And then there was one.
Every great team has a great spine; Whitehead, Elliot and Gilchrist, Smith and Grey, Moody. Judge, Shotton and Briggs, Houghton and Hebberd, Aldridge. You can add to that Clarke, Creighton and Wright, Bulman and Murray, Constable.
Every great team must, at some point, be dismantled. With the announcement of Ryan Clarke’s departure, the remains of the 2010 promotion team is down to one. It was inevitable, of course; one day Constable was always going to go, Potter was always going to go, even Rhys Day was going to go.
There’s something brutal about replacing an established keeper. In any other position, if someone gets signed then it’s, at worst, a battle for that position. When it’s a goalkeeper, particularly in the lower leagues, most clubs go with an established number one and a young back up. If you’re the established number one and another one gets signed, then the writing is emphatically on the wall.
And that’s particularly rough on a player as loved as Clarke. In reality, it’s fairly easy to be a much loved keeper. You do spend half of every game hanging out with the home fans, you’re bound to build some kind of relationship. Plus, I maintain that fans are generally clueless about what makes a good keeper, so basically if you catch a ball or two and dive a couple of times you’re quite a long way to becoming a legend.
But, Clarke stands out. In an ideal world, I was hoping he would never leave. Maybe I hoped he would become part of some gargantuan backroom staff, a stockpile of legends who could be found kicking balls at Max Crocombe and being distracted by the half-time scores every Saturday.
Sadly no, all these things come to an end eventually. Clarke’s signing was, in itself, a brave one from Chris Wilder. Billy Turley was himself a capable and much loved keeper. Clarke was part of a very deliberate move to change the direction of the club. No longer would we dwell sentimentally on the past – Turley being one of a number of players who said they had unfinished business with the club and wanted to right a wrong. The reality was that they never did; they toiled away achieving less and less each season. They’d had their chance and it was time to move on.
Clarke, with Creighton and Luke Foster, and then Jake Wright, set out their stall as a dominant force in the Conference. Although he had a fine season, ironically, the lasting memory of his time in an Oxford shirt was him throwing the ball into his own net against York in the play-off final. He also saved us at least once during that game and many times before that, but I always wondered whether his moment of madness discouraged other teams from taking a closer look.
Whatever it was, it was to our advantage. Where others in the promotion team looked far less comfortable in League 2 than they had in the previous season, Clarke looked more than comfortable at that level and looked like he could play at least a level above.
Of course, his abilities were much more on show in League 2 and he saved us countless times, often breathtakingly. For three years, at least, he was consistently the best player in the team; adding penalty saving to his many talents. This was all pretty remarkable from a player who had been in a team relegated to the Conference North before coming to the Kassam. That turnaround was a credit to both Clarke himself and the mentoring he got from Alan Hodgkinson.
Soppy though it sounds, I was always reassured by Clarke’s presence, like I was when James Constable was around. During his periodic injuries, when we’d bring in a loanee who looked like Joe Hart and played like Joe Pasquale, it didn’t feel like our club, like when you buy a pair of shoes and for a while they feel like they’re wearing you. It was all wrong.
Last season, there was no doubt Clarke was a bit more flat-footed than he had been, although we conceded less goals than the year before, the second best since returning to the league in 2010. Injuries may have been a factor, and age, with Clarke clicking over to 33 in April, it was right to ask some tough questions as to whether he would re-discover his sparkle. Sam Slocombe’s arrival was the beginning of the end.
Clarke’s move to Northampton is, to some extent, obvious. If there’s something that characterises a Wilder player, it’s that they are good dependable pros, and Clarke is certainly one of those. The only surprise, I suppose, is that it’s taken Wilder this long to try to fish him out from his old club. Clarke wants to play; it’s easy to assume that he’ll spend a couple of years with the Cobblers and then be satisfied picking up contracts as a back up keeper before retiring. But not now, the indignity of seeing Clarke on the Oxford bench wasn’t going to do anyone any good.
So, where does Clark sit in the pantheon of Oxford United goalkeeping greats? It’s difficult to compare different ‘keepers playing at different levels at different times. Time will tell ultimately; legends often mature as time passes. Alan Judge may have been the keeper who played on our greatest day, but I was always more of a Steve Hardwick fan back then. I still, just about, think Phil Whitehead ranks as my favourite keeper of all time. But Clarke is not far behind.