Saturday, 3 March 2012

Machiavelli and the 10 Man Siege.

On Monday I'm delivering a lecture about Drama and Sport as part of the Ways of Seeing course. I think Drama students can learn a great deal by looking at the training and dedication and focus on technique of elite sports men and women. The need to command performance is as true for an actor as for an athlete. But I've also long thought that sport is really only of interest as a public spectacle when it transcends a simple test of prowess or strength and begins to take on a multi-dimensional narrative. In other words when the outcome matters in epic terms or, to use the language of commentary, when a legend is created. In turn it's these legends that help establish and reinforce communities or tribes: be they virtual, national or local.

With these thoughts in mind that I headed home to Oxford to see United take on their bitter Wiltshire rivals Swindon Town. The two clubs haven't been in the same league for nearly a decade, but Oxford's recent rise has been matched by Swindon sudden slump and so hostilities have been resumed this year. In the Autumn Oxford managed to beat their opponents away from home for the first time since 1972, but since then Swindon have steadily improved and now, with only a couple of months of the season left to play sit proudly on top of the league.

Adding spice to the affair has been Swindon's maverick manager Paola Di Canio - a roman fascist of the old school, whose every pre-match interview is a call to nobility and warrior spirit. After the defeat in September he stood in the centre circle of the County Ground until the 10,000 spectators had cleared the ground, just so he could feel the pain.

Di Canio is learning his trade as a manager. In January he launched an audacious bid for Oxford's talismanic striker, Wiltshire born James Constable. The man who scored both goals in Oxford's victory.

For 12 hours Oxford fans were on tenterhooks, until, with the deadline approaching Constable tweeted a reassuring message saying he had no desire to leave the club and had turned down the chance to talk to Swindon.

The Swindon manager responded by saying that whilst he respected the decision he wasn't interested in signing anybody who lacked heart. Constable, he claimed, was weak and didn't possess the courage or desire to join Swindon. These claims were reiterated yesterday, Di Canio clearly working the wind up.

And so it was that by noon we were packed into the ground ready for battle. Oxford's big number 9 jogged out to heroes reception. It wasn't long before the second stage of Di Canio's plan was put into action. A long ball out of defence cleared the central defender, Constable turned him to chase and the defender went down clutching his face. Immediately the Swindon players surrounded the referee, pointing, gesticulating and claiming that Constable had elbowed their player in the face. The referee bought it, a red card was brandished and after only 12 minutes Oxford were down to ten men. Di Canio stood impassively on the touchline. Mission accomplished.

The Swindon players couldn't believe how effectively the plan had been carried out. It was as if they got what they'd come for.

They jogged back into position- a moment to bask in glory -the game was surely theirs for the taking. But Oxford responded on the counter, wild, screaming raids down the wings, nothing to lose and it worked, reeking havoc to Swindon's strategic approach. Two minutes after the red card a looping cross from the right was tucked in at the far post by recalled midfielder Asa Hall and two minutes after that Oli Johnson added a second.

Swindon were stunned but they regrouped and began to attack. Waves of attack. Attack after attack. Matt Ritchie smacked the ball against the bar. Ryan Clarke in the Oxford goal made a string of wonderful saves, last ditch tackles flew in, bodies committed... a siege.

The clock ticked slowly, each minute seemed an hour. Swindon increased their intensity. Oxford prayed to the Gods of charmed life. Eventually it was over the final whistle went. Oxford's players sank to their knees - local bragging rights maintained. The imperial army crushed.

And Di Canio? Well he was back in the centre circle, waving his red and white Swindon scarf around his head. Defying defeat, last man standing, daring the victorious to one final challenge. For all the apparent bravery it was a ridiculous rather than provocative display, by a general who'd ultimately got his battle plans wrong. All over, til next time.

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