Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC
FA Cup Fourth Round
Saturday 30th January 2016
Kassam Stadium, Oxford, Oxfordshire
It’s 5pm on Transfer Deadline Day. It’s a time for the buzz of fax machines and recycled images of Colin Kazim-Richards getting into a car. It’s a time for Jim White to convince us all it’s not just a hideous construct created by Sky Sports that offers ever-diminishing returns on which his career relies upon.
It’s also a time for me to sit down and relive a weekend so ridiculously busy, it’d make Saido Berahino’s agent blush. Here’s a brief itinerary:
Friday 6pm: A quick chat with Oxford United fans Joe Nicholls and Joe Citrone. The fact they’re both called Joe was a coincidence rather than a requirement.
Friday 8pm: Performing comedy at Long Eaton Rugby Club. Down the road, BBC commentator Steve Wilson claimed the iPro Stadium was “the only place to be tonight in the East Midlands” which around 100 rugby-loving comedy fans would have probably refuted. Which brings me to…
Friday 11pm: A quick scan of Derby County’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester United with a glass of wine from the comfort of my own sofa having successfully avoided the score. Richard Keogh, a bone of contention in the heart of Derby’s defence for several of my DCFC supporting friends appears to be more solid than usual but it’s difficult to tell when you watch most of the game at six times the actual speed.
Saturday 10am: Not much of a lie-in as we freeze on the touchline of my son’s under-7s game in the bitter wind chill of a hilltop near Matlock. Drawing 1-1 with an equaliser on the stroke of half-time following a goalmouth scramble (it’s the perfect time to get a goal, Alan…), they go on to lose 7-1. One annoying, aggressive Grandad supporting the opposition team continually shouts instructions at a young lad called ‘Kieran’ and spends most of the game two steps over the touchline. Several are in tears by the end thanks to the Arctic conditions and I warm my son’s hands up in my pockets while congratulating his efforts.
Saturday 1pm: To the soundtrack of Tottenham vs Colchester on TalkSport, I head south to meet my mate Ket and his lad Ben near Northampton. We drive several miles in search of a spot to leave his car in, plumping for Tiffield, a village that’s received no through traffic since the street party for Charles and Diana.
Saturday 2pm: We arrive in the general vicinity of the Kassam Stadium. After deciding against parking in a marked bay for ‘R.Kemp’ on a business park, we leave the car nearby. It seems a safer bet than to risk upsetting either one of the Mitchell Brothers.
I could go on, but this is an FA Cup blog. At the heart of my weekend was a potential giantkilling in the form of Oxford United vs Blackburn Rovers. That I had to be back in Derbyshire to host an 8pm gig via Tiffield on the way home, or that Sunday evening included another gig in Melton Mowbray (if I ever finished the tax return I’d been avoiding…) is neither here nor there. You didn’t come here to read about my imminent breakdown.
“Is he mad?” is the response of Ket’s better half Kerry as he recounts my weekend schedule over the phone on our walk to the ground. “I haven’t finished yet,” he tells her. “He’s gigging tonight and tomorrow as well!”
I’ve known Ket for a few years now. A couple of stag dos, a few dozen shared hours in the pub and a previous Underdog Blog visit to Craven Cottage later and, despite living about 100miles apart, we’ve struck up a strong friendship. Joining us is his 13-year-old Ben who is coming along for only his second ever game – a recent goalless draw at his hometown team Peterborough doesn’t appear to have fazed his enthusiasm.
As the Kassam comes into sight, we discuss the distinct lack of a stand on the West side of the ground, which was apparently never built as a cost-cutting measure by former owner Firoz Kassam. The small fence protecting the goal is reminiscent of more than a few of the non-league grounds we visited during the qualifying rounds.
I’m a sucker for an award-winning pie and indulge in a Steak and Kidney that lives up to expectations as we get into the ground. It’s an impressive stadium from the outside with a large, glass exterior near what appears to be the main entrance and club shop. It’s where many fans have been purchasing tickets over the last few weeks as Oxford’s three-pronged attack on silverware has gathered pace.
With Millwall visiting the Kassam Stadium this coming Tuesday hoping to overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat in the Southern Final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, Wembley could already be on the horizon. The opportunity to lift their first silverware since winning the 2010 Conference play-off final has coincided with great league form, too. Oxford stand a real chance of returning to the third tier for the first time in a decade and a half during a period that saw them spend four years outside the Football League.
I ask Joe Nicholls, a 35-year-old fan who represents the Yellow Army, an online fan’s collective that keeps supporters connected with Club, on what the key to their recent success has been:
“I put that mainly down to Michael Appleton,” he tells me. “He’s been able to build his own side and backroom staff. It’s all come down to the manager’s hard work.
