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An Education In Football: Oxford Report
By: Andrew Doherty
IN conversation the other day with fellow exile Stuart Watt (honours: attended Toll Bar), the word 'hope' cropped up. Well, we'd just beaten Chester and Yeovil, hence the momentary hallucination about the play-offs. The 0-2 defeat at mighty Rochdale restored a sense of normality in our lives.
'Hopes Dashed' should be Town's motto. Anyway, all this uncertainty made the forthcoming clash against Oxford United, another bunch of no-hopers, into what air-headed Soccer Sunday* presenters would call 'an intriguing contest'. A desperate struggle, more like.
(*a second rate Southern football programme, in which we're exhorted to get excited about Brighton and Gillingham.)
The omens aren't good, I thought, as I set out for the City of Dreaming Spires. Whoever came up with this description wasn't thinking of the Manor Ground where Oxford United used to play. What a dump, and miles from anywhere. They now play at the Kassam Stadium, which as I discovered when I checked my route, is miles from anywhere and on a former sewage farm. Tradition lives on in Oxford. I reflected that my record for this fixture is W1, D0, L3 as follows (yes, I deserve pity for knowing this):
- March 16, 1968 at the Shrine of Blundell L 0-1. This game was noteworthy for the fact that our 'star striker' Gary Moore, who never scored and always missed open goals, headed in on 45 minutes at the Pontoon end, only for the referee to decide he'd blown for half-time a split second before. This was a valuable lesson for me as an 8 year old old, as I was introduced to the concepts of irony and injustice.
People I know will say I've never got over this trauma, and have been on a trail of revenge ever since.
- December 1, 1979 at the Manor Ground. W 1-0. Kevin Drinkell scored. Happy days.
- March 30, 1985 at the Manor Ground. L 0-1. I can't remember anything about this one, apart from the fact that my wife Sam spent the whole game complaining about the seats.
- March 18, 1997 at the Manor Ground. L 2-3. I learnt my lesson. I stood behind the goal with about 50 cheery and long-suffering Town fans for this midweek night fixture. We knew our season was down the pan when Oxford won the game with a last minute goal..
'Can I come?' asked Revis (9) as I was getting ready to leave. It had been my intention to go to the game on my own and then see The Haunted, who were playing in Oxford tonight. I was full of cold, and frankly an evening of feeling grotty, accompanied by eight million decibels in a smoky room didn't appeal somehow. I must be getting old. 'OK, then'. Merlin (12) came too. At least we could all suffer watching the Mighty Mariners as a family, or at least part of one because my eldest son Deej preferred to spend the afternoon hanging around on a cold street corner in Basingstoke with his mates, considering this superior entertainment. My wife Sam stayed at home, but at least she could check the score on Ceefax.
So, we set out from the barren fields of Basingstoke full of unjustified anticipation to the Kassam stadium, arriving an hour or so later. 'You've come here for football?' said the car park attendant incredulously, as I asked him where the football parking was. Nevertheless we bypassed the adjoining Leisure and Retail Park with the Sports Bars, Italian-American Diner and all the things you expect in such a complex (except perhaps a Holiday Inn - anyone for a weekend break at the Kassam Stadium?). To be fair, the Kassam Stadium was more impressive than the average shoe box which passes as a modern football stadium these days. All we wanted at this stage was to go in and get some shelter from the cold.
The tickets cost Â£41-50 for myself and two juniors - I repeat Â£41-50, and indeed repeated it several times, as I was not impressed. 'And they've only got three stands' announced Merlin, supportively. Welcome to Oxford United. Motto: 'Fleece the Punter'. My father often used to refer to 'paying for punishment'. This was paying a premium rate for it. I don't like Oxford United. I'd better stick to home games. The atmosphere was grim. Revis pointed out that the corner flag was horizontal in the wind. A half empty ground, cold and wet and getting bleaker, and the announcer was inane to the point of distraction, going on about it being freezing. Has he ever been to Grimsby? Everything was pointing to five star punishment.
There was a moment improvement in morale when the teams were announced, and I heard that Stacy Coldicott was playing. Not everyone will agree, but in my view here's a man who fights for the cause, and has some skill to go with it.
The game started, and to be honest it was awful. Town had odd moments - a Ronnie Bull tackle, Coldicott winning balls in midfield and the new loanee, Prince Harry lookalike Matt Harrold was putting himself about a bit - but there was no urgency and there were far too many misplaced passes. The bloke behind me was looking at his mobile phone. I don't blame him. Oxford were no better. There was no sign of any build up, and if there was, the ball would quickly be despatched to the opposition. Even Macca was at it. Town looked panic-stricken for no good reason. More worryingly, our clearances weren't safe. A corner after 13 minutes came to nothing, and a few minutes later Parkinson got clear but couldn't keep the ball in. 'Dangerous' is not a word that could be used about Town, but Parky on the left side looked our best hope. Perhaps, this is why the Oxford no 2 decided to flatten him in the 20th minute. Not to be outdone, our very own Justin Whittle flattened our very own Simon Ramsden in a mix-up, which summed up proceedings so far. In the 33rd minute Ronnie Bull kicked the Oxford no 23 in the head, doing what our Ronnie does best. It was accidental, to be fair, but one thing became apparent. While the Oxford player was receiving attention, their players stood quietly. Town's players were urging each other on. Signs of encouragement? It was Oxford who were looking more dangerous, and on 33 minutes, their player Tommy Mooney had a cracking free-kick from 30 yards which went just over the bar, leaving Williams well beaten. A corner followed soon afterwards, with Macca heading out. On 38 minutes, Oxford had an identical free kick to the one five minutes earlier. Everyone expected Mooney to strike - he passed to their no 33 Cominelli, who was unmarked and fired in a low shot off the post and in. 1-0 to Oxford.
