Tuesday 7 April 2020

I Won't Shake Your Hands - Banbury United FC Vs Oxford City FC, Oxfordshire FA Senior Cup Semi-Final, Spencer Stadium (11/03/20)

I have to be honest I’m a bit sad that Tom has not said anything about my new shirt, but not as sad that it's the Strokes playing as I climb into his car. Their dirgey New York sound was never one I was particularly enamored with, but let's be honest it wouldn’t have taken much effort to pay my new clobber a little bit of a compliment would it?

Much of our drive is occupied with the hottest of topics, the Coronavirus epidemic sweeping across the world, Tom’s other half has already been instructed to work from home, but Tom’s profession, a barber, means he’s unable to do it via Zoom, and his clients, much like his wife are able to “work at home” so his days are getting quieter and quieter. As well as the dent it's going to take on his pay packet, how it’s going to affect football and what we do comes up too, but considering what's going on in other parts of the world, it frankly doesn't seem all that important.

We try to not dwell too much on the negative, Tom is soon sharing another and equally important life choice challenging him right now, the getting of a dog. He thinks a “puppy is a bad idea” his IKEA showroom of an East London pad is not quite suitable for all the chewing, pissing and endless bounding of a young K9, so thinks he might “adopt”. However that in itself comes with its own concerns, an element of the “unknown” with a pre owned pooch has him worried, his biggest one and I’m not joking, is that it might be “racist”.

As well as animal adoption, we talk briefly about a new mode on Call Of Duty, that Tom explains ends with you in a “Russian toilet” and I don't know how Tom is still awake with the Strokes playing, they are so dull, I can't tell if its still the same song playing when I got in, an hour later.

It feels like we have been stuck in a perpetual state of god awful weather since late last year, the seemingly never ending rain has played havoc with attendances, so the appearance of the sun, “it’s really hot” comments Tom, has got him very excited and as we head further into 2020, the fact it’s not yet dark as we make our way to our latest game is a pleasant change. However Tom is always on high alert, “it's getting a bit grey over here”.

“Milton Keynes is weird” pipes up Tom over the sound of the radio, jabbing his finger at the Sat Nav, at the succession of interlinking roundabouts he says look like “alien crop circles”. Prattling on about his new coffee machine, which he explains has a fine selection of possibilities such as “Roma, Caramel and Cosy” but this high end living doesn't come cheap, “34p a pod mate” and he certainly won't be sharing.

We finally ditch the Strokes, who are replaced by Nirvana, which is far more preferable, but it might not actually be a case of us ditching them, more that we've listen to everything they have ever recorded, because as Tom rightly points out it “feels like we've been driving forever”. A spot of the wet stuff gets him all of a dither, “ohhh it’s raining” and this brings its own conundrum, “I didn't bring a waterproof jacket” but he’s relieved that just like Steve McClaren he’s got his “trusty brolly”. More ominous clouds appear on the horizon, but the sun is able to break though them, “Jesus rays” Tom calls them, blazing down on the surrounding countryside, gives us hope that the match we are off to is not in jeopardy, as it flips between an impending downpour and “fucking spring again” mutters Tom.

“You've reached your destination” announces Tom’s Sat Sav, but there is not a football ground in sight, just our two bemused faces wondering where we went wrong and asking each other why we are sitting in the car park of a train station. We retrace our steps, after seeing a small bit of signage alluding to the ground, but the narrow road alongside the aforementioned station and industrial estate, doesn't really give us much hope. The dilapidated Union Jack covered burger van is a landmark one will struggle to forget for a while and then all of sudden, beyond the latest corrugated roofed warehouse, Spencer Stadium appears, home of Banbury United FC (BU). “It's very red and yellow” states Tom.

Wrestling with a large gate and the apparatus used to prop it open Stephen, BU’s Secretary has quite the fight on his hands, but is just about able to get things under control before greeting us, “welcome to our humble home”. Tom had said it was quite “breezy” only seconds out the car, and Stephen confirms that “it’s always windy here”. The sky's now filled with a whole gamut of clouds from fluffy Disney ones to alien invasion Independence Day ones. The visiting team Oxford City FC (OX) are already walking the pitch, of a ground that really offers up a little bit of everything.

