Oxford United is another football club for which I might claim some affinity due to genealogy. My father’s father was from the Oxfordshire village of Cuxham, with a family history there going back into the 1700’s, whilst my wife’s mother was from Iffley, which is now a suburb of Oxford. Added to that, my mother had a book of poems by Pam Ayres and rather liked Sir John Betjeman (a failed Magdalen College student) and Ernie the milkman too, but I never heard my grandfather speak of Oxford United, and I think he might have had a brother who played for their local rivals Reading. Personally, I hate the bastards. That is an attempt at a joke of course, but from the demented outlook of a football fan I do have cause not to like Oxford United much. Ipswich Town have never won a league game in Oxford and the old Manor Ground in Headington, the scene of much Town disappointment for Town followers in the mid to late 1980’s and into the 1990’s, was an absolute dump, guaranteed to give you pneumonia from standing in the open in the rain, or cholera if you used the toilets, even though Town did get promoted there in 1992. Adding an extra layer of resentment is the fact that my only previous attempt to attend a match at the Kassam Stadium, when spending a weekend in Oxford back near the turn of the century, a time I no longer really remember, ended with the game being called off due to a heavy frost.
With my mind a tortured maelstrom of contradictions and stuff I set out for Oxford, not in my trusty Citroen C3 but in my new electric Citroen E-C4 as I simultaneously attempt to right the wrongs of football watching history and save the planet from carbon monoxide poisoning at the same time. The car won’t make a round trip of 240 miles without re-charging the batteries so I have been worrying and losing sleep all week imagining that I will not be able to re-charge the car and get home. My research into the Zap-Map App and the comments of electric car users, intended to allay my fears through comprehensive preparation have only added to my insecurity. I needn’t have worried of course, because having made the obvious choice to make a pre-match visit to the Redbridge Park and Ride super hub thing, I now am easily restoring the magical power of electric traction to my hopefully trusty but definitely clean air promoting Citroen EC4. I find a small community of electric car users there who are willing to help and discuss best electric car-practice, although I can’t say much of the clique of Tesla users who have their own bank of charging points away from the hoi-polloi as if Elon Musk, the weirdly monikered owner of Tesla is trying to create his own fan base or private army over whom he has dominion.
With enough miles in the Citroen’s battery to ensure my return home after the match, I head for the Kassam Stadium just a few kilometres along the southern ring road. It’s been a pleasant drive to Oxford on free-flowing motorways under pale blue skies and winter sun. That was until I crossed the border from Buckinghamshire. Descending the awesome Aston Hill chalk cutting through the Chilterns ( aka the Stokenchurch Gap) Oxfordshire is usually spread out below, but today it has been replaced by a murky, blurry smudge as if Mark Rothko had painted a life size landscape. To the side of the road, twenty or more large birds circle, they might by Kites but to my worried imagination they look like vultures; I’ve entered a scene from a fantasy novel in which the hero journeys into the cold and eerie kingdom of his evil nemesis, and to save battery power I haven’t even got the car radio on to keep me company.
An hour and a half later I have rocked up at the free-parking at the Kassam Stadium, where despite the car park being full, and it’s only half-past one, the little fella on the gate let’s me in and says if I can find a space I can stay. After another steward directs me to some disabled parking spaces and I have to explain that I’m not disabled (not in any way that counts anyway) I follow the lead of another searcher and bump up onto a verge, which is very handily placed near the entrance for a quick getaway at the end of the game. I switch off the car and eat the lunch that I brought with me, two poached salmon and water cress sandwiches on soft malted brown bread and two handcrafted classic pork sausage rolls. I consume a chapter of my current read, a book entitled “Raw Concrete, the beauty of Brutalism”. Outside of my Citroen it is foggy and grey and cold, and the home end of the Kassam stadium looms out of the misty gloom. Just before two o’clock, I venture out to explore what lies beyond the sea of parked cars all around me. I talk briefly to a man on a motorbike, who complains that people on foot won’t get out of his way. I tell him I didn’t hear him, and it’ll be even worse when he has an electric bike; he doesn’t believe that will ever happen. Although an Oxford supporter, the biker seems to think Ipswich will win by a couple of goals because they have some good players. We part agreeing that we are both out to enjoy the afternoon whatever the result.
Outside the main stand I buy a programme (£4.00) from a woman stood behind a table. I had thought she said it was only £1, and as I tender a single small coin I tell her “That’s cheap”. “Oh go on with you” she says as if I’m mucking about, and my brain quickly reconsiders what I’d heard and tells me to hand over two larger coins and take the small one back, which in fact makes the programme rather expensive. I wander on through more parked cars, past the statue of a bull with an impressive scrotum towards the club shop which is behind a cinema. The club shop is a wonderful experience and I particularly enjoy the mugs celebrating the fact that Oxford lost three-nil at home to Arsenal in the third round of the FA Cup; also for sale is a large mounted photo of the stadium that night, as if Oxford supporters need something to put up on their walls to prove that the stadium was very nearly full once. There are also gnomes.
