It’s an unbearable truth that whatever is or has been written about Joey Beauchamp, it will always be inadequate. People will talk about his talent and his commitment to his club, his redemption story, the joy he brought and how he shaped and defined us as people. But, as much as you dig for the words and assemble them best you can, they will inevitably fall short of describing what he meant.
I suspect the tragedy is that Joey has always struggled to articulate his own purpose, to comprehend his own place in this complex web which is both rich and vibrant and equally meaningless. He was a fortunate accident; an Oxford boy with a talent who played for his hometown club. There’s no doubt that Oxford United fans loved him, but it was always articulated as the Joey Beauchamp who played football in the 90s. In many ways, that image wasn’t him, his image represented us, our hopes and dreams and our collective experience of the time. His greatest successes are recast as our greatest successes.
When that time passed, what did it leave him with? He wasn’t rich, outside the Oxford United community he was anonymous, in the swamp of 90s nostalgia-porn he was mostly the butt of the jokes. As a middle-aged man, a physical shadow of his former self, he could be forgiven for asking what the point was.
The point is that there is no point. We are the only species on earth that seeks purpose in our existence, that there must be meaning in the things we do. We have to have ‘careers’ and spend our time productively, we must leave a legacy.
Some keep digging around for a reason to exist, they dig so deep all they can see is the hole they’re in. They look up and see where they’ve come from and wish they were back there and had never started digging in the first place.
Football clubs help provide a sense of focus in this whirlpool of meaningless, they help to stop you digging. They hold our memories and feelings in trust; watching Joey’s goal against Blackpool transports us back, it makes us happy for having seen it and sad at the passing of time. In many ways that reminds us of our irrelevance. That singular moment, one I can remember with pin sharp clarity, is always slightly out of reach, try as you might, you can’t recreate it, not fully. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you stop trying to recreate it and simply celebrate it for what it is.
At least it happened and we can entertain each other with stories about what it was like to watch it. A football club is a great amorphous mass of memories. We feed into it and draw from it; we celebrate and despair collectively. But it is like a giant pyramid selling scheme – it only means something because what has gone before means something, and what went before that meant something. In some senses, Joey Beauchamp was at the top of that pyramid, while everyone else is caught up in the mania of this pseudo-meaningful existence, he faced the stark reality that as a once in a generation talent, an icon and a talisman, he was, in truth, just a person trudging through a long meaningless life heading for the inevitable cliff edge that we all reach eventually. Life is a boring story which ends badly.
But while that journey is long and hard and often unrewarding, we need to find things to do to fill it. We are currently fourth in the table and have just registered a sensational 4-0 away win at Charlton. In recent weeks we’ve beaten Portsmouth and Sheffield Wednesday 3-2 and Gillingham 7-2. Even the defeats to Wigan, Bolton and Wycombe have provided a thrill. At the end of every week there is a game, the aim of that game is to win, however many Oxford fans there are in the world and whatever world view we have, we all, at least, share that goal.
Those games and that objective is meaningless without what came before, or what might happen after we’ve gone, and that belief sustains us. Without it, Cameron Brannagan’s 25-yard drive for 4-0 is just a man kicking a ball. Each win and each goal is given purpose because of Joey Beauchamp, Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton, Paul Simpson, Chris Allen, Ron and Graham Atkinson, Arthur Turner, Jim Smith, Ken Fish, John Shuker, James Constable, Kemar Roofe, Micky Lewis, Michael Appleton, Sam Long, Matty Taylor, Karl Robinson and every other person who has helped to sustain this club and community for 129 years.
For every player at the centre of that community, there will always be a period of reflection and melancholy as the memories morph into myth. Joey Beauchamp could be mesmerising, even now there are clips of him flying down the wing and cutting inside and I can’t imagine how he did it or imagine anyone else being able to do it. I can remember the sharp intake of breath when he did and the swell of noise coming from the London Road. He could also skulk around on the wing anonymously and people would berate him for it. He could play brilliantly, which is what we all remember, but he could play badly and off the field he had all the joys and terrors we all must deal with. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have one strand of your existence become your singular defining factor, or what it would then feel like when that defining factor finally leaves you.
My dad once went on a group tour of the Emirates Stadium, he was shown around by Arsenal legend Charlie George. George clearly loved telling stories of his playing days and my dad loved chatting to him. They’re both old men now, in many ways they’re equals, but they’d found a space that gave them a sense of fulfilment as they enter their final years. We’re not big enough to have the infrastructure to wrap everyone in that financial and psychological security blanket, but we must find better ways of supporting people like Joey.
A few years ago, Karl Robinson invited Beauchamp and James Constable to train with the current first team. It was a reminder to those playing what they were representing, the continuation of a rich golden thread. It was a masterstroke giving current players a reason to commit to the club. For a brief time it must have given Beauchamp and Constable a renewed sense of purpose and relevance as their lives transitioned to something else. Robinson talked about creating a players’ coffee club, a place for them to feel a new sense of connection with their contribution – not put on a pedestal as special guests or legends to perform for fans, but to continue to be part of something, a little bit less alone.
One of the tragedies of Joey Beauchamp is that he never got to see himself play, he wasn’t in the London Road when the ball hit the back of the net against Blackpool, or when he slotted home against Swindon, or saved us from relegation at Tranmere. Perhaps if he had, he would have stopped trying to find his path and purpose and would have realised he was already there.