I once saw Micky Lewis coming out of the garage outside The Manor in Headington. He was unshaven, holding a tabloid newspaper and drinking a can of Coke. He’d probably just finished training, but he looked like he’d just finished a night on the town.
I hadn’t seen many footballers outside their natural habitat before, my prevailing image was either of them on the pitch or posing in outlandish designer clothes that screamed money! Fame! Girls! Micky looked normal, I’d have missed him if he hadn’t been outside the ground wearing an Oxford training top.
His signing in 1988 signalled a sea change at the club, he arrived from Derby County as part of the deal which took the Milk Cup Final man-of-the-match Trevor Hebberd to the Baseball Ground. It represented something of a changing of the guard from the glory years to something quite different. None-the-less having been relegated from Division 1 the season before, he was part of Mark Lawrenson’s plan for an immediate turn to the top flight.
That dream crumbled as Lawrenson resigned and owner Robert Maxwell’s financial problems started to bite. Maxwell died in 1991 with debts of up to £1 billion, it compounded Oxford’s emotional crisis with a financial one.
Suddenly, the club were forced into survival mode with Brian Horton building a team of hard working professionals designed to keep their head above water in Division 2. It was the perfect challenge for Lewis, as the club threatened to fall apart, he tightened the bolts and held things together from midfield. We might be outplayed, but we’d never be outfought.
Never flamboyant – he averaged a goal every fifty games – he understood that whatever he lacked in ability he made up for with hard work and commitment. Players are brought up to dream about scoring goals and dazzling crowds, but hard work is always a value managers appreciate. Micky knew that, by sacrificing himself for the greater good, he would, in turn, become indispensable.
There is no great story arc with Lewis, no heroic career-defining moment. He just never had a bad game, weaving himself into the culture of the club along the way. He marshalled the midfield as the club miraculously escaped relegation in 1992 at Tranmere, beat Leeds in the FA Cup in 1994, he came on to replace Martin Gray when we were promoted against Peterborough in 1996 and in 1999, supposedly retired, was drafted in as the club suffered an injury crisis, bolstering the midfield when we put Everton out of the League Cup at Goodison Park.
But, mostly he just played; week in, week out over a period of nearly twelve years. With money leaking from every pore of the club, each point he helped to secure, each fan who appreciated his efforts enough to return to watch us the following week, he gave us another thread of survival.
Did the club shape Micky’s attitude or vice versa? Perhaps he sensed the jeopardy the club were in. Its failure could similarly have meant the end for him. Yes, managers valued what he offered, but they weren’t clamoring for his signature with a blank cheque. The relationship he had with Oxford was symbiotic.
Fans called him Mad Dog, but he was never dirty. He never pulled out of a tackle and would be a ferocious competitor, but there was never any malice. He did simple things well, giving a platform for the likes of Jim Magilton, Paul Simpson and Joey Beauchamp to shine. Each one, of course, secured big money moves as a result.
He took that commitment and generosity into coaching, that sense of sacrifice for the greater good. His bouts as caretaker manager returned unspectacular results, but countless managers saw what he offered on the training ground.
When Chris Wilder took over in 2008, Micky may have been sent packing. He’d returned to become assistant to Darren Patterson and it would have been within Wider’s right to have a clean break. But, Wilder needed to strike a balance; he needed to use the club’s relative size in the Conference as an asset, but not become too arrogant. Size and reputation alone wouldn’t deliver promotion, it had to be underpinned with commitment and a solid work ethic. Within Micky Lewis he had a man who embodied the spirit of the club, who never lost sight of the reasons why that was.
Wilder and Lewis forged a culture of all-in commitment to a cause which culminated in play-off success at Wembley against York City. From the financial failures two decades earlier, the club found a firm footing to begin the climb back to where they’d once been. Perhaps it was his greatest gift to the club.
Most players aren’t sitting on piles of cash once they’re spat out into the real world at the end of their career. Their bodies are battered, their education compromised, they go from adulation to anonymity. Reputations don’t pay the bills but the years of grafting, Micky Lewis’ investment in the people around him served him well. Micky did what he knew, he kept going, working hard giving his all.
Micky was ranked our 14th favourite player of the 90s; they won’t name a stand after him or build a statue. He was the kind of player you miss mostly when they’re gone. But, when they do go, the shock is felt more deeply, they don’t just entertain us as fans, they encompass the values we believe in. In a sense, they are a part of what you are. To lose that is a cruel blow.
Of course, for his family, their loss is deeper and more profound than anything felt by the club or fans. But, perhaps they might take a crumb of comfort in seeing the impact Micky Lewis had on so many people.
Legacies are judged by what you leave behind; the values that underpinned his career saved the club as it plunged into crisis, dived, survived and resurrected itself. They were the same values that were invested in the hundreds of players he coached. There is a little bit of Micky in each of those players. Perhaps they will pass it on to the next generation of Oxford players. That spirit, an Oxford United spirit, will no doubt live on long after he’s gone.