History of the Wycombe derby part 2

In 1996 we returned to the Championship and left behind the small-time derby against Wycombe. It would be a brief restbite. Just over three years later, once again relegated and this time in terminal decline, we met again.

High Wycombe is topographically odd town. It sits deep in a valley; its growth came from chair makers who whittled the surrounding woodlands to make furniture. Now, people who live in High Wycombe live on slopes. Your neighbours house is often five feet higher or lower than yours. On either side of the valley are well to-do towns like Marlow, Beaconsfield, Gerrards Cross and Henley. It leaves what a friend of mine describes as ‘Valley People’.

You can often find a town’s true character by watching its town centre during a week day. This is when the what might be described as ‘normal’ people are doing normal things, like working. What’s left are the people who make a particular town different. In Oxford, for example, the place is full of students and bohemia. Oxfordshire market towns are a sea of grey hair. In High Wycombe, there is a noticeable number of people with limps and pirated Formula 1 merchandise. These are Valley People. Initially they were physically stuck in the valley, as the rich escaped into the surrounding villages; now they’re economically stuck as the house prices prevent them from moving beyond the town’s boundaries.  The character has changed in recent years because of the Eden shopping centre. This has drawn in Ugg Boot wearing privately-schooled girls and their skinny-jeans wearing boyfriends from the middle class surrounds, but they stay safely located in the shopping centre and rarely venture any further.

Generally speaking, Wycombe Wanderers are a friendly, well run club, whereas Oxford have been a basket case in recent years. When the teams met after a three year hiatus in 1999, we were in full free fall mode. Firoz Kassam was in charge and in what, again, was a microcosm of our wider situation, we played three times in 5 months, each time with a different manager. Oddly, however, we came out of those games unbeaten.

The first was under Malcolm Shotton, the dying days of what had promised to be a glorious return, a nondescript 0-0 draw at the Manor was significant only because it was our first point at home in the fixture. Under Mickey Lewis we won on penalties in the LDV Vans Trophy with the spot kick being scored by giant Swedish error-magnet; goalkeeper Pal ‘porn star’ Lundin. Lundin wrote himself into minor folklore by doing an aeroplane celebration around a sparsely populated stadium; it was like watching a vulcan bomber finding somewhere to land. With Denis Smith reinstalled we then went to Adams Park and snatched a 1-0 win with a Joey Beauchamp goal. It was as depressing as an away win could ever be. The goal aside the game was terrible; it was cold and grey and the three points were clearly a blip in what was otherwise a terminal and terrible decline.

The final capitulation happened the following year. It was the most terrible of seasons, and the only one in which Oxford, Swindon, Wycombe and Reading would be in the same division. In the six derbies that season we lost all of them. The first game against Wycombe was at Adams Park on a Friday night in September. To add to the indignity; the game was shown on Sky.

I was working in London and arrived late, the interminable walk more interminable than ever. We were already a goal down at that point. At half-time Richard Knight; the season’s player of the year despite conceding over 100 league goals, was replaced by Hubert Busby Jnr. The Canadian’s absurd name a sign of the the nonsense of the era. He didn’t have a proper ‘keeper’s shirt, but instead wore a training top. Busby’s momentary heroism was that he saved a penalty, which had to be retaken. He conceded the retake and we eventually lost meekly 3-1.

By the time we met at The Manor we were managed by David Kemp and had become so insular we were like a troubled teenager sitting in our bedroom listening to The Cure and contemplating suicide with a bottle of Tixylix, just to make a point. We lost 2-1, they celebrated, we didn’t care. Somehow for us, their happiness was just a shallow facade; they weren’t a real football club like us; one that was suffering. It was hideous.

At the end of that season we finally dropped into the bottom division, while Wycombe would continue to flirt with the division above. And we moved from The Manor and into our new dawn of glory at the Kassam. But that’s where we stuck, just waiting for something good to happen to us. Even if it was only that Wycombe might one day drop to a similar level.

