There’s only really one topic you can cover after Saturday’s game; James Ashley Constable.
The Stranglers were right when they said that there are no more heroes anymore. But while they whimsically pine for some ill-defined loss of cultural values, there’s sound sociological reasoning underpinning this observation.
When you’re young you’re much more likely to see something you consider to be remarkable. That’s not because you’re seeing something remarkable, it’s because you’re seeing something for the first time, which is a pretty big step up from not seeing it at all. When I was about seven, my favourite footballer was John Doyle due to the fact I’d seen him kick a ball to the half way line and because he had shiny thighs lathered in Deep Heat. These were remarkable things I’d never seen before. A number of years later I saw George Lawrence’s lathered thighs shining under The Manor floodlights and realised that Doyle wasn’t, after all, all that.
As we get older we become more knowing; we’re less impressed by what we see. Because we’ve seen it before, we can rationalise why it’s happened. We can assess things we might once have felt heroic in a more objective way.
Eventually the heroism meter becomes so sophisticated, the bar over which someone must leap so high, it becomes no longer possible for anyone to actually meet the criteria. At that point, there are no more heroes.
I thought that I’d grown out of Oxford United heroes years ago. Partly through age and partly because we’ve not had a lot to admire, I mean you know something is up when people start idolising Dave Savage. As my cynicism grew and we got worse, the prospect of stumbling across another genuine Oxford hero became increasingly remote.
You hope, of course, that perhaps Gary Twigg can be the next John Aldridge, or Alex Fisher the next Paul Powell. I’ve lost count of the number of wingers I hoped would turn out to be the next Joey Beauchamp.
Yes, Courtney Pitt, you failed me.
Enter James Constable; a genuine modern-day club hero. Even my dad is taken to texting me whenever Constable scores or is dropped with a message ‘When will they ever learn about Constable?’ How is it possible for a player in the modern age to become a hero to thousands of embattled cynics?
In simple terms, 100 goals for one club, for that’s what we’re celebrating here, is a remarkable feat. In the last 20 years of the Premier League only 5 players have done it. At Oxford, only two in our entire history have hit that landmark. But, whereas Graham Atkinson – who Constable now trails by a mere 7 goals – was from an age when staying with one club long enough to notch up that score was a norm, in the modern age, in the lower leagues, it’s close to unheard of.
Goalscorers are bankable assets, even in the in League 2, and it takes some doing just to be at a club long enough to even come close to a milestone like 100 goals. Take a contemporary like Richard Brodie; he got to 50 goals before Crawley offered up an obscene amount of money that York couldn’t ignore.
This is why Constable is unusual. He’s been able to score 100 goals because he’s stuck with us. He’s turned down attractive offers from Swindon and Bournemouth, and the club have had offers from Crawley and Bristol Rovers they’ve rebuffed. That says two things to me; firstly, Constable is a considerate and thoughtful professional who thinks beyond the money, and, in return, the club values those attributes in him.
Whether he’d have survived at Swindon or Bournemouth is open to question; he has mountains of credit with Oxford fans and occasional lapses in form need that to get you through to the other side. However, with big offers come big salaries; he could have simply taken those wages, but he didn’t.
The loyalty; which always sounds slightly wrong because it implies that he’s at the club because he feels too guilty to leave, is just one thing. The nature of the loyalty has taken Constable to another level. Had he signed for Bournemouth, I suspect he’d have been filed away with Tommy Mooney and Dean Windass as brief passing conquests who left to find something better to do. Typical of our luck.
But Constable bucked the trend; he didn’t chase the money, he considered more; his family, the credit he has at the club and he stayed with what he knows.
And then, there are the goals. Not just the number, its about the right type. Peter Foley scored 90 times for Oxford, yet it’s difficult to remember a single one as being significant. The goals James Constable has scored give you goose bumps.
The header against Wrexham in the middle of the head rush of the ‘Believe’ campaign. Billy Turley fell to the floor as Craig Nelthorpe threw in a last gasp cross. Deep into injury time; if Constable connects, we fight on, if not; that’s it, the season is over. It was as stark as that. Constable stretches and does connect; the ball clips the crossbar and goes in. I’ve only ever experienced the momentary silence of a stunned crowd twice, the goal Joey Beauchamp scored against Blackpool in 1996 and that goal against Wrexham. Still my favourite.
In the first leg of the semi-final against Rushden, he span tightly to drill home and then a few days later raced through the Diamonds defend to rifle home wheeling away, backwards, in front of a frenzied Oxford Mail Stand. The giddy abandon of people who actually thought were about to be released from their purgatory.
And Wembley, of course, a freight train through the York defence, an irresistible force channelling an unstoppable energy. Quick feet and a drive into the corner. 22 minutes, Wembley, 2-0. This just didn’t happen to Oxford United. Except, when James Constable is present, it does, it seems.
Back in the football league; the League Cup, our cup, and a barmy joyous night of goals against Bristol Rovers. Two wonderful strikes amongst six.
Town End, Swindon. Goaded by Paolo Di Canio as a Swindon fan, a cynical attempt to destabilise him and the club in the light of the first league meeting in a decade. 12 minutes, Leven swings in a cross; Constable connects, 1-0. Half an hour later; Leven’s free-kick; who’s on the line? Do I need to ask? A Swindon fan, Mr Di Canio?
Goals and goals and goals and goals.
And not just goals; against Swindon in the JPT. Constable’s been quiet, some half chances, a penalty appeal, a minute to go; the ball bounces free and he’s on his way. Perfect pass to Alfie Potter; 1-0. He did it again.
Even his sending off against Swindon the year before seemed wholly in harmony with the narrative of the day – the injustice, the plight and then the heroism and a victory for the good. James Constable is interwoven into our history. The common thread through our resurrection from the Firoz Kassam years.
Oxford United fans are embittered, unforgiving people. We’re damaged. People have let us down; Maxwell, Herd, Kassam, Merry. Aldridge left, Houghton left, Saunders left, Elliot left, Windass left, Mooney left. Countless others have taken the money and not performed. Every single one has left us. But not James Constable. On the pitch his goals have dragged us from darkness. Off the pitch he bucks the stereotype of a heartless money-obsessed footballer.
When we were sitting just outside the relegation zone in the Conference all we needed was someone to love and to love us back. James Constable did just that.