There are plenty of clubs throughout the Football League who could be forgiven for being envious of Ipswich Town. Oxford United are one of them. Oxford is a provincial city much the same size as Ipswich, and both are the biggest centres of population in otherwise rural counties, although Oxford is 25 miles closer to London. Oxford United like Ipswich Town, came late to the professional game, but both made comparatively quick work of making their way up from non-league football to the Premier League, or First Division as it was known in happier times; taking twenty-three and sixteen seasons respectively to do so. Oxford United lasted only three years in the First Division but Ipswich Town of course won the title at their very first attempt and in a later eighteen season stint in the division were twice runners up. Oxford also won the League Cup, their only almost-major trophy, but Ipswich won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup. Oxford as a city has had more than its fair share of wealthy ‘toffs’ passing through its university colleges but it was Ipswich Town that was lucky enough to benefit from the inspirational chairmanship of Old Etonian John Cobbold who appointed Bobby Robson as manager, whereas Oxford United were bought by obese fraudster and publisher Robert Maxwell. John Cobbold and Robert Maxwell are of course both long dead and today both clubs find themselves back in the third division struggling to relive former glories.
Sadly for Ipswich, history has no bearing on this season’s results, only on the expectations of the supporters, and viewed objectively a fixture versus Oxford United is now an even contest; actually, on current form Oxford are probably the favourites. This, along with the fact that football is now something only seen on a television screen is the current reality, and I am resigned to it; at least I don’t live in Yemen, or Myanmar, or Texas. Keen to make the most of what I’ve got I’ve been pottering about in my garden all morning enjoying the sunshine and the sensation that Spring is definitely in the air.
Rewarding myself for my pottering with a pre-match ‘pint’ of Westmalle Dubbel I sit down to watch the second half of the Coupe de France tie between Red Star St Ouen and Quevilly Rouen Metro, which is live on YouTube and should end just in time to tune in to the ifollow for the start of Town v Oxford. The score at the Stade Bauer in St Ouen (a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris) is one-all and I am rooting for Red Star who, despite not having been in Ligue 1 since 1975, are one of Europe’s coolest clubs. In the 83rd minute Johanne Akassou scores the winning goal for Red Star, rounding the Rouen ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the empty net after chasing a measured punt over the defence. Making up for a dearth of football related celebration of late I cheer loudly, clap my hands above my head and shout Yay!
Seconds after the commentator suggests there will be at least 3 minutes of added on time, the referee blows for full time with about 30 seconds of normal time still remaining according to the on-screen clock. I linger a short while to watch the post-match back slapping and bask in the joyful radiation from the tv screen before switching to the ifollow, where the teams are already on the pitch and Brenner Woolley is explaining to BBC Radio Suffolk listeners that Oxford United are wearing all-white today, whilst their goal-keeper is a vision all in bottle green. The game begins, and a Town team much changed from the one that rolled back the frontiers of the avant-garde versus Northampton a few days ago make unexpected early forays into the Oxford half of the pitch. “Credit to Luke Chambers, that’s what he does” says Brenner’s co-commentator Mick Mills as the current club captain passes to the opposition and then chases back to try and atone for his error . It seems likely that Mick is implying that effort is what typifies Chambers’ game rather than just constantly having to make up for his mistakes.
Inside three minutes the oddly named Keanan Bennetts wins the game’s first corner for Town. “Good corner” says Mick encouragingly. A short while later Luke Chambers lies stricken on the ground, it’s not clear if has suffered injury to his face or his leg. “I would have hoped it was a facial, he would have got over that” says Mick , subtly but justifiably boasting that he was without doubt a more handsome club captain than the current man with his military haircut and heavy build. A few minutes later James Norwood has a header cleared off the Oxford goal line despite having not really attempted to score.
For the first time in months the Portman Road pitch is bathed in sunlight although as Brenner is keen to tell us on more than one occasion it is a windy afternoon too. The action today is unusually quick as Town eschew their usual “building from the back” at the pace of medieval cathedral builders and instead Tomas Holy punts the ball forward. The result is that Oxford enjoy a majority of possession but to no particular advantage. “By the cardboard cut outs on the far side” says Brenner, describing a Town attack down the left rather than making a disparaging comment about the players on that side of the field.
The game is even. “Oxford due a tumble from grace” says Brenner either imagining a woman called Grace who enjoys the company of footballers or suggesting that Oxford United’s good run of results is bound to end soon. “Very little between the two sides….much, much better from Ipswich Town” continues Brenner almost as if he is trying to make-up for harsh comments he might have made after Tuesday’s game. The oddly named Keanan Bennetts shoots on goal. “ He had to sort of make a save” says Mick of the Oxford goalkeeper, and sounding in unfamiliar commentating territory.
I finish my beer and am struck by how any mention of Oxford’s Brannagan and Sykes in Brenner’s commentary immediately conjure thoughts of John Wayne, Derek Guyler and Hattie Jacques. It’s a “rather blustery Portman Road” adds Brenner channeling his inner weather presenter before saying “Town have done alright this first 18 minutes, haven’t they Mick?” Rational man that he is, Mick can only agree. Oxford’s Alex Gorrin is booked for a foul on the oddly named Keanan Bennetts, although I’m a little surprised and unexpectedly disappointed that Brenner doesn’t refer to Gorrin as ‘The Spaniard’. Mick seems sympathetic towards Gorrin believing that Bennetts , who is a bugger for doing ‘stepovers’, falls over rather easily. “You can perform all the tricks you like but you’ve still got to be stable on your feet” says Mick wisely.
