Midweek Fixture: The top 50 players of the 2000s – Ranked

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. The 2000s was a bleak decade for Oxford United, we dropped into the bottom tier of the Football League in 2001, then just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, out of the Football League altogether.

At the back end of last year, I asked you to vote for your favourite players from that godforsaken decade. This is how the top 50 ranked.

50. Matt Robinson

A friend of mine once asked why Matt Robinson wasn’t playing in the Premier League. The bald wonder had magic in his boots, if he had a decent striker to get on the end of his crosses, or alternatively Julian Alsopp, we always threatened.

49. Alan Judge

The first of many whose ranking is probably not down to his performances in the decade in question. Alan Judge played just two games as emergency cover in 2003 and 2004 and while that had a certain something about it, his ranking is probably more down to his Milk Cup Final appearance in 1986.

Defining moment: In the decade in question, let’s go for his last game for the club 19 years after his debut, aged 44. A 4-0 defeat to Southend.

48. Eddie Anaclet

A spritely full-back from our first season in the Conference. I had him down as the player of the season that year, another poll ranked him as the worst player in the squad. A breath of fresh air in a squad of has-beens and never-wases.

47. Scott McNiven

Once Scott McNiven got his backside between a striker and the ball, there was no getting around it. It was that big. A full-back – with Matt Robinson (50) on the other side – of the Ian Atkins vintage. 

46. Andy Scott

Endlessly likeable striker bought by Firoz Kassam in a panic from Brentford in 2001. Scott had scored a bucket load in the first half of that season, but never really hit the groove for us in what was a hopelessly failing side. 

Defining moment: Scored in a Boxing Day game against Luton Town in front of a full-house (we still lost).

45. Sam Ricketts

Angular faced full-back and academy product, Ricketts was squeezed out of the club in 2002 due to competition for players. He stepped down a few levels, but worked his way back into the Football League before playing 52 times for Wales. One that got away. 

44. Andy Burgess

A mercurial talent, but when the going got tough, Burgess went missing. Scored a wonder goal in the first game of the Conference season, but spent most of the rest of the season with his sleeves over his hands like a reluctant goth playing 4th Year house football.

Defining moment: The moment of magic against Chris Wilder’s Halifax Town in our first game in Conference.

43. Chris Tardif

Perpetual understudy to Andy Woodman, Tardif was a bit of a luxury in that he was too good to sit on the bench, though that’s what he did. Watching him and Alan Hodgkinson checking out the half-time scores instead of warming up was a staple of the Kassam Stadium mid-2000s experience.

42. Mark Watson

Our collapse down the league could be plotted in the quality of our centre-backs. From Elliot and Gilchrist to Wilsterman and Whelan. Mark Watson was the last of the great stoppers. Walked out of the club in 2000, and given what happened next, understandably so.

41. Barry Quinn

Barry Quinn was one of those salt-of-the-earth kind of players. He battled against hope to keep our promotion hopes alive during the mid-2000s. 

40. Rob Duffy

Perhaps the most divisive player of this or any decade. Jim Smith brought Duffy from Portsmouth to spearhead our fight back to the Football League in 2006. Duffy immediately started to repay him in goals, many from the penalty spot. Otherwise, he didn’t seem that bothered. Nobody could decide whether he was a goal machine or a lazy sod. In the play-off against Exeter in 2007 he found himself clean through only to weakly tap the ball back to their ‘keeper. It summed him up perfectly.

Defining moment: Rolling the ball into the hands of the Exeter ‘keeper in the play-off semi-final when clean through.

39. Sam Deering

A pocket sized ball of trouble. There was much wrong with Sam Deering; his racist comments about nurses, his Ugg boots, the fact he couldn’t get the ball in the box from a corner. When he broke his leg in Chris Wilder’s first game, Wilder – who called him ‘our best player’ – used it as a way of leveraging support for his way of working. In 2010 at Wembley he picked the ball up from Rhys Day on the edge of the area exchanged passes with Alfie Potter and the rest was history.

