbed a throw into the box which was flicked on by Jefferson Louis. Steve Basham ghosted across the six yard line, but failed to make contact, the inadvertent feint deceived the Swindon keeper and the ball bounced gently into the bottom left hand corner.
We’d secured another famous win. There was delirium. The 3rd Round draw plucked out an away tie at Arsenal. The team showed their decorum with Louis jumping butt naked through the Oxford dressing room. Characteristically, Atkins responded to the draw with something like ‘I feel like a 5-4-1 coming on’. A joke for the football tactics nerds, which says it all really.
I thought this was the beginning of the big revival. Firoz Kassam had actually got it right. He’d taken a lot of flack getting there, but I began to think that perhaps he was deserving of his success.
But, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, it proved a mere moment of sobriety before the grip of our disease tightened once again. The derby was once again packed away, this time for nearly a decade, the longest of hiatus of them all. We headed off to the wilderness, they were stuck in lower-league meaningless.
In 2011 the rivalry roared back, stronger than ever. The parallels with 1996 are evident, both sides entered the season with aspirations of promotion and we had another toy to squabble over. For Beauchamp read James Constable, who Swindon relentlessly, and unsuccessfully, pursued. We won at the County Ground – but I’ve done that to death already.
Which takes us up to Saturday. Over the last 17 years – since the tumult of the 1995/6 promotion season – Oxford have edged the head to head results, whereas Swindon have enjoyed  more overall success, which is not saying much. Which is more important depends on your viewpoint, of course. For me, a derby is all about the head to head, but I would say that.
The derby is in rude health; both sides are on an upward curve and we’ve had a jolly good squabble over James Constable, which will surely be a focal point of Saturday’s fixture. We’re losing key players hand over fist and Paolo DiCanio offers an angle to the disinterested media. It augers well for an absolute ripsnorter.

30 years of the Swindon derby – part 4

After the turbulence surrounding Joey Beauchamp’s movement between the two clubs and the 1995/6 promotion race, the derby settled into an era of stability.

There was new spice injected into the fixture, helped by Beauchamp’s ever presence in the Oxford team over that period, but it wasn’t a shadow of what had gone before.

Between 1996 and 2000 each of the next 7 meetings ended in home wins. It was like the sports/entertainment hybrids of 6 day track cycling or WWE wrestling where a feisty and exciting affair always concluded with a win for the local favourite.

Although the outcomes were becoming predictable, the sequence cemented both sides’ perception of Beauchamp and therefore each other. Most Oxford fans watched him on the winning side; most Swindon fans watched him on the losing side. Was Beauchamp a winner or a loser? From the evidence in front of them, the views of both sets of fans were right.

Neither side were good enough to go up nor bad enough to go down, but behind the scenes, Oxford were beginning to fall apart. Like an alcoholic who starts drinking in the pub and then on his own, and then, almost without realising, he’s suddenly downing a skin full of whiskey for breakfast.

The sequence of home wins was broken in 2001 in what was a wretched season. We’d lost at the County Ground in a game which was a complete shambles – illustrated most famously by Guy Whittingham’s one and only goal scoring appearance for Oxford. Five months later Swindon came to the Manor and took all 3 points back to Wiltshire. Not that we cared too much. By this point we were lying in a pool of our own vomit with piss stains on our trousers. Winning derbies, playing any kind of football, was a meaningless aside.

A fresh start – and a move to the Kassam Stadium – saw little improvement. The anticipated surging return never came. Firoz Kassam scrabbled to arrest the slide and happened upon Ian Atkins, who was able to administer cold dose of reality that seemed to straighten us up.

The move had instant impact and by 2002 we were challenging for promotion again. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective. It was the perfect time to renew our acquaintance with those from Down-the-really-tedious-and-impossible-to-overtake-A-road-to-hell.

Next… the end.