Oxford almost went 2-0 up moments later when Williams in the Grimsby goal fumbled a ball. 'Get a job like the rest of us', shouted a Town fan, clearly not enamoured with his output. Before half-time, Parky showed some real touches of skill up the left. He was the nearest we had to Oxford's Tommy Mooney who was also trying to make things happen and looked dangerous. Overall though, we were just pratting about before giving the ball away. We hadn't created any chances. This was a real poor quality performance. Half-time was a relief.
Revis enjoyed watching the men repairing the holes in the turf - this constituted real entertainment compared to the previous 45 minutes. I looked at the dot matrix display, which was euphemistically called the scoreboard, an stated 'Don't forget Oxford playâ€¦..' before turning to the next page for the rest. I thought these were words of encouragement, and was expecting to see 'crap', but in fact it said 'in the Oxon Senior Cup'. We can talk. We would have struggled to beat a Grimsby Sunday League side.
The teams came out for the second half, and a concerted team effort got the ball up the left side, where Parky and Martin Gritton were lurking. A cross came over. Oxford failed to clear it and the ball fell to the unmarked Matt Harrold who picked his spot with a neatly placed header. 1-1.
The Oxford response was a good shot by their no 33, but the goal revitalised Town in a way that couldn't have been imagined before half time. On 51 minutes Parky went on a jinking run and caused havoc in the Oxford defence. Thomas Pinault, who had been anonymous in the first half, just missed with a 25 yard free kick. On 55 minutes, Town gained a corner after an excellent probing ball from Pinault. There was another Oxford defensive mix-up, and a Gritton header went close. Parky's runs were the stuff of poetry. Town won another free-kick on 55 minutes, but Pinault's effort was wayward. A through ball from Fleming on 66 minutes almost put Harrold through. Macca was fouled in the 68th minute as he threatened to burst through. Another Town corner on 69 minutes. Unlike the first half, Town were playing positive, confident, defence-splitting balls. Everyone was trying and mostly succeeding in winning balls. Oxford were being put under pressure, and were getting very niggly and untidy.
On 71 minutes, Town won yet another battle in the right side of defence. Gritton received the ball in midfield and played the perfect through ball. Parky was always going to get there first with his pace, and after controlling the ball, provided the perfect finish into the right hand corner of the net. 2-1 to Grimsby!
Oxford is supposed to be the centre of cultural excellence. The first half here amounted to cultural deprivation. Now in the second half, we were witnessing an education in football from our Mighty Mariners. What had happened? After the second goal, Town continued to play with authority and confidence. Revis, who had previously not seen them score this season, provided the analysis: ' They obviously learnt to pass at half time'.
A Mooney free kick on 78 minutes didn't seem so dangerous as before, but shortly afterwards we were up the field again with Parky earning a corner. The new attitude was summed up a few minutes later when Macca ran hard for a ball with Oxford's number 3 for a throw in. Even when we weren't pretty, we were determined. We were refusing to let Oxford win the ball.
The last few minutes weren't without anxieties, particularly when Ronnie Bull followed tradition and got booked, and then the Oxford no 33 had a dangerous shot on goal. On 90 minutes, Gritton showed a great burst of pace and burst through the middle, almost catching the defence out. 3 minutes added time was announced, and a well-deserved victory seemed imminent until Williams spilt a dipping 25 yard shot. There was an almighty scramble, Town's determined defence cleared the ball to Mooney who didn't quite have the angle and hit the post. That was the last act. Oxford 1, Grimsby Town 2. Euphoria reigned in the Town end. And what a second half performance!
'It was worth spending Â£41-50', commented Merlin as we left. Clearly this transaction, or rather my moaning, which had left an impression on him. Well, maybe. If I'm going to spend extra money, then I'd rather it went in Town's coffers. At half-time, I was contemplating the catastrophic position if we lost 10 points due to going into administration. This is the sad reality. We're in trouble financially. The second half provided one reason why we all go to football, apart from blind insanity. We all need a quota of temporary happiness, but suffering is the norm. What is important is that we support our team. The Chairman's right - Grimsby Town FC is part of the soul of our town. The next adventure for me is the Darlington home game and I can't wait.
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