Defining moment: Best supporting actor in the third goal at Wembley.

38. Danny Rose

An absolutely solid, if unremarkable midfielder who joined in 2007 from Manchester United where he was their ‘reserve captain’. Too much was expected of him. Returned later to play his part in our 2015/16 promotion campaign. Then ruined it all by going to Swindon.

37. Paul Wanless

Another two-spell man. Having cut his teeth at Oxford, Wanless headed off to Cambridge where he became something of a legend. Returned at the tail end of his career in 2003.

36. Nigel Jemson

Yet another two spell man and, like Alan Judge, probably not at this level because of what he did during the decade. In his pomp, Jemson spearheaded an attack which kept us in the Championship during the late 90s. His return in 2000 miserably yielded no goals from 18 appearances. 

Defining moment: Screaming in the face of a kneeling and crestfallen Paul Moody for not passing to him when clean through on goal.

35. Manny Omoyimni

Manny Omoyimni was famous before he reached Oxford, while at West Ham he featured in a League Cup game for the Hammers having previously turned out for Gillingham in an earlier round. As a result, West Ham were thrown out of the competition. Omoyimni, didn’t really do much at the Manor in another failing team, but he tried hard and around that time, that was all you could ask for.

34. Matty Taylor

Memorable though they were, I’m speculating that Matty Taylor’s two appearances in the Setanta Shield in 2008 were not the prime reason for making number 34. Slipped off the radar, made his name elsewhere; a return this season has propelled him up the ratings.

33. Mateo Corbo

A surprisingly enduring spirit. Corbo’s defining characteristic during his thirteen game spell at the club was his ability to get booked. 

32. Lee Bradbury

A striker who was too good for the team that he played with; or so the argument goes. Bradbury signed from Portsmouth with a reputation for goals; signing him was quite a coup. The problem seemed to be that he was so ahead of his team mates that he was never in the right place to put the ball in the back of the net.  

Defining moment: A bicycle kick from point blank range against Torquay.

31. Matt Murphy

Very much a nineties man; his career just about dipped into the 2000s, but it was what he did before that really made his name.

30. Jefferson Louis

Before characters like Danny Hylton and Jamie Mackie, there was Jefferson Louis. Signed from Thame United after a spell in prison, Louis was all arms and legs. In 2003 he got on the end of a James Hunt throw-in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town to score the winner. He was then filmed stark naked live on daytime TV celebrating the fact we’d drawn Arsenal in the next round. Not exactly a one man club, at the last count he’d played for 45.

Defining moment: His glancing header that beat Swindon in the FA Cup in 2003.

29. Andy Woodman

When Ian Atkins became manager in 2001 he rolled into town a battalion of proven players. Andy Woodman stood behind an impenetrable defensive unit and never looked flustered. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

Defining moment: Saving a key penalty in 2002 to dump Charlton out of the League Cup.

28. Simon Clist

Not all heroes wear capes. Simon Clist was integral to the 2010 promotion team as the balancing force in midfield. Dannie Bulman won the battle, passed it to Clist, who passed it to Adam Chapman or Adam Murray to create something. It was fantastically effective. Clist was integral to that machinery.

27. Mike Ford

Another player whose position is probably more down to what he did outside the decade than what he did in it. Mike Ford was never the nimblest of players and by 2000 he was on his last legs. But, in terms of what he gave to the club before that, he’ll never be bettered.

26. Tommy Mooney

Notoriously tight with his money, Firoz Kassam was prone to the odd panic buy – Paul Moody, Andy Scott, Lee Bradbury. Tommy Mooney came with baggage, a former Swindon striker, but at a time when we were so self-possessed, that didn’t matter too much. Mooney came with an excellent reputation. He didn’t let us down scoring 15 goals in the season he was with us. In reality he was just squeezing out a few more signing-on fees before age caught up with him. In a flash, he was gone. 

