30 years of the Swindon derby – part 1

My first memory of Swindon has been curdled with the passing of time. It’s 1982 and we’ve just romped home 5-0. As is the 80s tradition, there is a pitch invasion and some fighting. This might be some specific derby-trouble, but, to be honest, if a game in the early 80s didn’t end in some kind of ruckus, then someone wasn’t trying hard enough.

One man, who in my mind is dressed in a vest, a pair of bell bottom jeans and has a red and white scarf tied around his wrist, is being chased by a hoard of Oxford fans. It is like a scene from the Children’s Film Foundation. Sensing the futility of a chase he can’t escape from, he turns and runs at them. Shocked by the audacity of the man, the crowd scatter; the momentary confusion, plus a few flailing punches, allows him to escape into the Cuckoo Lane End.

Admittedly, parts of this scene may have been drawn from a Roy of the Rovers story where Melchester’s resident football hooligan becomes a prime suspect in the attempted assassination of Roy Race. The fundamental mechanics of the story are sound.

However, the most significant thing about this story is that I remember only the incident and the result. The opposition – Swindon Town – were largely an irrelevance. They could have been Gillingham, Colchester or Northampton – one of those generic football league teams we periodically meet.

To me, derbies were between teams from the same town – Liverpool/Everton, Manchester’s City and United, Sheffield United and Wednesday. Not Oxford Swindon; I didn’t know where Swindon was and a 5-0 win, though a lot of fun, does not instill a feeling of intense rivalry, which requires at least some degree of injustice or negative bias to really burn. Our supremacy on the night was proof that whatever feud the two clubs might have had, the result proved beyond doubt, and permanently, who ruled supreme. When you’re at school, that is how the world works.

I was vaguely aware of a rivalry with Reading because about 3 months earlier 9000 people – 4000 more than the season’s average and 2000 more than the Swindon game – suddenly turned up at The Manor to watch a turgid 1-0 Oxford win. I remember queuing down the London Road and the kick-off being delayed to accomodate the big crowd. This was what big-time derby football was really like and it didn’t involve anyone wearing red.

On that point alone, it was not unusual in the early 80s for Oxford have a red away kit. Nobody thought anything of it. Today, even a splash of red would result in apoplexy.

Aside from the return fixture with Swindon the following May and a meaningless Associate Members’ Cup game in 1984, we would be promoted twice and have a trip to Wembley before we met them again. We didn’t have local rivals during The Glory Years, they were all swamp bothering in the lower leagues. Our focus was on the battles to stay with the country’s elite; Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal; they were our marquee league games. Any Swindon rivalry was an antiquity. If we had a derby, it was against Reading. We faced The Royals 9 times in various competitions over the mid-80s fallow period of the A420 derby.

The bias towards Reading during this time was probably fueled by the proposed merger for Oxford and Reading to become the Thames Valley Royals. Robert Maxwell got perilously close to achieving his goal, and although both sets of fans were unified by the same goal of defeating the intiative, the rivalry was stoked up a notch simply by the fans trying to prove just how different they both were.

From 1988, for the next five years, having Oxford and Swindon steadied in the 2nd Division and the rivalry was renewed. But, we exchanged blows to no great effect; we’d do OK at home, they’d do OK at home. We’d reached a period of stability where we’d agreed to disagree, we didn’t like each other particularly, but it was difficult to know exactly what we were arguing over; the A420 itself? Kingston Bagpuize?

Perhaps I was too young to know otherwise but the rivalry was little more than a grumbling dislike. Unlike the Manchester and Sheffield derbies, where rival fans worked with each other, comparatively few Oxford and Swindon fans would meet each other beyond the games themselves. At least, there weren’t any Swindon fans at my school. There was no wider forum to constantly exchange insults and taunts and so the rivalry would cool in between games. 

In addition, the second division afforded us the opportunity to play larger teams than Swindon. Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace were all regular visitors to The Manor around that time. The Swindon fixture had to compete with that and the occasional visit by a Division 1/Premier League club in the FA and League cups. Although always among the best of the season, it was rare that the Swindon fixture would draw the year’s biggest crowd.

By the early 90s we were holding steady while Swindon began to find traction under Glenn Hoddle. They went off to have their own glory year and the derby fell into another of its periodic hiatuses.

In 1993/4, Swindon made the Premier League, at their second attempt, just as we finally lost grip of our 2nd division status some 10 years after we’d left the 3rd division. This was to become a significant turning point in the history of the fixture…

Next… Promotion and Joseph Daniel Beauchamp.

Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

Removed from the collective consciousness that is the 3pm Saturday kick-off and ignored by TV, it was fitting that the derby win was dumped into a football vacuum, meaningful only to those who truly understood it.

Ours is a derby that repels those not in the know; other derbies give the outsider reference points to help their understanding of the rivalry. At least you can empathise with derbies coming out of Sheffield, Manchester, Milan and Glasgow because we all know what it is to dislike our neighbours.

No such thing for Oxford/Swindon, this is a fiercely parochial affair. The clubs don’t share the same county, let alone the same town, and the likes of Wycombe, Reading, and the Bristol clubs are dotted around to confuse the picture geographically. Its name – presumably chosen by the Derby Naming Committee – is practically in code. Ask most people what the A420 is and they’ll shrug blankly – it’s a road, right? Radio 5 thought it was the M4 Derby.

In theory, there is a class divide but it’s hardly something that permeates the rivalry. Both sides consider each other to be ‘knuckle dragging, inbred scum’ as opposed to upper/lower class or Catholic/Protestant scum.

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.

The lack of meaningful games between the two clubs has contributed to its increased intensity. Previously there was little more than a nagging, depressing familiarity about defeats at the County Ground. Look at footage from 15 years ago and you can see empty seats in all parts of the ground. People simply couldn’t muster the energy to drive down the A420 for another panning – it wasn’t so much like being stabbed in the heart, more like grumbling irritable bowel syndrome.

Only in 1996 when Skinner and Baddiel started banging on how long it had been since England’s last triumph, did people start to actively quantify ‘hurt’. Nowadays most people know how many weeks of hurt it’s been since you scored from a left-sided set piece. 10 years ago if you asked someone how long it had been since we’d won at Swindon and the answer would typically be ‘ooh, a loooong time’. Somewhere along the line, it was given a label, a ticking clock – 36 years, 37 years, 38 years – it was hardwired into our psyche. Not even that permeated into the stat-hungry mainstream media. Sky was more interested in Paolo Di Canio’s sending off than the breaking of a hoodoo.

The A420 Derby, the 38 year-old voodoo, the bubble of the County Ground, the world looking at anything but what was going on in Swindon. A local derby for local people. The coming together of all these factors took us to Sunday and That Game.

At the brink of triumph, I still I fear that as the team and manager head towards immortality that we find out, in fact, that they are anything but. But each test, no matter how daunting, is confronted and smashed to pieces.

Constable, the soul of a club. The target of a mad fascist Italian manager. Is he on the brink of leaving? A Swindon fan? Off form and unhappy? If any or all of these are true, he remains the constant we can rely on. Football fiction is strewn with heroes rising, phoenix like, when a challenge is put before them. With everyone looking on him and his every move, there he is with the two goals that matter. Read any Roy of the Rovers story, and you’ll see James Constable’s Oxford career. In a cynical world, he’s a proper boyhood hero.

This is the football many of us fell in love with. Not through a TV lens, but live and without the voyeurs of armchair fans making comment and analysis about things they know nothing about. Those who saw it weren’t the privileged few with connections to large corporate sponsors. They were people who go to games every week. Football as a visceral, not intellectualised or media friendly experience.

Those outside the bubble caught only snatches of what was going on. I was one, I gave up on the County Ground years ago when all you got was cold, wet, bullied by the police and threatened with violence and then stuck behind a tractor all the way back down the A420. The football was secondary, the derby, as a sporting event, was virtually non-existent. Football needs mass media to survive, but there is something special about it being hidden from everyone but those who cared enough to be there. The scarcity of coverage, the stories from those who were there, this is how legends are created.

For us this was part of a Grand Slam – a Wembley win and a Swindon away win. What would complete it? A league title, perhaps? These require different effort, resources, skills – but in terms of the impact they have on the club and fans, this is the triple crown that could open the debate as to whether Chris Wilder is the best pound-for-pound manager we’ve ever had. Two down, one to go.

Under Wilder and Kelvin Thomas everything is in place. We have a club with the cohesion and a force of personality that could go onto achieve many things. Wembley: done, Swindon away was the next step towards achieving unprecedented legend.

I thought this sort of thing disappeared with the naivety of youth. I was wrong. The only down side from Sunday is that, in terms of this fixture, if we win every derby game for the next 38 years, it will not get any better than this.