The funny thing about goalkeepers is they usually need to leave in order to make an objective assessment as to their quality. Unlike strikers, whose legend (or not) is forged in the here and now, most goalkeepers are treated well by fans and it is only some years later that a more considered view can emerge.
For example, in the 10 years at the Kassam, it is perhaps only Ian McCaldon who was butchered by the Oxford faithful whilst actually guarding his goal. Despite being in the doldrums, others like Woodman, Tardif, Turley and now Clarke (plus the odds and sods of loanees and juniors) have all been treated well. Perhaps it’s because goalkeeping looks genuinely difficult. Most of us can kick a ball reasonably straight and true – we can at least make some vague connection with what outfield players do, but how many of us naturally throw ourselves full length to the floor? Goalkeeping contains counter-intuitive actions, maybe we admire that.
So, it’s not really possible to make a genuine assessment as to where Ryan Clarke sits in the ‘legendary goalkeeper’ firmament. But lets try. Let’s look at the three aforementioned Kassam regulars. Andy Woodman was part of a sturdy defensive unit that included Matt Robinson, Scott McNiven, Andy Crosby and Matt Bound. They didn’t concede many goals, but, with hindsight, the ball seemed to rarely get to Woodman, so whilst being a solid component of a larger unit, he was a largely unremarkable keeper.
Time And Relative Dimensions In Football – Chris Tardif was equally unremarkable, but for different reasons. Unlike Woodman, he was exposed by a more porous defence and so was able to show off his shot stopping skills, but he wasn’t a significant and reassuring presence and so loses out on that count. We admired him for his exploits, but looking back, he was probably just benefitting from being used as target practice.
Billy Turley was my Kassam All-star XI goalkeeper. There were times when he was magnificent, outshining those around him time and time again. He was also a narcissist and his charming eccentricities did have a habit of getting the better of him. This happened most notably against Orient in the last game of the 2005/6 season and Exeter in the play-off semi-final 2nd leg in 2007 – the two most important games he played in. As I say, it is relatively easy to paint yourself as a great keeper when you have plenty of shots being fired at you, it’s saving them at critical times that counts.
Turley will forever be labelled an Oxford legend, and rightly so, but as time progresses, he will probably be known more in the Johnny ‘lager’ Durnin than Johnny ‘goals’ Aldridge sense. A character.
My frame of reference for The Manor goalkeepers stretches back as far as Roy Burton’s bumcrack. Burton was deeply loved and still is. Not surprising in that he kept goal for 11 years, from the Nothing Years right to the edge of the Glory Years. The memory of Burton, however was as much about his inability to hold up his shorts as it was his goalkeeping skills.
It is funny that we are uncompromising towards managers and other players, we consider football a ‘results business’ and if results don’t come we’re happy to diagnose instant redundancy. When it comes to goalkeepers, it seems we’re drawn more to their personalities; and specifically the ones that make us laugh.
The gap between Burton’s last game and Steve Hardwick’s first was a matter of weeks. I do remember the absolute shock of Paul Butcher taking up position in the green shirt (with blue shorts and yellow socks – just how it should be – none of this special outfit nonsense of today).
During the boom years, Hardwick never seemed to concede a goal and my addled brain remembers him leaping higher than the cross bar to tip the ball over on a regular basis. I thought he was brilliant, but I thought everyone in that team was brilliant.
Given Hardwick’s contribution to the Glory Days, it was surprising that Alan Judge seemed to take over once we reached the 1st Division. It’s difficult to know how good Judge was, though. After 2 years of attacking devil-may-care, when everything seemed to go right for us, we were suddenly placed on the back foot as England’s top strikers attacked a defence forged in the lower leagues. The Guardian recently described that defensive unit – as legendary as it is to us today – ‘a disgrace’. Conceding goals and scratching out points was a sobering experience and whilst Judge will always be our Milk Cup Final keeper, he’ll also be one which was in a team which was constantly in a battle to stay up.
After Judge came a more fuzzy period. Peter Hucker was around for much longer than I remember, but it was difficult to see games in that time and perhaps for me his 1982 FA Cup final appearance for QPR eclipses his time in an Oxford jersey. Ken Veysey’s stay was brief but well regarded, unlike Paul Kee.
Then suddenly, one evening in 1993 Phil Whitehead appeared between the sticks. Whitehead grew to become a contender for the greatest keeper we ever had. He saw us through promotion in 1996 and down the other side. His sale to West Brom propped us up for a period.
Like Clarke, he was playing behind a solid back-four but there were times when he pulled off the remarkable. I still remember this save against Port Vale in the League Cup as being utterly miraculous. The ball seemed to be sitting on the goalline with the striker ready to prod home, but from nowhere Whitehead appeared to parry it to safety. The thing I remember is that we were 2-0 up and cruising and yet Whitehead’s desire to get the block in was undiminished. That moment sticks in my brain to this day.
Post-Whitehead, there was another period of fuzzyness; Pal Lundin, Andre Arendse, Richard Knight, all had their moments in the sun with various levels of success. Knight, in particular, was a brilliant shot stopper, but we broke his spirit in the final season at the Manor as he conceded over 100 goals and still ended up player of the season.
So, is Ryan Clarke Oxford’s greatest ever goalkeeper? Given the nature of the opposition each keeper faced and the defences they stood behind, it’s a marginal call. For me, it’s between him and Phil Whitehead. However, on Tuesday, as Izzy Macleod stood over the ball ready to take the penalty, I had an unreasonable amount of confidence that he would save it. How often do you get to think that about a goalkeeper? He’s perhaps the only player from the Conference years who has shown no signs of needing to adjust in the Football League.
On the other hand, Whitehead took us up in 1996 and was playing at a higher level. Clarke, of course, has been part of one promotion team – and you could argue that the Conference is one of the hardest leagues to get out of. If he manages a second promotion come May, perhaps then we can make the claim that he’s the number 1 number 1.