Saturday's 2-0 defeat to Southend had something strange about it. As if there was something else out controlling our fate. We seem to be a troubled soul, haunted even.
Although there were concerns about our home form, things are generally going well so I was pretty confident that whatever happened Southend couldn’t be much worse than that game against York.
I'll pause a moment for dramatic and ironic effect.
As James Constable appeared from the bench just after half-time with us 0-2 down, we were debating who would be sacrificed. We simply didn’t know; top scorer Dean Smalley? Crucial link man Dave Kitson? Neither seemed obvious choices and anyone else would disrupt the shape of the team.
When you look around the starting eleven from Saturday it’s difficult to know who to blame for our poor home form. Who is our Matt Murphy? Raynes and Hall have their detractors, but they have their supporters too and they're clearly filling for the absent ‘first on the team sheet-ers’ of Whing and Wright. Hunt and Newey take a bit of getting used to after a couple of years of Liam Davies and Damian Batt’s marauding down the wings, but it’s difficult ever to lay blame for a team’s performance solely on your full-backs.
How are we performing so badly with a team that in general we seem to like? This was what we were wrestling with. And, I thought to myself privately, how are we not winning when we’ve got 40 players on the pitch?
Now, Brinyhoof has spent a good proportion of his time on the leftfield of life. He’s so indie he confessed to once owning a season ticket for the upper terrace of the uncovered section of the Beech Road. This is the season ticket equivalent of only listening to b-sides by ex-members of The Fall because Mark E Smith is a ‘bit poppy’. From his time spent on the margins, someone bowling around under the influence of the odd hallucinogen is unlikely to phase him.
That said, I knew something wasn’t right; how could I see 40 Oxford players and why are they so familiar? My drug of choice at lunch time was hummus and pitta bread. Eventually one of the players wheezed past our vantage point, he was floating just above the ground and he was slightly translucent. It was Peter Fear and these people… were ghosts.
While we talk of our successes in reverential tones, our history is festooned with failure. We are so consumed by it we cannot see just how much it envelopes us. Steve Anthrobus, Kristaps Grebis, Marvin Robinson, Ben Abbey, Gary Twigg. Plus countless others we’ve otherwise forgotten. These are the ghosts of our past, their abject performances year-on-year influences our behaviour as fans and that influences our form.
When the first goal went in on Saturday, there was a noticeable lull in the atmosphere; we’d been here before, a goal down, typically, this scenario ends in defeat. We have learned to turn our minds to other things; for example when the next goal would be conceded, whether to go for a pee at half-time and whether to deviate from our standard chicken jalfrezi and X-Factor combo on Saturday night. Increasingly, I’m finding that one of the most appealing things about going to a game is the prospect of getting home. Do I now only go to home games because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to come home from them?
The prospect of a stirring fight back is not even remotely on our radar anymore. We have no recent history of fighting back, no reference point; in the mid-eighties there were a number of stirring fightbacks – 5-2 against Leeds, 4-4 against Chelsea, 4-3 against Ipswich. When opponents came to the Manor even if they were indignant enough to take the lead, we’d come back at them like an angry dog. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost, but the London Road was always up for the challenge.
But, we’ve been losing like this for more than 10 years and not fighting back has become our accepted behaviour; as players and as fans. We look forward to a game expectant of a win, we concede, we lose, we go home. There’s always next week. We’re like a dysfunctional family; we continue our routines, staying together out of a sense of expectation. Although we're not entirely happy, we tolerate the behaviours of our clan without meaningful challenge.
There was some discussion after the game not about how to solve the problem, but what the problem is in the first place. The challenge is trying to unpick the intricate interactions of this family to sort out its problems. Is there any point? It’ll take too long and we’ll probably never get to the bottom of the issue anyway.
Meanwhile in Manchester, Wigan Warriors were winning the Super League Trophy; the next day Simon Lenagan tweeted the match report from the Independent which outlined Wigan’s focus on developing a local squad by investing heavily in its development. We're not trying to solve the current problem, we're going to the desired end point and then working out a way to get there. Which is a reminder that the eleven players that started against Southend aren’t the Oxford United of Ian Lenagan’s new vision, the future is the development squad. Regardless of what happens this season, we're still in transition.
One of the interesting things, however, is whether we have the same vision for the crowd; there is a general acceptance of failure; on the radio after the game 'Selfy' interviewed someone who said how rubbish it all was – will you be coming to Portsmouth? he asked ‘yes’, Northampton? ‘yes’ Accrington? ‘yes’.
There was an overwhelming sense that attending a game, feeding that routine, is now just enough. Winning and succeeding is such a distant prospect that there’s really no point in being impatient for it. Perhaps the team will change, but will the fans?