My paternal grandfather was born and grew up in the village of Cuxham, Oxfordshire, which is a bit more than 20 kilometres southeast of Oxford. I have been told that as a boy his education was regularly interrupted by his grandfather, an itinerant clock mender with a reputation for being locked out of his house by his wife and who spent more than one night in police cells as a result of drunkenness. I might be wrong, but from what I can make out it seems my great-great grandfather would take him out of school so that he had someone on hand to get him home after a heavy session at the pub. During World War One my grandfather was in the Royal Marines, and I believe in 1916 was on HMS Iron Duke at the battle of Jutland. Happily, my grandfather was not one of those who died that we might live, and indeed he lived that my father might live and serve on HMS Locust on D-day. Happily again, my father also lived, and grew old, and consequently I am here to write this. My own service record is less impressive, having merely been in the cub scouts and then the sailor section of my school Combined Cadet Force; an utter waste of time for me and the teachers who dressed up as Naval officers on a Thursday afternoon, but nevertheless satisfyingly redolent of Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’. Appropriately perhaps, I have no progeny to whom I can relay my story of living through what is generally regarded as peacetime; peace, who’s interested in that? As Reg in Monty Python’s Life of Brian almost said.
I remember watching the 1970 FA Cup final on television with my grandfather, by which time he had been living on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent for well over thirty years. But despite having an appreciation of ITV’s World of Sport, being a big fan of cricket, as well as an avid reader of the Racing Post, as far as I know my grandfather never watched Oxford United or Headington United, as they were known until he was older than I am now. Today, Oxford United play Ipswich Town at Portman Road for the twelfth time in my lifetime, and with the exception of last season’s goalless draw, which no supporter witnessed first-hand due to the Covid lockdown, I have seen every one of those fixtures, although the only one I remember particularly well is Town’s 3-2 victory in April 1986, a win which ultimately proved insufficient to relegate Oxford United instead of Town from what is now called the Premier League.
Today is a grey autumn Saturday, illuminated only by the colour of the leaves on the trees turning in different stages from greens to shades of gold, yellow and russet. After parking my trustee Citroen C3, I follow my usual pre-match routine of Gippeswyk Park, Portman Road, where I buy a programme (£3.50), and The Arboretum pub (now called the Arbor House), which is unusually busy with diners and drinkers, only one of whom is wearing a mask. I obtain a pint of Mauldon’s Suffolk Pride (£3.80) and exit to the beer garden and the hoped-for safety of fresh air. Mick soon arrives with his own pint of Suffolk Pride and a cup of dry-roasted peanuts; we talk of COP26, Covid booster vaccinations, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Indian partition, Morocco, Algeria and the Paris massacre of 1961, the ethics of holidaying in the third world and Mick’s desire to listen to ‘The Girl From Ipanema’, on the beach at Ipanema. At just after twenty to three we head for Portman Road.
With Covid vaccination credentials confirmed, I enter the Sir Alf Ramsey stand through turnstile number 60 thanking the operator as she allows me through this portal to another world. I arrive on the lower tier of the stand with the teams already on the pitch, Pat from Clacton tells me she and Fiona were getting worried about me. Stadium announcer, former Radio Suffolk presenter and ex-classmate of my friend Pete, Stephen Foster tells us that in honour of the dead of two World Wars there will be a minute’s silence when the referee blows his whistle. The players link arms around the centre circle, the referee does not blow his whistle, and a lone bugler pays the last post, after which there is a ripple of applause, which doesn’t happen at the Cenotaph, and I am left a little confused, still waiting for the minute’s silence. I recall however that we did have a silence last Saturday before the FA Cup game with Oldham Athletic and there was also one before the game at Wycombe Wanderers; there may even have been one before the EFL Cup tie versus Colchester United, but I boycotted that match because of the inclusion of Premier League Under 21 teams in the competition. I even had my own two-minute silence when working at home on Armistice Day itself and there will be another on Remembrance Sunday.