It’s one of those days when it seems I can’t help but catch people’s eye, and they nod as if they know me. A policeman did it a minute ago and now a steward does it as I step up to turnstile three of the main stand. Approaching the turnstile, I don’t know why but I half expect it to be automatic, and I’m slightly taken aback to see the face and hand of a woman appear at a small window from which she scans my ticket. Inside the stand, the walls are a mellow shade of breeze block, I buy a coffee (£2.20) and the young woman who serves me hopes that I enjoy it, which is good of her considering it’s just a paper cup of Kenco instant granules and hot water. A man is selling programmes from behind a wall, and as if by way of advertisement he is reading a copy, pausing occasionally to call out “Programmes” in the manner of someone with Tourette’s syndrome, or like an evening paper seller. There are the names of successful Oxford teams of the past printed on boards attached to the walls. I find myself feeling slightly jealous of the names Cyril Toulouse and Les Blizzard.
Clutching my coffee to warm my hands, I find my seat, which is in the back row of the bottom tier of the stand, seat number 78, I chose it because that was the year Town won the Cup. Behind me is a wall of beautifully smooth polished concrete on the other side of which are Oxford’s ‘executive’ boxes. An old boy on the back row stands to attention to let me past him as I ascend the steps, but I point to the seat and tell him I’m sitting next to him today. As I stand by my tip-up seat and survey the ground the old boy fills me on our neighbours; the seats next to him and his friend are empty today because “they’ve got a do, this evening” , whilst the bloke who sits in seat the other side of me will turn up just before kick-off, and in front of me will be a bloke wearing a cap with horns on and annoyingly the horns will always be in my field of vision. The other seats about us are mostly filled with old blokes in woolly hats, the sort who I’m more used to seeing at non-league games. I feel comfortable here, probably because I’ll soon be an old bloke myself. An impressively loud chant suddenly booms through the fog from the Town supporters who are in the stand directly opposite me. It’ll be good if they can keep that up during the game and for more than the few seconds it lasted this time.
The man with the horns duly arrives as does my other neighbour, just as the old boy predicted, although he didn’t say he’d be eating a Twix, which he is. In time the teams appear, ushered onto the pitch between lines of flag waving children. Oxford United get first go with the ball and kick towards the end of the ground where there is no stand, just a scoreboard and fence with parked cars beyond. Reassuringly both teams are wearing their proper first choice kits, although hi-viz versions would be handy today. “Good player , him” says the old boy about Sam Morsy. “Good goalie, him” says the old boy about Christian Walton.
Only five minutes have elapsed and the Town fans opposite are unimaginatively already singing “Is this a library?” Has anyone ever walked into the Bodleian and chanted “Is this a football ground?” I wonder to myself. “You’re support is fucking shit”, continue the Town supporters, just like every other club’s fans do at Portman Road. The illuminated advertising boards suddenly announce “County Plumbing Supplies” and I am reminded of my wife’s niece’s husband, who is a plumber up the road from Oxford in Banbury. “Ethically sourced coconuts” reads the electric sign less prosaically moments later. So far, on the pitch, the football is all pretty humdrum, and Oxford are boldly not giving Town time to pass the ball about much, which from their perspective seems like a good tactic. “Oxford Fabrications Ltd” reads a plain old wooden advert hoarding down in front of me.
“Here we go” says the old bloke as Town move forward quickly in their first proper attack. The bloke the other side of me finished his Twix a while ago and opens a flask of coffee. At the end of the ground with a stand, Oxford supporters sing rounds of “We’re the left side” “We’re the right side” as Town fans used to back in the 1980’s; I had expected these Oxfordians to be more cutting edge, despite the soft lilt of their bucolic accents. The fog is swirling in an out and around the ground, hiding and revealing the occupants of the other two stands in turn.
Town earn their first corner after just ten minutes. “Come On You Blues” chant the Town fans with quite impressive volume. Sam Morsy commits a foul and concedes a free kick half-way into Town’s half of the pitch. “Yellows, Yellows” chant the home fans briefly. “We forgot, We forgot , We forgot that you were here” lie the Town fans unconvincingly. As a quarter of the game recedes into the forgettable past, the Town fans are desperate enough to sense the need for encouragement; “Come On Ipswich, Come On Ipswich” they chant, a couple of times, to remind themselves that they are here. A minute later Marcus Harness lashes the ball over the Oxford cross bar, it is a good chance wasted.
The fog has thickened, and the orange and black clad and totally bald referee Mr Robert Madden calls for a day-glo ball. I joke with the old boy beside me that it has a bell in it and lights up too; standard football match humour, but it made him laugh, although he must have heard it before at his age. “Football in a library, do-do-do” chant the Town fans before asking “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” Nobody responds, but the bloke with the horns gets up and heads downstairs, presumably to use the facilities. Town win a second corner. The bloke with horns returns and the bloke sat next to him leaves; Wes Burns trundles through the Oxford defence and strikes a firm shot against the Oxford cross bar. Like Harness before him he probably should have scored. A third of the game is gone forever, unless the match is abandoned, and as a broken down Oxford player receives AA assistance, everyone else gets a drink and remedial coaching on the touchline. Sam Morsy even changes his boots, perhaps for comfort, perhaps for fashion reasons, we will never know.
