Rolling through the Oxfordshire countryside, a blue sky overhead, we continue our FA Cup expedition. Before changing trains we are treated to an insight into the world of the upper classes. Perched on our seats next to the Louis Vuitton luggage of two young women, we are treated to tales of how one of them was accosted whilst shopping by someone who “looked homeless” his comments on how tall she was “could you be any taller”, did not go down well as he blocked the crisps she wanted, and one about a recent camping trip with “Millie and Jack”. Not that our topic of conversations are going to change the universe, “do you like walnuts?” I ask Tom “no, too big” he replies.
An easy skip across the platform, and the new train continues us along, “hey its me again” says everyone new best friend over the speakers, “hopefully this one works”. Having not had the chance to tell my proud parents “I’m off to Oxford”, cannabis and Championship Manager put a stop on that. My only previous trips to one of England's great learning centre's, were to visit a friend who actually had the application and intelligence to go, or taking in a museum or three and seeing Einstein's blackboard and a cabinet of shrunken heads.
“I should've brought my sunglasses” says Tom as the bright dazzling sun, catches the metal work of a sea of shimmering bikes outside Oxford station.
Two day’s short of completing his dry January and Tom has capitulated and he is eager for a pint, as am I. Google's suggestions were less than inspiring when we asked for places to drink near The Kassam Stadium, a Holiday Inn Express and a Gala Bingo came top of the pile. We opted instead for a bit of a wander into central Oxford, choosing the first place we found, a nautical themed riverside joint nestled on the edge of a bridge. The ‘Quarter Deck’ outside seating area overlooking the water in the shadow of a willow tree, is a very nice place to top up my January tan. “I can think of worse places to have my first pint of the year” says Tom.
We get chatting to a Blackburn Rovers FC (BR) fan, his shirt hidden under his jacket. His prediction for the match is pessimistic to say the least “think we will lose” he says definitively, his opinion of the squad's depth and qualities is damning “ we have nothing, no pace”. Not noticing a strong North West accent I ask where he is from, “Salisbury” he tells us. My next question is greeted with the kind of eye roll a celebrity gives interviewers, when they are asked the same question for the 100 time, when I ask how come he is a BR fan, “everyone always asks me that” but he is polite enough to tell me “picked a kit off a market when I was 5” .
With time ticking, and always keen to get to a ground in plenty of time we head off, first considering a cab with Tom thinking it will only cost a “couple of shillings”, he doesn't get out of London much. However, instead we take the advice of the BR fans friend, a local, who tells us we can catch a bus to the ground around the corner, and it will take only “15 - 20 minutes” so under his direction, we head off.
All of a sudden a slightly panting and sweaty person approaches us, it's the BR fan from the pub “the directions we gave you were wrong” he tells us, and has been nice enough to find us and let us know, restoring a small bit of faith in humanity. “Follow me” he says like a football Tenzing Norgay. We do follow for a short while, only for me to spot a particularly fine example of a Borussia Dortmund sticker, and in the few short moments it takes me to take a picture, we lose sight of our guide and are now lost in Indian country.
Half remembering something he had said about an “ Oxford castle” we follow the signs, eventually stumbling across what we think is the correct bus stop, which is thankfully confirmed by a scarf wearing OXU fan, with an hour to kick off we feel we are making good time.
The bus is full with either bag ladened people who have satisfied their thirst for retail therapy and are on the way home, or fans of both teams making their way to the ground. Getting snarled up in Saturday afternoon traffic, our bus ride has turned into a bit of a crawl .The driver is pulling up at bus stops with long queues, only letting a few new passengers on, and leaving huge swaths of people behind waiting for the next one. What seemed like an adequate amount of time to get to the match, is rapidly ticking away. Three BR fans have adopted a local, asking her every so often like children on a long car journey “are we nearly there?”.
Tom and I look at the time and look at each other, not feeling like we are getting any closer, we start to consider the unthinkable, missing kick off!!
Our anxiety is relieved a little when a cheer goes up, someone has spotted the ground in the distance, but when the bus drops us slap bang in the middle of a housing estate, we still feel a million miles away, at least the badgered local gets some peace as most of the bus piles out with us. We hang back, follow the crowd at a brisk pace with only fifteen minutes to kick off. We can only hope that ‘Merlin Road’ will bring us some magic and get us to the ground on time.