“We’d been on a downward spiral for quite a while. Even when we were in the Conference, winning every game, it never felt like we captured the county’s imagination. There wasn’t that same passion and spirit as there is now. People didn’t seem excited about Oxford United.”
17-year-old fan Joe Citrone has also been there through recent darker days in the Conference. He’s similarly upbeat about the future:
“It all feels a bit strange to be honest, like any moment I’m going to wake up and it’s all been a dream. Top three in the division, good chance of Wembley and a possibility of making the last 16 of the FA Cup. And we’ve done it all whilst playing exciting, expansive, free-flowing football.
“I’ve supported Oxford in our darkest hours. I was there when we lost 5-2 away at Histon on the coldest day in the history of the universe. From that moment, I’ve just thought ‘well at least things can’t get any worse than that’ and thankfully I was right! It’s just nice to be able to look back on those moments and laugh because we’ve seen how far we’ve come and we know that we are never ever going back to that place again. The club is going in the right direction and the only way is up.”
From an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be a brilliant grassroots feel to the way Oxford communicate with their fans. Their online presence is responsive in what’s been a busy few weeks for the ticket office and there seems to be a great camaraderie between the Club and fans – I even engage with Sue Currill, who works in the ticket office, via Twitter before the game. She’s unable to chat to me on the phone due to a throat infection she picked up cheering the Yellows to victory at Portsmouth last weekend.
Joe N continues: “The Chairman took over a couple of years ago. What he’s instilled in the Club, with the togetherness, has made a massive difference. We’ve got a Chairman who’ll drink with the fans in the pub, travel with us away. The man right at the top is one of us. He’s a very good businessman and runs the Club well but he wants to bring everyone together and I think that helps massively.
“It’s brilliant and we’re all determined to get promotion. That’s everyone’s ambition, from the players to the fans. The Cup runs are great but, ultimately, we all know what the main aim is. There’s no pressure – if we lose, we lose. There’ll be no despondency. We’re just looking forward to 3pm tomorrow.”
Joe C agrees: “There’s a buzz around the place at the moment and there is a real connection between owner, manager, players and fans. We all feel like we’re playing a part and that’s a special feeling. It says a lot about our season that getting into the last 16 of the FA Cup is probably our third priority.”
And how does the allure of the FA Cup differ between two different generations of fan? I asked Joe N, a fan of my generation, what he thought?:
He said: “I think the magic of the FA Cup is lost because of TV companies putting on Premier League sides. But when you’re involved in a football club, it’s still as big as ever. It still feels magical. We’ll wake up in the morning excited like a kid again. That’s what the FA Cup does; there’s nothing that really beats it.”
Surely the same can’t be said for a new generation of teenage fan brought up on Champions League football and a saturation of Premier League action?:
“I think the FA Cup is just as special as it’s ever been,” Joe C tells me. “It certainly is very important to me anyway. There’s nothing more exciting than a Third Round cup draw. For my Dad, it does mean more because he’s had to put up with much more FA Cup disappointment than me!”
We finish our chat, but he’s got another tip for me for tomorrow. “Watch out for Kemar Roofe. He’s given us some great moments this season. He’s smashed in a 40 yard strike at Brentford, won us a crucial game at Bristol Rovers live on TV through another wonder goal, scored both goals as we crushed arch rivals Swindon in the JPT and dismantled Premier League Swansea. So, he’s not bad…”
Ben is eager to take his seat in the East Stand behind the goal as we finish off our pies and beer. Large flags wave at the top of the packed ‘Kop’ end and a tremendous noise greets the two sides on their way out.
“Gonna win all three! Gonna win all three! Gonna win the league and the FA Cup and the JPT!” sing the fans, clearly revelling in an unlikely bid for their very own treble.
It’s a cagey opening quarter of an hour but Blackburn’s game plan is noticeable as they’re quick to close down Oxford and press them in possession. It’s an intelligent tactic against a passing side high on confidence and seems to be effective in preventing the Yellows from building momentum.
Simeon Jackson, who leads the line for the visitors in place of Middlesbrough-bound Jordan Rhodes, draws the ire of the home fans inside 15 minutes by winning a soft foul on the right wing. He’s booed for the rest of the game and is happy to milk their frustration.
Sercombe comes closest for Oxford in the first half but, in a game of few clear cut chances, it’s Jackson at the centre of the action again in the 35th minute as he runs into the box and across fullback Skarz who brings him down. Replays are fairly inconclusive but it looked particularly soft from where we’re stood and infuriates the home fans further. Ben Marshall steps up to give Rovers the lead from the spot.
