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Watford v Oxford, 7/11/98
Only a game?
By Matt Rowson

Zzzzzz. Where am I ? What time is it ? Errrrrr Computer Screen. Diet Coke cans. Thank god for that. Diet Coke cans. Must be at home. Only sell Pepsi at work.

After a four day blitz in Amsterdam, a lot of sleep comes highly recommended. Not recommended is an 80 mile round trip in the rain to watch a football match on a Tuesday evening (nor writing match previews at 1 in the morning, but I digress). So why did I go to the Norwich game ? Because, well, it's just so much FUN at the moment. Open matches, exciting football, hey even the match programme is almost a good read. Almost.

If any reminder is needed that the good times need to be enjoyed before a convoy of trucks roll up and dump shit all over them, check out the goings on at Oxford United. The club has been running to stand still in financial terms ever since Robert Maxwell rode out of town, but in the last two years there has been a steady descent towards the current crisis point.

In 1996 things weren't looking too bad. Newly promoted back to the First Division with neighbours Swindon Town, United had begun construction of a new stadium on an out-of-town site, albeit within sniffing distance of a sewage works. Then the first problem... nobody had sorted out how they were going to pay for it. Then another problem... Thames Water, it transpired, had sold the land to the council at a rate which assumed its employment for purely recreational use. The "football's only a game" argument didn't appear likely to hold much water (a bit like Thames' pipes, arf arf), and work on the stadium ground to a halt by Christmas.

In October 1997 a loss of 3.5million was announced over the previous two years. Not including the stadium. Big problem. The chairman resigned, the playing staff were put up for sale, the club was bankrupt. The club is a PR disaster, at war with the local media and dissenting supporters. Light at the end of the tunnel has been snuffed out by the withdrawal within the last week of a rescue package by a consortium known as Grenoble Investments.

Saturday's game has become the third consecutive meeting between the two sides to be thrown into doubt following the frozen pitch and "anyone know an electrician ?" debacles of last year. The players, having been paid by the PFA for the last two months, are threatening to strike on Saturday if they don't receive payment from the club. The board's spokesman suggested on national radio that the strike would be averted, but didn't sound too optimistic about the course events might take after that.

And to think we're worried about who should fill in at right-back.

Understandably, most United Websites are not terribly focused on the on-field fortunes of the team at present. The official site has stopped purporting to be a news service, and is now nothing more than a comprehensive on-line club shop (a far more credible line in my book than inviting advertising from Estate Agents, for example).

Consequently, information on the team's performance last Saturday had to be obtained from a Crewe site. Much was made of the fact that Crewe missed out on United striker Dean Windass' signature in the summer because Alex couldn't afford him. The irony is, that nobody's really sure how United found 800k either, given that they still owe 900k to the Council for the land on which the half-built stadium still stands. In any case Windass, United's most valuable on-field asset and leading scorer with seven to date, is already looking to jump ship with Coventry City amongst the list of likely takers. His suspension for the game on Saturday only underlines the generosity of the computer in choosing our opponents during our current injury crisis.

Other than Windass, the team features a combination of hardy long-term campaigners like keeper Phil Whitehead and full back Les Robinson, and younger stars like Welshman Tony Wright at centre half. Two names that stand out are those of Andy Thomson, once sent off at the Vic for a challenge on Gerard Lavin that upset me far more then than it does now, and Joey Beauchamp, famous mummy's boy who got homesick within minutes of signing for West Ham a few years back. Fullback Simon Marsh will also be suspended on Saturday.

From a Watfordcentric viewpoint, Oxford have gained two points from their last six games, will travel to the Vic under the heaviest of rainclouds if at all, and should provide a welcome three points at home. But the game may mean far more to United as an occasion than the three points will to either side.

If it takes place, Saturday's will be my 400th Watford game. It would break my heart if Watford folded before I got to see another 400. On Saturday, I'm going to enjoy the game if we lose 5-0.... and think myself bloody lucky to be able to do so.