In a dull moment, of which there are nowhere near as many as usual, Brenner reveals that the last time Town scored against Oxford was twenty-two years ago (Mark Venus was our goalscoring hero); although in typical sports-hack style Brenner omits to say that last season was the first time we had played Oxford since 1998. With almost a third of the match lost to the past, Troy Parrott’s right foot shot goes wide after what Mick describes as “ Super play”. The game, according to Brenner is now “Finely poised” but immediately realising that he has stated the bleedin’ obvious he sensibly adds “as you would imagine given the score-line”. Town continue to send the ball into the Oxford penalty area in a welcome departure from the tactics of recent games. “ In comes his cross…which was horrific really” says Brenner honestly of a Keanan Bennetts effort before two minutes of added on time are played and everyone retires for a rest. The conclusion from Brenner, ”Much improved from Town, it has to be said” and true to his word, he’s said it.
Half-time is the usual blur of the kettle, mugs of tea and a Nature Valley peanut and chocolate protein bar. I return to the blue bean-bag from which I am watching today’s match in time to hear Mick reveal that he likes that the football from Town today is “simplistic”, by which I think he means we’re not pissing about with the ball at the back but are just shoving it forward. I’m not sure if Mick ever appeared on BBC tv’s ‘Quiz Ball’ but if he had I suspect we’d have heard him say “Route One please David”. Mick’s only disappointment with Town’s first half and indeed what he describes as “the downfall of the whole performance” is Troy Parrott’s “untidy” play, and he’s not wrong, we’re only playing with ten and a half players.
At nine minutes past four play resumes and within 20 seconds Town win a corner and then the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts shoots wide after James Norwood fails to react quickly enough with the goal wide open before him. Oxford’s Anthony Forde, who is not to be confused with the venerable Tony Ford who played a record 931 games for Grimsby Town and seven other clubs between 1975 and 2001, is booked for pulling back little Alan Judge. “That was naughty” says Mick, sounding a little like Frankie Howerd. James Norwood then strikes the left hand post of the Oxford goal after Town exploit an intercepted pass. “ Ooohhhhhhh! “ I shout in desperation and frustration from my reclining position on the blue-bean bag. Two minutes later Troy Parrott misses the goal from seemingly impossibly close range and I groan mournfully. “How?!” I ask rhetorically.
“Parrots all over him” says Brenner as Troy Parrott fouls an Oxford player and I imagine a pirate with feathered companions perched on both shoulders and all down both arms. Clearly now enjoying the match Brenner says “ Then Bennetts stands on the ball” and almost dissolves onto giggles as the oddly-named player falls over. Oxford’s Gorrin and Elliott Lee are replaced by Olamide Shodipo and James Henry; the change is clearly audible being announced over the Portman Road public address system and I wonder for whose benefit these announcements are being made.
There is less than half an hour left to play. Oxford’s Matt Taylor heads over the Town cross bar from a good position. “ Neither side able to bring the ball down on the green stuff” says Brenner seemingly unable to recall the words grass or pitch, although it is possible that BBC rules forbid him from saying ‘grass’ in case it is interpreted as a drugs reference. Sam Winnall replaces Matt Taylor for Oxford United, Josh Harrop replaces Ted Bishop for Town. Myles Kenlock is booked. James Norwood and the oddly-named Keanan Bennetts are replaced by Aaron Drinan and Freddie Sears. “Sunday League out there” says Brenner as a succession of players from both teams fail to control the ball.
There are less than ten minutes of normal time to play and I feel an irresistible desire to close my eyes and gently drift beneath a soft welcoming blanket of sleep. I am saved from the narcoleptic embrace by Brenner’s words; “ Lost his shoe, Dozzell” he says and my mind locks onto thoughts of what sort of shoes Andre Dozzell might be wearing. Loafers? DMs? Winkle-pickers? Stilettoes? Brenner solves the puzzle with the words “Dozzell goes to retrieve his boot” and I realise he’s wearing wellies.
Less than five minutes remain. “Out goes the telescopic left leg of Moore” says Brenner clearly now hallucinating. A minute remains and Holy makes a good diving save as Oxford press for a winning goal in a manner that I had hoped Town would be doing. “I think this 0-0 result is a good as we can expect today” says Mick recognising that Town have nothing left to give and that Oxford look the more likely to score. Oxford indeed continue to push for a late victory. “Stand by your beds, this might not be easy viewing” says a mentally drained Brenner now sounding as if he’s in a 1970’s British sitcom. Brenner tries to redeem himself with the surreal “Parrott down on all fours” but his commentary ends with a 94th minute Oxford booking which has him referring to the guilty player as if he had invaded a neighbouring country; “Yellow card for the aggressor, Winnall”.
The game ends and Brenner’s inexplicably public transport–related summation is that after waiting fourteen months for a goalless draw, two come along at once. Despite this, I have enjoyed the afternoon’s match in which pleasingly Town almost did enough to win, although of course, they didn’t. But with commentary like Brenner’s and the continuing presence of Mick to remind us of our glorious past there is little likelihood that the likes of Oxford United will be anything but envious of Ipswich Town for years to come.