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Sunday 4th February 2017 ko 12.00

League 1

swindon town (Dabo 18)

OXFORD UNITED 2 (Sercombe 70 Hall 73)

Att 10,658 (3,000 away)

Entry £25

Programme £3

Teamsheet 50p

“Can’t I stay and go for a meal?” Oxford fan at swindon station after the game.

“You’ve been singing “swindon’s a sh!thole I wanna go home,” all afternoon, go home!” The policeman’s response.

I suspect that if I were not an Oxford United fan I’d quite like the County Ground, and I’d stop typing the place as the CoUNTY Ground! It does have that mixture of old and new I like, but nothing, repeat nothing will ever make me like the madness that is the “Magic Roundabout!”

The Oxford/swindon rivalry is vicious, and has been for many years despite at official level the clubs actually getting on reasonably well. I remember swindon happily sending their first XI to Gary Briggs’ testimonial, that simply wouldn’t happen if Reading were involved. swindon proposed Oxford for election to the Football League, Reading voted against us…

But why is the rivalry so intense? Geography is one element of it, there are roughly 35 miles between the city of Oxford and the town of swindon, but from an Oxford perspective both Reading and Wycombe are closer. There is a slight rivalry between Oxford and Reading, I remember the window of a coach I was travelling on being smashed outside Elm Park, but since then both clubs were taken over by chairmen with unusual surnames, one club reached the Premier League, the other sunk into non-league for 4 years. And Wycombe? Well despite them winning the first few fixtures between us we don’t see them as equals, there simply isn’t the history.

And that hints at the truth of the rivalry. It’s the the age old adage of “Same but different.” Being roughly of the same size and stature is important – someone I know, a Manchester City fan wanted to know why there was so much interest in these two “Nonentities?” as he condescendingly put it.  He’s old enough to remember why, did Manchester United care about Manchester City when City were in the Third Division? Of course they didn’t, they were far more preoccupied with Liverpool. I suppose being a fan of a Premier League does involve a certain level of amnesia!

As settlements Oxford and swindon are roughly the same size, and the two clubs have a League cup win and short top-flight stints each, but after that the differences become more apparent.

Another reason the derby is so visceral is the way the clubs’ fortunes have varied in it over the years. For a long time Oxford couldn’t buy a win at the wrong end of the A420, this represented the first time I’d ever seen an away win here. But these days it’s Oxford who have the Indian sign over their rivals.

If you’re not from Oxford, forget the university, that half of the city has virtually no interest in local football. But what’s left is a city based around the car industry, and is in so many ways a typical small city built by traditional means. swindon is a town built on firstly Brunel and “God’s Wonderful Railway” then via the “New Towns Act” to be massively expanded on a grid system. It looks a lot like Milton Keynes, and feels a lot like Milton Keynes with attitudes to match.

swindonians it seems do like a little razzmatazz. Sometimes it works for them, the hiring of Glenn Hoddle as player-manager was an inspired move, the hiring of Paolo di Canio less so and the recruitment of Neil “Razor” Ruddock a disaster, they couldn’t find a pair of shorts to fit him! At present the “Celebrity” signing is Director of Football Tim Sherwood, a friend of chairman Lee Power. The only problem was that he wasn’t at swindon’s biggest game of the season, and decided to let Head Coach Luke Williams pick the side. It didn’t bode well. The mascot “Rockin’ Robin” doing  what the PA man described as the haka in the centre circle was puerile; what on earth has a bloke in a bird suit dancing to the Jackson 5 got to do with a Maori war dance?

As befitting a local derby there was a massive police presence, but being swindon it wasn’t very well thought out. The main area for away fans is the uncovered Stratton Bank, so why was the near entrance closed? A multiplicity of Oxford fans made their way to that entrance, saw it was closed, used the mural of Jan Aage Fjortoft as an inpromptu urinal then were forced to walk round the back of 3 stands to reach the away end. Surely a police tactic should be to keep the factions apart so sending away fans past the Town End, the swindon ultras’ stand was fatuous in the extreme. The punch-up outside the Don Rogers stand was as avoidable as it was predictable.

But let’s not criticize the home staff, they were both under extreme pressure and friendly to a fault, although someone should have a word about the catering in the away section of the Arkell’s stand. The queue meant few got served. But the real shocker was how few tickets had been sold in the home areas. The ground holds 15,758, Oxford sold their allocation without a single ticket ever going on general sale. I wondered at the time why there was 5,000 empty seats in the home end, but the longer the game carried on the more obvious the reason why became.

It started well for swindon though, Oxford looked disjointed and the return of Nicky Ajose to the CoUNTY ground gave them both pace and impetus. It was a fine strike by Fankety Dabo, and one entirely deserved at half time on the balance of play. That changed completely in the second half. Liam Sercombe scuffed home the equaliser from Marvin Johnson’s cross, and Rob Hall’s thunderbolt was a goal worthy of winning any game, let alone a derby.

The away end went mad, the relief of so many disappointing trips to swindon evaporating in the chill air, but the impact on the home fans and players was far more telling. 4 bookings points to taking passion to extremes, and whilst Lawrence Vigouroux’s late dismissal was overturned and was later rescinded it’s significance was in how it revealed swindon’s febrile, nervous state.

You could see the swindon fans walking out as soon as Hall’s goal went in, and you could hear the chants of “Power Out” Yes, there was a fracas in the tunnel and every swindon fan’s pantomime villan Chris Maguire probably took his antics too far, but once the fans had gone home and the steward had collected his bicycle to head for home, there was a situation here that many, many Oxford United fans can relate to.

I’m not sure what Lee Power’s plan is, it can’t be to make money, swindon don’t own the CoUNTY Ground, so there’s no assets, to either “sweat” or to realise. Then there’s the Tim Sherwood situation, is this a case of “Jobs for the boys” or if not, what is the former Aston Villa manager doing for his wages? Then there’s the new faces at the club. There are now 7 loanees, but league rules mean only 5 at a time can be used. Then there’s the fact that two of those loanees Islam Feruz and Rohan Ince, have outstanding court cases against them. If it isn’t sabotage, then it smacks of incompetance.

Either way it all points to a club being run down. As I type swindon are in the relegation zone, third from bottom, and even a died-in-the-wool Oxford fan like me can understand the swindon fans’ discomfiture. It all gives Oxford United fans’ a dilemna; if the swine get relegated simple schadenfreude means we’ll laugh at their misfortune. But here’s the final truth of swindon’s plight. If they were to go down, the next season we’d look at the fixtures, and we’d miss the derby days.

Because for any derby day to work the rivalry has to exist. Both Oxford and swindon are all the better for the others’ existence, providing of course Oxford continue to win every time!

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