The smell of roasted chestnuts and the thin grey struts of a stand poking above the rooftops, relieves our anxiety further as we are now at least getting closer. Between the semi detached houses through a small gap in a fence, the claustrophobia of suburbia opens up into some green wasteland, beyond which for the first time we can see two large stands of The Kassam Stadium. Over a small bridge people take the opportunity to finish up their beers, under the watchful eye of the local police, and a man sells everyone's favourite half and half’s “last chance to get your match day scarves”.
“A queue to get in” says an amazed fan, as we join the considerable snaking line from the turnstile. Some in the queue happily refer to themselves as “plastic fans”, not regulars I would guess, just here for a bit of FA Cup glory. Such is the design of the ground, big gaps on each corner between the stands means the noise from inside floods out, a song I would have always associated with Chelsea, The Liquidator by Harry J All Stars, but have now heard at numerous grounds, plays as we wait to go in. Kick off is imminent, only a wooden fence separates us.
Despite the wait, people are understandably in a great mood, the family behind us all have their faces painted, and we clock up our first tin foil FA Cup of the day, “gonna take it to Wembley” they tell us.
From handing over my ticket, squeezing through the turnstile, getting through the scrum to get a programme, being pleasantly surprised they have a 50/50 draw, and getting a ticket from the young lady behind the counter, who is clearly rushed off her feet, to sitting down, is a blur of noise and colour.
Making our way up the small set of stairs into the stand we are hit with a wall of sound, unlike anything I think I have heard before in this country “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”. The whole ground is chanting as one “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”. The stadium announcer does a fine job conducting the crowd “give me an ‘O’, give me an ‘X’, give me an ‘F’, give me an ‘O’, give me an ‘R’, give me a ‘D’”, each time he asks the whole stadium replies with what I can only describe as a roar.
Some people use their hands and some their programmes to shield their eyes from the blinding sun peaking over the stand opposite. In the top tier a large yellow and blue banner of the club's crest is unfurled above the heads of the fans.
“It’s kick off time at the Kaz, let's make some noise”.
It’s a tense opening ten minutes, the first real chance going to BR. When OXU do get forward people jump to their feet, followed by the bang of their seats flipping upright, straining their necks trying to catch the action at the opposite end of the pitch. The ‘Ultras” are all standing and break into song regularly “everywhere we go”. At one point they sing back and forth between themselves “we’re the left side, we’re the left side London Road” the other half to the stand quickly reply “we’re the right side, we’re the right side London Road”.
BR’s number 35 is small, quick and very easy to go down. It's not long before his ability to crumble to the floor at the slightest hint of an opposition player being anywhere near him, starts to annoy the home fans “wanker, wanker, wanker”. When he picks himself up glaring at the crowd, this only riles them up more. The referee also gets an earful, the fact he keeps blowing up every time he “dives” as one fan puts it means he gets a song all for himself “you don't know what you're doing!”
“Oxford United FC are by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen”.
OXU register their first shot, with about thirty minutes on the clock, a low hard drive which is tipped
around the post, this draws another mass chant “yellow, yellow, yellow”. There is still an unwavering and palpable sense of tension around the ground, as the whole place “oohh’s” and “aahh's” in unison, squirming in their seats whenever a move breaks down or a half chance goes begging. It’s very hard for me to describe quite how earth shatteringly loud the fans are on occasions, without trying to sound over-dramatic, but you could feel it “YELLOW, YELLOW, YELLOW”.
“Ahhhh the beefy goodness” says a fan a few rows in front of us, as he thrusts a cup of Bovril under the nose of a friend.
As if it was written in the stars, there is an undeniable predictability about BR’s goal, it was coming and I’m sure everyone knew it would have something to do with the much despised number 35. His ability to lose all control of his legs, falling to the ground like a stropping toddler in a supermarket pays off when he is ‘fouled’ in the box, I use that word in the loosest possible sense, the referee laps it up, penalty!
The spot kick is dispatched clinically in front of the ‘Ultras’, the BR players are hardly reserved in their celebrations just a feet away from the OXU fans, but it's the man in charge who gets the most grief “to the referee 1 - 0”. The visitors from Lancashire at the other end of our stand make their first real noise of the day, the blue smoke of a smoke bomb drifts across the crowd and fills the air with it’s distinctive smell.
Regardless of going behind, the home fans rally “come on Oxford”.
BR don’t seem to be here to play football, a fan behind us quite rightly describes it as, “unattractive”. Committing a constant stream of small, game stifling fouls, BR stop OXU getting into their rhythm, never giving them the chance use the abundance of pace they have in their team. The referee has his whistle in his mouth every other minute, “let it play shouts” Tom. When he does blow in favour of the home team, he gets a sarcastic cheer.
