In the middle of Oxford is a socking great cinema: once the Ritz, it’s now an Odeon multiplex. Back in 1962, in the intermission of, I think, The Longest Day, the curtain moved and on walked a group of men, young I suppose, though to my 15-year-old eyes they seemed impossibly grown-up. It was the Oxford United team, led by their manager Arthur Turner, and including such titans as Ron ‘The Tank’ Atkinson, his brother Graham, John Shuker and Maurice Kyle. They had just won promotion from the Southern League to the Fourth Division (today’s League Two). They were introduced to the audience, and I have been a fan ever since.
Supporting a lower-league team is not always fun, but I would guess it’s a damn sight more fulfilling than supporting a global brand such as Chelsea or Manchester United. There are bonds with the players: a lot of people on the terraces will be earning similar salaries to the guys on the pitch. You won’t get that at Stamford Bridge (or even at River-side: legend has it that the truculent Middlesbrough forward Mark Viduka was getting an earful from angry fans outside the players’ car park. ‘I pay your wages,’ shouted one. ‘Really?’ said Viduka, ‘Fair play to you, mate. You must be one rich fucker.’)
It wasn’t long ago that Oxford fell fast and far from the Premier League and winning the League Cup to the Conference. But they are back in League Two now and on a hell of a journey. The other day they knocked Premier League Swansea out of the FA Cup with a performance full of pride and poise, purpose and panache.
Oxford have been playing like this all season: high tempo, full of passing, guile and skill, with two or three outstanding players such as Kemar Roofe and Johnny Lundstram. Manager Michael Appleton is one of the softest-spoken guys in football and one of the smartest. He has changed the club’s culture from the joyless style of his predecessors. Everyone is dreaming of glory days to come. Possibly! It is exhilarating to watch, even if we do have a three-sided stadium. The owner didn’t build a fourth stand because he thought we couldn’t fill it. We might now.
The other day the packed-out Kassam Stadium was chanting: ‘We’re going to win all three, we’re going to win all three: the League, the FA Cup and the JPT.’ Well, maybe not, but we are a leg away from the Johnson’s Paint Trophy final (rarely has home decor seemed so exciting); we are in the running for automatic promotion and should certainly make the play-offs; and looming is the FA Cup fourth-round tie against Blackburn.
The feelgood factor is every-where. We led the sports sections in all the papers the day after the Swansea upset — normal for Arsenal fans; less so for us. Oxford is known the world over for its university, but in the town no one really gives a toss about Brideshead or a dreaming spire. Their dreams are increasingly about the stirring and awakening up there off the bypass.
Talking of good guys, this could be a great year for England. Captain Cook works wonders wherever he goes with the cricket team. We’ve won the Ashes and beaten South Africa to go with that series win in India. Stuart Broad is the world’s No 1 bowler, and Joe Root only a clipped boundary or two behind Steve Smith as No 1 batsman. Eddie Jones’s rugby team looks great; and the football team seems to have something that has been lacking. Speed and youth perhaps.
And roll on the VI Nations. I’m looking forward to Andy Farrell’s role as defence coach of Ireland. Imagine his team talk before the England game about how to wind up Owen. Remind him, he’ll tell Jonny Sexton, of when he was six and wet himself and threw a tantrum in Wigan BHS. Red card for Owen Farrell.