Middlesborough, fresh from appointing Oxford’s former head of star jumps Chris Short, have announced a link up with Martin Gray’s Football Academy. This is like the board game Billy Hamilton’s Football Academy, except whatever number you roll on the dice, you move your piece sideways. Since leaving Oxford, Gray has built a reputation for developing a generation of crab-like kids able to withstanding howling wails of frustration from up to 7,000 fans at a time.
Wednesday 23 June 2021
There’s a bit of a stand-off in Bristol City’s pursuit of Rob Atkinson. City have submitted a substantial bid for the defender, but KRob is holding out for more. £1.6m is such a lot of money it’s a difficult to imagine, to make it easier for us all; that’s nearly £400,000 plus add ons when he eventually signs.
It may have taken 28 years for Oxford United to make any impression on the European Championships, but when it came, it was explosive; pivoting around a single game, and a single goal, on the 12th June 1988 in Stuttgart.
Before we get to that, some context; Charles Hughes was the FA’s technical director during the 1980s and an acolyte of Wing Commander turned accountant turned football theoretician Charles Reep. Reep observed that most goals resulted from moves of less than four passes and therefore argued that teams should focus on creating what he called POMOs – Positions Of Maximum Opportunity – via what we now know as the long ball or route one.
Hughes was such a robust advocate of direct football he enshrined it in the FA official coaching manual in 1980 and it became a template for a generation of managers including Dave Basset at Wimbledon, Graham Taylor at Watford and Jack Charlton for the Republic of Ireland.
The idea of POMO is flawed; there’s no advantage of playing the long ball; all possession in those days tended to consist of less than four passes, it’s just how football was played. Teams were more potent when they retained possession just they didn’t do it very often. The idea stuck and even today, you’ll hear English football fans channelling Charles Reep by yelling at teams to get the ball in the mixer and stop mucking about.
When Jack Charlton became Republic of Ireland’s manager in 1985 he set about transforming the nation’s hopes based on two principles; a full-hearted commitment to Hughes’ philosophy and the leveraging of the opportunities provided by the Irish diaspora.
The Irish are among the most dispersed in the world, forced by poverty and persecution to find a better life elsewhere. To retain its identity, the Irish government had a liberal interpretation of nationhood. By law, if you had Irish relatives going back three generations, you could apply for citizenship. This helped circumnavigate FIFA’s ‘grandparent’ rule, where players were eligible to play for only their parents or grandparents’ home country. If Charlton could persuade eligible players to apply for Irish nationality, his catchment for talent would grow exponentially.
While some headed to the Americas, and others to Gaelic speaking Scotland, many Irish migrants simply crossed the Irish Sea to settle in Liverpool. One of those was John Aldridge’s great grandmother, Mary Mills, from Athlone.
Two things prevented Aldridge from being the greatest domestic goalscorer of his generation; Gary Lineker and Ian Rush. Lineker was immovable for England, while Rush was the leading striker in club football. Aldridge scored an avalanche of goals for Oxford, but opportunities to go further, particularly internationally, were limited.
Jack Charlton seized his chance, giving Aldridge his international debut in March 1986 against Wales. Prolific wherever he played, Aldridge didn’t quite fit into the long-ball system; his reputation built on poaching goals from six yards out. It took two and a half years and 20 games to score the first of his 19 international goals.
He hadn’t found the net by the time Ireland qualified for Euro 88 in Germany. By this point, Aldridge had moved from Oxford to Liverpool, replacing Rush who had been sold to Juventus. Ireland’s presence was assumed to add some colour to the tournament with their fearsome reputation for drink and an endless appetite for the craic. Ireland were what England could have been if they weren’t so angry and uptight about everything, it’s not surprising Charles Hughes’ ideas gained traction, the English dreary and pragmatic, lacking in romance.