25. Matt Green

Matt Green would have been much higher up the list had his Oxford career been more straightforward. His first stint was in 2007 on loan from Cardiff, then he was all set to sign on a permanent deal, but took a diversion on the way to the ground and spent a year at Torquay. Eventually Chris Wilder signed him to make up part of a devastating three pronged attack in our Conference promotion year. 

Defining moment: His sensational volley to open the scoring at Wembley in 2010.

24. Adam Murray

Something of a forgotten man; Adam Murray joined in 2008 and skippered the promotion side for a good chunk of the season. Sadly injury meant he missed the last 4 months of the season meaning James Constable picked up the arm band and Adam Chapman pulled the strings in midfield. A creative talent that dug us out of the hole we were in at the time.

23. Jamie Cook

Jamie Cook had a curious Oxford career; he emerged in the 90s but played second fiddle to brighter homegrown stars. Left to pursue a very serviceable career. Returned in 2009 where he again played a bit part in our promotion campaign. Despite this, will always be fondly remembered at the club.

Defining moment: A 25-yard screamer against Luton Town in 2009.

22. Chris Hargreaves

A warrior who led his team into a hopeless battle to avoid relegation from the football team in 2006. Vowed to right a wrong in the Conference, but was last seen kicking a water bottle in frustration as we fell to Exeter in the play-off semi-final. Came back 3 years later mostly as a cheerleader to finally see us get back into the Football League in 2010.

21. Andy Crosby

Sometimes you just need to be held in the arms of a big strong man who will protect you. Andy Crosby was a colossus in Ian Atkins’ pragmatic team of 2001-2004. A metronomic ability to score penalties also meant that he threatened the goalscorers charts as well as held the back line together.

20. Bobby Ford

An enigmatic lost soul who seemed blighted by his talent. Returned to the club in 2002 having played in the top flight with Sheffield United to play in a team barely suited to his style.

19. Jack Midson

Gentleman Jack Midson first floated into view scoring an imperious lob over Billy Turley while playing for Histon in 2008. Eventually Chris Wilder brought him to the club, where he provided all the craft we needed to see us promoted in 2010. Quickly ejected by Wilder, Midson returned from a loan spell to score a hat-trick against Torquay in the Miracle of Plainmoor. And that was pretty much him done.

Defining moment: His winner versus Yeovil Town in the FA Cup in 2009

18. Les Robinson

Les Robinson wasn’t a millennium guy; he only played 26 games in the 21st Century, just 6% of all the games he played for us. But it’s a lasting testament to his legacy that he was still better than over 200 players who did play during the decade.

17. Dannie Bulman

Dannie Bulman was key to Chris Wilder’s rescue effort in 2009 being the tenacious ball winner that galvanised our promotion effort. He quickly fell out of favour and we spent much of our first season back in the Football League trying to replace him. Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake?

16. Paul Powell

Paul Powell was long past his best as the century turned. At one point he’d been our finest asset and could have played for England. But, a broken leg and erratic temperament meant he never quite fulfilled his potential. He did have the dubious honour of scoring the club’s first ever goal at the Kassam Stadium.

15. Phil Gilchrist

Another one of the 90s guys. Phil Gilchrist was re-recruited in 2006 with the help of a Coca Cola competition winner, who funded his transfer. By this point Gilchrist was mostly being held together with sticky tape and rubber bands. For a season, it worked fine, but he fell apart just as we did. 

14. Adam Chapman

Adam Chapman never did things the easy way; he initially joined from Sheffield United on loan but really came into his own taking over from Adam Murray in the final weeks of the 2009/10 season. A week before the play-off final, it was announced that he was to be sentenced for killing a man while driving and texting at the same time. Chapman put in a man-of-the-match performance before being sentenced to a year in a young offenders institute. He was never quite the same again, but did hit the headlines again when he burnt his nipple on baby milk in 2012.

Defining moment: His party-pooping free-kick at Burton which ruined their promotion celebrations in 2009.

