Different shirt numbers stir different emotions; they’re full of memories and meaning. Whenever I see a number on the back of a shirt, I leap to broad conclusions about the player and how they should play.
Of the traditional 1-11, there are two numbers with an air of mystery; the number 4 has been rejected from the defensive line in preference to numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. And yet, it also doesn’t look quite right in midfield. Of course, Kemar Roofe wore it up front and that’s just not right.
The other number is seven; growing up it was the number of the team’s star player; a player who could do anything, transcending all others. George Best was before my time, but his legacy still resonated at Manchester United and Northern Ireland, England captain Kevin Keegan was the best in Europe and in Scotland there was Kenny Dalglish. Both Keegan and Dalglish played for Liverpool, the best team in Europe. All wore the number seven, they all scored goals but were so much more than strikers.
Oxford never had a number seven in the same mould; George Lawrence would power down the wing during the mid-eighties firing us to countless cup glories and promotion. He never made it to the 1st Division, when it was worn by new signing Ray Houghton. Houghton was terrier-like with boundless energy and, of course, the scorer the second goal in the Milk Cup Final. Into the nineties, Jim Magilton took on the shirt, a player full of deft passes and subtle touches. For the 1996 promotion season the shirt often went to David Rush.
When squad numbers were introduced in 1999, the shirt was given to Matt Murphy. Murphy was one of the great curiosities of the era; part supersub, part goal machine, part boo-boy. He was endlessly frustrating, I remember one game where he could do nothing wrong for the first twenty minutes, including one audacious back heeled through ball which made the crowd grasp and him wince; he pulled up lame and had to be substituted. That summed up his whole Oxford career, even though despite all that, he’s still our 10th highest ever goalscorer.
In 1999/2000 the club began to rupture, we’d sold several key players and failed to sell others like Joey Beauchamp and Paul Powell. The whole Jenga tower began to wobble. We narrowly avoided relegation and then tried to keep the failing squad together for the following year. Murphy took the number 7 shirt again in 2000/01 and finally the club collapsed in the most spectacular way possible conceding 100 goals and being the first team in the Football League to be relegated that year. At the end of that season, despite attempts to keep him, Murphy rejected us and left for Bury. It turned out that Murphy and Oxford had a curious symbiotic relationship – his career fell apart while we plummeted down the divisions. We were like conjoined twins, sharing the same vital organs.
In 2001/02 we moved to The Kassam Stadium and under manager Mark Wright the shirt was passed to Martin Thomas. Thomas signed from Brighton as part of Wright’s revolution. He was installed as the new club captain, meaning had the dubious honour of leading the side out for the first league game at the new stadium. Just fourteen games in, Mark Wright’s managerial career imploded in a blizzard of average results and accusations of racism. Thomas was collateral damage; his last game being Wright’s last game against Leyton Orient. New manager Ian Atkins dropped him for the next game and he didn’t play for the club again.
The following season Atkins handed the shirt to Chris Hackett. A local boy and sprint champion Hackett was mostly used as an impact substitute as he constantly threatened to breakthrough, but never quite achieved the necessary consistency. Without doubt there were moments; linking up with Dean Whitehead, Sam Ricketts or Jamie Brooks, players he’d grown up with were moments of joy in a period of Ian Atkins’ pragmatism and then the descent into madness under Graham Rix and Ramon Diaz.
Hackett survived three and a half seasons in the shirt. In 2005 after a pedestrian opening to the season under yet another new manager; Brian Talbot, the club which had acted like an attention seeking teenager threatening to take their life with an overdose of Tixylix, finally engaged in a moment of genuine self-harm. With the season apparently going nowhere, Firoz Kassam decided to cash in on his assets; Craig Davies was sold to Helas Verona, Chris Hackett to Graham Rix’s Hearts and Lee Bradbury was loaned out to prevent him earning an automatic contract extension.
