Friday, 7 September 2012

One night in Stratford...

In the absence of a match report, George Dugdale tells of his experience of following the Swindon victory (the fourth one in the set, if you're losing count) via the internet.

Is this what it used to be like in the olden days? Did we have people staring incessantly at the Ceefax screen waiting for the vidiprinter to bring you the news? It might be 2012 but that is what I was reduced to last night as Chris Wilder's side won the fourth derby in succession and the third in his tenure.

I had a letter from Channel 4 a couple of months ago. 'George, would you like to work at the Paralympics?' Well yes, yes I would. I've not done a full day's paid work in my life and this could potentially be a game-changer. I looked at the fixture list and figured out that I would miss Southend, York and Exeter. I could return home for Plymouth and as far as things go, that wouldn't be too bad. We then drew Leeds United away in League Cup. Irritating, but I could get over it. The big problems arose as we set off for Bristol Rovers on day one with the news of a home draw against Swindon in the JPT. I knew that I couldn't go.

Perhaps the Paralympics officials would be understanding? I understand that this is quite a big deal to you and the rest of the world, but can't we just have a night off? Unsurprisingly, we couldn't and my experience of the third derby victory was destined to be thus: 'Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.'

This season's derby has taken on some extra significance from my point of view. A friend's brother plays football and in the summer, I knew he was on the move. Attempts to pull him to Oxford United were rejected as he wanted League One football, so we ended the conversation by saying: “anywhere but Swindon Town”.

This became an issue a couple of weeks later. A text came through. 'Sorry. He's going to Swindon.'

It is at times like these where you re-evaluate friendships but considering he would most likely be booted up the backside or subbed after thirty-five seconds of a game sooner or later, I comforted myself with the belief that this time would be brief and the friendship could be resurrected soon enough.

Irritatingly, the friend's surname is not Foderingham and the player in question appears to have done pretty well. We ended conversation before the game with the primary school line of 'treat others how you would like to be treated', partly because I wasn't overly confident. They may be based at the wrong end of the road, but Swindon Town have spent unbelievable sums of money on good players and beat Stoke a week ago. Add in the fact that they are managed by a madman who wants revenge and you could perhaps understand why I wasn't entirely confident that our depleted squad could get a result.

Over in C4 Paralympic towers at 1900, or the evening show as I now call it, I was working hard and debating the decision to put Alfie on the bench. It was only the JPT and I wouldn't want to lose a big player for the league campaign. This was a game that was only worthwhile in terms of bragging rights and we know what happens to us when Alfie is missing for prolonged periods.

45 minutes later and I am ready for kick-off. Perhaps due to the awareness that I often have other things on my mind, the computers at our logging desk do not have an internet connection. This means no 'Yellow Player' underneath my work headphones and no commentary. It means over 90 minutes of downward scrolling. If you have an iPhone with Twitter, you will understand what I mean.

I admit that I am not particularly good at derby fixtures. I get ridiculously nervous and refuse to enjoy it until I know we are safe. Even in the 2-0 victory last season, I don't think I was entirely willing to celebrate until there was a minute of stoppage time remaining. I'm even worse when I am listening to radio commentary so I wasn't sure what a night of Twitter would do to me.

Whilst maintaining a TX log of C4's output (that's lots of clicking and typing to the rest of you), Twitter was keeping me up to date. Swindon had created a few chances in the first half but Clarke hadn't been stretched too much and we were having our own say too.

You do strange things when you are powerless and superstitions became a problem. I had initially planned to only check the score at half-time and full-time, but that lasted a minute and proved to be unsustainable. The next superstition involved only reading the tweets when C4 left the studio, whether it were for a break, live action or a VT. On average, that resulted in three minute bursts and as things were going well, I couldn't change. In my mind, I was keeping us in the game and any compromise to my strategy would have devastating effects.

Half-time came and went, although for 15 joyous minutes I wasn't a nervous wreck. However, in the second half, a problem developed. Not a great deal was actually happening. It transpires that this was because the teams were kicking lumps out on each other rather than attacking the goal, but in my mind something was certainly wrong. There had been a catastrophic internet failure on Grenoble Road and people were hiding things from me. This resulted in a new strategy called the 'constant refresh'. This is where you are unable to believe that nothing is happening and when it does, you need to know about it instantly.

The crazy thing about Twitter at times like these is that not everybody on your timeline actually cares about the same stuff as you. I'm on edge and don't take particularly well to tweets about new puppies and what is on BBC 3 (and why aren't you watching the Paralympics?).

The minutes count down and I realise that I am hoping for penalties. I have immense faith in Ryan Clarke to stop at least one penalty and if our penalties match those against Bournemouth, we'll be OK.

As I am looking at the minutes decrease, I drop my guard. I have assumed that penalties are the only outcome and nothing is going to change that. I'm relatively calm as I scroll down once more. Then everything changes.

These tweets appear first. OUFClive and Dave Pritchard have laptops and are quicker than the fans to bring me the news. If memories of the last Swindon fixtures are accurate, the fans are also too busy landing in rows that are not their own to do any social networking.

When Alfie Potter comes on as a substitute, brilliant things happen. I should have remembered that.

All of a sudden, my life becomes very surreal. I am in an office in the International Broadcast Centre at the Paralympics. There is a massive red light in front of me that reads 'on air'. Everybody else is totally calm and enjoying their work. Whilst my heart wants to run into the studio and do a full-length body slide across Ade Adepitan and Clare Balding's table, my head tells me to maintain composure. I allow a couple of revolutions of my spinning chair in celebration, but there is little else to do. My head is going bonkers, there is sitting volleyball on the TX screen and I'm in a room full of people that don't care. When we beat Swindon at home last season, I hugged strangers, but they were Oxford United strangers and it was OK. As Warwick Davis from Willow and Harry Potter walks through the office, I decide that it isn't a good idea. As with all guests to the studio, Mr Davis has to walk past my desk to get to the green room. I'm grinning from ear to ear. I think Warwick is slightly concerned by the apparent level of my love for him.

There are four minutes remaining and my life is slightly chaotic. I am refreshing Twitter and logging an exchange in the studio that really requires my full attention. Once this is done, the referee has blown his whistle and I can only assume that Grenoble Road has gone wild. Twitter certainly has and the reason I won't be using screen-shots for full-time is because not one Oxford United fan has found it in themselves to resist the urge to swear. It's one of those moments and I think we all understand.

The moment is glorious and surreal in equal measure, but a Facebook notification gains my attention. It's the sister of the Swindon player. It reads 'ah shit...' My day is made.

Nothing can go wrong from this point onwards. I am an emotional wreck, nobody at C4 would understand why and I have kept myself to myself. Apart from on Twitter. I've gone mental on there.

Looking back, it is clear to me that the best place to be when the derby comes around is at the game. I understand that many Oxford fans live too far away for this to be a possibility and I have had a difficult insight into their lives. I suppose I am fortunate. I attend the vast majority of games and whether we win, lose or draw, I am there to experience it.

I don't intend to make this Twitter football business a regular feature. I don't think I can handle it. However, I have gained a great deal of respect for the Oxford fan who can't be there. The fan who has their own superstitions and who can't make a cup of tea until half-time because we will concede if they do. It's a totally different world, but reading through the Twitter timeline, there is one thing that is clear. Wherever we are in the world, we are all very much in this together. I like that.

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