13. Damian Batt

A quicksilver full-back with an unstoppable engine, Damian Batt seemed to be capable of defending in his own six yard box one second, then driving in a cross at the other. A key player of the promotion season, he left in 2013 and pursue a somewhat curious life.

12. Jamie Brooks

Jamie Brooks could have been the greatest of them all. A prodigious talent who sparkled during a grim first season at the Kassam. Arsenal took an interest, and apparently on the verge of a move to the Premier League giants was struck down with Guillain–Barré syndrome which nearly cost him his life. Struggled on until 2006 before being released.

Defining moment: Scoring the first competitive goal at the Kassam Stadium.

11. Paul Moody

Paul Moody had provided the goals that brought us promotion in 1996, he left in 1997 but returned in 2001 as a crowd pleasing folly from Firoz Kassam. Actually made a decent fist of it, coming out as leading scorer but seemed to hate every minute. Left after a season.

Defining moment: Hanging off the crossbar at Wycombe in 1996.

10. Chris Hackett

A product of the youth system and a hare down the flank. Threatened to follow the lineage of Brock, Thomas, Beauchamp, Allen and Powell. When you needed a spark, Hackett was your man.

Defining moment: Probably being sold to Hearts just when we needed him most.

9. Billy Turley

A self-consciously self-styled ‘character’ whose lunatic antics in goal between 2005 and 2010 kept our spirits up during bleak times. At times magnificent, but equally susceptible to the odd calamity as illustrated by his gaff that led to Leyton Orient’s first goal in the relegation decider in 2006 and a missed penalty against Exeter in 2007. I mean, they were biggies; but that was Turley.

Defining moment: Maybe his last meaningful contribution to the club, an unbelievable save in 2010 against Wrexham.

8. Mark Creighton

The Beast. Chris Wilder had a strategy for us in 2009/10 – we were finally going to use our status as a large fish in a small pond to our advantage. Creighton dominated in every thing he did. A rock and a leader, he was surprisingly moved on by Wilder in 2010. 

Defining moment: Last minute goal against York City in 2009

7. Yemi Odubade

Yemi Odubade appeared if by magic during an FA Cup game at Eastbourne Borough. He won a penalty which snatched them a draw and ran us ragged in the replay despite losing. Brian Talbot wasted no time in snapping him up. Possessed blistering pace and was a rare joy in a dark time, his 45-yard goal against Dagenham and Redbridge in 2007 a moment of pure ecstasy.

Defining moment: That goal against Dagenham and Redbridge.

6. Ryan Clarke

There’s a good argument that Ryan Clarke was pound-for-pound the best Oxford player of the decade. Others had goals, Clarke probably saved more than everyone else put together.

Defining moment: Too many to mention, but let’s go with saving 8 out of 14 penalties around 2010 and 2011.

5. Joey Beauchamp 

Joey Beauchamp was not a man of the 2000s, by that point his career was in decline. But it is his enduring legend which has placed him at number 5. Disgracefully dumped by the club without the sniff of a testimonial in 2002; the streets remember Joey.

Defining moment: Joey’s 35-yard screamer against Blackpool in 1996.

4. Steve Basham

Blighted by injuries, Steve Basham was too good for a club falling apart. A striker who played with his head, which was somewhat out of keeping during the brutish Ian Atkins years. Always scored goals, but at the same time looked a little out of place.

Defining moment: Scoring the winner to knock Millwall out of the League Cup in 2003.

3. Dean Whitehead

The nineties produced a raft of great homegrown talents, it was a machine that helped keep the club afloat. It was dismantled in the 2000s, which makes Dean Whitehead’s talent all the more remarkable. Not only did he possess a skill with the ball, he developed a work ethic and discipline which saw him play at the very top of the game.

