While it seemed increasingly inevitable, the retirement of Mark Creighton was sad news to hear. The man they called The Beast was, literally and figuratively, a giant amongst men.
It is rare that a player manages to acquire the status of legend within a club, be part of a tangible period success and yet, at the same time, last barely more than a season. Yet this is exactly what Mark Creighton, who announced his retirement yesterday, did at Oxford.
When Chris Wilder arrived at the Kassam he inherited a mess of a team; it was made up of a ramshackle bunch of journeymen non-leaguers, loanees, plus one or two of Jim Smith’s expensive signings seeing out their largely undeserved and interminably long contracts.
Oxford’s first choice centre-backs were Luke Foster, Barry Quinn and Chris Willmott, a solid trio – and by the standards of the rest of the squad, one if its strongest parts. But, both Quinn and Willmott were injury prone and Foster had his own demons. By his own admission Wilder threw a team together to get things moving; the club galvanised around a siege mentality brought on by a broken leg to ‘his best player’; Sam Deering, the emergence of a genuine hero in James Constable and a league that seemed to be conspiring against us. What followed was a fun, yet doomed, attack on the play-off places.
Wilder, along with Kelvin Thomas, started something – for the first time in a while fans were genuinely bought into to the manager, and with nifty marketing – notably the 12th Man Fund – the club was galvanised around a cause. However, we were long broken and it was easy for complacency to drift back into the club over the summer months. The strategy previously had been to effectively close the club down for a month or so to let the Oxford hierarchy disappear off on holiday. Fans were expected to renew their season tickets in the hope that the signings, if and when they did come, would spark a revival. Season by season, fans became battle weary and less trusting.
The Wilder/Thomas regime, was having none of that; signings would be fast and aggressive. Mark Creighton was the first and a true demonstration of intent. By accident or design, this wasn’t just symbolic of the strategy, it was symbolic of the Oxford United we were going to be. We needed a wrecking ball of a defender in the tradition of Elliot, Briggs or Shotton. Technically, it’s difficult to compare that hallowed trio with Creighton, but spiritually, he’s right up there with them.
There was huge optimism as we approached the season opener against York. The team, on paper at least, had been constructed from the best of the Conference and there was confidence and expectations of success. In Ryan Clarke, Creighton, Adam Murray and Constable, the team had an indomitable spine. Against York, however, what emerged was a familiar ring of the club’s deepest failings. We fell behind and then toiled to find an equaliser. Then, with injury-time approaching, Matt Green clipped in a leveller, a point was secured, it was something to work on. Moments later, with the relief of snatching a point swirling around the Kassam we were awarded a corner. The ball pinballed around the penalty box before eventually dropping to the feet of Mark Creighton who slotted home with a grace not in keeping with his size.
This was an iconic moment, captured in an iconic photo. The moment that confirmed we had a team that would refuse to be beaten, either by its opponents or its darker demons. Mark Creighton right at the centre of that belief. Somewhat fittingly, it was his only goal in an Oxford shirt.
We ended the season having conceded just 31 league goals – better than everyone bar champions Stevenage. From the end of August to the late September we maintained a run of six games – 9 hours of football – without conceding. It’s quite possible that we would have comfortably been the best defence in the
division if it hadn’t been for the necessity to transition from Luke Foster to Jake Wright over Christmas. It was Creighton that proved the consistent performer, dominating strikers throughout the year; many of them giving up before the game started. At home he was only bested twice; against Tamworth – while nursing Jake Wright into form – trying to marshal the bullying Isyseden Christie and against Hayes and Yedding beaten by the guile of Steve Basham.
It would be Wembley, of course, that offered the stage for the greatest moment of that season. By this time, despite a customary wobble, it felt like we were an unstoppable force. But we still needed to deliver and Creighton, along with all the others, turned up big time. After a rocket fuelled start, we were pegged back to 2-1. The second half was nervy; but Creighton, along with Jake Wright simply did what they always did.
It was to be both the peak and effectively the end. Unexpectedly, Chris Wilder decided to break the team up and Creighton, having been one of the first in, was one of the first out. Harry Worley came in, who was both big and pacey; precious attributes of the modern defender. The early days of being back in the Football League were blighted slightly by some naivety, and perhaps Wilder was minded of those games when clever strikers had been able to exploit Creighton’s lack of mobility. But was Wilder too quick to break the team up? He’s readily admitted that he was wrong to let Dannie Bulman go, and while opposition to the decision was less vocal about Creighton, he had never did anything wrong.
Creighton moved onto Wrexham, where he again acquired cult status. His season was wrecked last year by injury and Wrexham narrowly missed out on promotion to the Football League.
It’s sad to see his career end so comparatively early, and sadder still that he never really got a decent go in the Football League. However, while players will always pine for the game after retiring, it is an inevitability that it will end at some point. All any player can hope for is that they left a mark with people. If any evidence is needed that Creighton managed that during his time at Oxford United, it is that he is the subject of the promotion season’s two most iconic photos. The aforementioned goal against York, taken at pitch level with the East Stand erupting and the newly formed team wheeling away as one; team and fans unified. The other is the picture of Creighton carrying a jubilant Ryan Clarke on his shoulder at Wembley. I would love to know the story of that picture; was it just just split second moments before Clarke dropped to the floor? History has recorded it differently – he looks like a great warrior, carrying a fellow soldier overcome with the hysterical happiness of a battle fought and won. I guess that’s why they call him Beast.