Midweek Fixture: Why the Manchester City fixture isn’t ‘the one’

Last week, I wrote about our 1983/4 League Cup run, inspired by this season’s run to the quarter finals. On one level, it’s very similar but in many more ways it’s very different. Admittedly, I was considerably younger, but back then I was very accepting of our wins over Newcastle and Leeds, as though they were both normal. When we drew Manchester United in the fourth round took us to another level of excitement and anticipation.

By comparison, the draw for the quarter-final of this year’s competition has seen us paired against Manchester City. The reaction was, shall we say, more muted.

If you’d ranked the remaining teams in the competition in terms of preference, City would have come far down the list. But, this is a giant of European football, the dominant team in the domestic game, some of the best players in the world. Are we being reasonable treating it with such disdain?

Possibly, having played City last year, it’s difficult to get excited by a re-run particularly as it’s likely to end in a similar result. But, there are few teams in League 1 that have entertained such illustrious hosts and fewer still that have done so this deep into the competition. So, it’s a big team in a big game and let’s face it, we’ve sold out in double quick time, so despite the sniffiness from some quarters, it’s not lacking in interest.

But, even then, it’s not comparable to the thrill of Manchester United in 1983, or Arsenal the following year.

The problem is not so much about the draw or the opponents, but more a reflection of the modern game as it evolves.

The first thing is that the growth of the Premier League and Champions League has resulted in the League Cup becoming so devalued that it struggles for high value sponsors and media interest. Sponsors and TV companies want as much bang for their buck as possible, and with the tournament on the wane, the Football League are not in a strong bargaining position.

The quarter-final draw almost certainly guarantees a semi-final, and final with big teams in it, which in turn ensures big TV audiences. This year’s competition has seen an abnormally high number of tasty match ups – the fourth round had Chelsea v Manchester United, Arsenal v Liverpool and Wolves v Villa. Prior to that there was Nottingham Forest v Derby, Southampton v Portsmouth, Salford v Leeds and MK Dons v Wimbledon. Is the draw fixed? I think there’s every chance that it’s ‘organised’ to ensure that it retains sufficient interest with sponsors and TV.

So, where in the past we’ve been excited by the fate of the draw – which is why we watch two middle aged ex-footballers pulling balls out of a bag on prime time TV – this year it feels a more contrived; as if we’ve been paired with a big team in order to swat us out of the way.

But also, whereas back in 1983 there was a sense that we might win the tie against Manchester United I don’t think anyone realistically thinks this is possible against City. They’re almost unbeatable, and certainly by the likes of us. The chasm is so big that it is no longer a sporting spectacle, but an entertainment product. Like watching WWE wrestling or the Harlem Globetrotters; the result is effectively decided, as consumers, we’re just expected to sit back and enjoy the ride.

I want to be wrong; and if we do find ourselves still in it with twenty minutes to go, I fully expect to be heavily invested in the game. But, as I’m sat here today, would I be disappointed with a defeat? No. Am I looking forward to the game? Not as much as I’m looking forward to a tasty, competitive, top of the table clash with Wycombe Wanderers three days later.

In the past, even the biggest teams could be beaten by lower league teams. Against Premier League teams outside the top six that’s still true as we proved against Swansea and West Ham, but Manchester City, and similarly Liverpool, are now transcending that, we’re all just bit part players in their play. 

For sponsors and TV this is all fine; having big unbeatable teams guarantees slick and beautifully produced ‘product’. It satisfies whatever motivation the owners have for their club as well. But it’s not a sporting competition. Teams like us get in the way, we might produce an upset that stirs the loins, but the chances are we won’t and TV can no longer afford to have a product with that kind of uncertainty.

So what we are now facing is our own infallibility; against West Ham, Millwall and even Sunderland we had a chance, we enjoyed the challenge and celebrated the success. Had we drawn, say, Aston Villa, then we would have been overjoyed because of the prospect of it being a sporting contest. In reality, we’re probably facing a routine elimination, and possibly by a large margin, which is no way to end a story.   

I don’t think any of this is deliberately corrupt; the arranging of the draw or the dominance of Manchester City, but it is corrosive. It’s like casual sexism or using single use plastics – people aren’t doing it to be deliberately damaging – it’s just how things have evolved and it’s not helpful.