Defining moment: A breathtaking farewell free-kick against Rochdale in 2004

2. Alfie Potter

Alfie Potter arrived in 2009 and only played 13 games in the decade, but while he wasn’t the most regular of starters, nearly everything good that happened involved him. Scoring the iconic third goal at Wembley in 2010, destroying Portsmouth 4-1 in 2013 and scoring the winner against Swindon in the JPT in 2012, Potter’s career was defined by magical moments.

Defining moment: The third goal at Wembley.

1. James Constable

Was James Constable a player for the 2000s? Or the 2010s? Or was he just the greatest Oxford United player of the century (so far). Let’s go with that. A goal machine, a loyal stalwart, a thoroughly nice bloke, there’s nothing Beano couldn’t do.

Defining moment: Where do you start?

Midweek Fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-season Survey – Results

Back in July I ran a survey – The Absolute State of Oxford United – in an attempt to get a benchmark for the season. You can read about it here, here and here. Being impatient, I decided to do a smaller survey to mark the mid-point of the season to see how things have changed. These are the results.

January is a funny month; the transfer window is open, there are hot flushes of optimism from new signings, disruption from cup games with all their highs and lows and then there’s the league. So unlike the summer survey, the Absolute State of Oxford United Mid-Season Survey doesn’t assess Oxford in a steady state.

That said, the results from the January survey remained fairly consistent throughout the three weeks it was open despite moving up to 2nd then down to 5th in the league, progressing in the FA Cup and signing five players. 

There’s been a notable uptick in the overall perception of the club. Understandable really, we’ve just come off an excellent run in the League Cup, beat the league leaders, risen to second in the table and progressed to an FA Cup tie against Newcastle on Saturday. In the summer, the overall average rating was 6.7 out of 10, the mid-season survey saw a hop up to 8.7.

This was higher than any of the individual components showing that the club is greater than the sum of its parts. The squad was rated 8.3 out of 10 – up from 6.2. Karl Robinson’s stock has risen sharply to 8.4 from 6.1, recognition that he’s driving the success more than anything.

The board’s ratings lagged behind a little, which is perhaps understandable because there’s always demand for more in terms of investment as well as a general mistrust any board’s intentions. In the summer, off the back of multiple winding up orders, the board were rated just 4.9 out of 10, mid-season it has risen to 7.6.

The relationship between fans and club also jumped from 5 to 7.6. While these scores are lower than the on-field scores, the difference between the summer and now is greatest off the field. I don’t think this is necessarily because the board have made the most progress, more that it’s easier to make progress from a low base. It would be a strange club where the board was rated more highly than the squad.

When it came to players, we’re not comparing like for like; the squad in the summer wasn’t complete and only 12 players picked up votes. Gavin Whyte led the way back then with 31.7% of the vote followed by Cameron Brannagan with 18.4%.

Brannagan has held his top spot this time around with a marginal improvement to 19.3%, but there’s notable movements below. 

The biggest mover is Rob Dickie picking up 16.5% of the vote putting him second, a 16.2 percentage point improvement. Shandon Baptiste was third with his share of the vote increasing from 4.1% to 12.8%. James Henry was 4th jumping by 8.8 percentage points. Of the new signings, Alex Gorrin just pipped Matty Taylor to top spot, which is perhaps a bit of a surprise, but showing an astute appreciation that success is not just about who scored the goals, something the average matchday sponsor might do well to learn.

The biggest losers in the vote, perhaps surprisingly, were Josh Ruffels whose vote share dropped by -13.5 percentage points and Simon Eastwood – 6.3. I don’t think this is a significant reflection the performances of either player, these things are relative. I think it’s more a reflection that there are plenty of new shiny toys in the squad to vote for.

A wave of optimism has seen expectations rise; 30.5% expect us to finish second at the end of the season with 13.5% expecting us to win the title. Just 8.5% of the vote don’t expect us to make the play-offs so the bar is pretty high. 

The FA Cup was a funny one given what’s coming on Saturday, 93.2% expected us to make the fourth or fifth round, but it’s not exactly the hardest thing to judge.