A slightly rickety looking cage tunnel on wheels, is where the OX players disappear up after surveying the surface. Surrounded on two sides by the backs of neighbouring buildings, the Spencer Stadium feels cosy, but not cramped. The clubhouse is sizable, a squat white fronted building like something off a caravan site isn't open yet, and other than it, everything else as Tom pointed out is indeed very red and yellow. The large main stand on the halfway line, with BUFC spelled out in yellow seats, sticks to script and is of course in the clubs colour scheme. Behind one goal is a long covered terrace with the clubs name spelled out on its back wall, and yet to be turned on, the four aging floodlights poke out from each corner.

Despite the clear amount of cover, Tom reckons because of the many bare trees that surround some parts of the ground, that there is a “distinct lack of protection from the elements” and feels it is necessary to go back to his car to “get” his “hat”. To be fair to him, the constant wind does mean that most things are swaying, rattling or creaking around us. Alongside it, the hubbub of match day life continues. The clattering of beer kegs outside the bar, the sorting of change by the man on the turnstile, the noise of a nearby rumbling train and the lady in the boardroom putting out plates of biscuits for the expected bigwigs.

I thank the man in the red and yellow scarf handing out the programmes after he doesn’t expect payment, but he’s quick to point out the fact it's free has nothing to do with him, “don't thank me, it's the FA” and the reason for its zero price tag is because as he adds, it’s got “sod all in it”.

The sound of the floodlights coming on, is one akin to some great battleship coming to life, and our surroundings are soon basking in a brilliant white light. One man tinkers in the doorway of the red portacabin cabin that houses the clubs very own radio station, one dugout is briefly smothered in green and red light as someone sets up the subs board all while one of the bed sheet sized red corner flags, is absolutely whipping in the breeze.

The opinion of one BU fan is that the National League South side OX will take tonight “very seriously”, not something we normally see in regional cups, when a bigger side comes up against a relative minnow. Some local kids are having a pitch side kick about, as is the norm at most non league grounds, they even have their own goal. Another re purposed portacabin has been transformed into what looks like the world's smallest gentlemen's club, inside the BU coaching staff sit cheek by jowl.

“Testing 1-2” says a voice emerging over the PA, before the music starts to blare and the players come out for their warm up. The wind is only getting stronger, and our inquiry if the club shop will be opening, highlights non leagues 100% reliance on volunteers, “we’re struggling to get someone to open the tea bar” says a man with a large silver beard in a BU club tie.

For what will not be for the first time today, the question of to shake hands or not comes up, “welcome to Banbury United boys” says one man cheerily, “I won't shake your hands” he adds laughing, so we take inspiration from the recent SheBelieves Cup and exchange elbows instead.

The playlist is about the same age as the speakers, that struggle with the volume of the music, and I've not heard Black Eyed Boy by Texas in probably fifteen years. I snag my 50/50 tickets from the man by the turnstiles, but Tom is not very hopeful for me, and “warm welcome” from the man on the microphone, is swiftly followed with a bit of Elton John.

OX’s players are clapped off by a small showing of their fans in blue and white striped scarves. With a spot in the final at stake, the PA emphasises how “important” tonight's game is, and the referee now waiting for the players at the mouth of the tunnel, is put in an awkward position, when someone offers up their hand to shake, and he just leaves them hanging.

With three minutes to kick off, there is no sign of the players, but a bit of classic Two Tone is a suitable distraction.

The instruction to the players in the tunnel is that they can shake hands there, but once out on the pitch, they are to follow the recent Premier League example of just walking past each other like a FIFA glitch. Heather Smalls is rudely cut off mid sentence and the crackling PA offers up another “warm welcome” signing off with a “come on your reds”. A single BU flag has gone up in the small shelter behind one goal, where the home fans will be spending the first half, “come on Banbury” shouts one. Another tells me optimistically it will be a “tight game” and a sarcastic “weyyy” goes up, because post kick off, the music is still playing.

Seconds in, the music finally off, the heavens open, sending those standing pitch side, scurrying up the steps of the terrace we are on and under its roof and with less than ten minutes gone, the home side take somewhat of a shock lead, although Tom points out it's not really a shock considering the games only been playing “six seconds”.

Standing with his hand out in front of him, his palm turned to the heavens, one young man is checking for his Mum if it’s still raining, “has it stopped?” she asks and said woman is not just a mere spectator, worried about getting wet, but she is also I think the Mum of one of the BU players. “Oh Luke” she cries, when he blazes his shot over, there is no critic quite like your own mother.

