Sunday, 5 February 2012

My First Game...

I'm seven years old and I'm at the Manor Ground. I've not got an Oxford United shirt on. I don't own one. If you had spoken to me 24 hours earlier as I tore open my Christmas presents, you would have been informed that I was a Liverpool fan. Dad is a Liverpool fan, so I'm a Liverpool fan. Robbie Fowler is my hero and I love watching the old season reviews on video tape. I know that Oxford has a football team but at this moment in time, the Milk Cup is merely a vessel used to strengthen my bones and enhance the quality of my smile.

With this in mind, why am I wrapped up like an Arctic explorer on a bitterly cold Boxing Day afternoon in Headington?

Despite claiming that “football is a game for rough boys” when I first encounter the sport (and I'm still not entirely sure that my mindset has been fully transformed), I've grown to love it. As soon as I'm allowed, I join a football team and due to winning a penalty shoot-out in the first training session, I'm officially a striker. I'm taller than the other boys my age so I don't do too badly, despite lacking any pace. Take my Welsh roots, penalty record and lack of mobility into account and I'm effectively a seven year old Rob Duffy. Obviously, I'd be more like Alan Shearer if I had been to a match and seen the level I should aspire to in the flesh.

However, this is all about to change. On Christmas Day 1998, I am informed that my football team's manager is taking me to the Division One game against Crystal Palace the following day, presumably as a reward for scoring against Halifax Town U8s on my d├ębut. I'm not sure who seven year old Andy Burgess is in this strange analogy, but I probably don't like him.

And so, this is it. I'm a football fan. I'm given a whirlwind lesson in everything Oxford United as we park up and walk to the ground. Firstly, we have no money. In my young mind, I'm not quite sure why this is important. The football team I play for don't seem to have any money but we are really good. Why is everybody so concerned? Apparently, a player called Dean Windass is going to be leaving soon to save the club. He must be really bad.

My memory of the game itself is hazy. Unlike my first Liverpool game several months later, not a great deal of the match seems to sink in. I know that Palace scored first and it is only thanks to the power of the internet that I can tell you that this was through a Craig Foster header. It's also news to me that I've seen Matt Jansen play football.

It is what happens next that will live with me forever. Oxford are awarded a free-kick 30 yard from goal. Windass steps up to smash the ball into the goal away to my left. Apparently, he's actually quite good.

The ground seems to erupt and whilst I jump and cheer, I am trying to take in everything that has happened around me. When the only goals you have seen have been on television or your own, followed only by the applause and shrieks of parents on the touchline, the majority of an 8,375 crowd going mental is a slight shock to the system. I like it and decide I could get used to it.

Unfortunately, this is Oxford United and I shouldn't get used to it. Clinton Morrison, a man I've never been fond of (and now I know why), restores the Palace lead. Two minutes later, Lee Bradbury adds a penalty and it's game over. When Bradbury signs for Oxford many years later, I have absolutely no idea that he was a key factor in my first game setting the tone for the following decade. I do grudges very well, so the current Bournemouth manager has had a lucky escape.

I'm hastily written off as an unlucky charm and the invitation isn't repeated. Over the next few years, I will be reclaimed by my family and the only team I watch in person are Liverpool. My next Oxford game is in 2002 and it will be another few years before I fully understand that my local club is the one that I love the most.

I have been going to home games and the odd away fixture with the family of a school friend and whilst we are anything but successful, I really enjoy following this team. If anything, it is the pain of the relegation season that confirms where my loyalties lie. As Leyton Orient go nuts in the North Stand, I don't go home. I look down on what is now the home of Conference football from the South Stand and it hurts. It hurts a lot. Steve Basham, my first Oxford hero, is in tears and when I feel like doing the same, I know that I'm going to be here for life.

Despite deviating from what I am supposed to be talking about, there is a point to this. Due to my period of gradual realisation, I never return to the Manor Ground. By the time I next go to an Oxford game, we have a new home. As a result, when fans recall the old ground with such affection, I can't join in. It was cold and we lost every game there. What was there to like?

As a result, however, I don't know the ground very well. If Windass scored in the goal to my left, where was I? Answers below please. If it was that fixture which brought Oxford United into my conscious thinking, I want to know all the details.

Unlike many Oxford United fans, my first game wasn't the game that changed my life. My love for the club was developed over a period far longer than 90 minutes. However, this was the highest I have ever seen Oxford in the Football League. Although I have every faith that I will one day watch Oxford at such a level again (and this time I'll care), for now, this is the peak.

It's a good job I was good at penalties...

Oxford Utd: Gerrard, Robinson, Powell, Wright (Cook 68), Watson, Warren (Wilsterman 87), Remy, Smith, Thomson (Beauchamp 45), Windass, Murphy.

Goals: Windass 68.

Crystal Palace: Miller, Jihai, Smith, Moore (Rizzo 90), Linighan, Foster, Burton, Zhiyi, Bradbury, Jansen (Morrison 45), Rodger.

Goals: Foster 59, Morrison 78, Bradbury 80 pen.

1 comment:

The Moroccan Yellow said...

Brilliant account. Really well written. You've got talent, mate!