Next in our ever-popular 'My First Oxford Match' series is Youcef El Barhdadi, recalling an era when Ian Atkins seemed destined to lead Oxford to promotion. What could possibly go wrong? If, like Youcef, you'd like to write about your first Oxford match, please don't hesitate to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oxford United 2-1 Bury (10/08/02)
The opening day fixture from the 2002/2003 season and the atmosphere was uneasy. I, of course, would not have known this being an eight year old going to my first football match with a classmate and his dad. I was blissfully unaware. The reason for the air of anxiety around the ground was because of last season's efforts. Oxford had been in the bottom division of the Football League for the first time in over 30 years. And they under-achieved. 21st was not good enough. It had cost Oxfordshire-born and former Derby and Liverpool player Mark Wright his job in charge. In came Ian Atkins. He kept Oxford in the Football League, albeit by limping over the line. Atkins had all summer to rebuild his new side. He brought in exciting players in Scott McNiven, James Hunt and Matthew Robinson among others to join an already decent line-up with stars such as Chris Hackett, Dean Whitehead and Steve Basham.
So, going into the Bury game, Oxford fans were waiting with baited breath if Atkins had done the correct business. Were these new signings going to gel? Despite a shaky start to the game with missed chances for Bury's Pawel Abott, Oxford managed to grab the opening goal. It was a jinky run from Manny Omoyinmi and he completely bamboozled Lee Unsworth who, somewhat inadvertently, flicked the ball with his hand. Was that a penalty? There were shouts from all around my relatively conservative stand point in the South Stand Lower. The referee was running towards the box pointing at the spot. He'd given it. There appeared to be some argument over who wanted to take it. Not too dissimilar to my eight-year old self's usual playground antics. I always wanted to take penalties. I liked scoring goals. But finally the big centre back with short sleeves and a captains armband grasped the ball and placed it firmly on the spot. I heard someone mutter "Crosby's going to take it". Some pessimist said "He's going to miss it". The 'keeper was doing all manner of actions to put him off. Flapping his hands and waving them over his head as well as jumping up and down on the goal line. Up stepped the lumbering Crosby. A beautiful moment of absolute silence as he struck through the ball. I heard the "thwack" from Crosby's right boot. I heard the sound of the ball hit the net. And a deafening roar from behind me. I hugged my classmate's dad. My classmate didn't seem too interested. He wasn't the football breed. And that horrible anxiety at the start of the game had disappeared.
We'd just sat down and two minutes later we were back up again. Whitehead played a beautiful ball splitting the Bury defence wide open and with Omoyinmi's pace, he was away. He slotted it past the Bury keeper and the scoreline read 2-0. Happy Days! When I went back to the playground on Monday morning, I wouldn't be Beckham or Owen or even Scholes. I'd be Omoyinmi. He was my idol. Shame I couldn't say his surname, so I settled with calling him "Manny." As an eight year old, I didn't appreciate Dean Whitehead's role in the team. An assist and an all-action performance. He was just tireless. Never stopped running. But it was Manny who I'd remember. Later on, Manny had another chance where he should have squared it to Oldfield, but fluffed the opportunity. Half time came and went. The announcer told us that Oxford were now sitting pretty at the top of the Nationwide Division 3. There were smiles and handshakes all around me. Happy punters finally get to see an Oxford United team that were challenging for promotion.
I don't remember much else from the game apart from the Bury goal. It was a sweet strike from just inside 25 yards. Top corner. It hushed us. You could hear a pin drop. That anxiety that was there at the start of the game was back. And it wasn't nice. Apart from my classmate. He jumped up and screamed. You'd have thought it was Oxford who had scored. As I mentioned earlier, I don't think he was a football person. He realised his error as hundreds of eyes bore into him and sat down rather sheepishly. "I thought it was the final whistle" was his explanation. But luckily for us, and for him, the goal was too late for Bury to have enough time to have a real clear-cut chance for the equaliser. Soon enough the final whistle blew, and my first football match had ended. A 2-1 win to those boys that used to come from up the hill.
So there you have it, my first football match. Oxford carried on strongly that season and were in the automatic places for most of it, until dropping down to 8th in the final few months and thus missing out on the play-offs by a place and a point to – wait for it – Bury. Maybe if we had made the play-offs that year we might have been promoted and never relegated to the Conference in 2006. What if?