There will be those who argue I should just sit back and enjoy it, even if the result is fairly predictable. But, the new Star Wars film opens the following day, and predictable enjoyment is what I expect from that. Perhaps it’s an outdated concept, one lost to the 80s, but with football, I want a sense of raw competition.

Midweek fixture: The 1983/4 Milk Cup run

While Jim Smith and Robert Maxwell were trying to affect a revolution at Oxford United, by 1983 progress towards a new dawn was still fairly slow. The previous season had seen the club finish a creditable 5th in the 3rd Division and, while hopes were growing, Jim Smith’s only addition to the squad had been Paul Hinshelwood, an elegant full-back from Crystal Palace. What nobody anticipated was the epic Milk Cup run that would help define the season and propel the club to a level never previously imagined.

Round 1 – Oxford United 1 Bristol City 1, Bristol City 0 Oxford United 1 (Agg: 2-1)

The Milk Cup was a more bloated affair in the 1980s with the early rounds played over two legs. Oxford opened their account in August with a 1-1 draw over 4th Division Bristol City at The Manor, Kevin Brock getting the goal. The second leg was nearly two weeks later, a 1-0 win with Andy Thomas scoring at Ashton Gate. Both had played in Jim Smith’s first game in March 1982, three years later, both would be in the squad at Wembley for the Milk Cup Final.

Round 2 – Newcastle United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 1 (Agg: 3-2)

Though we were top of Division 3, Round 2 was a major step up. We drew Second Division promotion seekers Newcastle United. There’s was a star-studded team, captained by England skipper Kevin Keegan and featuring Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley in their ranks. 

Steve Biggins helped himself to a goal in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in the first leg. Back at The Manor, a ferocious attacking display saw a 2-1 win with goals from Neil Whatmore and Andy Thomas while Gary Briggs was sent off late on for a challenge on Keegan.

Round 3 – Leeds United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Leeds United 1

Second tier Leeds United at Elland Road was another huge draw featuring internationals Peter Barnes, Kenny Burns and Frank Gray. Buoyed by the Newcastle result, a Mick Vinter goal earned the draw which brought the Yorkshire team back to a freezing Manor ground where goals from Brock, Thomas, Vinter and Bobby MacDonald destroyed them 4-1. Jim Smith described the display as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Round 4 – Oxford United 1 Manchester United 1, Manchester United 1 Oxford United 1 (aet), Oxford United 2 Manchester United 1 (aet)

Round 4 was epic; Manchester United were FA Cup holders and second in Division 1. To add spice, they were managed by former Oxford United legend Ron Atkinson, an old friend of Jim Smith’s and the one who had helped get him the Oxford job in the first place.

An hour before kick-off, The Manor was already full. Mark Hughes scored his first professional goal for Manchester United in his first ever start, but Bobby MacDonald stabbed home for a 1-1 draw and a trip back to Old Trafford. Listen to The Manor roar.

Over 3,000 Oxford fans travelled north for the replay. Assuming the tie was a foregone conclusion; there was only minimal TV news coverage present to see Kevin Brock put us ahead at Old Trafford with 20 minutes to go. An equaliser by Frank Stapleton a minute later saw the game heading for extra-time and then a second replay.

Manchester United offered to host the tie, citing the financial benefits, but Robert Maxwell refused. There was talk about it being held at the neutral Villa Park. In the end, the venue was decided by the toss of a coin, Maxwell called it right and everyone headed back to The Manor. 

Six days before Christmas, Arthur Graham gave Manchester United the lead after 38 minutes but George Lawrence stabbed home to drag us back into it. The tie, again, went into extra-time, when Steve Biggins’ looped a header over the head of ‘keeper Jeff Wealands for the winner and one of the most famous wins in the club’s history.

Quarter-Final – Oxford United 1 Everton 1, Everton 4 Oxford United 1

Having slayed the biggest of giants over an epic three games, the draw against Everton seemed entirely winnable. With Aston Villa waiting in the semi-final – the team we’d face at that stage in 1986 – Wembley was actually in sight.

The Manor heaved with anticipation, exploding into life when Bobby MacDonald put us a goal up. Oxford threatened to extend their lead and looked comfortable as the game ticked into its final stages. Then Kevin Brock picked the ball up in midfield, under hit his back pass to Steve Hardwick allowing Adrian Heath to nip in and secure an equaliser. Steve Biggins missed an open goal in the last minute, meaning a replay at Goodison Park.

