Twenty years ago the home team were struggling to stay in the top flight – today they are struggling to get back into the Football League. But at least they have a nice new ground, complete in almost all respect. By Josh Widdicombe
Outside Oxford train station at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, no one has any idea what the Kassam Stadium is, let alone how to get there. A group of teenagers, who have found some steps to sit on and won’t be moving for anyone, look at me with confusion. A bus driver gives me a shake of the head, implying public transport is too much trouble by half. I settle for a taxi. We pull out of the car park and are overtaken by a bus, whose destination is “Football Ground”.
The winding journey soon abandons the Inspector Morse architecture and when a brown tourism sign finally points the way to the stadium you are unsure if you are still in Oxfordshire, let alone Oxford. If football is repositioning itself as a TV-friendly entertainment industry, Oxford United must feel like Alan Partridge living in the Linton Travel Tavern: ignored by everyone, stuck in the middle of nowhere as a shadow of their former selves.
Far from their Eighties heyday of Division One football and a League Cup victory, Oxford are now battling through their second season in the Conference. And they are doing it at an out-of-town complex, having abandoned the, admittedly decrepit, Manor Ground in 2001. People get very angry that new football grounds are all just identi-kit bowls, sacrificing soul for functionality. The Ricoh Arena is just the Darlington Arena in sky blue, which is just a downsized version of St Mary’s, and on and on it goes. But on first inspection the Kassam is one of the few new grounds that could be picked out of a line-up, having been built with a simple idea: “Why have four stands when you can get away with three?”
Those who feel threatened by the individuality of the Kassam are advised to turn 180 degrees and walk across the car park to the Kassam Stadium mall. Housing a bowling alley, a cinema and a Frankie & Benny’s Italian restaurant, it is a new kind of pre-match experience. I’ve watched football in some unlikely places, but the Merseyside derby in the Oxford Bowlplex goes straight into the top five. I enter to see men in Oxford shirts warming up for the match with air hockey or a quick frame of ten-pin bowling. Pre-match at the Kassam is to Conference football what Blackpool is to northern industrial towns.
In the bar, the stop-start match at Goodison is uncomfortably soundtracked by the commercial dance that throbs around the Bowlplex. Sami Hyypia almost brings the curtain down on Liverpool’s title challenge with a comical own goal and the Oxford and Woking fans cheer as one. United in joy at the big boys’ embarrassment. Presuming Everton have it sewn up, I decide to give the second half a miss.
Inside the ground I take my seat in front of a man discussing his trip to Wembley for England v Estonia the previous week and this evening’s Rugby World Cup final. So far I’ve heard discussions of three different sporting events today, but I have yet to hear mention of the game we have paid to watch here. Is this a coping mechanism for Oxford fans in denial about their current position?
One fan tells me that last year it all seemed like a bit of a laugh, one season in the Conference before inevitable promotion back to the League. They had no reason to doubt it. Jim Smith, back at the club 20-odd years after guiding them into Division One, oversaw 16 games without defeat at the start of the season and the club were top on Boxing Day when Woking visited. That day the Kassam Stadium clocked up the record Conference crowd (excluding play-offs), with 11,065 fans turning out in the hope of enjoying some rare success. Come May, Oxford finished second and lost on penalties to Exeter in the play-off semi-finals. Ten months on they sit mid-table and 4,713 have come to see them. Even that seems like a hopeful estimate to me, as the splashes of yellow from fans making the most of their replica shirts in the last throes of summer are far rarer than the dark blue of empty seating. Oxford’s exciting adventure is suddenly not so much fun.
While the Conference may be an unwelcome stop-off point for Oxford, for Woking it feels like home. Since arriving in the division in 1992 they have toyed with promotion and relegation, but really had their fun in the cups. If you ask a football fan about Woking FC, the names they will throw at you are Tim Buzaglo and Geoff Chapple. Buzaglo, the classic FA Cup hero, had his day when his hat-trick helped Woking to a 4-2 victory over West Brom in the 1991 third round; Chapple was the non-League Wembley specialist who won three FA Trophy finals for the club.
