It had been drawn to my attention that over the past year my mission to complete the 92 had seemingly gone out of the window. I felt this was unfair as I had ticked off Portsmouth and Chester from my list in the last twelve months, but I did agree that I needed to find a strategy that will get me back on track. Knowing that I will be moving to York imminently, I’m hoping that I can tick a few off with the Minstermen, but an even better solution came when I was having a drink one evening. I’m a firm believer that all the best ideas come whilst intoxicated – that’s how the brand new NWCFL Podcast came to fruition after all.
My new technique saw me collate a list of 200 grounds which I want to visit in England, all the way from the Premier League down to my local non-league divisions. Aston Villa to Northwich Flixton Villa if you like. My original plan to draw the number on the bingo machine at Atherton Collieries didn’t quite work, so I settled with doing it online and up popped number 44; Oxford United. A nice local one for me to start with… not!
There was no getting away from it though, I would be off to Oxford at some stage before Christmas. When my mum said that she was going down to London for the weekend on her family railcard I saw it as a perfect opportunity to tick off The Kassam Stadium, providing they were at home. Thankfully when the fixture list came out it handed Oxford a home match meaning that my weird and wonderful adventure was sorted.
We were staying at the Premier Inn in Stratford once again, meaning that it was relatively easy to get anywhere due to the transport links available at the Olympic Park. I woke up early on the Saturday morning and caught the high speed train from Stratford International to St Pancras International. From there, I caught the tube from Kings Cross to Paddington before jumping on the train to Oxford. I had totally forgotten that it was Challenge Cup weekend, so the Underground system was awash with those folk from up north. I mixed in well with the rugby enthusiasts from Yorkshire; dare I say it.
Normality was soon resumed, as two hippy types plonked themselves next to me on the train. They were drinking Ethiopian iced coffee which had been handpicked by fairies and blessed by the Pope whilst making sustainable birthday cards for a one year old child. I bit my tongue and put my iPod on shuffle to get me through the hour long journey to Oxford. I had also forgotten that it was Reading & Leeds Festival this weekend, meaning that Reading train station was full of people my age getting ready to watch Arctic Monkeys amongst others. Whilst I was slightly envious, I was happy that I was ticking off another ground and visiting a new city.
I arrived in Oxford not knowing which way to head and having not researched where to go. I had been given a recommendation to head to the Turf Tavern, which is a tourist type pub. Ideally, this would be my destination but I opted to find a map and pick out something mildly interesting to visit. The Indoor Market caught my eye and I headed that way. Rather fortuitously the Turf was close by and I soon found myself in this quaint establishment down a back alley; away from the hustle and bustle of gaggles of Chinese students who were having tours around the city.
I thought it was away from them, but no sooner had I sat down outside the bar area with my pint of mild I heard a flutter of camera shutters coming from behind me. I kid you not, a flock of around 30 tourists were stood there taking photographs of me drinking. It soon transpired that Gibbo’s92 is huge in South Korea and they were soon asking me for signed photographs. I flogged a few for £15 each meaning my upcoming freshers fortnight was paid off in an instant.
I wasn’t the only famous person to visit this pub though; after all it has been there since the 13th century. Bill Clinton is said to have smoked an illegal substance here whilst at University, while former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke entered the Guinness Book of World Records after drinking a yard of beer (2.5 pints) in just eleven seconds!
For those of you who like Inspector Morse, the Turf can also be seen in one scene where Morse shares a pint with Lewis.
Having finished my pint for the day, I set off towards Oxford Castle Mound where I had decided I would catch the bus to the football ground. Now, the bus you need is the number FIVE which sets off from outside the train station, with a destination of Blackbird Leys. It cost £3.50 return and there weren’t many football fans on hand to advise me where to get off.
It took around twenty minutes until an Oxford fan emerged from the top deck of the bus and jumped off at a bus stop. I made the quick decision to follow him despite not being able to see the ground. Following this fan, I walked through a council estate before I arrived at a ginnel which led on to a field backing on to the ground.
Mr. Pompey was emerging out of a packed minibus when I eventually arrived at the Kassam. I had been outside the ground once before when it was market day and I can safely say the place is a lot nicer when there are football fans in attendance.
My ticket for the day was in the back row of the East Stand, which was a mistake as the locals just treated it as an unreserved area… which is fine, but I didn’t want to speak to any of them as they could have quite easily wrapped me up in one of their flags and abducted me. The view from the back of the East Stand was quite good, with the away fans to my right in the North Stand.
Construction began on the Kassam Stadium in the summer of 1996, but was suspended in December 1997 due to financial problems at the club. The site remained untouched until 2000 when Firoz Kassam purchased the club for £1 and began funding the remaining construction work. By the time the stadium opened in 2001, the club had dropped down in the football pyramid and no longer needed the planned 16,000 capacity meaning that one side of the ground remained without a stand.
