Midweek fixture: James Constable, the making of a legend

There are some good players, there are bad some players, there are even more players you completely forget about. The throne on which a genuine club legend can sit has space for just one person at a time. Ascent to it is a once in a generation thing.

James Constable’s dominant win in the Favourite #oufc Player of the Decade World Cup showed that though many great players have had a significant impact on both the fans and club – particularly in a decade of progress – getting to the very top requires something else, something a little magical.

As I got older, I thought heroes were just for children; people who give you formative experiences, who do things you physically can’t imagine being able to do. I remember John Doyle in the 1980s kicking a ball from the penalty box to the halfway line and thinking he was a god. Experience makes those feats less novel, the things they do, you can do, sort of. As a result, the bar of expectation, of what constitutes legendary status, gradually increases until nobody can obtain it anymore. Age reminds you that even the biggest achievements by the best players are tempered by the fact they still sit within a range of what you know is possible.

It means physical achievements are just the starting point of what makes a player a club legend. To truly cement yourself at the top of the tree, you have to soak into the fabric of the club, transcend the physical. As you get older you begin to realise that club legends have to be, in some way, metaphysical.

When Joey Beauchamp left Oxford in 2002 it changed my relationship with the club. Beauchamp was a different kind of hero for me – a contemporary rather than the unobtainable supermen of my childhood. After that every player was younger than me, making it harder for them to be heroes. I became less interested in individuals and more in the collective whole; the club. I didn’t think it would be possible to look at another individual player as a genuine club legend, until James Constable arrived.

Even then it crept up on me, Constable was originally signed by Darren Patterson on loan from Shrewsbury Town in 2008. His arrival benefitted from coming in the slipstream of Jamie Guy, who signed from Colchester with a bit of a reputation and therefore more expectation.

Guy started pre-season encouragingly, but was injured in the last friendly before the season started and never quite recovered. A gloom was descending over the club, Jim Smith had failed to get us promoted back to the Football League and money seemed to be running out. The financial and spiritual weight of the Kassam Stadium was weighing around our necks, dragging us down. Perhaps the preoccupation with our plight allowed time for Constable to settle in; in the first fifteen games of the season he scored four times, but only in two games.

Thereafter Constable scored steadily, but the team’s results and consistency weren’t there; Patterson’s job slipped through his fingers, eventually being relieved of his duties after defeat to Torquay United in the FA Cup. In his place came Chris Wilder.

Wilder’s first game was a Boxing Day defeat to Salisbury which was marred by Sam Deering breaking his leg. Wilder described it as losing his best player, but that seemed a smokescreen to give him a chance to lower expectations while he got the club organised.

Constable was at the centre of the change, his reaction to Wilder’s arrival was instant. He scored in the next five consecutive games and though hampered by a five point deduction for fielding an ineligible player, Wilder’s influence seemed to be firing the club to an unexpected tilt at promotion. At the heart of the club’s revival was a symbiotic relationship between Wilder and his striker.

Jamie Guy returned to his parent club leaving Constable a clear run as the club’s main striker. In the last 20 games of the season, Oxford lost just once with Constable scoring 14 league goals, including a heart stopping injury-time winner against Wrexham, making 26 for the season. Defeat to Northwich Victoria on the last day denied a place in the play-offs, the club missing out by the five points it had been deducted earlier in the year.   

The anger fuelled an expectation that things would improve, but all expectation was that Constable would return to Shrewsbury or be picked up by a bigger club, his goals no doubt attracting interest from elsewhere. In fact, with chairman Kelvin Thomas driving an aggressive agenda of change, in the summer of 2009 it was announced we’d signed him permanently. 

The summer was one of big signings and with the momentum gained from the previous season we started the new year in storming form. A front three of Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green made us unplayable. Against Luton Town, Constable scored seconds after missing a penalty and notched a hat-trick against Chester which was eventually chalked off when they went bust and were thrown out of the division. The loss of those goals from the records was something that would become significant in later years.

