Easy street ends on the A420: Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0
The A420 is a quaint yet fairly uninspiring stretch of road, writes Andrew Cherrie. From west to east, it takes you through the glorious Cotswolds, up over the ancient limestone ridges and eventually drops you amongst Oxford’s harmonious dreaming spires which clog up many a Japanese tourist’s holiday snaps.
Yet as far as mediocre passages of British motoring go, the A420 is up there with the most forgettable. For the 1,200 or so who frequented the A420 between Swindon and Oxford on Saturday, it is a journey they will be trying to forget for quite some time.
Less than 30 miles of this spectacularly average A-road separates two places which can quite feasibly lay claim to participating in the one of the fiercest rivalries in the Football League. Swindon, a town of around 150,000, famous for its railway ties, furiously perplexing roundabout systems and Billie Piper; Oxford, roughly the same size, known worldwide for its academic superiority, equally renowned authors and Timmy Mallett.
While the composition and history of Swindon and Oxford may differ, the paths trodden by their respective football clubs are hugely similar. Both have enjoyed fleeting spells in the top flight: Swindon setting records for all the wrong reasons as the Premiership was in its infancy, spending just the one season there in 1993/1994, whilst Oxford garnered slightly more success in their three season stint during the 1980’s. League Cup tallies clock in at one apiece. The support base of both clubs is historically even, generally two of the best followed clubs in the lower reaches with superb away followings, capable of attracting excessively large crowds for big occasions (both clubs took over 30,000 for their respective play-off finals in 2010). Head to head, Swindon just about have the upper hand. Statistically and historically, the two are almost inseparable. But like relationships where you become so startlingly similar to the other person that you get bored and begin resenting them, the congruent nature of the clubs has only served to heighten the hatred.
This is not a love story.
They say familiarity breeds contempt and absence makes the heart grow fonder. Nowhere is this cliche more spectacularly blown apart than in the case of the A420 derby. The magic of this particular rivalry lies in its rarity. After meetings (along with violence) became regular in the 1970’s, Oxford’s rags to riches story of the 80’s registered the fixture redundant as Swindon wallowed in the Fourth Division. The two were to be lovingly reunited throughout the 90’s, mostly in the second tier, but Swindon’s 2-0 win in the last derby to be played at the Manor Ground in 2001 would be the last league meeting for over ten years. Oxford’s searing plummet into non-league combined with Town’s relatively fruitful period bobbing between the third and fourth tiers meant an FA Cup fixture – won 1-0 at home by United live on the BBC – was the only teaser over which both sets of fans could salivate.
That was until August 21st 2011, at the County Ground, Swindon. Oxford’s promotion two seasons prior and Swindon’s relegation just a year after reaching Wembley set up the first clash for nine years. As if this prospect wasn’t enough to get fans revved up for the tie, an Italian circus rolled into town. And not the good kind of circus, but one of those Victorian freak shows that leave you morally incensed by what you are witnessing but somehow you can’t avert your eyes. Di Canio its name was. Paolo.
Flamboyant and often controversial, Di Canio couldn’t help himself in the build-up to the game. James Constable, Oxford’s leading scorer in the previous three seasons, was a Swindon fan by the mere logic he lives close to the town. He would love to play for Swindon, Paolo said. It’s our World Cup final, Paolo said. We’ll win it for the fans, Paolo said. Whilst Paolo talked, Constable scored. Two in fact, kissing the Oxford badge as he ran towards the yellow masses celebrating wildly on enemy territory, in a 2-1 victory. Paolo was sent to the stands for getting a bit too excited when having a chat with referee. Oxford had won at Swindon for the first time in 38 years.
Nearly six months and two failed Constable bids later, six places apart, the two met again on Saturday in the return fixture. Swindon top of the league, on a ten match winning streak, tearing League Two apart. Oxford reduced to the bare bones by injuries, clinging onto a play-off place. Paolo had been talking again, stating he wasn’t interested in Constable any more after the Oxford man ‘hesitated’ in entering talks after a bid was accepted. Constable wanted to come, said Di Canio, but he refused to continue with the bid in the knowledge that the frontman wasn’t 100% certain. This after Constable had in no uncertain terms stated his refusal to even speak to the club, not even for £100,000 a week. But he was still a Swindon fan.