History of the Wycombe derby part 1

It’s been 18 years since the first Oxford Wycombe game in the football league with the next instalment due on Saturday, what is the story of the fixture?

The thing about the Oxford v Wycombe derby is that nobody can agree if it’s a derby in the first place. Oxford to Wycombe is 31 miles down the M40. Oxford to Swindon is 33 miles. Also, we’ve played Wycombe 16 times since 1994, twice more than we’ve played Swindon. But I doubt anyone would call Wycombe more of a derby than Swindon.

What Swindon has over the Wycombe fixture is history. The Swindon rivalry dates back to before we were born. So, is the problem the lack of myth? Other derbies span generations; stories get passed down and embellished. These add significance to every fixture. However, speaking as someone who has missed just one league game between the clubs, myths struggle to establish themselves when you know the facts, especially when there’s always permanent reference via film of every game?

The first time the clubs met (aside from a few non-league games in the 1950s) was in 1994. Wycombe had been promoted a year before. Like many promoted non-league clubs in those days, they were well run but considered plucky amateurs. Oxford never considered them a threat. Not least because we were mainly still mincing around the Championship.

1994 changed that; we’d been relegated (although in our heads we were still a Championship club), they had been promoted and were full of wide eyed wonderment. In our heads the script was straight forward, they would have a nice day out at a big club, and then we would brush them aside like the amateur no-marks they were.

Wycombe fans packed the Cuckoo Lane end, bless their hearts, look at their excited faces. There was a capacity crowd, the largest the fixture has attracted to date. It felt like a cup tie, but we knew the outcome; we’d let them have their special day out, then we’d smash them on the park and we’ll all go home happy.

And then they scored. We were in such a stupor, having completely underestimated Wanderers’ ability, that we simply didn’t get going. In the second half they scored again with a well worked goal. It was a considerable jolt, we’d lost three times in the league prior to that defeat and were pretty set on bouncing back to the Championship with ease. We took 2 points in the next eight games, winning just seven more games all season including the return, our first visit to Adams Park in the April.

Adams Park is a strange place; it’s situated at the end of a seemingly interminably long road that runs through a trading estate. At the point you feel like you’ve gone the wrong way the road ends with a set of iron gates and in front of you are rolling hills and a neat little ground. We returned still full of expectation, but were undone by the early dismissal of Matt Elliot when the Wycombe attack exploited his one weakness, his pace. A ball over the top and Elliot was left floundering. He pulled the striker to the floor, we screamed with the indignation of a crowd that knew the referee had made the right decision. They scored shortly afterwards, perhaps even from the resultant penalty. I don’t remember.

The season’s capitulation; a feature of too many seasons to follow, didn’t dent our ambition to return to the Championship at the second attempt a year later. The first game, at the Manor, was in late October. We’d won just four league games, the hangover from the previous season seemed to be lingering. That season, and promotion, would be remembered for the late post-Christmas charge, but the Wycombe game held much significance in that success. They humiliated us 4-1 and again we just didn’t get going; but, it would be our last home defeat of the season. Something in that result jolted the team into action; and the home form created a platform from which that remarkable late season run could develop.

Within that run – 1 defeat in the final 16 games – brought perhaps the most iconic moment of the fixture. Up until that point, the game had become analogous of our time in the lower league; we’d anticipated success, even expected it, but were continually sucker punched into defeat by teams we might have thought inferior.

We returned to Adams Park with a degree of trepidation. David Rush opened the scoring at the home end in the first half, in the second, in front of a maniacal Oxford support we added two more; one from Stuart Massey and a piledriver from substitute Paul Moody. This was a classic win of that surge, we’d peppered them continuously, and just when they couldn’t take anymore, would introduce the galloping beast that was Moody to terrorise them some more. He scored 6 goals from the bench, and when he wasn’t doing that he was simply coming on to demoralise defeated opponents. The third goal agaisnt Wycombe triggered the classic picture that lived long in the memory; Stuart Massey hanging off the cross bar and Paul Moody’s arab spring.