Whenever enemy number one gets the ball, he is suitably singled out “he’s gonna dive in a minute”.
In added time there is an overriding feeling of doom when BR score again, the fans feel that the referee has missed a glaring foul in the build up, one going as far to re enact the action performed by the BR player who won them possession. Once again the away fans awake from their relatively dormant state, no smoke bomb this time, but a few whirl their scarves above their heads, “Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be, we’re going to Wembley”.
The goal has made a lot of people's minds up about going to get a pint, and the bang of the seats this time is when scores of people leave to find solace in the bottom of a plastic pint glass. One fan is quite sure that BR “are not going to Wembley” regardless of what their fans think.
Tom’s search from refreshments, turns into a bit of an ordeal, as the concourse is heaving, people struggle through a bottleneck, and the fans start to lose patience with the wait “what the fuck is going on?”. As I wait one group have decided that the two goal deficit is enough, and make a b line for the exit, discussing plans to find more drink. When Tom does finally appear, looking beaten, with the intermission all but exhausted, we both down our warm fizzy pints the quickest a person ever has.
“Don't tell my mates” was the plea of the OXU fan Tom had spoken to in the queue for a drink at half time. His dirty little secret was that he had put £100 on BR to win, his justification was that it would “pay for my night out”.
BR’s action plan for the second half is much the same as the first, creating a stop start, stop start game which is verging on the tedious. The biggest cheer of the day from the home fans at least is when naughty number 35 gets a yellow card, “cheating Jackson got his just desserts” says an animated father to his young slightly bemused looking son.
When OXU manage to break out, nine times out of ten on the counter attack, it's halted by blatant shirt pulling, or a cynical foul, and the fans have had enough, “you dirty Northern bastards”. Tom is caught up in the drama waving an imaginary card towards the pitch, how unsporting of him. Although we can see the home players are full of endeavour, spirit and plenty of running, their final ball at the crucial moments, holds them back time after time.
In this modern day of commercial money obsessed football, where anything and everything has its price, we see something that forces us into a double take, a sponsored substitution. After each change, the usual protocol of reading the name of the player coming off and the player coming on occurs and then the announcer's voice changes, to that of a cheesy radio advert informing us that is had been “brought to you” by some local hotel.
The final nail in the OXU FA Cup dream coffin is BR’s third goal, which comes from a direct free kick on seventy six minutes. This sparks an exodus, one fan from our row mutters to himself as he squeezes by “I can't handle this”. The BR fans sing of Wembley again, and jibe the leaving fans, whose number I can't quite believe, “cheerio, cheerio”.
Despite the painful sight of seeing your team undone by a bullshit penalty, and not really ever being in the game, the ‘Ultras’ don't leave and don't stop “we love you Oxford we do”, they even have time to mock the BR fans “3 - 0 and you still don't sing”. After such a storming result against Swansea in the previous round, some people, although I'm sure they would not want to admit to it, must have thought that a tie against a struggling Championship side would have meant progression to the next round was on the cards, but since the first whistle it's never looked the case, I think you could even say some around us are even getting frustrated at the team's performance, “come on” a few say.
Moments before the final whistle, the announcement of the Man of the Match brings people to their feet. Once the game does end talk quickly turns to that of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy Regional Final against Millwall in the coming days “90 minutes from Wembley” says the stadium announcer.
“George Baldock - Goodbye For Now” says the banner revealed at the back of the ‘Ultras’ stand as the players applaud the fans. A few days before the match, Baldock on loan from MK Dons had been recalled to Stadium MK. With thirty nine appearances under his belt, he had become a firm fan favourite “Georgie Baldock we want you to stay”. He removes his shirt, tossing it to a fan.
Outside, people streaming in all directions, the nearby car park of a cinema is gridlocked, one fan thinks you must be mad to “go to the cinema on a match day”. A quick visit to the club shop, which is like a scene similar to that of a supermarket before a hurricane, it's been stripped, bare rails and empty coat hangers. They are also out of pins, much to Tom’s annoyance.
Such are the crowds that the buses back into Oxford politely apologise as they pass us “sorry bus full”. Back at the station, after failing to find a suitable birthday card for a friend in WHSmith, we don't have a long wait for our train.
To see what the fan base of a League Two team are capable of is what made the biggest impression on us today, it once again shines a shameful light on so many of the country's bigger teams fans. Why are these teams able to organise themselves, but so many in the top flight can’t? It’s not just Germany, Italy and South America that supporters can take inspiration from when it comes to display and support, why not try a little closer to home, why not get yourself down to The Kassam.