After such a quickfire start by the home team, the twenty minutes since have been rather uneventful, the BU keeper had to be on his heels to claim a poked ball into his box, but that's about it. Wondering what the man next to us has in his pick and mix is proving to be much more entertaining. On the topic of food, Tom is already thinking about half time, “I’m hungry” he tells me, I must admit I am too, and after two successive fish finger sandwiches, I want to complete my hattrick, however Tom thinks I’ll be lucky if I do, “something tells me they won't, but you never know”.

It’s all gone a bit flat and one nearby warming up OX sub, is far from impressed by one teammates performance, “so fucking shit” he says to himself. A poor attempt at a cross field pass by the home side is easily cut out, resulting in the away side's first real go at goal. The eventual shot a straightforward one, but it’s spilled and tapped in from close range, the match all square. Tom reckons it’s a sign of things to come, “the onslaught begins” he says like a WWE character, “they are going to get ripped apart”.

His prediction is not far off, and it almost seems in the blink of an eye that OX have finally clicked into gear, going from almost spectators to being right on top. A swift, crisp passing move ends with a shot just over, Tom muses “you can definitely tell they are from the league above”.

Ignoring all the angry shouts off “off, off, off” and demands of “ref card him”, “he’s gotta walk” and “do your job properly, don’t fucking bottle it” the referee does not dismiss the offending OX player who has just given away a penalty, much to the disgust of one high pitched home fan, “its a red card every day”.

Just out of reach of the diving OX keeper, the ball hits the back of the net and BU take the lead once more, rushing off towards the home fans battering the metal stand around them, the scorer attempts to perform a bit of Roger Milla hip thrust, which leaves Tom dumbfounded. “I think that's the weirdest celebration I've ever seen”. He even finds it necessary to replicate it, that's how baffled by it he is.

A mad scramble in the BU box, almost hands OX an equaliser, the home keepers penchant for spilling straight forward shots at him, is a recipe for disaster. Skipping down the wing, OX’s number 11 rides one tackle after another, before sending in a low driven cross into the box. “He’s good at that” purrs Tom, about OX’s number 11’s ability to beat his man at will and then he gets all technical on me, which always gets my heartbeat racing, pointing out how the OX wingers have “switched” sides, to target one BU full back, who is looking a bit wobbly to say the least.

Tom takes a brief break from his coaching, to give me a run down on both teams kits, boiling it down to “QPR” for OX, in their blue and white stripes, and “McDonalds” for BU, on account of the red and yellow looking like a “pack of chips”.

Into the final five and BU showed some of that early promise, with some quick exchanges, slipping in one of their forwards, only for him to shoot wide. They then show their other side, their somewhat calamitous side, with an absolute horror show in the six yard box. One defender after another leaving it for the next, which sees it bounce all the way through their box and out the other side, just missing the goal.

The half somewhat fizzles out, but not before OX are in again, behind the home defense, “don’t fucking concede” cries a fan, this time the shot is blocked, however there is just enough time for one
last try for an equaliser, this time the head height whipped cross is just out of reach of any of their players in blue and white.

“£61” confirms the crackling PA, reading out the winning number of the 50/50, the ticket of which I do not possess. I don’t even check my pocket, what's the point. Jump Around by House of Pain plays as Tom strides back from getting food, not only for him, but for me too. “Custom made” he tells me, “ordered off menu” he explains, the fish finger sandwich in my hand, made at his request, that makes up for not noticing my shirt.

Confusion reigns supreme as the new half gets underway. Kick off is with a white ball, despite the referee insisting in the first half they stop and change it to an orange one. “Make your mind up” says Tom in his best parental voice.

If we thought the start to the first half was blistering, it’s got nothing on the start of the second. In what feels like no time at all, less than two minutes to be precise, OX have first equalised, another close range headed finish, but this time after an excellent one handed save by the BU keeper tipping the shot onto the bar, only for it to fall straight to a OX player, instead of a gaff and then a long range effort, that didn't look like it was hit with much venom, that just kind of skimmed its way into the bottom left hand corner of the BU goal.

“It's all gone quiet over there” sing the OX fans now in the small metal stand, having changed ends. Now standing with the sullen BU supporters, I can confirm it is very quiet indeed, almost silent. Which is only emphasised as the wind gets ever stronger, sending the nearby ginormous corner flag into overdrive. I can't stress enough quite how massive they are.

After such a spate of action the match has “gone flat again” says Tom, much like it did before. “Concentrate” demands the OX manager, BU being somewhat over run at times, resort to desperate measures. “That was a tackle and a fucking half” gasps Tom, when one OX player is almost erased from history in one fell swoop. Long periods of nothing are punctuated with the odd testing challenge, “you can forgive one foul, but not three” says one home fan, after this time it's one of their players downed.