Five more games and promotion was won; we’d returned to the Championship and the Wycombe game was put on hold for more than three years.

Next… Part 2

Away win. A long time coming, but well worth it.

Saturday’s win over Wycombe was the first time I’d seen us win away for 12 years. In fact, the last time I saw us win away, was the last time we won away to Wycombe. It was, from what I remember, the most dismal win ever, like the final twitch of a dying man.

I don’t do away as much as I used to. I’ve seen us at Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Highbury in the league, I’ve seen us at Lincoln City, Burton Albion and Leyton Orient. I’ve seen us in York on a Tuesday night, Eastbourne Borough on a Saturday morning and Carlisle on a Saturday afternoon, though not in the same week. I reckon I’ve seen us at about 30 grounds, which I think is enough to be respectable, but not enough to be a complete mental.

Going through the list, I can remember pretty every away trip; sitting at Crystal Palace as a socially inadequate 20-something with an high flying American executive who I’d been working with on an exhibition. He said he’d wanted to see some genuine English soccer and I mentioned I was going to see us at Palace. He was treated to a pretty entertaining 2-2 draw. The other time I was at Selhurst Park, I was standing in a corner stand whilst being blasted by unseasonable horizontal hailstones. There was the time we played QPR on plastic pitch, they equalised in the last minute when the ball bounced like a golf ball on concrete. There was the time at Loftus Road when we had Simon Marsh and Paul Powell as bona fide Under-21 England players. I thought that under Malcolm Shotton the glory days were back.

I remember the games at York and Carlisle simply because I couldn’t quite believe that anyone other than me would be there. I would have gone to Birmingham City but arrived late and locked my keys in the car. I terms of ex-league clubs, I got stuck on route to Boston once and was on the outskirts of Kidderminster when I found out the game had been postponed. They don’t count, I know.

In recent years I’ve not been able to go away much. I have other commitments and the quality of football has hardly justified any reprioritisation. I suspect as my children get older and more into football, we’ll head off to some godawful holes around the country in search of away days. I’ll enjoy that. But, at the moment, four hours in the car to freeze their fingers off doesn’t appeal so much.

Wycombe brought back memories of what makes away games so special. There’s an odd mix of familiarity and mystery. The familiarity comes from the fact you’re with other Oxford fans, some of whom you might recognise from home games. The mystery comes from the fact nobody really knows quite what they’re supposed to do; where do you get in? Where do you get a drink? Most people will have been to Adams Park before, but where at home everyone has their own routine; where they park, when the get into the ground, where they sit; in an away game nothing has a pattern.

There’s the unique mix of people; North, South and East Standers sit together. There are the generic football casuals; baseball caps and Stone Island jackets. There are dads and lads, active greys taking in a game during a weekend away (although perhaps not at Wycombe, admittedly) and there are elderly diehards who despite seeming unable to walk, manage to nestle amongst the hoolies, if they were drinking tea from a china cup they wouldn’t look out of place. There are those who haven’t missed a game home or away for years and have no longer got any real grasp of the world outside a football ground.

The disruption of routine means that the stand is a hive of activity; people arrive late, and just as things start to settle down, others start heading for the toilets. At home, you can time your arrival at the ground, pre-game drink and pee break so that it doesn’t disrupt your enjoyment of the game. Away, you could be half an hour late, or two hours early. You could be drinking for hours or heading straight from your car to your seat. At some point, and not usually at half-time, you need a wee. The stand buzzes constantly.

Best of all, however, is the moaning. The bloke next to me criticised everything about Wycombe from the floodlights to the lack of sponsorship (for which he was glad because it meant they’d go bust). When you’re away fan, you’re cornered. You’re penned into one part of the ground; everything is put on a war footing; police and stewards expect trouble. The level of tension is completely disproportionate to the threat of trouble. But, it gives us something else to moan about.