Jim Smith admitted that he got over-confident for the replay, underestimating his opponents. Brock’s backless seemed to pop our bubble, and in the replay, played in a blizzard, we succumbed 4-1 with Paul Hinshelwood getting the goal.

The result saved Everton manager Howard Kendell’s job and sparked them into a life which led to an FA Cup win, Cup Winners’ Cup and League title win. We went onto win the 3rd Division title at the end of the season, but as an adventure – eleven games, five months and three huge giant killings – few runs were bettered.

Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity. 

Midweek fixture: A key battle at St Andrew’s (a fan story)

Here’s a story that all fans have, a largely inconsequential by-product of following your team. It doesn’t illustrate any important point about the club or football or anything, which is why I like it. If you have a vaguely Oxford United related story about being a fan, let me know here and I’ll stick the best of them on the blog. In the meantime, read on…

It’s 1995 and though our form and promotion prospects are fading, next up is Birmingham City at St Andrew’s for what could be a midweek title decider.

I had passed my driving test three months earlier and my mum let me take her Renault 5, and my mate Pete, up the M40 for my first trip to St Andrew’s. We hit traffic on the edge of Birmingham and realise we’ve got our timings all wrong, we crawl through the rush hour and eventually spot the stadium’s floodlights glowing on the horizon. 

The crowd is just short of 20,000 making parking difficult. Eventually, we find a spot in a residential road and, and having lost all sense of geography, we jump out in a rush. The car’s locking mechanism involves pressing a button in the door and slamming it shut. I do it just in time to remember that I hadn’t taken the key out of the ignition. Shit. 

There we were staring at the car, willing it to spit the keys out. We’re invisible to the people streaming past to get to the stadium and in our shock, they are invisible to us. There’s a vague bubbling excitement of people in yellow and blue rushing by; nobody wants to be late for this one. Slowly the streets thin out and we’re left pretty much on our own with just the expectant crowd noise in the background. It sounds awesome, if only we were there.

Pete’s dad is a member of the RAC, this is pre-mobile phones so we find a pub to call him. The pub is a sparsely populated inner city boozer, and not what you’d call our natural habitat. There’s the slightly stale smell of ale and bodies; half-an-hour earlier it would have been heaving with fans. The barman stares at us, everyone stares at us, the game is booming out from the radio. We could get lynched here.

We ask the barman if he has change for a £10 note. Even that feels like a provocative act; these out-of-towners flashing their fancy tenners. While Pete is on the phone to his dad, they score, there’s a smattering of applause and shouting within the pub and I control the urge to swear. We phone the RAC. While we’re explaining the complicated predicament we find ourselves in, we get a penalty; YES. David Rush misses it; SHIT. We’re told to go back to the car – help is on its way.

Back at the car we find a group of kids milling around menacingly and I’m suddenly aware of how vulnerable we’ve become. The kids ask if there’s a problem, why are we hanging around a car when we should be at the football? We say there’s not a problem, hoping our obvious lying faces aren’t giving the game away. They ask if we’re football fans. We say yes. They offer to ‘look after the car’ for us while we go to the game. We’re not streetwise enough to know what that means, but not too naive to know they’re not just being neighbourly. If we say yes, we could lose the car, if we say no, they could kill us.

We say no, and thankfully they disappear into darkness. There’s another roar – 0-2, then the RAC man appears. He grabs a wire from his van, shoves it down a gap in the window and pops the car door open within 15 seconds. I grab the keys, ignoring how ridiculously easy it is to break into my car, and nearly kiss him. He completes some paperwork, files it under ‘idiots’ and goes to save someone in real distress.

By this point, I’ve lost my mind. Despite everything that’s happened I’m determined to go to the game and insist we make our way to the ground. At the stadium the turnstile is closed, it’s not all-ticket, so we’ve no right to get in. They suggest we try the ticket office. There’s a contented buzz coming from within the stadium, which means it’s half-time.

When we do find someone who will help, we’re told the away end is sold out. They have some seats in the main stand at an eye-watering price. They’re not together, just dotted around the stand. We’ve missed half the game, we’re 2-0 down, but we could buy those tickets… couldn’t we? I look deep into Pete’s eyes, shall we do this? After… everything?