In their place Talbot signed a raw and pacey forward who’d impressed in two FA Cup games for Eastbourne Borough against Oxford. Yemi Odubade took the number seven shirt, his pace was blisteringly, but he lacked finesse and couldn’t carry the club on his own. Results collapsed and, despite the return of Jim Smith as manager, we plummeted to relegation from the Football League.
2006 was the first season the Conference adopted squad numbers, and the shirt passed to Carl Pettefer, a ferret-like ball winner. Jim Smith packed his squad with ageing former Premier League players but Pettefer had a solid lower league pedigree and knew his role. So, while others came and went in terms of form and impact, Pettefer proved one of the most consistent, if unspectacular performers. The balance nearly worked with the club falling to a Conference play-off defeat to Exeter. The team never recovered from the blow of the penalty shoot-out defeat, Pettefer kept the shirt for the following season of struggle before moving on.
Odubade reclaimed the shirt for a season under Darren Patterson, before Chris Wilder arrived to change everything. He gave the shirt to Adam Chapman, an eccentric playmaker from Sheffield United. Chapman scored a notable goal against Burton, wrecking their promotion party, then flitted around the starting throughout the 2009/10 season until captain Adam Murray suffered a season ending injury. Chapman took on the mantle, scoring a vital penalty against Rushden and Diamonds which put the club back on course for the season and a play-off final at Wembley. In the week running up to the game, it was revealed Chapman had been charged with reckless driving and was facing a period in a young offenders institute. Despite this, Chapman put on a man of the match performance as Oxford swept away York to regain their place back in the Football League.
Chapman’s conviction meant the number seven shirt was vacated for the 2010/11 season. He returned the following season but was never quite the same, Wilder stuck with him for another two years before releasing him in 2013/14, handing the shirt to Sean Rigg, a consistent but unspectacular winger who lasted a year before leaving for Port Vale.
When Wilder left for Northampton Town, Gary Waddock briefly held the managerial post before the club was revolutionised in a takeover. New manager Michael Appleton passed the shirt to Danny Rose, a neat ball player who had spent some time at the club during the Conference years. As Appleton embarked on a radical campaign of culture change, Rose was a rare source of consistency.
But, in 2015, Appleton was ready to fully unleash the power of his revolution. Rose suddenly seemed like an unspectacular journeyman in comparison to those around him. At Christmas, surprisingly, he was sold to Oxford’s promotion rivals, Northampton who were managed by Chris Wilder.
Oxford were firing on all fronts; the league, FA Cup and JPT Trophy. Appleton brought in George Waring on loan from Stoke who took the shirt vacated position by Rose. Waring’s impact was limited to a single goal and a cameo in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final at Wembley and he left at the end of the season as the club celebrated promotion.
For 2016/17 the shirt was given to Dan Crowley a loanee from Arsenal. Crowley came with a reputation and Oxford fans drooled over YouTube clips of his performances. Unfortunately a lack of discipline forced Appleton to concede that he needed to apply his ‘no dickhead’ policy and player returned to his parent club. In his place he signed Spanish striker Toni Martinez on loan from West Ham. Martinez, took on the shirt and made an immediate impact sweeping home a goal in a 3-0 demolition of Newcastle United in the FA Cup before scoring a memorable equaliser against Middlesborough in the next round.
With Martinez returning to West Ham and Michael Appleton moving on, new manager Pep Clotet handed the number seven to Rob Hall. Hall had been signed a year earlier, having spent some time on loan as a teenager from Oxford during the Conference years. Hall has kept the shirt for the last four years, and despite suffering a near career ending injury, he’s battled back and remodelled himself to become one of the most reliable players in the squad under Karl Robinson. Hall can always be relied on to pitch in with the odd key goal, not least against Sunderland in the League Cup last year.
From Ray Houghton’s Milk Cup goal to Adam Chapman’s Burton busting free-kick, and from Toni Martinez’s equaliser at Middlesbrough to Rob Hall’s howitzer against Sunderland, the number seven has seen plenty of action over the years. It’s good to know that, in the possession of Rob Hall, it’s still in safe hands.