Midweek fixture: Story of a shirt – 24

Up until 1999, the number 24 didn’t really exist on a football shirt. Squad numbers had been around for international tournaments for decades, but squads were limited to 22 players before edging up to 23 for the 2002 World Cup. So, outside the North American Soccer League, the number 24 was never seen.

When squad numbers were introduced to the Football League in 1999, the first Oxford player to take the shirt in was Jamie Lambert. The club were strapped for cash and engaged in a form of fracking – trying to extract some value out of largely dormant or subsiding talent. Lambert had built a bit of a reputation at Reading before joining Denis Smith’s ailing side but things didn’t work out and he moved on without completing the season. In his place was the returning Nigel Jemson. Jemson had been a prolific goalscorer in the late 90s for Oxford, but was a notoriously disruptive force in the squad and had moved to Bury in 1998.

Two years later, with Denis Smith looking for cheap talent to mount a survival campaign, Jemson fitted the bill because, well, he didn’t fit anywhere else. It was a disaster as he failed to score any goals in 18 games.

Jemson moved to Shrewsbury Town and the shirt was handed to goalkeeper Jimmy Glass at the start of the 2000/01 season. Glass had been famous for a last minute goal for Carlisle United that saved them from relegation to the Conference. It was a moment of fame which helped prolong his career for longer than it really deserved. Glass was brought in as an undemanding understudy to Richard Knight, in a catastrophic season where the club were relegated having conceded 100 goals using five ‘keepers, Glass managed just two appearances.

Glass moved on and the club left The Manor, at the new Kassam Stadium, the shirt was handed to defender Simon King. A local boy, King’s opportunities at the Kassam were limited by the arrival of manager Ian Atkins, who had no time for nurturing young talent. King left having played just one game in the shirt out of a total of three for the club. 

Atkins brought in some rigid stability and even threatened to serve up a promotion, but, like all things related to Kassam, it didn’t last.

At this point the destiny of the number 24 reflects the chaos of the period. First, Atkins brought in defender Adi Viveash on loan from Reading with the intention of signing him permanently. After 10 games, a deal couldn’t be struck and he vacated the shirt. Then in March 2003, Atkins was faced with a goalkeeping crisis and had to draft in 43 year old Milk Cup Final hero Alan Judge to play in goal against Cambridge United. 

The following season, the shirt passed to Dwight Ciampoli, a youth product, who didn’t trouble the scorers before being released. It was then picked up by Richie Foran, who made three appearances on loan in January 2004 before returning to Carlisle. Ian Atkins then had an almighty fall out with Firoz Kassam and left for Bristol Rovers. In his place came Graham Rix, who passed the shirt to Richard Walker on loan for three games from Blackpool. 

Rix started the following season with Michael Alexis wearing the shirt, at least figuratively, because he didn’t play a game. When Rix was fired, Firoz Kassam appointed ‘The Argentine Alex Ferguson’ Ramon Diaz in a move that was as weird then as it sounds now. The appointment seemed to be part of an elaborate plan to sell the club and stadium to Diaz’s consortium. Shortly after his arrival, the shirt was handed to Doudou, a winger from QPR. Doudou made a single, notorious substitute appearance against Bury before evaporating without trace. From there, the shirt was picked up by Juan Pablo Raponi, one of a raft of Argentines ill-suited for League 2. Raponi shivered his way through 10 games before the Argentine project imploded in acrimony.

In 2005, Firoz Kassam turned to Brian Talbot and gave him a brief of getting the club out of the division, which he did, but not in the way that was expected. After three seasons and eight owners, the shirt was given a rest. Notionally, it was owned by Bradie Clarke, a young keeper who’d made four appearances under Diaz. But with Billy Turley and Chris Tardif ahead of him, Clarke wasn’t called into action as the club plummeted out of the Football League. By this point, the club was then in the hands of Nick Merry and Jim Smith.

Descending into the Conference, the shirt was eventually passed to Martin Foster, who Smith signed on loan from Halifax Town (whose manager was Chris Wilder). Foster made fifteen appearances in a desperate attempt to scramble to promotion. He was a late season regular as the club fell in the Conference play-off semi-finals to Exeter City. 