The game restarts and Conor Chaplin is soon flashing a header from a Marcus Harness cross straight into the arms of the goalkeeper. A minute later Oxford’s Yanic Wildschut stumbles goalwards through attempted tackles from Sam Morsy and Luke Woolfenden to find himself just six or seven yards from goal with a large space to aim at to Christian Walton’s left. It’s an opportunity he doesn’t hit over or against the cross bar preferring to roll it accurately behind the far post to give Oxford the lead. The old boy beside me is very happy indeed, if surprised. I stand up with those all around me, just to be polite really. Goals are sponsored by Tripp Hearing the electric advert boards tell us, who will also unblock your ears, presumably for a fee.
It takes just three minutes for Ipswich to equalise as Janoi Doncian breaks forward with no one to stop him and Marcus Harness crosses the ball to the far post where the unmarked Leif Davies is free to head the ball into the goal very easily indeed. I hadn’t expected Town to score so soon but am pleased they did. “You’re not singing any more” chant the Town fans, but I’m not sure anyone was.
The remaining eight minutes of the half drift off forgettably, Oxford win a free-kick from which a direct shot on goal is possible. “Yellows, Yellows” implores the scoreboard and two mournful chants of the two words emanate from the end that has a stand; the shot goes over the Town cross bar and after three minutes of additional time it’s half-time.
Half-time is still cold and foggy and I take a walk to the front of the stand to help move the blood in my veins. On the pitch a small collection of former players is gathered including Ron Atkinson famous for his awkward, room-silencing racist asides; I hadn’t realised he was still allowed out in public and just hope Marcel Desailly isn’t here too. I browse the programme, which I decide I like, despite costing four quid, because it doesn’t have many adverts and other than the cover is not printed on glossy paper. Less attractive is another hoarding in front of me advertising Mola TV which shows Belgian football on-line in the UK, but also the podgy, grinning face of Alan Brazil who, as great a player as he was for the Town does a fair impression of a complete arse on the radio.
At six minutes past four play resumes, with the break having typically made us all feel a little bit colder than we were when the first half ended. Town soon win a corner and chants of “Come On You Blues” can be heard through the fog. The bloke sat beside me with the Twix and the coffee drinks some more coffee and eats another bar of chocolate of unknown brand. A break down the right from Marcus Harness ends with a low cross and George Hirst driving a first time shot past an Oxford goalpost, it might go down as third opportunity missed.
Two thirds of the match is gone forever and Oxford win their first corner of the match, closely followed by the second. “ Come On You Yellows” seeps through the fog from the end with a stand. Marcus Harness and George Hirst are replaced by Nathan Broadhead and Freddie Ladapo and Oxford swap Wildschut and Mcguane for Joseph and Taylor. A little creepily Oxford manager Karl Robinson seems to like to cuddle and fondle his players as they enter and leave the field of play; I’ve always thought touching in the work place was strictly out of bounds.
Less than twenty to minutes to go and Oxford win a third corner, but the north stand has melted completely into the fog. Conor Chaplin heads past the post from a horizontal position with his feet closest to the goal. The game now stops as Mr Madden consults both captains and the managers, presumably about the deepening gloom and whether it is wise to carry on. Cross field passes and long balls are now even more hit and hope than usual. The old boy beside me seems sure the game is going to be abandoned; I think he’d like to get home in the warm. Some people in front of us do get up and leave. “Where are ya?, Where are ya?” chant the Town fans playfully. “What’s going on, what’s going on?” chants the end with the stand, sounding more anxious. The game resumes, but on the far side of the ground my view of the match is reduced to one of shadows and fog; if this was West Ham, Jack the Ripper might come on as substitute and we wouldn’t notice.
The game is into its last ten minutes of normal time and Oxford replace the improbably spelt Tyler Goodrham with Djavan Anderson. The ball is in the Ipswich penalty area and comes out the edge where Cameron Branagan chances a shot on the half-volley which ends up in the top corner of the Ipswich goal. It was to an extent a hit and hope a case of fortune favouring the brave, but Town are losing and on the basis of what has happened so far this afternoon defeat looms out of the fog. Town’s response is to quickly replace as many players as possible and all three remaining substitutions are made in a sort of hopeful ‘powerplay’ of ‘fresh legs’. Town win their second corner of the half, and then another and the ball strikes the cross bar for a second time, on this occasion from a Harry Clarke header. The pressure on the Oxford goal recedes. “No noise from the Tractor boys” chant the occupants of the end with a stand, and the game staggers on into seven minutes of added on time. But Town don’t look like scoring again and they don’t.
With the final whistle I exit sharply, taking care not to bowl over any of the old boys carefully descending the stairs. I am soon back at my car where the fog is freezing to my windscreen and with no queuing whatsoever am out onto Grenoble Road and then onto the B480 towards the motorway, the high road out of the fearful darkness that is Oxfordshire. It’s a great ending to an otherwise very disappointing afternoon, if I decide to care overly about the result, but as the old boys have no doubt learnt over time “You can’t win ’em all”, even when you’re expected to. Sometimes just being happy you can get home after a day out is enough.