By 1988 the club was beginning a period of Division 2 stagnation, dog days in comparison to today and at any other club it might have been considered a halcyon time. The thing was, what had gone before was so wonderful it meant that life in the 2nd tier was decidedly mundane. Despite this, the winger production line was about to shift into overdrive.
Joey Beauchamp had been a ball boy at Wembley in 1986 and eventually made his first-team debut three years later. All great clubs should have a homegrown legend. It wasn’t quite a one club career, but his dalliances with West Ham and Swindon proved only that money wasn’t as important as happiness.
People brand Beauchamp as a lightweight and a mummy’s boy. He was notoriously quiet in the dressing room, but was mentally strong enough to know what he wanted. When the club was in financial difficulties, he was linked with moves to Nottingham Forest and Southampton but turned them both down. He got to the Kassam, providing a lineage from the peak of the Glory Years to the new era of the club, but was soon unceremoniously dumped by Firoz Kassam for being expensive, injured and ageing. A reasonable business decision, but one that indicated the callous and cold hearted Kassam-era within which the club suffered. Beauchamp left after 13 years, and was involved in almost all the good things that happened in that period – Tranmere, Blackpool, Swindon.
On the other wing, for the early part of Beauchamp’s reign, was the gangling form of Chris Allen. Nowhere near as refined as Beauchamp, it’s fair to say that Allen was a little, well, raw. The joke was that he only knew when to stop running when he saw the Unipart advertising boards at the end of the pitch. His emergence suggested that Oxford were a natural breeding ground for wingers.
In 1996, when we were hunting for promotion, Allen’s head was turned by a move to Nottingham Forest. He didn’t see the season out, moving to the City Ground and scoring his only goal for Forest in a Premier League game against Liverpool. He stayed at Forest for 3 years, playing just 25 games. At 27, his career capitulated and he played just 21 more league games. Interestingly, although Beauchamp’s career was more fulfilled, Allen’s involvement in football has been more sustained. Perhaps it was a sobering lessons of missing his opportunity, he now coaches the youth team.
Amidst these two homegrown talents was Stuart Massey. For all Beauchamp and Allen’s empathy, pace and youthful talent, I think Massey was absolutely pivotal to the 1996 promotion season. Beauchamp or Allen played instinctively, with Paul Moody providing a target up front, the temptation was to get the ball to him quickly. Massey, however, refused to be rushed. It gave us the patience to create a quality, not quantity, of chances. This was key to us to building up a momentum that became the great promotion onslaught of 96.
With Beauchamp, Allen and Massey at their peak in 1996, hiding shyly behind the scenes was yet another local winged wonder. Paul Powell, unlike his predecessors, was a spiky, feisty character. His pugnacious attitude suggested that he might have the steel to succeed where the others had failed. I thought he was more talented than Brock, Thomas, Allen and even Beauchamp. He completed the trinity of mid-90s Oxford-born wingers. It’s very rare that a player changes games on his own, Powell could do just that. Not only did he win balls and beat players, he scored too. None of the others were that complete. I thought he’d play for England.
With the club teetering on the edge of collapse, Powell represented a beacon for our survival. If he stayed, he’d play to get us out of trouble, if he went, with the money madness ramping up in the Premier League, he’d pay for it. During a late season revival under Malcolm Shotton in 1998 Powell joined Simon Marsh in an England Under 21 squad which he eventually had to pull out of. His problem was fitness, much of it apparently self-inflicted. His career was already on the wane when he got a bad injury against Luton. Although he returned and had the honour of scoring the first goal at the Kassam, he was never the same again.