Hotdogs, hotels and heartbreak

It is said that being a fan of a lower league football club is characterised by disappointment, unfulfilled dreams and frustration. For Oxford United fans, home games provide a constant architectural reminder of their status: a gaping chasm where a Fourth Stand should be. A structurally unsound fence separates the grass canvas of dreams from the Bowlplex car park. The old owner of the team, Firoz Kassam, generously offered to build a fourth stand should United ever make it to the Championship. As he watched his side slide through the divisions and finally out of the football league, his hands remained firmly in his pockets. It was a bizarre reversal of the Exodus, the Tanzanian Hotelier shepherding the Us from their spiritual homeland at the Old Manor Ground in Headington and into his slavery at the self-titled Kassam stadium. United fans still sing the terrace chant evoking the memory of the celestial London Road Stand, as if its mere mention may restore the glory it once witnessed, the echoes conjuring the spirit of Dean Windass, Joey Beauchamp or Chris Basham. Kassam remains a hated figure at United, a landlord still collecting tithes from the Club whose soul he sold, demolished and in its place built a Gala Bingo.

Yet after three years in the wilderness (the dark wastelands of English football patrolled by teams like Ebbsfleet and Kettering), with players who can only nominally be described as footballers, Oxford exploded back into the football league. Ask any United fan the best day of his life, and he’ll tell you it was either the Conference playoff final or the day the refreshments stand started selling ‘Rollover hot dogs’. 33,000 in Yellow and Blue stormed the heart of English football, the ultras of the South Midlands Hit Squad standing side by side with University professors to watch their beloved team annihilate a weak York City side.

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Two seasons in League 2 came to a head in Saturday’s game against Southend with a playoff position in contention for both sides. Not even the grumpiest of fans could complain about a campaign that saw victories home and away over fierce rivals Swindon Town, managed by their ‘il duce’ Paulo Di Canio. Recently described as one of the most explosive rivalries between Chippenham and Leighton Buzzard, the two teams share the A420, but little else. Yet despite defeating the Robins, Oxford dipped in form. The loss of key players James Constable and Alfie Potter has contributed to Oxford’s current position, two points behind Crewe Alexandra in the last playoff position. Oxford’s game against the Essex shrimpers was an old fashioned six pointer at the top of the table, with Crewe away at other promotion hopefuls Torquay.

Despite the delay trying to find a parking space at the Kassam (the main car park was reserved for the competitors of the county bowling competition at the Bowlplex, while the overspill was playing host to the Joyces and Quinn Macdonaghs of County Antrim), we arrived in time to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. If you are lucky, you might bump into one of the local celebrities who frequent the Kassam, Olly the Ox or Timmy Mallett, the kind of actor (or comedian, who knows?) who struggles to make ends meet outside the Pantomime season. Yet despite the dip in form, and despite the shortage of Rollover hot dogs in the refreshments aisle there was optimism around the ground, the kind of blind faith reserved solely for lower league football fans, and as the huge yellow flag descended over the Oxford Mail Stand, amplifying the nonsensical chants of faithful yellows, everything seemed to be in place for a wonderful afternoon of football. That was, of course, until the game started.

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Theo Walcott said of watching Barcelona play Arsenal at the Emirates a few seasons ago that it was like watching a game of FIFA, such was the technical skill, responsiveness and insight of the players. If that is the case, then watching Oxford play Southend United was also like watching a game of FIFA, but a game in which all the buttons are stuck and the competitors are otters. The football was basic, Oxford lacked incisiveness, and creativity was wastefully sprawled across the treatment table. With Michael Duberry, a contemporary of prehistoric man, providing a strong but slow spine the Shrimpers enjoyed vast swathes of possession and the lion’s share of the chances, going into the break with an uncompromising 2-0 lead.

The Oxford crowd, with nothing to shout about, were distracted first by the referee (who ‘stank of shit’), then the linesman (a ‘fucking wanker’ by trade), and finally the Southend goalkeeper, a busty and curvaceous character who incensed the Kassam faithful by constantly reminding them of the score line. Despite greeting every touch with derogative comments about his weight and skill, Cameron Belford (on loan from Bury) was not easily distracted, saving brilliantly from the prolific Asa Hall at the death.

The game ended 2-0 to Southend, the second half characterised more by the vitriol of the crowd than by the football, and after trailing for 90 minutes Crewe got a last minute equaliser against Torquay. The Us promotion hopes are now out of their hands, their fate in the hands of Railway Men at the Alexandra Stadium on the last day of the season. Crewe had gathered steam while Oxford’s season derailed, another disappointing end to a disappointing year. It looks like another year with Morecambe, Aldershot and Barnet, and another year of gypsy encampments and moronic stewards.