Sunday, 3 October 2010

From The Depths Of Despair To Joy In Thirty Seconds

We were in to stoppage time. Oxford United were still holding on to a deserved 1-0 lead over the league leaders, Port Vale. Ryan Clarke was performing wonders in the Oxford goal. The whole of the Oxford Mail stand was on their feet urging the men in yellow over the finishing line. We needed this win. We had drawn too many games already this season.

With Port Vale camped in our half, they pumped yet another ball into the Oxford box. It looped over the defence and was slammed home on the volley by centre-half, Gareth Owen. A deadly silence took over the Oxford fans; some stood and watched expressionless, others hung their heads, while the more animated kicked out at the seat in front of them. The Port Vale fans, however, had gone berserk. They had come back at the death to pinch a point and remain top of the league. Some of their fans could not hide their delight and poured onto the pitch, mobbing their players. With their tough Staffordshire accents, they bellowed ‘Vale, Vale, Vale!’ at us. It was a party atmosphere in the away stand.

The life was quickly sucked out of the Port Vale party though. Off the re-start Ben Purkiss, the Oxford deputy right back who is improving every week, launched the ball forward. It fell to substitute Matt Green who swivelled on the edge of the box and fed the ball to Tom Craddock in acres of room. Craddock turned and with his left foot tucked the ball away into the corner of the net for his second goal of the game. Mayhem followed. I grabbed my two brothers, one of whom had just flown in from the States and the other who was watching his last Oxford game for many months as he jets off to New Zealand this week. Dad was caught somewhere in the ruckus and was desperately trying to keep his glasses on his face. The man and his son seated next to me went potty too. Judging by his breath as he roared in my face, the man had eaten a hot dog during the half time interval. Fans in yellow leant back and shouted with relief into the autumn Oxford sunshine. In the five minutes that followed, the Oxford supporters created that same deafening atmosphere that we had in the play-off semi final against Rushden and against Luton. We screamed in the direction of the Port Vale fans, whose afternoon had turned from ecstasy to misery in the space of thirty seconds. The ‘you’re not singing anymore’ chant was even more appropriate than it had been at Crewe the week before.

A minute later and the final whistle was finally blown. My voice was hoarse, my heart was hammering and I felt utterly elated. So too did the greasy lad behind me who stated that October 2 2010 had been, ‘the best day of my life.’ As I left the stadium, with the Oxford fans still singing and clapping, I thought that the match I had just watched is the reason why thousands flock every week to watch their various teams up and down the country. It is for that moment, when you are seemingly down and out and can give no more to rise and snatch a game at the brink why as football fans we are addicted to our sport. It is feeling matched by no other in life and the time that it happens in the season, as it did today, is truly wonderful. As football fans, we suffer watching out teams. I remember sitting through a turgid goalless draw against Boston United on a bitterly cold, wind-swept December day where there were no shots on target. Not one. I also remember that horrible, hollow feeling after being beaten in the 2007 play-off semi final by Exeter City on penalties. Having to witness the episodes such as this, make days like today even sweeter.

The match itself was a lively encounter. Port Vale were organised and efficient. They were not the best team that I have seen this season, but I think that they will be in and around the play-off spots. Throughout the ninety minutes, Oxford United were superb. Josh Payne was again, influential in the middle of the midfield. His floated cross for the first goal was sublime. The weight on the ball was perfect. It was enough to beat the defender, but also gave the on-rushing Tom Craddock the time to pick his spot and bury his header past Stuart Tomlinson in the Port Vale goal. Payne was backed up brilliantly by Asa Hall and in particular, Simon Heslop. The game also showed the depth that exists in the Oxford United squad. This is a real reason for optimism. When Simon Clist cannot make the starting line-up of a league 2 team, you know you are heading in the right direction. Furthermore Leigh Franks and Stevie Kinniburgh brought in for their first starts of the season both performed admirably.

What an afternoon. No regrets eh, Robbie Williams?