With the normal sounds of Portman Road restored in the form of The Beatles’ Hey Jude, which the Oxford fans sing along too as well, the knee is taken and the game begins; Oxford United getting first go with the ball and hoping to point it mostly at the goal at the Sir Bobby Robson stand end of the ground. Despite there being no clash of colours, Oxford are wearing an all black kit, possibly as a symbol of remembrance, or possibly just because their usual yellow and blue kit is in the wash. Within 60 seconds Bersant Celina concedes the first free-kick of the match and it takes more than a minute for Town to get possession of the ball. “Yellows, Yellows” shout the Oxford supporters reminding their team what colour shirts they should be wearing, and shaming whoever does their laundry. Town soon win a corner as the oddly named Macauley Bonne has a low cross blocked by Oxford’s Jordan Thornily who sounds prickly. From the corner kick the same Town player sends a stooping header against the right-hand post of the Oxford goal. After the glancing header and the diving header, the stooping is possibly the next best.
Oxford are looking rather good, better than Town and in the sixth minute Christian Walton is forced to make a spectacular flying save to repel a shot from Sykes who, being a fan of 1970’s BBC sitcoms, I should like to see in a front three with players called Jacques and Guyler. “They seem good at dipping the ball” says a voice behind me, “They are” says the voice in the seat next to him before a third voice makes an obscure and slightly surreal reference to oxtail soup which I don’t think anyone understands and which kills the “conversation”.
It takes thirteen minutes for the assembled Oxford supporters to ask through the medium of song “Is this a library?” which provokes a man a few rows back to shout in a distinctly middle-class voice “As if you’re used to this many working-class people in your libraries?” It’s an odd thing to shout out at a football match and betrays a curious perception of just who follows Oxford United. In truth, to someone from Oxford’s Blackbird Leys estate the song was probably an honest enquiry.
Oxford are the better team, although unusually Town’s defence is playing alright, but after almost twenty minutes it is once again Town who come closest to scoring as a Bersant Celina shot strikes that right hand post again, leading to suspicions that the goal has been put in the wrong place and should be ten centimetres to the east. It’s an event that leads to two corners in quick succession for Town. In the Cobbold stand meanwhile the Oxford fans reveal their upper middle class, academic sensibilities that the bloke had alluded to in his library comment, with a lovely chorus of “Sit-down if you shag your mum” to the tune of Village People’s ‘Go West’. It’s a perfect example of what Paul Weller was on about when, in The Jam’s 1979 hit ‘Eton Rifles’ he wrote the line “We were no match for their untamed wit”.
I’m not feeling good about what I‘m seeing and given past games feel sure that Town will concede a goal soon. “Tell you what,” says the bloke behind me “They’re a decent team”. “Well-drilled” says his friend introducing an appropriately military metaphor. Maintaining the theme, the Sir Bobby Robson begin to chant “Blue Army, Blue Army” but it soon fades into the grey of the afternoon as Oxford continue to dominate. “Just not with it as a team” continues the bloke behind me, thoughtfully. “Bloody prats need to wake up” adds his accomplice cutting to the chase.
There are twelve minutes until half-time and spits of rain travel on the wind across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand. Five minutes until half-time and Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan is booked by referee Mr Scott Oldham for trampling George Edmundson. Brannagan waves his right arm up and down in protest and on the Oxford bench manager Karl Robinson, a man who often seems stupidly angry with the World, has evidently reacted badly to one of Mr Oldham’s decisions and is also cautioned. “Sit down shut up, Sit down shut up” chant the Sir Bobby Robson stand to the irascible Scouser to the ‘tune’ of the Portsmouth guildhall clock chimes, and for once it’s good advice.
Although Oxford aren’t creating very many good chances, I’m still hoping for nothing more than Town making it to half-time on level terms. “Can you hear the Ipswich sing? I can’t hear a fucking thing” chant the Oxford fans, annoyingly answering their own question but getting the answer right nevertheless and confirming that it hasn’t been a satisfactory half for Ipswich. “Sing when we’re winning, We don’t even sing when we’re winning” responds Pat from Clacton with a sotto voce rendition of Guantanamera, for which the new lyrics only just about scan. A minute of added on time is announced and before it’s over ever-present Phil who never misses a game has left his seat and headed for the facilities beneath the stand. It’s an astonishing display of both confidence and pessimism that nothing of any importance to the result will happen in the next forty seconds, but it turns out to be well-placed, despite possibly casting a shadow of doubt over the validity of the epithet “ever-present”.