Following that disappointment, Smith struggled to revive his beleaguered side. He turned to Michael Standing to wear the shirt. His three game contribution was hardly the stuff of Oxford legend, but, more recently, fans have enjoyed his role at the centre of a boardroom debacle at Swindon Town. 

Smith, exasperated, stood down to be replaced by Darren Patterson. At the start of the 2008/9 season, Patterson handed the shirt to Michael Husbands, a signing from Macclesfield Town, who managed two games before slipping back into the shadows. 

Patterson couldn’t deliver the success the club desperately needed and was replaced by Chris Wilder who set about transforming the team into a promotion chasing machine. At the beginning of the 2009/10 season the number 24 was adopted by former Cardiff City loanee Matt Green. Green had nearly signed for Darren Patterson twelve months earlier, but turned the opportunity down at the last minute before signing a deal with Torquay United. Green joined on a season long loan to complete a ferocious three-pronged attack with James Constable and Jack Midson that blasted the club back to the Football League with a famous win over York City at Wembley, Green scoring the spectacular opening goal that catapulted the team to victory.

Green signed permanently as the club returned to the Football League, but became increasingly marginalised. He kept the shirt for a season and a half before moving to Cheltenham Town. At this point, the shirt passed to Mark Wilson, a former Manchester United starlet who’d largely lost his way on and off the pitch. Wilson managed only six appearances, though that included a famous 2-0 win over Swindon Town at The Kassam. He left the club and got caught up in a betting scandal a few months later.

The following season Chris Wilder signed Daniel Boateng on loan from Arsenal, despite his promise, League 2 football seemed a bit too much for the 20-year-old and after just two games he returned to his parent club. Another goalkeeping crisis later that season meant the shirt was handed to emergency signing, Luke McCormick. With the transfer window closed, Wilder needed cheap, available league experience to cover the loss of Ryan Clarke. Former Plymouth keeper, McCormick had recently been released from jail after serving time for causing death by drink driving which had resulted in him killing two children. Despite heavy criticism, McCormick proved a worthy stopgap, but was released at the end of the season having served his purpose.

In 2013/14, the shirt remained vacant for much of the season but, with relations straining between Wilder and owner Ian Lenagan, the manager sought to add some cost-effective class to his attacking options. He brought in ageing Republic of Ireland international David Connolly on loan from Portsmouth. Despite coming to the end of his career, Connolly showed himself to still have ability beyond those who surrounded him. As Wilder moved on to Northampton Town to be replaced by Gary Waddock, Connolly scored four goals in fifteen appearances before returning to the south coast.

The shirt finally found stability in the hands of Josh Ashby who picked it up at the start of 2014/15 under Michael Appleton, appointed Head Coach as part of a summer coup. At one point Ashby had been identified as a future star with Chris Wilder rushing to sit him on the bench during the Conference days to help secure a future transfer fee. Ashby kept the shirt for four seasons, including the 2015/16 promotion under Michael Appleton, but only managed two league starts in all that time.

In 2018/19 the shirt went to Candice Carroll, the product of Oxford’s academy and a Republic of Ireland Under 23 international who put in a number of strong performances as full-back under Pep Clotet before being sold to Brentford. In the same transfer window, the shirt passed to Mark Sykes who’d arrived from Glenavon. 

When Sykes took on the number 18 shirt in 2019/20 the shirt was left vacant for a season before being picked up by Jordan Obita who signed from Reading on a short-term contract in the summer of 2020. When an offer from Wycombe Wanderers came in, Obita took the opportunity for more stability and left after just nine starts. From there, the shirt was handed to Joe Grayson signed on loan from Blackburn Rovers.

No shirt has been held by more players, its history is full of short-term loans, young prospects, long forgotten journeymen and emergency goalkeepers, plus one legend and one legendary goal. It may be the most unconventional shirt number, but, in many ways, it reflects the life of a lower league football club. 

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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