History will eventually establish a ‘classic’ line-up for the 2016 promotion. Some members; Kemar Roofe and Danny Hylton are obvious, but others are more marginal calls – do you go with Jonjoe Kenny or George Baldock? John Mullins or Chey Dunkley?
To the surprise of surely nobody Chey Dunkley brought his Oxford career to a close with the announcement that he’d signed for Wigan. Dunkley originally appeared in a blizzard of signings during Michael Appleton’s first season in charge. At first it looked like he’d been brought in as a cheap Michael Raynes. He spent most of his time warming the bench to such an extent that at one point he described himself on Twitter as the club’s mascot.
But that act of diffidence was out of character for a player who was studying for a degree and worked with a fierce intensity to get himself into the best possible physical shape. Clearly Michael Appleton valued his work ethic and what threatened to be just another random signing started to evolve into a serious contender for a starting place.
Early on, however, he revealed an underpinning weakness in his game, he just seemed to think too much. In early 2015/16 against Bristol Rovers he nearly conceded a penalty and could have got sent off in the opening minutes just through over-exuberance; as if he was struggling to control his nervous energy. It did seem when Dunkley was faced with a pressure beyond a normal game – perhaps a TV appearance or a cup tie – he tried a little too hard and mistakes crept into his game. As a back-up he seemed fine, but it seemed unlikely that he’d evolve much beyond that point.
Around Christmas he seemed to hit a sweet spot, suddenly he was dominant at the back and a threat at set pieces. He ousted John Mullins from the regular centre-back spot and never looked like conceding his place. The hard work seemed to be paying off. No crowd was too big that you couldn’t hear his foghorn bark organising players insisting those around him ‘hold’, at least that’s what I think he said.
Dunkley evolved into an immense presence in the team, strikers cowered in his presence and he became a attacking threat at corners not seen since the days of Matt Elliot. With Chris Maguire delivering crosses with pinpoint accuracy, corners lead to goals, something largely been missing from our game for nearly two decades. By April he was doing Cruyff turns at Wembley and was, perhaps, the best player of the second half of our promotion season. He acquired a song to the tune of Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody, because there wasn’t anybody, like Chey Dunkley.
Fittingly, his pinnacle was in the 54th minute of the promotion decider against Wycombe. With a win needed for promotion and results going against us, the clock was ticking gradually into the red zone. Muscles were tightening and jaws grinding, Chris Maguire swung in a corner of such precision it was inviting someone to break the deadlock. Easier said than done; with tensions rising it would have been easy for the ball to pass through with players watching frozen in fear, but Dunkley; seething with confidence from his stellar season took the initiative, met the cross like a bullet and emphatically forced the ball home. Watch the video back and you’ll see only one player attacking the corner, Cheyenne Dunkley.
Photos show Dunkley’s celebration, a visceral joy, a lightening rod, channeling the surge of energy generated by the 12,000 delirious fans. This was no cold orchestrated celebration, it was as real and raw as the celebration of those fans who had been burdened with decades of misery. Dunkley’s relief and joy matched our own.
League 1 was a reasonably comfortable step up, Dunkley faced strikers with more craft and strength and he seemed to take it all in his stride. But, as the season progressed, he began to look heavy legged. It was difficult to know whether he was flat lining because of ability – and relative improvements in his opponents – or simply because of the number of games he had played. I suspect it was the latter.
Reports suggest that the club made a number of offers to renew his contract, almost doubling his salary in the process. This probably sounds grander than it was, given that his first contract was signed as an unproven non-league neo-pro moving into League 2. Some have suggested that he’s joining Wigan for the money rather than to progress his career, but I don’t imagine the two are mutually exclusive in the lower leagues – good money and long contracts count as career progression when you’re one dodgy transfer from oblivion.
Some have spitefully chosen to remember Dunkley as a bit of a blundering oaf of limited ability, but this is just a way of deflecting the level of affection we invested in him in the build up to promotion. His emergence from the shadows of the squad coincided with the club’s awakening. Mocking him is just a way of hiding the hurt. This is not how he’ll be remember in the long term.
He was absolutely magnificent in our promotion season and more than capable last year. Any dip in form was surely because there was no one better to take over when he got tired. Above all, Dunkley was one of those players that fans can relate to; not someone with an otherworldly talent, but someone who succeeded because of a work ethic that was evident in everything he did. Our loss is Wigan’s gain.