After a brief challenge for promotion under Glenn Cockerill a couple of years ago, Woking have relaxed into the safety of mid-table. Like most of the division, they come to Oxford with the intention of discomfiting the biggest club in their league. Today, the plan goes perfectly. Woking kick off with a punt into the corner – what it lacks tactically is more than compensated for territorially. Within a minute they are awarded a free-kick for some needless pushing and the man next to me is already exasperated, muttering to himself: “Oh for God’s sake, here we go again.” While some modern grounds lack atmosphere, the south stand at the Kassam can’t be accused of that; frustration, discontent and fear of the inevitable are all strong in the air. Nine days previously Oxford drew 3‑3 with Torquay after leading 3‑0, the fourth time they had thrown away a lead at home this season. Players are often victims of a crisis of confidence, but it can be just the same for fans.
Four minutes in, a ball over the top breaks to Woking’s Marvin Martin – a huge, pacey striker with more than a hint of Paulo Wanchope about him. His first touch brings him across the path of Luke Foster, letting the defender see enough of the ball to be drawn into the tackle, but not quite enough for him to execute it. In he dives and down goes Martin. If it’s a free-kick it should be a sending-off, there’s no doubt. Referee Andy Hendley bottles it. Yellow card for Foster. Kevin James strikes the free-kick off the bar and Oxford escape. My neighbour mutters: “Terrible decision.” He’s right, though I have the feeling his interpretation of where the ref went wrong differs from mine.
Woking continue to hit the ball over the top for Martin with quite a bit of success, Oxford’s high line of defence making it a relatively easy task. Most of the blame is already being directed at Hendley, who is committing the terrible crime of spotting fouls by Oxford players and awarding free-kicks for them. The crowd is restless for some positive action. Then, on 13 minutes, relief hits. Hendley blows up and signals that he’s injured and needs to be substituted. Joy erupts around me, articulated in equal parts by boos for Hendley and cheers at his misfortune. There nothing like a bit of schadenfreude to unite a crowd.
The new ref, Mr Meeson, is a like-for-like scapegoat for Hendley and the half continues as is. Oxford try to get it down to play but they are tentative, every player afraid they will be the one to put a foot wrong. The ball begins to spend more and more time in the air. When it is on the ground and a pass doesn’t reach its man, the crowd jump on it as an example of Oxford’s failings, chastising the unlucky player. The vicious circle continues throughout the half.
Finally Oxford force some pressure, a corner is punched clear and returned looping up and on to the bar. “Just our luck,” someone mutters behind me. I decide against pointing out the events of earlier in the game.
Woking still look the more confident side and another free-kick thwacks against the underside of the bar, bouncing out only to be hit against the bar again. Then, on the verge of half-time, a cross from the right comes to Martin three yards out but he catches sight of a team-mate and they leave it for each other. The ball dribbles out of play and Oxford escape to the break all square.
Smith starts off the second half with a double substitution. If José Mourinho has a legacy in England, it is in convincing people that it is never too early to make sweeping changes. Before Mourinho, a substitution before 70 minutes was looked on as an admission of insanity or terrible weakness. The changes have the desired effect and Oxford start to control the game with a greater intensity and maybe, just maybe, they could do something here. A bit of positivity even spreads to the stands, abuse is replaced with understanding when an ambitious pass fails to reach its target. For the first time in the game, Smith’s familiar bald head appears from the dugout. He strolls the boundaries of his technical area barking instructions, directing players a yard to the left or right. But Oxford still can’t string anything of substance together and Woking are becoming increasingly comfortable as the ball heads higher and higher into the air.
The mood begins to sour and the conspicuous Smith is now the target. “Good one Smith, really sorted it out this time,” a drunk in a box shouts from behind me, getting more of a laugh than he deserves. Smith heads back into his dugout, tail between his legs. With that the game deteriorates into nothingness. Oxford have no cutting edge, Woking have no will to go forward. Two minutes of injury time are announced and half the crowd rises to leave. I’ve never seen so many people attempt to leave before the end – there is gridlock in the walkway next to me. Has the full-time whistle blown and I’m the only one who hasn’t noticed? A couple of minutes later it does for real and boos ring out from those left, the remaining fans that are still suffering Oxford’s Conference adventure. In truth, United were lucky to escape with a point, though their fans are feeling far from lucky at the moment.
Outside, cars are barely moving in the car park. Oxford fans are unable to find space or work out a way to escape. With a bit of patience they will get out of this situation, but the wait is already becoming interminable.
From WSC 250 December 2007