March 7th seemed like a normal Saturday on the road with Oxford United. Meet in the car Park at Ardley United for yet another journey up north, with a little bit of West this time. The usual friendly banter about my age from my colleague was perhaps a little bit more relevant with the news that morning 70-year olds may be banned from future games with a certain virus on route from China. I gave as good as I got.
My usual pre-match meal of a McDonalds crispy hot chicken wrap tasted the same as ever. Nathan Cooper never fails to find the coffee and Jerome Sale was as usual rightfully concerned I was going to kick out one of the wires as I sat next to him in the crammed commentary position at the Montgomery Waters Meadow Stadium, the home of Shrewsbury Town.
An important game for United chasing their fifth successive win to push hard for at least a League One play off place at the end of the season. Whatever the result there would be no need to panic because there would still be nine games to go. Three points would be great but plenty of time left but great to keep the momentum going if possible was the consensus. That was certainly the feeling when United went two nil down. Shrewsbury then had a man sent off; Marcus Browne pulled one back for United right on the stroke of half time. Dan Agyei equalised early in the second half, but it looked like United would have to settle for a point until the 88th minute. I am telling listeners ‘What a free kick, what a header, what a goal and what a celebration. Marcus Browne with the free kick, Josh Ruffels with the header and goal and United fans behind the goal celebrating the late winner. A great moment that lifted United up into third place in the League One table but do not forget still nine games to go.
We packed up at 6pm in great spirits. I remember because it was the first time since October the previous year that it was still light as we made our way across the big car park. I planned the programme notes for the home game next Saturday against Milton Keynes because it was my turn to compile the BBC Radio Oxford page.
And that was that. One hundred and eighteen days, two and a half hours since the final whistle in Shropshire, United “kick a ball in anger” for the very first time on Friday evening. Not just any old league fixture but one of the most important games of the millennium for Oxford United and their fans – the first leg of the League One play-off semi-finals down on the South coast against Portsmouth.
Nobody knew what lay ahead as we drove home to Oxford on that March evening. Without that Josh Ruffels header United would not have reached the play offs. If I had known that at the time, I would have screamed so much louder into the microphone and we would have stopped for a pint or two on the way home. Still plenty of time for both in the next couple of weeks.