“Mate…” he said looking straight at me, “It’s over”. He actually says this, and he’s right. We walk back to the car. We’re on the motorway in time to hear us concede a third and listen to the local commentators discussing what Birmingham need to do if they want to compete in Division 1 next season. We pick up Radio Oxford just in time for the post-match phone-in about how fucking awful everything is.

Midweek Fixture: Every Oxford United player from the 90s ranked – 50-1

It’s the final countdown of the top 50 players of the 1990s. You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2. But, here come the heavy hitters that took us through to the end of the millennium.

50 – Anton Rogan

A tidy and assured full-back who signed from Sunderland. He didn’t quite get us promotion, but was part of the squad that turned us around before we went up in 1996. 

They walk amongst us: Now owns a taxi company in Woodstock.

49 – Andy Thomson

There were moments when Andy Thomson showed what a light touch and natural eye for goal he had. Sadly those times weren’t very often.

They walk amongst us: Now an assistant coach for the Scottish Women’s national team.

48 – Andre Arendse

A South African international who played in the World Cup, Andre Arendse was a master of the goalkeeping arts. Those he chose to get involved in; diving, shot stopping and catching were all beneath him.

They walk amongst us: Is now a pundit on South African TV channel Supersport as well as a goalkeeping coach.

47 – Steve Foster

A brand as much as a player; Foster’s trademark headband and tight curly hair made him one of the most recognised players in the country. Sadly, by the time we got him he was past his best, but still a formidable leader in his time.

They walk amongst us: Now lives in Brighton.

46 – Simon Marsh

Simon Marsh had a strange career. A contemporary of Paul Powell and Joey Beauchamp among others, Marsh looked all set to be a marginal character. Then he managed to get a run in Malcolm Shotton’s team that vaguely threatened the play-offs in 1998. It resulted in an England Under-21 cap and a transfer to Birmingham City at which point his career hit a brick wall.

They walk amongst us: Now runs the sports coaching business

45 – Nick Cusack

During quieter years, fans start to look for things to entertainment themselves; that’s when cults rise. The cult of Nick Cusack grew out of the fallow early-90s; an attacking midfielder who couldn’t really score in a team that did even less. At first it was frustrating, then it felt rather appropriate.

They walk amongst us: Is literally the deputy chief executive of the PFA.

44 – Mark Stein

Mark Stein was one of those players; had the pace and skill to be a world class, and the temperament to disappear. But, he won the League Cup with Luton and played in the Premier League and a Cup Final for Chelsea. Somewhere in amongst it all he played for us. 

They walk amongst us: Now works in a school for deprived children.

43 – Mark Angel

Mark Angel looked like he played bass in a marginal Madchester baggy band with his mop of curly hair gelled into a centre parting. He had his moments but was always overshadowed by other wingers at the club.

42 – Gary Smart

During the 90s we were a tidy club made up of tidy players, we had to be, we couldn’t afford to gamble. Gary Smart was one of the tidiest of them all. 

41 – Alex Dyer

Alex Dyer was a talented and sometimes frustrating player; what he lacked in pace he made up for in his head. A slow burner who earned the respect of the London Road through is relentless consistency. The London Road would echo to the tune of Alex Dyer M’Lord, Alex Dyer.

They walk amongst us: Is now the assistant manager for the Scottish national team

40 – Jimmy Phillips

The early-90s are a bit of a blind spot for me, I didn’t get to a lot of games because of university and so a number of players swirl around my head as though one. For me, Dave Collins, Nick Cusack, Jimmy Phillips all merge into one. Jimmy Phillips isn’t the other two.

They walk amongst us: Is under 23 coach for Bolton Wanderers and managed them briefly last season.

39 – Dave Smith

The 90s Simon Clist; was once subjected to a racial slur from Mike Ford in the matchday programme – something to do with his complexion and taxis. He frustrated fans a lot of the time due to his conservative style, but provided a solid platform for Joey Beauchamp, Chris Allen and Stuart Massey during our promotion season.

They walk amongst us: Rumour has it, somewhat ironically given Mike Ford’s joke, he set up a chauffeur company for celebrity footballers

38 – Robbie Mustoe

Mustoe was one who got away. He broke into the team in 1987 from the youth ranks, but couldn’t get any traction. Eventually, he slipped away to Middlesbrough where he played over 350 games and ended up enjoying a lengthy career in the Premier League.

