Oxford United didn’t have a midfield for the first three years of life at the Kassam. Under Mark Wright they used to melt into the gaps in between the defenders effectively creating a flat back 8. Under Ian Atkins they were bypassed completely. In fact, no player touched the ball in the centre circle apart from kicking-off between 2001 and 2004.
Across the midfield, as was the way with the move to the Kassam, we started the first season with a new look. Matt Murphy was left behind in the rubble of the Manor, Joey Beauchamp gazed on like a child sitting on the mound behind the open west end of the ground on match day.
Paul Tait made it across the divide to the Kassam, but his most memorable moment was years before showing off a shirt bearing the legend ‘Shit on the Villa’ when scoring for Birmingham at Wembley. He was joined by Dave Savage, a player who survived deep into the Atkins revolution. Savage was afflicted by the “Kassam Spiral”; hated in his first season, loved in his second.
Waiting in the wings was the pock marked junior Dean Whitehead. He and Chris Hackett would occasionally make cameos under Wright and Atkins, but calls to play him regularly were often resisted. By the time Whitehead was a regular, he was dynamic, creative and a much more complete footballer than the club had produced for years. The nuturing seemed to instill in Whitehead a work ethic that has served him well in a career that has taken in Sunderland and Stoke.
For all that Atkins did that was good with Whitehead, his pragmatic football philosophy did not breed a great dynasty in midfield maestros. Bobby Ford returned, but had his spirit truly broken by the long ball game. James Hunt joined but his role was primarily to stand in the middle of the pitch shouting ‘Great punt Crozzer, now get something on it Alsop” as he watched another ball sour over his head.
You’d think that Graham Rix, one of the country’s most respected young coaches (and convicted sex offender) would have put passing football at the heart of his gameplan. Oddly, despite everything he claimed to be, he seemed completely incapable of selecting a midfielder with any degree of competence. Derek Townsley came and went, Rob Wolleaston came, had great hair, looked OK and then went. At least Paul Wanless returned and gave a half decent account of himself.
Rix’s reign removed the last chock of sanity keeping the United juggernaught from sliding down the hill to its death. We simply descended into a form of mania. Ramon Diaz introduced to the midfield the likes of Diaz (junior), Raponi, Cominelli and Karam – they had an average height of 5ft 4 and spent most of their time shivering with their sleeves pulled over their hands. They might have been a boy band in a reality TV show doing whacky challenges. Had they not kept turning up to games, Diaz would surely have been accused of using his position to smuggle illegal immigrants to the country. They were barely footballers, let alone League 2 footballers.
Uncharacteristically, Brian Talbot introduced some normality to the midfield. In particular, his signing of Chris Hargreaves, which offered a degree of maturity and level headedness that couldn’t be fostered throughout the rest of the side.
And with that, we lost our league position. The first five years, in which we succeeded in doing nothing more than plummet into the Conference, only Dean Whitehead is really deserving of a place in the Kassam All Star XI.