After selling out their allocation for the away fixture within three days, Oxford supporters had snapped up tickets for the home game in November. One fan even stated, when buying his season ticket; “I’ve got my Swindon ticket, and 22 others.” Paolo couldn’t resist stoking the flames one last time, claiming he would “dance on their pitch in celebration” when Town won. If Oxford needed any further motivation to do the double over their rivals, Di Canio had done a mighty good job in providing it.
After a million police cordons, endless chest beating and a decade of waiting, battle was finally ready to commence, on and off the pitch. Oxford fans released an impressive ultras display of flags and banners, whilst in the away end the Robins noisily saluted their leader. Swindon fans couldn’t have wished for a better start. Ten minutes in, more through over-enthusiasm than malice, James Constable leads with an elbow on Joe Devera. Though he managed to evade the clutches of the colour red in January, there was no escape this time round as referee Graham Salisbury dismissed United’s top scorer. Swindon rejoiced, but only for five minutes.
From an inconspicuous position near the touchline, Oxford’s Southampton loanee Lee Holmes swung in a left-footed free kick from thirty yards out. A melee of bodies filled the 18-yard box, a blur of yellow and red shirts merging and converging as if a giant rhubarb and custard had just landed in the penalty area. Through the confusion, Asa Hall got a toe to the ball as Robins’ keeper Wes Foderingham flayed helplessly, only to see it into the net. Oxford had snuck a lead from a messy set piece. Time to park the proverbial bus, you would think?
No chance. Just two minutes later, Hall released Holmes down the left with a hopeful long ball. The winger jinked and jived his way into the box, sending over a timid square ball that the four Swindon defenders in the area seemed certain to deal with. Oli Johnson had other ideas, however, latching on to the pass from six yards to send over 10,000 home fans into sheer delirium. In the space of eight minutes, United had gone from despair to the purest form of footballing ecstasy possible.
From hereon in, Swindon battered Oxford with a barrage of attacks that the U’s stoutly defended. Matt Ritchie struck the post with a whirlwind left-foot strike and almost took to battering Oxford a little too literally, scuffling with a ballboy as the first-half came to a close, receiving a yellow card. Ritchie was Swindon’s outlet at all times, buzzing around between the lines as a constant source of danger, but Ryan Clarke was equal to everything in the Oxford goal.
Adam Chapman was thrown into the bear pit for Oxford, replacing the injured Mark Wilson in the first-half, making just a second appearance for the U’s after his release from a prison sentence. Chapman defied his circumstances by putting in a resolute performance in midfield, echoing his man-of-the-match display at Wembley in 2010.
The Robins threw everything at clawing the game back in the second period. Playing four up front at times, Paul Benson, Alan McCormack and Luke Rooney all missed good chances, whilst Oxford rarely escaped their own half. United put in a true backs to the wall display, repelling all that Swindon put forth. Well over twenty attempts proved rewardless, Oxford at times playing 4-5-0 to account for their missing man. It was enough.
As the game entered five minutes of injury time, Swindon had become bereft of ideas against a watertight defence. Joyous scenes met the final whistle as Oxford celebrated the double, their first for 38 years, and maintained a 100% record in the derby this decade.
Paolo Di Canio lifted the spirits of the travelling fans at the end, but was soon drowned out by a sea of yellow kindly asking him to vacate the premises. The Town manager pointed to the sky, as if to suggest the Robins were destined for promotion. Indeed, as one of the best footballing sides in the division, Swindon are on course to bounce straight back up. Oxford, if they can find some consistency, will almost certainly make the play-offs and could well join their rivals in League One.
‘We are Swindon, we’re top of the league’ sang the Swindon faithful as they were penned in by police at the final whistle. They certainly are, and deservedly so. But they lost the A420 derby, and that will hurt.