There's supposedly something special and different about the FA Cup, but something felt very routine about how it started to pan out. We can talk about tactics, performances, ability. But is the real problem familiarity?
I don’t really believe in luck, so I had to rationalise the link between my routine and our winning. I ascribed the process to a sense of control and calm. A new confidence had been instilled by Chris Wilder and his new signings. I could peacefully drink my coffee because I couldn't imagine needing to leap up, spilling it everywhere, in the opening 10 minutes as a result of a goal or berating a lapse in defence. If I could stay calm and the team could stay calm, then our quality would eventually shine through. We all played our part and it demonstrably worked. I've continued that routine even since, I even stop at a shop on the way to buy a Yorkie because the club have started selling Boost bars.
But, confusing correlation and causation is a dangerous thing. Certainly my lucky Yorkie/coffee combo correlated with success, but did it cause it? Evidently not, our three and a bit seasons in League 2 have been pretty average at home. This notwithstanding I've remained committed to the routine. Although I don’t believe in luck per se, I still need to give it a label. In my head it’s still called ‘lucky’, but not so much a luck that will help us win more that if I don’t do it, it will definitely mean we’ll lose. It is a comfort, perhaps even a memory of a happier time.
There are, perhaps, 5,000 Oxford fans with routines around going to games – behaviours which we might consider to be lucky others just ‘normal’. Either way, we are assured by routine behaviour but that breeds a certain behaviour during the game. This season, our routines include a struggle on the pitch; goals conceded, anxiety, frustration, resigned defeatism.
Danny Rose said as much on Saturday in the 2-2 draw against Gateshead. He felt that the opening goal shouldn’t have been a big deal – it was a first class strike – but it suggested to him; 'here we go again'. Whatever routine the players and fans have gone through to get to that point, there was a familiarity in what was happening.
The response was increasing anxiety and tension. Jake Wright went off; typical of our ‘luck’. Fans routinely booed the team off at half time. Players stopped thinking hoiking massive cross field balls that bounced into nowhere. We got the yips when crossing, a simple passing game was abandoned in a panic.
Enter James Constable and Ryan Williams. Constable, of course, has plenty of credit in the bank and just his presence at half-time gave everyone a lift. He couldn’t fail, and because with him there needs to be no fear of failure, he got on with being James Constable; harrying, closing down and holding the ball up.
Williams has a little bit of credit, a bit of naiveté and a bit of ballsy talent. Again, he was positive and direct and that’s all it was going to ever take to create chances.
Their second goal, in many ways, was the best thing that could have happened. The people next to me left because, to them, the familiar routine was complete and they could go home to prepare for the start of its next cycle. In fact, the players were no longer ‘league 2 big boys’ or whatever label you want to give them, they were players who were simply losing a game. In a sense, they were able to relax.
With all the expectations gone and impetus coming from Constable and Williams, the ability that is evidently there, began to show. Whilst I wouldn’t like to think we’d rely on this tactic too often, for once it worked.
The routines we currently have on and off the field don’t work. We know the players can play and the fans can do whatever it is fans do. All the ingredients are there, but whatever habits we have formed because they are ‘lucky’ or ‘normal’ or ‘right’ need analysing and unlearning. Because somewhere in there is the answer to our home form.
My coffee and chocolate routine has a ‘cocoa before bedtime’ feel about it. Does my little contribution become blunted by my routine? All those around me have little routines, and I know this because I see them every week, the aggregation of all these muted habitual responses is potentially massive. We have flags all over the stadium, because we’re a fervent vocal crowd, but flags are now draped not waved. We’ve changed the pre-match routine, but we’ve just put on some dance music and turned up the volume.
Is the closure of the Priory a factor? There needs to be somewhere for people to meet and get warmed up. It’s not about drink, it’s about camaraderie. Away from home, mustering points are arranged in advance. These can’t be official – the supporters bar is a worthy cause but anything official will be too sterile; it’s got to be fan lead.
It strikes me that what happens away is that something gets the party started. In part it’s about simply travelling with a group of the like-minded. It’s difficult to talk about these things without war-like references, and violence is not the point, but it’s an invading army.
At home, there’s the routine is more mundane. The party never starts. Something needs to happen outside the ground. Let’s look at what others do, let’s have a plan, not one thing, lots of things, not one game, every game, refine, refine, refine. Could tailgate parties be an answer? Not exactly party of British football culture? What do the Germans do? Everyone looks at Dortmund.
I don’t know what the on-pitch routine is but everything needs looking at. There’s a template away from home which seems to work. Are the players arriving at the ground too late? Do they eat together? Away from home they might be together 24 hours before a game, their outside world disappearing as they become an army on the march. If they met up an hour or two earlier, would that help? It’s worth looking at.
Professor Richard Wiseman studies the psychology of luck. He found that there is no such thing as ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’. On average, everyone has roughly the same number of positive and negative experiences. Those who consider themselves to be unlucky are those who don’t respond to change. Those who are stuck in a routine are the ones who feel bad times hardest. Perhaps it’s time to break the old routine?