Our form dipped in mid-season with Stevenage Borough’s consistency putting paid to our championship hopes. In the end we had to settle for a play-off spot against Rushden and Diamonds for a tilt at Wembley. Constable scored in the first leg at Nene Park before adding another in a riotous win at The Kassam a few days later.

Over 30,000 Oxford fans descended on Wembley for the play-off final against York City, though his moment was eclipsed by the iconic third goal by Alfie Potter, Constable’s second was a classic of its type; all power and technique. We were back in the Football League, for the second season in a row Constable topped the goalscoring charts with 26 goals.

Despite talk of back-to-back promotions, the Football League proved tougher than we’d expected. The step up in quality, particularly defensively, and over-tinkering of the squad by Chris Wilder clipped our momentum. We were just happy to be back, quietly Constable clocked a very creditable 17 goals. It prompted a speculative bid from Luton for Beano’s services which was quickly rejected.

A by-product of that season of consolidation is that it put us on a direct collision course for our first League encounter for nine years with Swindon Town, who had been relegated to League 2. The re-ignition of the our fiercest rivalry was a true confirmation of our return. 

The away game was only the fourth league game of the season. Swindon had recruited the controversial and charismatic Paolo DiCanio as manager. In the run up to the game, Di Canio targeted Constable claiming that he had been a Swindon fan who had stood on the terraces at The County Ground. Though it was possible that he had spent time there as a child, Constable had always presented himself as a Spurs fan. The point was to disrupt Oxford’s preparation for the game. The stunt backfired as Constable grabbed both goals in a 2-1 win, the first away win in the derby for 38 years. 

A few days after the win, the club’s nerve was tested as Bournemouth, who by this time were a team on the up, made a bid for Constable’s services. After failing to agree terms, he stayed. It was a sign of things to come. For the next few transfer windows we were faced with the novel experience of having a player others wanted. What was more unusual, was that the player, though not the club, resisted the temptation to cash in.

Despite that early season high, consistency was difficult to maintain with Constable scoring less frequently. Hopes of the play-offs dwindled. In January DiCanio was back, this time with an offer to buy Constable. Swindon were heading for an inevitable promotion and spending heavily, though battling admirably, we were struggling to find the resources to really fire us forward. Cashing in on our prize asset, just as his goals had started to dry up was an attractive proposition and Chris Wilder was nothing if not pragmatic. But, it was Swindon, and for the fans, that changed everything.

Wilder saw an opportunity; DiCanio’s offer was accepted and Constable headed to Wiltshire to talk terms. As the January window closed, Oxford fans panicked at the radio silence. It felt pivotal, a worrying depiction of who we were as a club. Did we have our own identity and purpose, or were we simply going to cow-tow to our greatest rivals, surviving on the scraps others fed us?

Then, nothing, Constable turned the offer down and stayed at the club. DiCanio had been spurned, Oxford’s number 9 would stay Oxford’s number 9 passing up the opportunity to play at a higher level and, presumably, earn more money. Goals made Constable, but turning down Swindon propelled him to a different level. The episode also damaged Wilder’s reputation with the fans.

The decision wasn’t without consequences, Constable now says his relationship with Wilder never quite recovered. The by-product of the affair meant Constable had the power, and even though Wilder ultimately benefitted, it wasn’t something he was likely to be tolerant of.

The return fixture with Swindon was in March, they were storming to the title and on a long unbeaten run. The Kassam was hosting its first league derby and the atmosphere was febrile. The away win back in August would mean nothing if The Robins simply snatched the initiative back at the first opportunity. The opening exchanges were tense, in front of the Swindon fans Constable appeared to break clear of his marker, but the referee pulled the play back, reached for his pocket and pulled out a red card for an apparent elbow. The video is inconclusive, there appeared to be a trailing arm, but all Constable’s momentum seemed to be in the opposite direction.