Blue smoke rises from the away end in celebration as I point out the Blackburn tradition of sacrificing a Smurf after every goal to Ben.
“Kick his f***ing legs off!” screams a Buster Bloodvessel-type fan in front of me. He’s been screaming obscenities for most of the game so far despite having a kid of around six with him. His latest suggestion in the direction of Simeon Jackson would surely result in a booking at the very least.
Blackburn get their second on the stroke of half-time. After testing Sam Slocombe soon after the goal, debutant Tony Watt robs possession in Oxford’s half before slotting a low and accurate shot across the face of the ‘keeper into the bottom corner. It’s a cruel blow for Oxford, and feels decisive given their general lack of threat so far.
The teams leave the field to the tune of Mr Blue Sky, a contrastingly cheerful ditty given the general booing in the direction of the referee and Jackson from the home fans.
“If we’d kept it at one we’d have had a chance,” says one supporter to another as I queue down the stairs during the break. “It’ll have made us a few quid at least,” says his mate. An Austrian under-18s team perform a crossbar challenge during the interval, which I presume is linked to Oxford’s pre-season tour of Austria. They’re off to Spain next summer; another great way of linking in with the fans.
The frustration in our stand grows in the second half as referee Andy Davies continues to award soft fouls in Blackburn’s favour.
“Blackburn are a bunch of divers,” Ben observes. “They belong in the sea!” he adds, with heart-warming innocence considering there’s a bald bloke stood directly in front of him calling anyone in studs the ‘C’ word.
“I reckon that might be Kieran’s Grandad, ya know,” I tell Ket as we both begin to tire of his constant shouting.
Oxford slowly build a few good moves in the first half, demonstrating their passing style that’s clearly easy on the eye, but with Blackburn’s stranglehold on the game tightening and the continued nullification of Kemar Roofe, it’s hard to see a way back in.
Blackburn wrap the game up with a great freekick from Ben Marshall in the 76th minute. It provokes an oddly angry reaction from a small number of fans around us who get up to leave. A couple of idiots throw a programme in the direction of the pitch and are roundly booed by all who witness it. In front of us, Buster has seen enough and drags half the row out with him.
“We’ll see you again next time we draw a big team!” shouts a man behind us. We’re clearly not the only people who’ve noticed him today as, presumably, these season ticket holders have spotted the fairweather fan a mile off. Buster laughs it off as he heads for the exits.
The remainder of the ground sing about being loyal fans and Oxford ‘til they die as the minority sneak out.
“Just get a goal! For me!” shouts a despondent Ben as he enters his 180th minute as a football fan without witnessing his team of choice find the back of the net. Even he’s tempted to leave just before the final whistle, as the balance between blind dedication and general common sense remains blurry in these early days.
We head back to the car and in the direction of Tiffield (via a half hour diversion we’re fairly convinced we’re going to be stuck in for all eternity) having enjoyed our day. It’s nice to be a part of a new young fan’s early experiences of football and Ket’s Leeds team are through to the last 16 too; a tempting prospect for the rounds to come.
In case you were wondering, I made the gig in Derbyshire. I also filed my tax return, entertained the good people of Melton Mowbray and managed to finish this post just before the transfer deadline.
Berahino still plays for West Brom, Colin Kazim-Richards remains one of the biggest stories of the day and I’d still prefer to spend an all-inclusive fortnight for three with Kieran’s grandad and Buster Bloodvessel than spend another bloody minute listening to Jim White.
The Underdog Blog Record 2015/16
P 9 W 2 D 3 L 4 F 5 A 11 GD -6
Oxford United FC vs Blackburn Rovers FC
FA Cup Fourth Round
Saturday 30th January 2016
Kassam Stadium, Oxford, Oxfordshire
Oxford United FC 0 – 3 Blackburn Rovers FC
Marshall 36’ (pen), 76’,
Oxford United FC: Slocombe, Baldock (Kenny 86), Mullins, Wright, Skarz (J Evans 77), MacDonald, Sercombe, Lundstram, O’Dowda, Roofe, Bowery (Hylton 63). Subs: Buchel, Ruffels, Ashby, Dunkley. Booked: Mullins, Baldock, Kenny.
Blackburn Rovers FC: Steele, Marshall, Hanley, Ward, Spurr, Bennett, Lenihan (Taylor 71), C Evans, Conway, Watt (Lawrence 61), Jackson. Subs: Raya, Henley, Kilgallon, Duffy. Booked: Spurr, Jackson, Lenihan, Conway.
Referee: Andy Davies.
Attendance: 11,647 (1,485 away fans).