I have seen Oxford three times on my travels so far; they just seem to keep popping up. Somebody suggested I have a thing for the club after seeing me in my school football shirt which is Oxford colours. The first match came at Crewe during United’s first season back in League Two, before I then saw them at Accrington in the FA Cup and Bristol Rovers in another League Two clash.
I had been spoilt in the match at Accrington which to this day is still one of the most entertaining matches I have ever seen. It was almost inevitable that this match would bore me to death. The only positive to take from the afternoon was that the bloke next to me liked Bolton Wanderers and I eventually saw a goal.
There were a couple of notable players on show with Bolton loannee Joe Riley making the starting line up for Oxford, whilst Nicky Shorey (with his two England caps) was featuring for Portsmouth. I was disappointed to see that Riley looked nothing like his former self. He’d obviously lost a lot of fitness and confidence since he was placed on the Bolton scrapheap following the departure of Owen Coyle.
The afternoon started in a promising fashion when Oxford won a free kick on the edge of the box after just two minutes. Joe Riley took the set piece and rifled it towards goal; Paul Jones managed to get a fingertip to it to flick it over the bar. From the resulting corner, Carlton Morris rose to head towards goal before he had another stab at it. Portsmouth eventually cleared their lines, but it set the tone for Oxford who would come so close to scoring but ultimately luck wasn’t on their side.
Portsmouth’s first effort on goal came after eight minutes when Nigel Atangana poked the ball just wide of the post after some tidy build up play. The home side were then nearly handed a goal when Ben Chorley headed towards his own net. Fortunately for the defender the ball bounced off his own player James Dunne rather than finding the back of the net.
Both sides then settled into passing rhythms, but this ultimately became boring to watch and I was soon wishing I was stood at some awful non-league ground watching some poor passing and mistimed challenges. Portsmouth’s Miles Storey fired towards goal on 39 minutes but other than that there wasn’t a lot of action to report on.
The half ended with Oxford on top and they came close to opening the scoring once again from a corner kick. The ball was floated into Danny Hylton who saw his shot cleared off the line. It came back to Hylton who then smashed the ball against the left hand post. For a third time it fell to Hylton who this time saw his shot deflect over the bar and against the wooden fencing.
According to statistics, Oxford recorded 75% possession in the first half so Portsmouth knew they needed to press more in the second.
Indeed, the second half was more evenly contested. Junior Brown on paper sounds like a fantastic footballer, but he was ultimately light weight and struggled to stay in position. He was however one of the more lively Oxford players going forward testing Paul Jones with a curling effort on 70 minutes.
Ten minutes later and Portsmouth scored the winning goal; cheered on by a following of 2,000 away fans. Nicky Shorey picked up the ball out wide and whipped in a low cross. From there, it bobbled around and was eventually stabbed into the back of the net by Craig Westcarr. I felt sorry for Oxford when the ball went in. The fans had sung throughout and had witnessed their side have the vast majority of possession whilst doing absolutely nothing with it. It must be difficult to watch week-in-week-out.
Junior Brown came close to equalising on 82 minutes when he turned and cut inside the Portsmouth defence. His shot from the edge of the area looked to be finding the bottom right hand corner, but Jones once again got the faintest of touches to put it wide.
The home fans began to filter out of the ground, just as the rain started. It had been a miserable day for the club who found themselves bottom of League Two. It was August though, did it matter? It did to these lot. I felt the mood was summed up well on the walk back to the bus where a father explained to his son that there are 92 sides and their beloved club were at the bottom of the pile; the lowest of the low.
As I queued for the bus – winding around a picket fence in a council estate, which was lit up by the floodlights from The Kassam – I thought about my afternoon. It had been nothing like I expected, but then again I hadn’t really had much time to think about the place with various trips and University paperwork to wade through in my free time. I think from now on I will slow the ground hopping down and do a bit more research on the places I am going to… Yeah, right. I’m 18. Let’s find somewhere to go and find the nearest pub!
Overall the experience was a bit odd. It was easy enough to catch the bus to the ground, but you wouldn’t have guessed it was a match day when arriving in the vicinity. Then again, you can say that about Bolton Wanderers matches these days. I wasn’t expecting the Oxford fans to sing as much as they did, they certainly were a vociferous lot who love their club. One thing I will never understand will be the ‘Oxford United – Against Modern Football’ flag which was draped behind me… but we’ll leave that for another time.
Unfortunately I can’t say I’ll be in a rush to get back to The Kassam. It wasn’t awful, don’t get me wrong. I actually loved the missing stand and the glass entrance at the front, but it didn’t do anything else for me. After the match, I got in contact with Atherton Collieries who set up the randomiser machine in the clubhouse. Number 58 was the outcome which means my next planned adventure will be to Darlington Railway Athletic… who knows what to expect!
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 175 miles
- ADMISSION: £9 as a student
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £3