Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Ghost of Gresty Road

This article can also be found in today's matchday programme, all printed out and with a glossy picture behind it, no doubt.

This afternoon we welcome Crewe Alexandra, a side that have never visited our new stadium and in fact their last visit to Oxford was way back in October 1998, would you even believe.

So matches against The Railwaymen might well be unknown to most of the younger Oxford fans here today in their scuffed shoes, grazed knees and pockets full of sweeties, firecrackers, scrumped apples and catapults.

Yes, that’s what children are like these days, busy reading about Desperate Dan’s latest exploits and dreaming up all manner of beastly japes whilst blissfully unaware of the heady and frequent encounters with Crewe back in the distant 1990’s.

For some of the older fans though, and some of the ones that aren’t actually that old but still remember the 90’s (like me), matches against Crewe might stoke up some fond memories. Some not so fond memories perhaps too.

My first trip to Gresty Road was certainly of the latter variety, which came on 1st April 1995 and was also the first away game I travelled to without the accompaniment of a responsible adult. It turned out to be the last for a while too after myself and my two schoolmates got into all sorts of bother.

Firstly, one of us got collared at Birmingham Snowshill for travelling on a child’s train ticket when we were clearly not 13 anymore but burly, bumfluff-faced and croaky-throated 16 year olds. Being a bit younger-looking (and stealthier), myself and the third member of the expedition managed to avoid the attentions of the British Transport Police by moving swiftly and meekly – but the other chap got a stiff talking to, a fine and had his details taken so was effectively now a criminal (or so it appeared to our child-like minds at the time). Not an auspicious start to our travelling supporter careers.

After continuing the side-tracked journey to Crewe, we eventually arrived 3 hours before kick-off and failed to get served in a single alcoholic tavern, due to being bumfluff-faced, croaky-throated 16 year olds. So, we found ourselves entering the ground at 12.30pm and sunburnt and bored by kick-off. Then the match itself was cack, obviously, as we lost.

Not finished with us yet, April Fool’s Day 1995 decided it still had some more fun up it’s sleeve for the jaded adventurers when after being locked in the ground for 45mins after the game we missed our expected connection at Birmingham. Confused and angry with the world, we then got on the wrong train and ended up stranded in Leamington Spa with no more trains heading south for the night.

The last leg of the journey was done several hours later in the back of a particularly disgruntled parent’s car, having been called up to rescue us.

It certainly appeared that someone might have been playing me and my travelling companions for fools that day after all those shenanigans, and I vowed never to set foot near Crewe ever again.

Of course, I was back there the very following season, and very glad about it I was too. This is the one that instantly springs to most fans’ minds of course, being a glorious sunny day in late April 1996.

On this occasion, a second half goal from a certain Mr Beauchamp turned out to be the goal that sent Oxford into 2nd with 1 game remaining thanks also to Walsall concurrently destroying Blackpool’s day.

Oh how we celebrated on the way home, and the day was completed with many beers, full adult train tickets and getting on the correct trains every time.

The lesson had been learnt and the ghost of Gresty Road had been laid to rest, for this traveller at least.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Bragging Rights

Here is an article you may also read in the excellent and award-winning Machday Programme for tonight's game against Stevenage.

Bragging Rights
By Fantastic Mr Ox

Tonight the two teams promoted last season into the Football League do battle again for the chance to say “we are better than what you are”, or bragging rights, as it’s often called these days.

Although obviously both clubs will still be hoping for a last-ditch push into the play-off spots in the final few months of the season, the real relevance of tonight’s game might turn out to be just to see how far each club has come in adapting to this first season at a higher level.

Last season, despite Oxford leading the pack early off, Stevenage probably did just about deserve to be champions come May, we can grudgingly accept through gritted teeth. They had a consistency in the ‘difficult middle-third’ of the season that we didn’t quite match and that first ever victory over us at their patch 12 months ago cemented their claim to being rightful champions – even if Luton did end up giving them a late scare.

But The Conference and The Football League are two very different beasts – winning the former does not necessarily mean adapting well to life in the latter. Indeed, looking back at previous seasons it’s often not the team that came up as champions, but the one that ascended via the more exciting play-off route that does well the following season.

In fact Stat Fans (and I know you are out there…), in the 7 seasons since play-offs were introduced between the FL and the Conference, only twice have the previous seasons’ Champions finished above the Play-Off winners*.

To make the fact even more interesting (no, honestly it IS possible!), on 3 of the other 5 occasions when the play-off winners finished higher, they really took the Mickey out of the champions by getting promoted straight up to League One (Doncaster in 2004, Carlisle in 2006 both as champions, and Exeter in 2009 in 2nd place).

So you see, it sets a precedent that I’d rather like to continue this season, although am sure our visitors from the wilds of Hertfordshire tonight would rather it didn’t.

As it stands, the outcome is rather delicately balanced. Pending the results of Saturday’s games (which I don’t know as the new programme editor has a very strict deadline I’m too scared to miss); we might be a few points above or below our opponents before the start of tonight’s match. Whichever it is, the result tonight will probably go a long way to deciding which club has adapted better to life at a higher level.

Stevenage have certainly gone full-tilt at trying to metamorphose from the plucky, giant-killing, non-league nearly men of the past decade into a plucky giant-killing football league side this season.

Aside from their very exciting escapades in the FA Cup, they also decided to change their name to fit in with the big boys, by dropped the Borough part of their club’s name.

Had they not done this, perhaps they wouldn’t have beaten Newcastle quite so convincingly, having a ring of a non-leagueness about them. Or perhaps the Newcastle team-coach wouldn’t have known where to turn up in the first place, as the administrative division of this area of Hertfordshire is certainly a less-specific location that is the town itself. Mind you, ‘Stevenage Town’ might have thus been a more specific Football League name – as ‘Stevenage’ might well be confused with an ethereal concept or idea rather than a tangible place.

Who knows, but Newcastle did find the ground and Stevenage did beat them, without the Borough or Town affix. So it’s clearly working, whatever the reason behind it.

All I know is, there is a lot more at stake tonight than three points. We all love to brag, after all.
*If you’re interested, it was 2004 when champions Chester finished 20th, one place above Shrewsbury and last season, when Burton finished 13th to Torquay’s 17th.