Half-time produces the usual Nature Valley chocolate and peanut protein bar from my coat pocket, which I eat before going to speak with Ray, his son and grandson Harrison. Ray is impressed by Oxford United, describing them as ‘honest’, which I think is football speak for hardworking but not prodigiously talented.
The football returns and from the start Town begin to play better and Oxford seem happier to sit back, perhaps hoping to ‘hit us on the break’. Despite being quicker to the ball and having more possession than before, Town nevertheless don’t create the string of unmissable chances I had hoped to see from the team who have so far scored in every league game this season. Kyle Edwards looks ‘dangerous’ but isn’t, Wes Burns looks tired, the oddly named Macauley Bonne is ineffective and Bursant Celina is either unable to measure a pass or is hallucinating.
When Oxford’s Cameron Brannagan goes down clutching a limb, his club’s female physio sprints across the pitch to him, her blond ponytail bobbing in the breeze. “I’d like to be a physio” says Pat from Clacton. “Ooh, just let me rub that for you” she continues, going all “Carry On”. From afar Pat thinks the physio looks glamorous, so she zooms in on her with her camera and says in fact she’s a bit severe looking; women can be so harsh on one another sometimes. Meanwhile, I notice that George Edmundson appears to have a large varicose vein on the back of his left thigh. The Sir Bobby Robson Stand chant something that goes “Addy-addy, addy-o, I.T.F.C” to no particular tune and then “Come On You Blues” as they connect with the improving vibe of the second-half, and full-back Bailey Clements, making his League debut, shoots wide of the far post.
Stephen Foster announces today’s attendance as 21,322, of whom 922 are a combination of professors, dons, Masters of colleges, undergraduates, assorted intellectuals and residents of the Blackbird Leys estate. “Yellows, Yellows” they chant once more in unison as their team win a sixty-sixth minute corner. Play ebbs and flows and a stonking clearance from an Oxford boot rattles the fascia of what is currently known as the Magnus Group stand. Twenty minutes remain and Wes Burns is replaced by Sone Aluko, and then Conor Chaplin usurps Kyle Edwards. It’s a change that had he asked me, I would have advised Paul Cook to make at or soon after half-time, but he didn’t ask me.
Oxford United win a succession of corners in the closing stages as they break forward with a final push for glory. Conor Chaplin shoots beyond the far post for Town and Sam Morsy receives his customary booking. Waves of drizzle sweep across the pitch, illuminated beneath the floodlight beams and the Oxford team take it in turns to fall down and stay down on the pitch clutching bodily parts. Writhing on the wet grass may be a way to save time in the shower after the game but it’s more likely that the players are just wasting time, a tactic that fits with the joyless impression Karl Robinson creates with his angry Scouser routine.
As referee Mr Oldham stops the game for the perceived injuries, he incurs the wrath of the home support who tell him that he doesn’t know what he is doing. It’s a shame that football isn’t more like Aussie Rules Football, a sport in which injuries are treated as the game carries on, and in which players are so tough, they only submit to treatment if they are actually missing a limb or coughing up blood.
The ninetieth minute sees Bailey Clements cautioned and the addition of five more minutes. The ball runs out at the Sir Bobby Robson Stand end and the supporters within the stand await the corner kick, only for Mr Oldham, with perfect comic timing, to award a goal kick. “Lino, lino you’re a cunt” chant the gynaecologists in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand and the match atmosphere either steps up a gear or descends into unpleasantness depending on your point of view. “Oxford United, Oxford United FC, They’re the finest football team the World has ever seen” sing the professors and Blackbird Leys boys culturally appropriating the Irish folk song The Wild Rover. “Boring, Boring Oxford” chant the Ipswich supporters and the game ends.
Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood are quickly away and I’m left on my own; they will not chant “Boring Boring Oxford” as those that are left will. Leaving the pitch the Oxford players look slightly bemused by the anger of some Ipswich fans and it is true that they did try to win the match, but then they didn’t. I contemplate what I have witnessed this afternoon and wonder what my grandfather and his grandfather would have made of it. I don’t think they’d have been too bothered, as long as it had been an entertaining game and they could have a pint afterwards. That’s intellectuals for you.
Postscript:Ever- present Phil who nevermisses a game is keen for readers to know that he didn’t miss the end of the first half, he stood at the top of the stairs until the whistle blew.