12 Years in an Open-Neck Terrace

From the Rage Online newsdesk Sunday, April 1st, 1990  

12 Years in an Open-Neck Terrace

When I first embarked upon the gruelling and only occasionally rewarding pursuit of watching Oxford United, some 22 yeas ago, the Manor Ground was a very different place to the austere, metal-ridden pen we now know and grudgingly put up with. And yet it seems like?

The occasion was our penultimate match of the season, at home against Brighton, and promotion, not to mention the Third Division championship, was only a toe punt away. Dad parked the A40 (that was a car, not a road) in the semi-official car park behind the Shell garage opposite the Britannia (now long gone) and we joined a large and excitable throng, many clutching rattles in the approach to the London Road turnstiles. I bought a gold and black rosette from a jolly chap bearing a large placard covered with the things, before Dad placed me, to my alarm, in a queue consisting solely of boisterous lads, most of them bigger than me, none of them big enough to trust. ‘See you on the other side’ he muttered. As we approached the turnstiles I could indeed see him on the other side, puffing tetchily on a Players Navy Cut. Once inside I was steered to the right of a large corrugated metal wall into a low, shed-like affair which I now know to be the Osler Road terrace. My uncle, a farmer, possessed similar constructions. It’s generally true that places seen as a child are remembered as being much bigger than they appear when revisited as an adult, but I clearly recall, on being muscled to a position against the wall at the front of the terrace, ‘is this it?’… for a while I entertained the notion that this was only the site of the pre-match entertainment and we would sooner or later move on to a proper football ground like the ones on TV, where the proper match would take place. Of course we didn’t… nor did Oxford United.

Some 14,000 packed the place that day to see us win 2-0. A win against Southport the following week would see us promoted as champions. At this match, due to parking problems, we approached the ground at a different set of turnstiles, and once through them I found myself scrambling to the top of a tall, open terrace. For a while I was convinced I was in a different ground altogether, but eventually I found myself at the front of the Cuckoo Lane terrace. Thankfully the time-honoured ritual of passing small boys over a sea of heads to the front of the terrace had fallen into disuse, and I was allowed to walk to this excellent, if rather worms-eye, vantage point. A David Sloan goal gained us the championship, there were at least two spontaneous pitch invasions and captain Ron ‘The Tank’ Atkinson was chaired off the field, no mean achievement even then. I remember no details of the match at all; I remember thinking ‘this is for me’.

Over the next few years I became familiar with the Manor. Dad and myself became regulars, and I was soon acquainted with one of those harsh lessons in life – football isn’t always about winning crucial matches in front of rapturous crowds – like as not, it’s about watching a bunch of scufflers losing to mediocre opposition among a bunch of whingey deadbeats. In my Boys Own enthusiasm I was pissed off no end by these terrace cynics, and insisted on moving around the ground in an effort to escape them. This was one of the forgotten joys of the Manor. No matter where you entered, you could get to any part of the ground. You could watch Oxford attack the London Road end from the Osler Road shed, then at half-time saunter up to the Cuckoo Lane end for the second half. Even in a large crowd it took only a little determination to achieve this. Better still, if the match was boring, you could wander behind the London Road stand, round the back of the Beech Road terrace, along the narrow alley behind the Main Stand, past what were the changing rooms (whenever I smell liniment I’m right there), visit the primordial toilets under the peculiar club members’ stand, and take the sinister tunnel under the Cuckoo Lane terrace (it was here that my scarf was stolen by a Middlesboro grebo – surely only the mildest of the ghastly acts which must have been perpetrated in this gloomy retreat), emerging at the north-east corner of the ground having completed a three-quarter circuit without having to see the match at all! During the poorer matches large sections of the crowd took solace in this mildly energetic diversion. It was only along the narrow Osler Road terrace that the match was inescapable.

This itinerant style of spectatorship inevitably began to wear thin after a time, a craving for continuity developing as Dad and myself spent our Saturdays roaming the Manor like the lost tribe of Israel, I with my 10-inch footstool, Dad with his ubiquitous Navy Cut. I don’t remember when we first alighted upon the upper tier of the Beech Road terrace, but we both knew this was to be our resting place. An excellent view of both ends no fear of rowdiness, and no unhappy wanderers – once you found your place on the Beech Road upper tier, you stayed there. However; so far from escaping the terrace moaners, we found a distressingly high proportion of our new neighbours to be of a breed I shall refer to as the glums (because miserable pessimistic bellyaching misanthropic gobshite is too unwieldy a title for regular use).

Every football ground I’ve ever attended has contained a number of miseries, the sort who spend most of the match moaning about their team’s shortcomings. It’s probably true that there’s an element of masochism in all football supporters; it’s this kind of tortured exasperation that appears to give rise to the gallows wit often evident in the ‘Bloke Behind Me’ feature in When Saturday Comes. Even the most fanatical crowds contain them, and at any home game they can be found dotted all over the Manor. But the glums of the Beech Road upper tier were/are something else – the SAS of terrace misery. These guys were hard core. For twelve years or thereabouts the Beech Road upper tier was my patch, and I became familiar with these lost souls. How do you begin to describe them? Exclusively male aged 40 and upwards, not rich but certainly not poor, probably thought they were deserving of a better place in life, conservatively attired often wearing a hat, even in summer. Probably read the Daily Express. Really, you would pass them on the street and not give a second glance. But inside … surely a lifetime of frustration, a history of missed or thwarted opportunities, an early mis-matched marriage, an unremittingly mundane career, even the odd personal tragedy. And to every home match at Oxford United they would bring this wretched worldview, pitched somewhere between Ron Saunders and Eeyore the donkey, and ascending the Beech Road upper tier their bilious wisdom would not gush out, but squeeze, like the most reluctant, obdurate pustule, in often barely audible gobbets towards the pitch.