The facilities are usually inadequate. But, let’s face it, facilities aren’t a big deciding factor in whether you travel or not. Deciding factors are distance and performance. So why should the home side invest in sweet smelling toilets? Also, Wycombe’s away facilities rarely need to accommodate 1900 fans, as a result we were left queuing like cattle for the toilet. More moaning.

Amidst the activity and the moaning is the game. OK, they were terrible. I wish no bad of Wycombe, but everything about them feels like they’ve lost all sense of direction. Their crowd were apathetic, and I’m sure that Gareth Ainsworth is a lovely bloke, but a novice manager trying to dig his team out of a hole while squeezing the last drops of his boyhood dream does nothing for Wycombe. They need an Ian Atikins to piss everyone off and dig in.

But enough about them, we were brilliant. Potter had one of those games which makes you wonder why he isn’t playing at a higher level, Constable and Craddock are looking a more potent force with every game. Whing is the universal steadying force in the team and across the club. We’re reassured by his presence. The only let down was Chapman who was a little lackadaisical at times. However, even he managed to write himself into Oxford United folk history by revealing he’d played with a burnt nipple.

Yellows 2 Wycombe Wanderers 2

If someone asks you why you hate Swindon, your answer probably includes things like – they’re scum, they shag sheep, or that they search in bins for something to eat, finding dead cats which they think are a treat. But this isn’t why you hate Swindon; this just describes who they are. Let’s face it; you probably have friends who are similar.

A really good derby – and, to be honest, Swindon/Oxford isn’t one of those – are underpinned by religious, economic or class conflicts that transcend the football pitch. When it was announced that domestic violence goes up during an Old Firm game, who didn’t punch the air and shout, “THAT’S WHAT MAKES FOOTBALL BRILLIANT”? A derby is a metaphor for those divides, which levels the inequalities for 90 minutes to decide who is fundamentally right and who is wrong.

The greater the injustice, the greater the derby. I suppose there’s a mild class divide between Oxford’s educational toffs and Swindon’s more blue collar economic strictures. Incidentally, back in [Oxblogger’s rail history editor is on holiday, so enter your own year in here – anyway, it’s a long time ago] when the government were developing its railways strategy, Swindon and Abingdon were both considered to be developed as a key rail hub. Swindon got the nod igniting an economic boom in the town. Oxford v Abingdon could have been our cut throat derby – we wouldn’t have been very happy seeing Joey Beauchamp doing this for Abingdon.

Fundamentally, the injustice and inequality between Oxford and Swindon manifests on the pitch itself. As much as we’ve got our glory years and had our moments, it’s the scummers who have always just about had the upper hand. To anyone who with less than six fingers on their right hand, this is clearly unjust. It’s principally a football rather than cultural rivalry – more Tottenham/Chelsea than Tottenham/Arsenal.

I’m sure there are some who are jealous that Oxford is a world famous seat of learning and Wycombe is just famous for seats, but there is a distinct lack of inequality and injustice in our common history. Both towns are affluent, middle class and moderate. Aside from a frustrated feeling that they’ve had the better of the last 10 years, there is very little to get angry about.

This manifested itself on Saturday, nice day, big crowd, a good atmosphere and a really good game. Yes, we threw it away, but there was a sense of satisfaction that we’d been thoroughly entertained. Perhaps it’s the adrenalin rush of a rollercoaster game, but there is a visceral thrill in seeing 1500 fans going bananas. It would have been good for Tom Craddock to do a Port Vale, but in the end I can’t say I’d have felt massively different walking away with 3 points rather than 1.

I quite like the idea that Oxford/Wycombe becomes the anti-derby. A fixture in which local rivals get together like old friends and celebrate their differences. It would certainly differentiate it from the seething hotbeds of Macclesfield v Stockport or Crewe v Port Vale. It would need a major event – possibly a spiteful play-off final to ever ignite this to the level of a traditional hate-fuelled derby.

Wycombe Wanderers 0 Yellows 0

There was some dispute as to whether today’s 0-0 draw with Wycombe was a derby or not. With my, perhaps too literal head on; I think it is. After all Oxford to Wycombe is 30 miles compared with traditional rivals Swindon (also 30 miles) and Reading (42).

Apparently there’s a Football Rivals Index, I’ve read the report from 2008 and we’re not mentioned once. In fact, Macclesfield v Stockport makes the grade above us. Suspicion about its validity is raised immediately due to the cover featuring West Brom and Wolves mascots arm in arm drinking champagne and not trying to cut each others’ throats out.

The index reassuringly uses a ‘complex formula’ based on a series of arbitrary criteria to measure the derby-ness of any derby. Interesting that although the report says that the rivalries must go deeper than the game itself the index doesn’t measure sectarian or class tension.

The first criteria – the feelings of the supporters – would suggest that the Oxford/Wycombe fixture does not have much derby-ness. Oxford looks towards Wiltshire and Berkshire, Wycombe fans’ heads are turned by Colchester, of all people.

However, the record between the clubs is considered another factor. Although we’ve clearly met many more times in the past, the truth is we haven’t played Swindon or Reading for a decade in the league and have only met them occasionally in the cup during that time. Wycombe, we’ve met 6 times in the same period.

Our record against Wycombe is pretty balanced. But so is our record against Reading. Against Swindon, however, we trail by some way. The inferiority complex is significant. We have, in the main, failed against Swindon. By pinning our frilly knickers to a yellow mast we’ve been proven to be wrong over and over again. It makes us more desperate to prove that our loyalties are rightly placed. The desperation is what breeds the rivalry.

The imbalance breeds a sense of injustice or, indeed, power. This is what gives a derby its greater purpose. Whether today’s game added to that required folklore is doubtful. But it was a highly satisfactory outcome. In the context of this season, it bodes well that we have now travelled to two well tipped teams, in pressurised circumstances, and came away with a point and clean sheet. Bring on you ‘ammers.

Wycombe Wanderers preview

For the first time ever I’m going to miss an Oxford v Wycombe professional league fixture. It’s the only Oxford fixture I can truly talk about with any authority.12 games and fifteen years, plus the 2006 cup game – I’ve seen it all; Matt Elliot’s sending off, Stuart Massey hanging off the cross bar, and a goalie named Hubert Busby.

In ’94 our rivals were Reading and Swindon. Wycombe were well run and non-threatening. Other derbies were blood-letting affairs, our Wycombe game plan was the equivalent of putting our hand on their forehead and letting them swing punches wildly. They were upstarts and pipsqueaks.

In truth by running their club properly, they produced a very effective football team. Adams Park is a neat little ground surrounded by the Chiltern Hills, or at least it was. In a fit of ambition they’ve added a huge main stand, which towers over the other three sides. It looks like someone’s decided to stop a few hoodies from smoking by moving a robotic killing machine in to watch over them.

For the first three meetings we simply expected victory, on each occasion we left miserable and usually a bit humiliated. The run was broken in ’96 whilst in the middle of a once in a generation run of games in which our juggernaut of a team sweep to promotion. The victory was marked by the aforementioned, now iconic, Massey monkey hang and Moody dad-gymnastics. The highlight of the sequence.

Between then and the last meeting in 2006 I stare at the fixtures desperately trying to recall much at all about any of them. I remember Pal Lundin scoring the winning penalty in the Auto Windscreen Shield game I missed, and a barely deserved away win in 2000, and Hubert Busby’s single appearance at a shambolic game I arrived late for, but that’s it.

We’ve traded blows, won a bit, lost a bit, but all the while we were drowning and they were not. In fact, having played in two major cup semi-finals they’ve had a recent history we’d have killed for.

The penultimate league game was probably the best in the sequence, a 2-2 draw with us equalising a couple of minutes from time. A classic in the great scheme of things, but with the crowd nearly 30% down on its ’95 vintage, most had lost interest in the fixture as a derby, in fact it was just another game.