Oddly, fans see Coventry City now as title favourites despite them not hitting top spot at any point in the season, this was followed by Ipswich Town – who have been on a terrible run – and Rotherham United, who are top. We’re seen as fourth favourites. Early pacesetters Wycombe picked up 3.2% of the vote, nobody seems convinced by them.

At the bottom 74.2% expect Southend to finish bottom with Bolton picking up 24.4%. MK Dons were the only other team voted for, which may just be out of spite.

So, what does this all tell us; it tells us the brutal reality that every time you improve, expectations rise. The ultimate point is that expectations reach such a pitch it is no longer possible to meet them. But, until then, all the signs are good; we’re in a happy place with a lot to play for, we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Midweek fixture: Absolute state of Oxford United survey – summer results review

Back in July I ran a survey to see what people thought about the state of Oxford United. You can see the results here and here. There’s another, shorter, mid-season survey currently running here, if you want to take part. There were two reasons for the survey; to track progress over time and to provide benchmarks against which we can monitor our performance.  

We’re just past the halfway point in the season; so it seems opportune to review how we’re doing against the benchmarks we set ourselves in the summer.  

Overall

In the league, pre-season predictions were that we’d finish between 8th and 10th, so our current 4th position is polling higher than we’d expected. Just 1.1% of you thought we finish 4th, 1.9% higher, the rest lower. 

It probably goes without saying that we’re out-performing in the cups; over half expected us to make only the 2nd Round of the League Cup, so our quarter-final spot was some way in advance of that. 3.7% thought we’d reach that far, with 1.3% of people thinking we’d go further.

In the FA Cup,  49% expected us to make the third round of the FA Cup so we’ve already beaten that. 17% thought we would make the 4th Round. About 3% thought we’d go further.

So, on that basis – we’re higher in the League than 97% of you thought we’d be, we’ve gone further in the League Cup than 95% thought and in the FA Cup further than 80% predicted. Not bad.

The league pre-season favourites were Portsmouth who are 10th, one place behind Sunderland – who were predicted to finish third. Ipswich were predicted to be 2nd but are currently 5th. The biggest surprise of the lot, of course, is Wycombe who are top despite a pre-season prediction they’d finish 23rd.

Wycombe aside, those at the bottom were largely predicted – everyone knew Bury were in trouble and Bolton’s problems were well known. Rochdale were expected to finish 21st, but are currently 18th. Sol Campbell’s Southend were predicted 17th and are currently 22nd.

Board

Board predictions focussed on winding up orders so it’s good to see no more have materialised. Some predicted a change of chairman, but that hasn’t happened and while Stewart Donald may be trying to extract himself at Sunderland, it seems the prospect of him coming to Oxford are remote.

Firoz Kassam featured in a number of predictions, but he’s been notably quiet in recent months. On the other hand, the prediction that Eric Thohir would leave after being a damp squib turned out to be true. Overall, predictions of instability have not materialised.

Stadium

All sorts of things were predicted of the stadium, but despite some positive noises from the board, we appear to be largely where we were six months ago. The training ground, which nobody talked about, is probably the most important development in that area.

Manager

Predictions that Karl Robinson wouldn’t make it until October or would be sacked by Christmas haven’t happened. Some pleaded that he’ll get some credit, and that does seem to have happened, though he’s yet to be given the freedom of the city. He did sign a player he’s worked with before – Tariqe Fosu, he hasn’t punched a fourth official (but has come close), he has blamed the referee on a number of occasions. Derek Fazackerly has not announced his retirement.

Players

We’ve yet to see whether Cameron Brannagan, Rob Dickie or Mark Sykes will go in January. Recruitment has definitely improved, our top scorer isn’t a loan player, but Matty Taylor is in second. Top scorer James Henry is on track to grab 20 goals. Predictions that we won’t have enough firepower up front at the start of the season or that we’ll sign a striker who’s rubbish don’t seem to have happened. The idea that we’d concede too many goals because we haven’t replaced Curtis Nelson, again seemed baseless.