It was irresistible, and perfect. If we played well, they just stayed quiet, sometimes even clapped occasionally, though they rarely said anything; but if we played badly they were the perfect antidote, and the worse we played, the more compulsive they became. As a match would need a while for it’s shape to become apparent, so they would begin in silence. After a while the opposition begins to gain the advantage, but still not a dicky bird. Then, after say twenty-five minutes, the opposition score, and the glum begins to mutter dark oaths, incomprehensible but ominous. We begin the uphill struggle to gain something, anything, from the match, sleeves are rolled up, efforts redoubled, there is much shouting and punching of fist into hand. All for nothing. Attacks peter out around the opposition penalty box, promising situations are squandered, attack is turned into defence in one fluid stumble, their goalkeeper might as well settle down and read the programme. The glum seethes, and begins complaining, not loudly, about this and that. Often a particular player will become the focus for his frustration, this unfortunate slogger becoming a scapegoat for all kinds of failings. This saves the glum a fair amount of distracting mental effort If no players spring to mind, the manager will be the obvious target, or maybe the board or chairman (this goes way back before Maxwell). So half-time comes and goes, we’re still nil-one down, now kicking up the slope. The minutes tick by, there is much sweat and blood but our play is unfocussed, we never look like scoring. The glum begins to sweat and contemplate aloud the kind of lowly opposition we’ll face, and lose to, next season. At this stage names from the past will be invoked (The Tank is a particular favourite, though I can see Gary Briggs becoming something of a glum icon), along with a string of names to be got rid of. As the match reaches its conclusion, we finally engineer one clearcut scoring chance – it is ballooned extravagantly into the John Radcliffe grounds. At this the glum finally shouts. What he shouts is abusive but incoherent. Sometimes he swears, but he rarely uses the f-word. He has gone red. At the final whistle he proclaims that he must be mad, there are a hundred and one better things to do on a Saturday afternoon and he’s never seen such crap in his life.

It’s been a great day and he’ll be back for the next home fixture.

How many glums there are I really couldn’t say, maybe 150? Their presence is felt rather like an indefinable bad atmosphere at a family party. There seems to be little or no communication between them, though there is a certain herd instinct in the scapegoating of a player. At one point in the early 70’s the barracking of the worthy but flawed John Shuker from the Beech Road upper tier became so bad that the match programme was moved to comment on it, an unprecedented step. During our ill-fated promotion push at the end of 1981-82 this sorry mantle was taken up jointly by Peter Foley and, it seems incredible now, Trevor Hebberd. I remember one match, a goalless draw with Millwall, in which Foley was lambasted throughout the first half for failing to wallop the ball into the back of the net with every touch. Come half-time, this abuse had gained such momentum that the same player was blamed for promotion rivals Fulham being ahead in an away match.

By this time, however, the tide had turned and we were beginning to look like a half-decent side again. Salad days for the glums were coming to an end as we began at last to win, sometimes to win well, and regularly. A few spartans held out – when we lost 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup during our promotion season one chap next to me declared the bubble and well and truly burst and we would do well to stay up, never mind win promotion. As everyone knows, we won the Third with a record points total. At the last match of that season, home to Rotherham, the team paraded the Champions Trophy to great acclaim, even from the away supporters. It was here that the Dunkirk spirit of the hard-core glum was revealed. Amid the clapping and cheering the odd, unmistakable voices blurted out: ‘Bloody rubbish Hardwick!’; ‘Call yourself a footballer Biggins!’; ‘?80,000 for you Rhoades-Brown, we must be barmy!’ Like I say, these guys were something else.

Not all the occupants of the Beech Road upper tier were glums, far from it; at the front of the terrace there were always gathered a number of small children, whose vociferous enthusiasm surely obliterated any sense of the glums’ presence from the pitch. When George Lawrence made his bizarre right-wing forays during our promotion season, the pre-pubescent clamour was such that you half-expected the great man to stop and dole out a few Crackerjack pencils before bamboozling another hapless left-back. Then there was an elderly chap who indulged the positively perverse habit of giving his team loud vocal support. The only things he ever said were, 1. ‘Get stuck into ’em’ and 2, ‘Move it, move it!’. He said them again and again, sometimes running the two together. Downright weird behaviour, but he was tolerated, and what’s more he’s still there – I heard him at the Bournemouth match.

As it happens, the Third Division championship match against Rotherham was the last time I ever stood on the Beech Road upper tier. These days I take my pleasure among those good-time champagne charlies of the London Road end. I miss the glums and I may return one day, if only for the lesson that there is always someone worse off than yourself. As we ground to a home defeat against West Ham I glanced leftwards and there they were, the same old sour faces, getting into full poisonous swing. Miserable gits.

Author Unknown

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