Constable disappeared down the tunnel, Swindon fans sensed revenge, but ironically, even with him not there, he had a telling impact on the result. The dramatic change of dynamic unleashed attacking threats from midfield and gave us licence to defend resolutely. Two quick-fire goals from Oli Johnson and Asa Hall secured a famous 2-0 win and the double.

In reality Constable’s on field effectiveness appeared to be on the wane. The flow of goals slowed despite notching his 100th club goal in a win over Mansfield to take us top of the table.

He ended 2011-12 again as top scorer, but with just eleven goals. He was a power player rather than a clever or fast one; it seemed to be becoming less effective and certainly not enough to propel us to promotion.

Wilder had been prospecting for re-enforcements, perhaps even replacements – Tom Craddock, a huge favourite of Wilder’s, signed from Luton, and Deane Smalley – a very similar type of player to Constable from Oldham. Neither could topple the striker.

In the following season, Constable didn’t score a league goal until the end of October and though he ended the season with an improved 14 goals as a club we seemed to be losing our way.

He did have another telling contribution; we drew Swindon in the EFL Trophy. In a tense and tight game, with two minutes to spare Constable suddenly broke forward squaring the ball to Alfie Potter who slotted home for another famous win.

But, overall the season had been a disappointment, there was speculation that Chris Wilder’s time at Oxford was coming to an end. After three years in League 2 the prospect of promotion seemed to be getting further away, not closer. Owner Ian Lenagan called a press conference but rather than announce Wilder’s departure, he confirmed a short extension to his contract and a new vision of youth team players leading us to future glory. On one level it seemed compelling, on another, it was a vision to cope with austerity. Wilder, though, looked broken; a prisoner in Lenagan’s vision.

The season, though, started spectacularly with a 4-1 win over Portsmouth at Fratton Park, but things plateaued. Wilder was given the opportunity to talk to Portsmouth about a vacancy later in the season and would eventually walk out on the club to go to Northampton where he saved them from relegation and revitalised his career. Mickey Lewis took over as caretaker, playing Constable on the wing before Gary Waddock arrived for a short-lived hapless spell. Constable scored a solid twelve goals, topping the goalscoring charts for the fifth consecutive season, but the mood had darkened.

The summer saw the club stagnate amidst rumours of a takeover, weeks passed with just one signing coming in – Danny Hylton. Otherwise, there was silence. Constable’s contract was up and with him being a high earner, there was uncertainty about his future. When the offer did come in, it was obviously some way below what he was expecting. With the club about to undergo a revolution under Darryl Eales, Constable left for Eastleigh and their ambitious project to recreate the Oxford glories of 2010 under Yellows fan Stewart Donald.

James Constable played over 270 games for Oxford scoring 106 goals. He’s the second highest all-time record goalscorer, the hat-trick against Chester in 2009 that was chalked off meant he missed out on the top spot by one goal.

He remains a constant presence around the club, Karl Robinson invited him to train with the current squad and against Walsall in November he preferred the Oxford away end to the hospitality he could have enjoyed as the match’s guest of honour.

Above all, Constable seems to be a thoroughly nice bloke, always affable, happy to immerse himself in the culture of the club even though it means he can barely walk two feet without someone asking for a photo or autograph.

His goals fired us back to the Football League and kept us steady once we were up. His rejection of Swindon, and his contributions to their demise and his loyalty to Oxford cemented his position at the top of the tree.

What makes a legend? Performances are just the start, loyalty in the face of temptation is also important, a willingness to engage with the culture and purpose of the club draws you out from the norm. Beano did all these things and more.

The modern game is full of short contracts, predatory big clubs and players seeking the security of larger contracts wherever they can find them. It’s hard to imagine a player coming close to Constable’s status in the foreseeable future. Effectively retired, his football career earnings won’t sustain him and he needs to find a new path. The club is indebted to his contribution and hopefully it may be able to accommodate him in a meaningful way. If not, there are thousands of Oxford fans willing for him to succeed. Whatever he ends up doing, his legacy at least fills him with pride.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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