It was predicted that we’d sign loan players who would return in January, Chris Cadden fits the bill there, and we have had an injury crisis for no obvious reason.

Gavin Whyte didn’t go in January for £5m, he went for £2m in August it also means he won’t end as top scorer. Someone predicted that Rob Hall wouldn’t play more than 10 games, which he has, albeit mostly in cup competitions.

Results

There was no consensus about how things would go on the pitch, so we’ve been everything and nothing that anyone has predicted. It has been exciting rather than disappointing. We haven’t had a points deduction and Christmas was not in any way a poor one. We also won during an international break (against Doncaster) and we didn’t beat Sunderland away.

And other things…

Moaning has been largely absent this season, we won’t draw Swindon in a cup competition and Jim Smith, Womble and John Shuker are all Oxford legends that have passed away – a sadly accurate prediction from someone. I haven’t seen any dogs on the pitch and, as far as I know Ollie and Olivia Ox haven’t had a baby called Oswald.

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.

Midweek fixture: Jim Smith

The first Oxford United manager I remember was Ian Greaves. In 1980 my family moved back to the area which allowed my dad to fulfil his parental duties by taking me to The Manor on a regular basis just as Greaves was orchestrating a dramatic change in the club’s fortunes.

One night, before a game against Reading, we joined an abnormally long queue which stretched down the London Road. The queue rippled with rumour that Greaves had gone to Wolves. I didn’t want to believe it, hoping that he’d be in the dug out as usual when we got into the ground. He wasn’t.

Jim Smith was recruited by Robert Maxwell shortly after, my dad was impressed in that slightly distant way dads are. Smith had a solid track record at Birmingham and, though it appeared a step down for him, it was a coup for us.

He was the archetypal football manager – sheepskin coats, neat spirits and fat cigars. He was a parody, but football in the eighties was a wild and violent place; there was trouble on the terraces and corruption and bankruptcy, both moral and financial, in the boardrooms. To thrive you had to hustle and that’s what Smith was built for.

The eighties for Oxford United is now portrayed as a riot of results and promotions, but it wasn’t immediate. Smith took a year or so to find his feet, but then suddenly we were competing and beating the best in the country.

It was an attack on the senses growing up. What had been a way to distract me on the weekend became an adventure that would shape and define me. It provided me with stories, heroes and memories that would last a lifetime. It took me to places where I learned life skills; how to handle and read big crowds, how to avoid trouble, about the power of a community and a club. We were national news as we swept aside Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds and achieved back-to-back championships.

The Manor, hidden from view during the day, glowed at night as the games grew in significance; a searing light in a dark Oxford suburb. We swarmed towards it. The club, once a footnote in the vibrant story of the city became a hub and a hive, but not just for the dons and the dandies, but for the factory workers and regular Oxfordshire folk.

Just as it reached its peak, weeks before our first game in the top flight, Smith was gone. Contract negotiations with Robert Maxwell had been delayed by the Heysel Stadium disaster. By the time they resumed, QPR had pounced.

Smith’s team went into its biggest challenge without its biggest influence. Maurice Evans steered a steady course to survival and to Wembley where we came face-to-face with Smith once again. On our greatest day, we needed to beat the great architect of our success. It was poetic.

Smith wasn’t perfect, he was always better with an assistant, at Oxford he had Maurice Evans, at Derby he had Steve McLaren, at Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp. But it was his irrepressible spirit and bonhomie that bound the club together. It’s held ever since.

While Smith and the club headed off in different directions, there was always part of him left behind. But, it couldn’t last and while we battled gamely against the forces against us, there was a slow and inevitable slide.

By 2006 we were emotionally, psychologically and physically beaten; years of oppression and neglect left us damaged. There was one final desperate act of resistance as fans stormed the executive box to remonstrate with Firoz Kassam who seemed to revel in our misery. Days later, out of the blue, it was announced that the club had been sold to a consortium fronted by Nick Merry. At his side was Jim Smith. He’d returned to save us.