They walk amongst us: Is a Premier League football pundit for NBC in the US

37 – Paul Wanless

One of those players whose ranking was probably more down to what he did at other times. A marginal player who graduated from the youth ranks in 1991, but never quite made it and headed off to Cambridge. Returned in 2003 for a few solid years at The Kassam before retiring.

36 – Martin Gray

Scuttling midfielder who dedicated his life to perfecting the sideways pass. An unrelentingly frustrating player to watch, yet alongside Dave Smith (39) was the bedrock of the 1996 promotion team.

They walk amongst us: Now teaching kids the value of the conservative sideways pass in his own academy.

35 – Pål Lundin

Aka – porn star. Comedy Swedish goalkeeper who shared responsibilities for letting in goals during 1999-2000 with Andre Arendse (48). Perhaps most famous for scoring a penalty in a Football League Trophy game against Wycombe. Yep, that was the high point.

34 – Ceri Evans

A Crewe fan once told me that he’d heard a fan ref heckle the ref at The Manor asking whether he’d been bribed with a place at the University. Funny right? His head would have exploded if he’d known we had a Rhodes Scholar in the back-four.

They walk amongst us: Looks like a Bond villain, but now runs his own medical practice.

33 – Martin Aldridge

The saddest story; Aldridge was a natural goal poacher; in any other era, he’d have been a first choice striker, but in the merry-go-round of Paul Moody, David Rush and Nigel Jemson he was mostly used as an impact player. Left the club in 1998 and was killed in a car crash two years later.

32 – Brian Wilsterman

The 1990s saw the emergence of the Premier League and all its cosmopolitan spirit. At Oxford United it was a time of great centre-backs. At the intersection of those two things was Brian Wilsterman. We loved him because he was from the same source as Cruyff and Bergkamp, we hated him because he was calamitous.

They walk amongst us: Ever the defender, he now runs a security company, while his son plays for FC Lienden.

31 – Paul Reece

The more I think about Paul Reece, the smaller he gets. A particularly spongey goalkeeper capable of pulling off remarkable finger-tip saves, even from back-passes. Much of his ranking comes from perhaps the greatest Oxford United goalkeeping display of all time; away at Derby.

They walk amongst us: Currently goalkeeping coach in the US.

30 – Mark Watson

A majestic centre-back and Canadian international who got caught up in the slow collapse of the club in the late 90s. When the club wanted to give him a new contract in 2000, he simply ran away.

They walk amongst us: Is part of the coaching staff at MLS side Minnesota United

29 – Christophe Remy

As we teetered on the edge of financial crisis, the presence of the endlessly likeable Frenchman lightened the mood around the place. A very capable full-back and our favourite non-British player of the 90s. 

They walk amongst us: His Twitter profile says he’s an entrepreneur

28 – Alan Judge

A vote more for what he did outside of the 90s. By 1990, Alan Judge’s Oxford career was winding down. But he’d been first choice keeper in Division 1 and played in the Milk Cup winning team. Briefly revived his career in 2003 during an injury crisis.

They walk amongst us: Now a driving instructor in Bicester.

27 – Martin Foyle

He looked like your dad, but was probably younger than you. There was nothing sexy about Martin Foyle, but he had a knack for scoring goals.

They walk amongst us: Head of recruitment at Motherwell in the SPL

26 – Paul Gerrard

The best loan player of the 90s; signed from Everton and only played 16 games, but left a lasting impression. Attempts to sign him permanently were thwarted, he was just too good for us.

They walk amongst us: Goalkeeping coach at Doncaster Rovers

25 – Les Phillips

Probably not the 25th best player of the 90s in truth, but being a member of the 1986 Milk Cup winning team gives you a bit of a boost in these things.

24 – Jamie Cook

There was Beauchamp, Allen and Paul Powell and there was Jamie Cook. Often the third wheel in a merry-go-round of wingers during the 90s, he eventually headed off to Crawley and enjoyed a decent career. Returned in 2009, funded partly by the fans, and scored one of the greatest goals at the Kassam against Luton.

They walk amongst us: A golf club manager at Heythrop Hall.

23 – Andy Melville

The 90s was full of great centre-backs, Andy Melville was among the best. The Welsh international and captain led the team through the early 90s before moving onto better things. Returned as a coach for five years.

