Following a impressive win over Burton, it could be argued that Chris Wilder is in the best shape he’s been in for years. The dawning of another golden era? Time will tell. But this peak comes in the same week that Damian Batt, the first of his original golden generation retired from full time football.
Even the paramilitary wing of the Wilder Out campaign will have to admit that our manager is having a half-decent time of it at the moment. After our 2-0 win over Burton on Saturday, we’re unbeaten in seven, nine if you count last season, with maximum points away from home and we’re sitting comfortably second in the table.
It is sometimes difficult to remember what the club was like pre-Wilder. He, along with Kelvin Thomas, took a bloated mush and managed to use a key quality – our size – to our advantage. If Oxford were going to break out of the Conference, they needed to meet their own rhetoric and psychologically dominate the league. The result was a barrage of signings designed to meet that specific brief.
Of the team that eventually took us up at Wembley, Damian Batt, who retired from full-time football last week, was Wilder’s first permanent signing. Of the Wembley team, Adam Chapman had come in on loan, James Constable was already in place. If you want to have an idea of the state we were in at the time, a YouTube clip of Batt’s debut opens with the announcement that the club had been deducted 5 points for fielding an ineligible player – Eddie Hutchinson. The height of our incompetence and disjointedness.
The deduction ultimately put paid to our play-off chances, but in the final months of that season, Wilder’s United created a template for how it was going to take on the Conference. The following summer, the Wilder/Thomas revolution truly rolled with singings of Matt Green, Jack Midson, Dannie Bulman, Mark Creighton and Ryan Clarke amongst others.
Batt was part of that new culture, the Conference is made up of three types of teams; those who are in chaos, those who are well organised and those who are well organised and have a striker who scores goals. With that paucity of quality; Batt’s physical attributes; his pace and fitness, allowed him to maraud up and down the right flank, overwhelming and demoralising those who played against him.
It was during the 2009/10 season that he scored his only Kassam Stadium goal from open play; in some ways it summed up much of the season. It was a cold, grey Halloween day against a well organised Altrincham side. The best part of the season. We bludgeoned away at them, missing a penalty along the way, eventually in the second half, Batt stepped up and larruped the ball home; a frustrated hurrumph which finally put them to the sword.
I said at the time, “Come the day of victory, you will cover us in garlands and kiss us passionately on the lips, and celebrate us with us as one, but as much as we will tell you the stories of Damien Batt’s 20 yard drive, you will never know what we’ve been through.”
Batt was part of the first generation of tweeters, which galvanised his relationship with the fans. He came over as intelligent and articulate as those coming from non-league football often do. He built up a reputation as one of the good guys; something that proved increasingly important during the season’s wobble when the club wrestled to find a replacement for the injured Adam Murray.
Adam Chapman was that man, and Wembley happened. The following season, Batt continued to prowl the flanks of League 2. It was a season of giddy abandon, we had highs, like the 6-0 win over Bristol Rovers, but were more often than not sucker punched by teams with no more quality, but a bit more guile. The season could have gone horribly wrong had Wilder not signed Paul McClaren to bolster a soft midfield which had been stripped of Dannie Bulman.
Batt built a reputation that got him into the League 2 end of season team. That surprised some given that we’d been undermined by naive defending. But with his pace and fitness Batt, plus his ability to whip in a mean outswinging cross, he would have been enough of a pain to build a reputation amongst a sea of anonymous League 2 right-backs.
At the end of the season, Batt acknowledged that despite the accolade, his defending needed to improve. Chris Wilder concurred, signing Andy Whing, Michael Duberry and Tony Capaldi with a plan to create a more mature back-four alongside Jake Wright. It seemed like Batt’s days were numbered. Capaldi missed the whole of his first season and Whing, after a shaky start, was detailed to fill in in the middle of the back four or in midfield. Batt continued as a first choice pick, albeit in a more shackled role.
Meanwhile, off the field, Batt’s attention seemed to be turning to his next career; not joining the Herbalife bandwagon, he launched something called Alexander Dubell. I’ve no idea what that is, and I don’t know what ‘living life exclusively’ actually is, I suspect I’m not really the target audience; anyone who can afford a £10k+ watch rarely needs a price discount to persuade them to buy.
Batt’s final season came with the fog of injuries, poor pitches, hand-wringing and finger pointing. He continued to perform solidly in between comparatively brief spells of injury. But a clear out was looming. A clutter of loanees and short term deals were shelled, stars who’d lost their shine moved along. Batt didn’t seem to have done much wrong, so it was a bit of a surprise when his name was included on the list. The reason seemed to be little more than it was time for a bit of a refresh.
A move to Vancouver Whitecaps seemed to be on the cards, but for some reason that didn’t materialise. Talking about having some great offers, which couldn’t have been that great given he turned them down, he announced his retirement and then promptly turned up; part-time, at Eastleigh, playing some way below where he should be, you’d think.
It’s difficult to place Batt in the great scheme of things. He should always be remembered as one of the brave that took on the club and its demons and helped to turn it round. As an early adopter of that new culture, he gains extra points for not caving in during those formative months. Perhaps he doesn’t realise how deep a hole he managed to dig us out of. For that he’ll always be welcomed back to the Kassam.