OX have a notable fire in their belly now, BU are second best to everything. Their only outlet is Luke, who with every touch of the ball, gets a cheer from this three person fan club. “Come on Luke, come on Luke” they shout as he embarks on one of his mazey runs forward, carrying on and on and on, only for his final shot to be a bit wild and way, way over.

It’s all a little bit too easy for OX to grab their fourth, with still almost half an hour left to play, effectively killing the game stone dead and it's the OX fans turn to use the metal stand they now occupy to create a bit of racket when celebrating. “Going to be hard to come back from that” affirms Tom.

The announcement of a “198” attendance doesn't seem enough, “kind of feels like more” says Tom. With OX now comfortably ahead, letting their foot off the gas somewhat, it naturally allows BU back into the match and they are starting to create the odd half chance, however their inability to capitalise on them, is starting to frustrate their fans. “Oh come on” remonstrates one, after their shot is wide of the mark.

A plea of “do something” from the home bench and sighs of “too easy” from the home fans, resonate every time OX are on the ball. This is not to say BU don't have their moments, and good well orchestrated ones at that. Just shy of the half hour mark they move the ball around with consummate ease, there are goals here for them, but they just can't make it count. “Well done.. Keep playing” applauds the home manager, a former OX player with a bit of a point to prove against his old team.

The appearance of the moon, previously shrouded in clouds, is greeted with a fair few firework display, ohss and aahs. It’s huge and low, and is enough to distract the home fans from what is turning into a bit of a rout on the pitch. The kids who were previously having a kick about are now racing around, and I’m struggling to understand why Tom thought it prudent to make reference of the size of my face, within seconds of the moon coming into view.

As I’ve said all along there are goals here for BU, they go close with a smart turn and shot, but the strike hits the foot of the post. The rain returns, sending those who had ventured from cover, racing back again, except the kids, they are of an age where rain is yet to be an inconvenience.

BU waste another good chance, the curling shot lacking any accuracy and one home fan in shorts,
thinks his introduction could be a game changer, “I'm coming on in a minute”. The rain is now battering the roof above us, at one point it's coming in almost on the horizontal. One lady calls her son still braving the downpour, instructing him to get under shelter, “come on you're going to get soaked”. One of our new neighbours driven in by the rain, makes a very salient point, that his side were “doing alright in the first half”. Another reckons the poor performance is down to “too much youth”, the side is lacking any real “experience”. He asks those around him “where is your John Terry, your Drogba” and they all just look back at him blankly.

Edging closer to full time and the crowd slowly starts to thin, “come on reds move your feet” encourages one supporter, one thinks judging by the collapse, its “no wonder people are leaving”, especially with a fifth for OX looking likely.

Football is cruel, football is full of false hope, football tests fans to the nth degree. “How the fuck did he save that” screams one BU fan, leaping around with his head in his hands. For a brief moment it looks like BU are going to push OX right to the end, after an excellent half volley from the edge of the box cannons back off the bar. Falling perfectly to the player on the follow up, his side footed effort is somehow stopped by the sprawling OX keeper, at point blank range. Falling kindly for a second time to a BU player, he makes a short pass to a teammate with his back to goal, who spins and shoots, only for this time a falling OX player on the line to block it, but he blocks it quite clearly with his arm, giving the referee no other option than to point to the spot.

It’s almost the whole length of the pitch the OX player has to walk, while serenaded with a chorus of “cheerio, cheerio”. The resulting penalty, well the resulting penalty much like most of BU’s attempts today, just doesn't quite cut it, it’s saved. “A bloody shambles” tut’s one disgruntled fan on his way home.

After seeing BU at the same point of this competition last season, go through to the final, that won't be the case today. A final where they played OX, where they led 3 - 1 until the 89th minute, only to lose 4 - 3. Perhaps for the health of the fans, it's no great loss they won't be going this time.

I write this blog, slap bang in the middle of lockdown, the Coronavirus having stopped a lot more than just football, but life as we know it. No work for Tom, no going outside unless its to the shops or for a walk around the block. It’s hard to imagine how long it’s going to be until we get to go somewhere like the Spencer Stadium again, somewhere well, well worth visiting may I add. Worth it for the long terrace or the winking Puritan on the clubs badge, from which the club gets its nickname.

The only worry is will BU, like so many other clubs, still be there once this is all over. We just don't know. All we can do is wait and see.

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

Watch our video from the match ↓ HERE

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