They walk amongst us: Now works for a sports agency.

22 – Nigel Jemson

Arrogant and unpleasant, it was a good job Nigel Jemson scored goals. Nothing dented his belief that the world revolved around him. There were very few who were sad to see him leave. In our second game at the Kassam, Jemson, by that point at Shrewsbury, ran the game, goading us to defeat. Suddenly we missed him dearly.

They walk amongst us: Is an estate agent back in Nottingham.

21 – Stuart Massey

I’m not much of a fighter, but I will kill and kill again if anyone tries to argue against my view that Stuart Massey is the reason we were promoted in 1996. Beauchamp was too passive, Allen too raw; Massey demanded that players played to his strengths. When he got the ball to his feet he could drop a cross onto Paul Moody’s head from anywhere on the pitch.

20 – Darren Purse

Darren Purse was our back-up centre back behind Matt Elliot and Phil Gilchrist. But that masked the real talent he was. Occasionally fiery, it was clear from his early days that he would go onto greater things.

They walk amongst us: Director of football at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northamptonshire.

19 – Kevin Francis

Not the most multi-dimensional player we’ve ever seen, but what Kevin Francis did, he did well. I’ve had Amazon Prime deliveries which have arrived quicker than it took for messages to make it from his head to his feet but when you launched a ball into the box usually bounced off his head into the goal.

They walk amongst us: Is now a policeman in Canada.

18 – Matt Murphy

Matt Murphy was considered an intellectual because he once worked in a bank. The go-to boo boy for any 90s London Roader, nobody around that time thought they were watching the 18th best player of the decade. Yet, that’s what he was, and someone who has rarely been bettered since.

17 – John Byrne

A beautifully complete player who was the perfect complement to Paul Moody in attack, it was a partnership too pure to last. But while it did, Byrne, with his trademarked goal celebrations and perfectly quaffed mullet was the cool cat to Paul Moody’s nerdy big brother.

They walk amongst us: Always great with his feet; he’s now a musculoskeletal podiatrist.

16 – David Rush

After Johnny Byrne (17) left, David Rush was the perfect foil for Paul Moody; he had all the movement Moody didn’t. If you were a defender, even if you could deal with one; the other was a completely different challenge. In the roistering final stages of the 1995/6 season; David Rush was just the player we needed. 

They walk amongst us: Manager and coach at GPS Academy in Malta.

15 – Paul Simpson

The early 90s didn’t create many stars, but Paul Simpson was undoubtedly one. A winger with an eye for goal and a darling to fans of a certain vintage. 

They walk amongst us: World Cup winning coach of the England Under 20s.

14 – Mickey Lewis

Everything that Mickey Lewis lacked in ability he made up for in commitment. In 350 games, he gave everything to the cause. His career petered out where he took up a number of coaching roles and, on two occasions 4 years apart, caretaker manager.

13 – John Durnin

The 90s were synonymous with lad culture, so there was nothing better than a player known to enjoy a pint and a fight. So, there was David Rush (16), and before that there was John Durnin.

They walk amongst us: Living a quiet life being a violent racist.

12 – Paul Powell

There were times when Paul Powell was the best player I ever saw, with the ability to turn a game on its head with a drop of the shoulder and a jinking run. I thought he’d play for England. But it all seemed a bit too much and he never quite hit the dizzy heights. A broken leg stalled his career and he was never the same again.

11 – Mike Ford

He had the turning circle of a super tanker and the full range of appalling 90s haircuts, but Mike Ford was a true leader.

They walk amongst us: Banbury United manager and lecturer at the Activate Learning Academy in Oxford.

10 – Phil Whitehead

God.

9 – Les Robinson

The definition of a loyal club servant. There was a period when it was difficult to imagine Oxford United ever starting a game without Les Robinson. It is hard to describe a player who never put a foot wrong in 458 games. 

They walk amongst us: Head of education at Swancliffe Park, a specialist autism school. So, still being brilliant.

8 – Bobby Ford

Bobby Ford looked like the captain of your school’s second eleven. A graceful playmaker, he was one of those players who seemed to loath his talent. Inevitably made his way to the top flight with Sheffield United, but gradually fell out of love with the game.

