We’ve had promotions before, we’ve had derby wins, we’ve had trips to Wembley, we’ve had giant killings. We’ve never had all four in one season. And that should tell you all you need to know about this year.
Before the Wycombe game, someone on Twitter worked out the various permutations of the final day; we would be promoted in all but a handful of them. Success was not quite inevitable, but failure seemed inconceivable. It wasn’t arrogance, it’s just that it was impossible to think that after months in the automatic places, after everything we’ve been through, that it might actually end up in a big wet play-off shaped fart.
The situation was almost identical 20 years ago when we went into the game against Peterborough needing a win at home to get promoted. We did it comfortably and joyously and I couldn’t imagine it being any different this time. But, as an evidence base and reference point, this was somewhat outdated.
Like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, there was still a theoretical, undefinable, inconceivable threat. Wycombe could frustrate us; motivated to spoil the party. We could freeze. This is, after all, Oxford United.
In response, the club did what the club does these days; it ignored the what-ifs, and defused the tension with a bar-b-que for the fans at the Oxford Academy. The philosophy was to behave like where you want to be, not where you're at; not eaten by anxiety, but already, effectively, promoted.
The sun shone, and the fans came, and the club delivered another PR masterstroke in a season of masterstrokes.
At the Kassam, people buzzed around the stadium not quite knowing what to do. People sat in their cars reading newspapers having secured their usual spot hours earlier. Their routines disrupted by the size of the crowd and the prospects of what was in store. In the South Stand Upper there was near-silence as people fixated on the TV showing the Middlesbrough v Brighton game trying to avoid talking about what might happen after-3pm.
Earlier, I’d met Brinyhoof in the bar, he was talking with some people from the FOUL days and the old Oxford indie scene who now have management jobs, raise children and pay into pension schemes while running social media accounts for bands that were once wan, willowy and pretty and now portly, raising children and paying into pension schemes. “He used to play in Hurricane No. 1”, he tells me afterwards.
We go in early and do a quick tour of the South Stand, spotting faces from the old days. They work for the club nowadays, or volunteer, or run blogs and podcasts or just hang around social media sites living out the despair and occasional triumphs.
We have the ’86 generation and the ’96 generation. A generation that fund, arrange and make the displays that have transformed the soulless Kassam Stadium into the broiling hive it’s been this year.
At the heart of the revolution is Darryl Eales and Michael Appleton, of course, and the players. But at the heart of the club are the same people who have seen us through relegations and false dawns and disappointments and non-league football and near-liquidation. These people, so attuned to failure, were also confident and calm, more excited than worried.
Wycombe didn’t roll over though. An early goal may have broken their spirit, but it didn’t come and they went about their business disrupting our rhythm. With the sun beating down and nervous tension things threatened to overheat; it wasn’t pleasant.
And then the rain came, a biblical downpour that hammered down on the roof of the stadium making a cacophonous noise like I’ve never heard before. If this was a rock concert, it was the equivalent of getting a couple of acoustic guitars out and playing some ballads to give the crowd a rest.
Cooled by the rain, Wycombe’s initial burst of energy subsided and the elastic began to stretch, but we still needed something to make it snap. In 1996 it was Giuliano Grazioli’s misplaced header from a Joey Beauchamp corner. Twenty years on; Chris Maguire delivered another corner into the box and careering through a crowd of bodies thundered Chey Dunkley to make a connection. Snap. 1-0.
In many ways Dunkley is the archetype of the Appleton-era. I thought he’d been brought from non-league football as a cheap wage but over the last year he’s developed physically and technically. He is a player who wants to learn and work and the kind that will respond to Appleton’s developmental approach to coaching.
Maguire makes it two from the spot. More the finished article, he seems the type that would respond to Appleton’s desire for players to think for themselves rather than play to a rigid system. For all the talk of Roofe, Hylton, Sercombe and Lundstram, it’s Maguire and Dunkley more than anyone else who have carried us over the line.
There’s a sign in the back of the East Stand ‘A Time For Heroes’, a few weeks ago it looked like ours were injured or exhausted, but the void was filled by Dunkley and Maguire along with Josh Ruffels; a forgotten man who turned out performances whenever and wherever needed. A special-team to close out a special season.
The tension from the ground evaporated. Lundstram’s passing became more expansive, Roofe looked more mobile, at one point Jake Wright majestically picked up a ball from the edge of the box and waltzed out into midfield like Bobby Moore.
Then the coronations, MacDonald jogs off; a player who gave up a promotion push with Burton to join the revolution and never once let his enthusiasm drop. He was the first, the vanguard. When George Baldock went back to MK Dons and Jonjoe Kenny came in there was a worry that it might be enough to burst the bubble, but MacDonald mentored Kenny, protected and supported him and helped him develop into another asset. Did we miss Baldock? Yes. But nowhere near as much as was feared.
Hylton and Roofe are replaced to deserved standing ovations. Roofe almost transcends the club now, which is why I think Hylton won the fans’ player of the year. It's the mix of ability and application, plus eccentricity and triumph over adversity that makes Danny Hylton and the club he plays for a little bit different.
And in the final seconds; a moment to file alongside THAT goal by Alfie Potter. O’Dowda, picks the ball up, rides a few half-hearted challenges and wrong foots the keeper to make it three. An Oxford boy confirming an Oxford triumph. There’s are shades of Joey Beauchamp’s last goal before he went to West Ham; cutting in from the right in front of the home end. That was Beauchamp’s farewell… And O’Dowda?
There are two things that have dawned on me about promotions. Firstly, I know that players rarely support their club, but I want their time with us to be the best of their career, and, the reason I want promotion is not really for me, but for them, to reward them for their effort throughout the season.
Were we the best team in the division? That’s an argument that will never end, the table tells you one thing, but look more broadly and it’s closer than you’d think. We scored more goals and conceded less than Northampton, if you factor in our cup games, we only won one game less. If you consider the physical and mental challenge of our season compared to theirs, then there’s a reasonable argument to say that we have been at least on par. Experimental 361 did some analysis that showed how effective we’d been and Chris Wilder himself once admitted that we were the best footballing team. Were we the best? Yeah, why not?
It’s difficult to overstate how close I was to giving up on Oxford last year. I was bored of the false dawns and wasted Saturdays. I was no longer bound by a blind youthful loyalty, maybe I could pick and choose my games like a casual fan. This season was a last chance saloon, I had visions of signing off this blog and actually walking away from the club, going to find something better to do with my limited spare time. And then this season happened, and it has reignited everything I love about the club; success and excitement, tension, camaraderie, but also effort and hard work and reward. Oxford United, how did I ever doubt you?