Wingers’ Week Part 3 – The collapse of a dynasty

With Beauchamp, Allen and Powell all coming through around the same time, it was easy to think that we had a right to continue to produce this calibre of player. And this calibre of winger, in particular. But, we were changing. The Kassam Era’s nuclear winter had brought a new coldness to the club. Football was changing too. Players were getting fitter and wingers were replaced by more versatile wing-backs who could attack and defend for 90 minutes. Also, managers were more paranoid about losing, so their teams were getting more compact, with a packed midfield and a single striker. The luxury of the winger, with his notoriously patchy involvement in the game, was being phased out.

But, as Joey Beauchamp’s career wound down, it seemed that there was yet another waiting to take to the stage. Chris Hackett had the rawness of Chris Allen, but he was playing in a team in steep decline. Fans continued hold him in high regard, in hope that he might emerge as the next in line to the throne. Occasionally, he’d show something of what he had, but usually only as a substitute and, only then, when he was linking up with Dean Whitehead or Jamie Brooks. New Year 2006 came and Firoz Kassam committed suicide on behalf of the club when he sold Lee Bradbury to Southend, Craig Davies to Verona and Hackett to Hearts. This stripped us of our attacking talent, even a faltering one, and our crumbling edifice finally collapsed.

The decay started some time before that though, it was impossible to not have reservations when Graham Rix was appointed in 2004. He’d been placed on the sex offender register five years earlier, for having sex with a 15 year old girl who was the daughter of a family friend. With this in his background, he was never realistically going to survive for long. In addition, he carried a label of being one of the best coaches in the country despite a track record of abject failure in his only management role at Portsmouth. It was the classic Kassam problem of recruiting CVs not people. Rix wasn’t going to survive at a club which had expectations beyond all measure and failure deep in its DNA.
However, he brought with him a philosophy which tried to turn Ian Atkins’ direct and pragmatic game on its head. He wanted to play the football that his text books said was ‘right’. He introduced a passing game instantly, I still have the hair raising memory of Andy Crosby and Matt Bound passing the ball along their own 6 yard box in Rix’s first game against Doncaster. 

On the wing that day was Courtney Pitt, a signing Rix made ‘from Chelsea’ (although he actually came from Portsmouth). Pitt’s 9 games for the club wouldn’t normally be worthy of a mention in any Oxford story. However, the newly proclaimed philosophy and the introduction of a winger to illustrate its intent, he ignited a brief flicker of hope. 

Pitt once had a cameo appearance in a documentary about football agents. Sky Andrew was seen trying to negotiate a deal for him, while he walked with a gangster limp and drove a brand new Audi TT. It was the ultimate image of the vacuous professional, presented as something exciting and aspirational. Pitt’s performance was disinterested and ineffectual, to me, he, perhaps more than perhaps any other player, illustrated and confirmed the terminal decline the club was in. The club died in 2006, but the spirit of the winger died with Courtney Pitt two years earlier.

The spiral of decline continued all the way to the Conference. Oxford were gripped with football’s New Seriousness. Wingers were out, combative midfielders were in. There was virtually no evidence of any wingers during Jim Smith’s era. When his plan A didn’t stopped working in 2007, there was no plan B. He could have done with a couple of wingers to get us out of the sludge.

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