Smith took over as manager, the homecoming, against Peterborough, was euphoric. I remember feeling the sense of release as he appeared from the tunnel. But, it only papered over the cracks – Kassam still owned the ground and Smith wasn’t a miracle worker. Rationally, his arrival destabilised us just as we seemed to be digging in to avoid relegation, emotionally, despite the collapse that sent us to the Conference, it was just what we needed.

It didn’t work out; Smith grew frustrated at the limitations of his players, his network of hidden gems and reliable old hands started to crumble, above all, his health seemed to be failing him; his voice slurred and his face became puffy and red. He lost his magic and eventually the club moved him on in the most dignified way it could.

He’d still appear in the executive box, overlooking what he’d created as the club eventually dug its way out of the hole it was in. While we celebrated the promotions, giant killings and derby wins throughout the 2010s Smith quietly left the party. We turned around, and he was gone.

When he didn’t appear for our 125th anniversary game last year, it was obvious that something was wrong. After that, it was just a matter of time before the news eventually came that he’d passed.

Jim Smith’s name is still sung by the home fans, most of whom are too young to remember him in his prime. It’s a testament to his achievements that he remains in the fabric of the club and its people.

And that is ultimately Smith’s legacy; without him we wouldn’t have had the memories of top flight football and The Milk Cup. More importantly, when things got tougher, the spirit that Smith created, the memories, the people who bonded in his name battled on through. He gave us something to fight for. Those who were there, passed that spirit on to those who weren’t, they kept coming to games, keeping the club afloat, giving investors something worthwhile to spend their money on, without him we may just have crumbled to dust, another meaningless backwater club of no discernible purpose. Smith ensured that we were more than just a side-bar conversation.

If Joey Beauchamp is our Dixie Dean, then Jim Smith is our Bill Shankly. He may be gone, but look what he left behind.

Midweek fixture: Your Oxford United Christmas list

What do you buy the Oxford United who has everything? Here are just a few ideas…

1. Panini Cheapskates print

Panini Cheapskates aka No Score Draws are Oxford based illustrators who came across the genius idea of drawing Panini sticker style portraits of footballers. Last year they did their home town club and absolutely nailed it. The prints are available here.

2. Wang bobble hat

A limited edition bobble hat styled in the classic 1986 Milk Cup Final shirt. The idea has been copied, but this was the original. Still available from Football Bobbles.

3. Hally Ink

Hally Ink is an illustrator, this classic shirts print is a beauty. Also available as t-shirts, coasters and mugs. Buy here.

4. Manor Ground Print

If you prefer your style a little more Art Deco, these Manor Ground prints add a little bit of panache. Available from Matthew J I Wood. There’s also a London Road version.

5. Terrace Life

Terrace have hooked up with the club to put together a range of retro-style merchandise. There’s plenty to choose from, but I particularly like this 1991 away shirt design.

6. Official Merch

Another one from the Terrace range, and a concept nicked from Football Bobbles. This bobble hat is styled on the 1993 shirt.

7. TOFFS

If your style is a bit more 80s retro, try this yellow and navy number from Toffs.

8. Appleberry

Appleberry specialise in university style scarves; another one is yellow and navy available from here.

9. The Boys from up the Hill book

If you haven’t picked up this little gem from the club shop, I suggest you do. Available only from the club shop.

10. Subbuteo print

A nice Subbuteo style nod to the Milk Cup Final win in 1986. Various sizes available from here.

11. Away shirt

It’s not often that official club merchandise is a work of art, but this season’s away shirt is a thing of beauty.

12. Kassam Stadium print

OK, so the Kassam Stadium doesn’t conjure up quite the same lustre as The Manor, but this geometric design would look OK on your bathroom wall. From here.

13. Trevor Hebberd’s Goal

Yet another print, this time depicting Trevor Hebberd’s first goal in the Milk Cup final. Subtle, but nice.

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.