Whilst most of the country have been busying themselves with thoughts of Christmas, along with the Worst General Election of All Time, a handful of lower and non-league football teams have been spending the cold dark December nights attempting to secure their places in the best weekend of the English football season – the FA Cup Third Round.
The life of a player or supporter of a lower league team in the latter rounds of the cup is one drenched in cliché, condescension, and the ultimate realisation that your chances of reaching the final are slim to none. Sometimes, however, you watch your team embark on a run that reminds you why the oldest cup competition in the world is still regarded as the greatest by so many.
This week’s guest did just that. George Elek is a football writer and podcaster who came to prominence on the excellent Not The Top 20 Podcast, with his extensive knowledge of the Football League encouraging the likes of Sky Sports, BBC 5Live, TalkSport, The Times, and The Athletic to bring him into the fold. Most recently George has become a regular panelist on the Guardian Football Weekly Podcast. As well as being one of the best up-and-coming voices in football journalism, George is also an avid Oxford United supporter, and this week he’s taking us back to the U’s FA Cup Fifth Round meeting with Middlesbrough from 2017.
Having seen off Mertsham, Macclesfield Town, Rotherham United and Championship high-flyers Newcastle United on their way to Round Five, there was a quiet confidence that Michael Appleton’s side could cause an upset when they travelled to the relegation-haunted Riverside Stadium, taking on a Boro team that had struggled to find the back of the net all season. It would prove to be one of the most unforgettable afternoons in United’s recent history.
Middlesbrough 3-2 Oxford United
FA Cup Fifth Round
18th February 2017
The story of Michael Appleton’s reign as Oxford United manager has so many highlights that it is scarcely possible to believe that he was only at the club for three years.
A promotion out of League Two, two trips to Wembley and heroic FA Cup exploits against Swansea and Newcastle gave our group of fans more days in the sun than many have seen in a generation.
A squad full of protagonists came through the club in an era that will be remembered as halcyon days for those not fortunate enough to see glory years of the 1980s which included the Milk Cup win of 1986. For that generation it was Aldridge, Saunders, Houghton. For us; Roofe, Maguire and Lundstram.
I started supporting Oxford back in the 1995/96 season. My first game was at The Manor to see the Denis Smith’s team beat Blackpool 1-0. The game’s decisive goal was one of the greatest in the club’s history, a dipping 35-yard left foot strike on the bounce from one of Oxford’s best ever players, local lad Joey Beauchamp.
That was enough not only to inspire a love of Oxford United, but also a love of football which has caused me to work in the game as one half of Not The Top 20 Podcast, covering the EFL in all its glory.
This has meant I’m fortunate to do some work on-air with both Sky and the BBC, as well as bylines in The Athletic, The Times and FourFourTwo amongst others. It’s the dream job and I likely wouldn’t be doing it had I been a Man Utd fan like my Dad, although he’s now Yellow.
Supporting Oxford through the late 90s and into the new millennium did not accustom one to success. A freefall from the old Division One into non-league meant that the success that came to Oxford under Chris Wilder in a Conference Final victory at Wembley in 2010 was the first of note in my time supporting the club.
This Appleton team therefore brought together a long-standing love of a club and consistent success on the pitch, a totally foreign combination for me, and meant understanding that one’s relationship with their team didn’t have to be a cycle of false dawns and despair.
By the 18th Febuary 2017 Oxford were enjoying life back in League One after Appleton had steered them to automatic promotion the season before and faced an FA Cup last 16 clash against Premier League side Middlesbrough.
A run of eight wins in 10, including a 3-0 demolition of Championship table toppers Newcastle, meant Oxford players, fans and management came to Teeside full of belief that they could get past the Premier League strugglers and into the last eight of the FA Cup.
Travelling to the game from London on the day with my brother and a friend, the mood was nerveless and optimistic. A knowledge rather than a belief that we were good enough to belie the gulf in all aspects of the clubs. That feeling was carried into the pubs around the stadium and then into the stands at the Riverside. The packed Oxford corner of the ground aloft throughout the day; a loud pocket of yellow amidst the red.
The first half couldn’t have been more disappointing. Oxford froze, and the players that we had told our friends to look out for on Match of the Day that night were unrecognizable. John Lundstram wasn’t pulling strings in the middle of the park, Chris Maguire wasn’t skipping past players and Robbie Hall’s pace wasn’t scaring the life out of the Premier League club.
As Rudy Gestede put the home side 2-0 up after 34 minutes you could sense the crowd collectively asking themselves; ‘maybe we aren’t as good as we thought?’
Then the second half started brightly for the away team, as they finally started to get a foothold in the game as the hosts dropped in to protect their lead.
I’d be amazed if ever witness two minutes of football that I enjoy more than those that ensued after Phil Edwards was bundled over by Adama Traore on the edge of the area in in the 64th minute.
It was Maguire who stood over the ball, scorer of so many crucial goals many of which were free-kicks.
Maguire is, and I reckon always will be, my favourite player.
From the first time I saw the cocky, mercurial Scot pull on a yellow shirt and do whatever he could to rattle opposition fans and players I knew he captured my heart in a way none had done before. The fact that he initially polarised our fans to the extent that a proportion genuinely disliked him made his elevation to talisman sweeter during his time at the club.
As he stepped forward, clipped the ball over the wall, past Brad Guzan and into the back of the net his status at the club was elevated further still.
He may not have drawn us level but the manner of the celebration, running straight to the fans and demanding of them to further lift the team seemed to have almost as much impact on the game as the goal itself.
I didn’t see Boro kick-off, I’m not sure I even saw us win the ball back, but I definitely heard a change in the tone of the still-cheering fans.
Looking back at the pitch and grappling out of the clutches of those around me I could scarcely believe that Maguire, seemingly seconds after he had scored, was bearing down on Guzan again.
This time Guzan saved, but the ball fell to West Ham loanee Toni Martinez who swept home from close range and sparked celebrations that I just cannot do justice with words.
We hadn’t finished celebrating the first, we hadn’t even had time to obey the orders of Maguire, and we descended into bedlam as we drew level.
Christian Stuani scored the winner for Middlesbrough in the 86th minute. I can’t really remember the goal or what happened after Martinez’s equaliser. It hurt, briefly, but I remember the walk back to the station fully aware that, despite losing the tie, we had seen a moment that defined this team and this era of Oxford under Appleton.
That the manager moved on from the club that summer, to the dismay of every Oxford fan, only went further to etch this day, or those two minutes, in my mind as an example of when football is as good as it gets, even if the game didn’t go to plan.
I was in a pub back in London just a few hours later when Match of the Day came on. Reliving a defeat in that manner normally only deepens the heartache, whereas this time it only restored the pride.
After losing our way a bit in the aftermath of Appleton’s departure, Oxford are in a similar position this season to back in 2017. Fans haven’t had to wait 3 decades for another clutch of heroes and today it’s Henry, Brannagan, Fosu.
They may not have hit the heights of the class of 2017 yet, but an EFL Cup Quarter-Final against Man City awaits for a team who, under Karl Robinson, could eclipse anything achieved by Appleton and his group.
But that 2 minutes was the perfect snapshot into a team that defined a seminal era for me, instigated by a manager and a player ingrained into my love of Oxford.
It’s bittersweet in a way, because whilst there will be further euphoria and heartache along the way, I’m not sure it’ll ever get better than two minutes in Middlesbrough in a game we lost.
Thanks to George for sharing his memories of Oxford United’s heart-breaking defeat to Middlesbrough in 2017. You can follow George on Twitter, or hear him on the Not The Top 20 Podcast, or Guardian Football Weekly.