7 – Dean Windass

A brief, ill-advised fling during a period of despair. Windass was bought with money we didn’t have from Aberdeen. He snaffled a pile of goals, including one against Chelsea in the FA Cup which nearly put them out. Was sold to Bradford within a year and the proceeds went into paying Aberdeen the money we hadn’t paid for him. A moment of glorious madness.

They walk amongst us: Got caught up in a tax avoidance scheme and now manager at East Hull FC.

6 – Phil Gilchrist

With Matt Elliot he made the greatest centre-back pairing the club has ever seen; including Shotton and Briggs. Blessed with pace and strength, Gilchrist was an absolute powerhouse during the mid-90s.

They walk amongst us: Senior housemaster at Ratcliffe College in Northampton

5 – Chris Allen

The very definition of raw talent. When the pitches were good and there was a Unipart sign to run into there was simply nobody who could touch Chris Allen. With Joey Beauchamp on the other flank, we were flying. Sadly things went sour in 1996 and Allen headed for Nottingham Forest where his career rapidly went downhill. After a period working in a leisure centre, he gradually worked his way back to the club and became one of its most respected coaches.

They walk amongst us: Oxford United coach.

4 – Jim Magilton

Given the manner of his departure, within 24 hours of putting Leeds United out of the FA Cup in 1994, fourth is a pretty good result for Jim Magilton. Signed from Liverpool, Magilton possessed a touch and fitnesse which propped up an otherwise average mid-90s team.

They walk amongst us: Now Elite Performance Director at the IFA.

3 – Paul Moody

A battering ram of a striker who looked like he hated the game. Given that he played with Nigel Jemson (22) that was probably true. Yet, despite this he conjured up iconic moments including a sublime hat-trick at Cardiff, the second goal against Peterborough to clinch promotion and an Arab spring which looked like a bag of snooker cues being thrown down the stairs.

They walk amongst us: Runs his own building and renovation business.

2 – Matt Elliot

Anyone who saw him play compares every Oxford United defender to Matt Elliot. An impenetrable force at the back; unbeatable in the air, calm and cultured on the floor, an attacking threat as much a defensive rock. It’s difficult to imagine a better all-rounder.

They walk amongst us: Now runs ME Sports.

1 – Joey Beauchamp

Well, obviously. This list was never about Joey Beauchamp who was pretty much guaranteed top spot from day one. A better player than Matt Elliot? Maybe not, but nobody has the narrative Joey Beauchamp does. Preston have Tom Finney, Everton have Dixie Dean, we have Joey Beauchamp.

Midweek fixture: Every player of the 90s ranked (part 2) – 75-51

The second part of every player of the 90s ranked – you can read Part 1 here – cover positions 76-51, giving us a clear run at the top 50 in part 3. This mid-ranking section is not exactly a list of our best players, more a list of players people remember, and not always for good reasons.

Firstly, a confession. There’s been a travesty of justice. After someone excitedly asked about Ben Abbey on Twitter, it suddenly struck me that I couldn’t remember seeing his name. I assumed he hadn’t played in the 90s. I was wrong; he made seven substitute appearances, but I missed him off the list. I feel terrible. I can’t guarantee where he’d have finished; but based on my appearances/goals algorithm – it could have been dead last.

Right, lower mid-table of the list is a curious mix. Mark Warren was ranked 75th, but I wonder whether it was an accidental vote which should have been to Mark Watson. Other players are like those indie bands people will worship ‘if only people got them’; to some the next Beatles, to many forgettable dirge.

There’s a raft of strikers who should have been better than they were; Marco Gabbiadini (72nd), Jamie Lambert (66th) and Gary Bannister (59th) were OK when they were with us, but better at other clubs.

Steve Anthrobus (57th) and Steve McClaren (58th) both breed enduring contempt. McClaren for his performance as England manager, Anthrobus because he was synonymous of some of our darkest times.

There were one or two names that were a little surprising. Derek Lilley (65th) was a better striker than we perhaps remember, Ken Veysey (69th) was generally well liked, though perhaps most for letting in nine goals for Dorchester in 1995. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was Paul Tait, who only ranked 54th despite never really letting down a side which constantly let each other down. But, I suppose, we are creeping towards the hallowed placings of the big 50, and that’s not an easy list to break into.

