It’s 1982, I’m in my mum and dad’s kitchen looking for food. It’s Saturday, the day of the The Big Shop. The cupboard is full of crisps, cheese and Coke (and vegetables and fruit, but that’s not important). My dad despairs at the fact we eat all the food, but isn’t that what it’s there for? To be eaten?
Radio Oxford is parping away on the radio, the presenter is playing a steady stream of middle of the road pop staples. He has the ‘prayer mat’ out. I’m never sure if that’s a real thing or not, but it means Oxford are losing at Newport. A song ends, ‘It looks like the prayer mat has worked as we head to Somerset Park to talk to Nick Harris.’
‘1-1!’ barks a gravelly voice at the other end of a telephone line ‘Trevor Hebberd with the equaliser!’ ‘COME ON!’ I shout at the radio as Harris concludes his update. I look out the window to see my neighbour leaving her house, she’s looking back over her shoulder at me, smirking.
When I was at university in 1992, I had a radio that could only pick up a distant crackly reception when it was sitting in the corner of just one room in my house. Any movement and the reception would be lost and I would have to readjust its position with the precision of a landing a probe on Mars. Even when it doesn’t move, the waft of a turned page of my NME can somehow interfere with the reception.
Through the static and constant readjustments, I work out we’re 5-3 down against Portsmouth with barely a minute to play. I’m only picking up snippets during breaks in play of the main commentary from Anfield, Elland Road or wherever. I’m just waiting for confirmation of a grisly defeat.
‘News from the Manor…’ says a distant crackly voice. I sit up instinctively, the signal dissolves into a fuzz of interference. I re-position myself: left arm 32 degrees, right leg slightly elevated. By the time I’m back in position, the news has passed and I’m resigned to a defeat.
The following lunch time, after a morning of lectures, I finally get to see a newspaper, I riffle through the news and hone in on the classified results. Oxford United 5 Portsmouth 5, an epochal moment in the club’s history, our greatest recovery.
Fast forward to 2008, the mood is buoyant, Chris Wilder’s reignited a new faith in the club and the distant prospect of the Conference play-offs still lingers. I load up Twitter, the nascent ‘micro-blogging’ website, to join a small friendly community of fans following our game at champions-elect Burton Albion.
Someone shares a link to a stream, I click on it to be confronted by a dizzying array of adverts promoting gambling, porn and malware, it’s seizure inducing. In the middle is a small window with a game of football being played. We’re live at an expectant Pirelli Stadium, I share the link, we’re all in.
A script has been written that Burton would win and secure a triumphant promotion to the Conference with us as compliant bystanders. Oxford win a free-kick outside the Burton box, this is where we create the illusion of this being a competition, rather than a coronation. Enfant terrible Adam Chapman stands over the ball mischievously as the Burton defensive wall jostles into position. In his mind, the script is going in the shredder.
Chapman steps up, arcing the ball around the wall and into the left hand corner of the goal. The away end explodes, Twitter explodes, a shared euphoric experience; we couldn’t be there, but we’re totally there.
And so to 2022, our evolution of following games from a distance brings us to iFollow, a functional and flawed life saver. An icon of the pandemic. I log on to see the familiar fixed camera shot of a lower league stadium. It takes a moment for the feed to catch up and for the image to become clear. The spots on the screen are a miscellany of coaches, groundsmen and stewards milling about in anticipation of the game.
Once the game is underway, for twenty minutes the ball fizzes around, a white noise of half-completed passes, mis-controls and deflections. It’s like an orchestra tuning up; purposeful, but discordant, desperate for someone to bring proceedings to some kind of order.
Elliott Moore is like a praying mantis, stalking his six yard box, swatting flies and other threats from the Wigan attack. He extends a limb and steers the ball to Mark Sykes. Instinctively, Sykes tries a trademark flick to turn his marker. It’s a risk, inviting a turnover of possession. He trusts himself and darts past, bustling his defender who loses balance and falls to the floor. Sykes sucks in the oxygen of freedom.
He draws his next opponent and releases Cameron Brannagan. The timing is immaculate causing the Wigan defence to scramble. They’re getting in each others’ way, while we slice through them. Brannagan takes the ball in his stride, beats his first man, cuts across another and draws a third before releasing Sykes at the edge of the box. It’s a moment of interplay which recalling memories of Deering and Potter at Wembley.
It’s fluid and complex with no room for error; don’t think, feel. Sykes, slides the ball to his right for the ever-reliable Matt Taylor to clip the ball into the net.
I yelp a primordial involuntary noise which I have to explain to those sitting quietly watching a recording of the Bake Off Christmas special on the TV. ‘We’ve scored’, I explain inadequately, ‘But… it… was…’
I’ve got nothing; I can’t explain the moment, how Sykes may not have been at the club a day earlier or how we’d spent an anxious month wrestling to keep Brannagan, or that Matty Taylor is a local boy who had to leave town to seek his fortune and was now back. Or that football, even from a distance can be intricate and exquisite perfection in a way that words cannot adequately explain.