75Mark Warren
74Mark Druce
73Mark Deegan
72Marco Gabbiadini
71Lee Nogan
70Lance Key
69Ken Veysey
68Jon Muttock
67John Keeley
66Jamie Lambert
65Derek Lilley
64Dave Collins
63Craig Russell
62Chris Whyte
61Brett Williams
60Andy Harris
59Gary Bannister
58Steve McClaren
57Steve Anthrobus
56Nicky Banger
55Trevor Aylott
54Paul Tait
53Jimmy Carter
52David Penney
51Arjan Van Heusden

Midweek fixture – Every player of the 90s ranked (part 1) 107-76

Last month forgotten 90s goalkeeper Elliot Jackson was the club’s special guest for the game against Tranmere. It got me thinking; imagine doing something stupid like trying to rank every single player from that decade. So, I did, and this is Part 1.

Firstly, the approach; all 107 players were listed in a survey and people were asked to pick 15 favourites, which were then ranked. Where there were four or less players with equal votes, they were put out on a Twitter poll to sort out their final ranking. As Twitter only allows four options, where there were larger groups, final rankings were determined by a combination of appearances, goals, contributions to relegations and promotions.

Did it work? Broadly yes, the right players seem to be roughly in the right places. Towards the bottom, where goals and appearances play a greater part in the final ranking, there is some advantage to being a striker, because they’re more likely to score goals (although if you’re at the bottom, chances are you didn’t score many), good strikers will always rank highly and they tend not to play as many games as defenders and goalkeepers, so it probably evens itself out.

Someone relatively famous such like Steve McCLaren, was probably unfairly judged, where more marginal players picked up the odd vote that bumped them up the rankings.

I can only assume the vote for, say, Matthew Keeble whose sole contribution was a a couple of appearances in 1993 was either a mistake, a joke, or it came from Matthew Keeble.

In a sense it all worked; for players like Phil Whelan, you can argue their on-going presence created the familiarity that breeds contempt, others created moments of joy, but without playing many games. This is, after-all, a ranking of our favourite players, not necessarily the best.

Lastly, many thanks to the endlessly valuable resource that is Rage Online, I thoroughly recommend getting lost in its deep well of data.

Right, let’s get to it. I’m going to do it in three chunks. Sort out the backmarkers this week, then 75-51 next week and finishing off with the big top fifty.

107-92

Who is the least favourite Oxford player of the 90s? Well, it’s Carl Saunders; Saunders signed non-contract forms in 1994, he never lost a game he started, never won a game he started, and never finished a game he started. His measly contribution to our history was lessened by the fact it all happened in a relegation season which makes him the 107th and least favourite player of the decade.

Of the others in this batch, there were some surprising names; Ian Walker – who signed on loan from Spurs – played for England and would have won if there were bonus points for having the most 90s haircut, Imre Varadi played in the Premier League, Phil Whelan and Steve Davis typified the late 90s collapse being shadows of their predecessors, but they both played fairly regularly and had played as a higher level.

Weirdly I remember Michael Williams’ pointless contribution, though Lee Gardner is a new name to me.

Here you go…

107Carl Saunders
106Mark Stevens
105Marcus Phillips
104Michael Williams
103Ian Walker
102Andrew Rose
101Imre Varadi
100Guy Butters
99Lee Gardner
98Paul Byrne
97Neil McGowan
96Darren Jackson
95Danny Hill
94Phil Whelan
93Anthony Wright
92Steve Davis

91-76

Some surprising names in the next batch of players – Elliot Jackson’s appearance at the Tranmere game inspired the project and despite a man-of-the-match performance against Chelsea in 1999 collected no votes and ended up 90th. Rob Folland was even more surprising, well regarded at the time and a Welsh Under 21 international, I’d have expected him to collect a bit more.

As I said, Matthew Keeble got a single vote bumping him up the rankings to 76, just ahead of Mike Salmon, whose single game was the 7-0 home defeat to Birmingham City.

Ross Weatherstone, who was convicted of racially aggravated assault, ranked five places above his brother, Simon, who wasn’t. I was pleased to see O’Neill Donaldson beating Peter Fear; justice was done in that titanic battle.

91Rob Folland
90Elliot Jackson
89Jon Narbett
88Simon Weatherstone
87Steve Wood
86Tim Carter
85Wayne Biggins
84Tony Dobson
83Ross Weatherstone
82Phil Heath
81Peter Fear
80Paul Milsom
79Paul Kee
78O’Neill Donaldson
77Mike Salmon
76Matthew Keeble