Ireland qualified having scored just ten goals in eight games and thanks to a late Scotland goal against Bulgaria. Nobody considered them to be a threat. England, off the back of a good World Cup in 1986, fancied their chances to go all the way. The two countries were drawn together in Group B and faced each other in their opening game on the third day of the tournament.
Charlton was up against the country he’d won the World Cup with twenty-two years earlier, but somehow seemed more Irish than English. England seemed uncomfortable and on edge, partly because of the constant threat of hooliganism, but also because of the expectation that hung over them. Charlton had an air of chaotic bonhomie and the Irish loved him for it. In a frenzied atmosphere, the Irish entered the fray, backed by thousands of fans, with Aldridge leading the line.
The early moments were a testament to Charles Hughes’ vision; the flow of the game punctuated by petty fouls and aerial duels. After six minutes, a long Kevin Moran free-kick was launched down the left, deep into England territory.
Another former Oxford player, Southampton’s Mark Wright was partnering Tony Adams after Terry Butcher had been ruled out with a broken leg. Wright had played 10 games for Oxford before being transferred to The Dell in a deal which brought Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence to The Manor. Within two years he’d made his England debut.
Wright was drawn out to firefight down the flank. Apparently spooked by the Irish threat, he clattered his right-back Gary Stevens allowing the ball to run loose to Tony Galvin. Galvin weakly hooked the ball across the penalty area but Wright’s ill-discipline caused panic in the English defence, pulling it out of position, forcing left-back Kenny Sansom into the middle to fill the hole he’d left behind but leaving the back post wide open.
The ball was awkward, bouncing waist high, Sansom lashed at it, sending it high into the air; Aldridge, playing target man, beat Tony Adams in the air nodding it onto the back post where Ray Houghton was arriving at speed.
Houghton may never have been an Irish legend he was if it wasn’t for John Aldridge. Charlton’s focus had been on the striker when he watched him score twice in Oxford’s Milk Cup semi-final first leg draw against Aston Villa. Afterwards, Aldridge introduced Charlton to Houghton joking that his teammate was more Irish than he was.
Houghton, a Glaswegian who’d signed for Oxford the previous summer, had a fractious relationship with the Scottish national team when it became clear that, despite a breakthrough season at The Manor and a goal in the Milk Cup Final, he was unlikely to be considered for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Much to Charlton’s delight, Houghton’s father was from Donegal and therefore eligible for the Republic. Moving quickly, Charlton gave him his debut against Wales alongside Aldridge three weeks later.
Back in 1988, as the ball from Aldridge dropped, Houghton – now also a Liverpool player – burst into the box with his characteristic scuttle. He’d spotted Peter Shilton just off his line and off-centre to the goal, he realised if he could get some elevation on his header, he’d be able to get it over the keeper and into the net. Shilton, playing his 99th game for England, watched helplessly as it sailed over his head for 1-0. The celebrations were wild, it was the defining moment in a defining Irish win. The two ex-Oxford players, with a little help from a third, had ignited a golden age for the Republic on a world stage, one Irish fan said it defined the country for the first time since Irish partition nearly 70 years earlier.
Nestled away on the Irish bench in Stuttgart was Le Havre striker Johnny Byrne. If Aldridge and Houghton were in the right place at the right time, the reverse could be said for Byrne. He’d made his Republic of Ireland debut a few months before Jack Charlton became manager. A mercurial ball playing forward, he didn’t really fit Charlton’s model. Aldridge, Frank Stapleton, Tony Cascarino and Niall Quinn were all ahead of him in the pecking order, Byrne was very much plan B, or perhaps C or D, watching all three games from the sidelines. Things would pick up for him five years later as he spent a memorable couple of years partnering Paul Moody at The Manor.
The defeat was the start of a dismal tournament for England; after losing to the Republic they were humiliated 3-0 by the Netherlands. Wright was rested for the dead rubber against the Soviet Union, which ended in a 3-1 defeat. For Ireland, with Aldridge and Houghton ever-present, a draw with the Soviet Union put them on the verge of qualification, but a late 1-0 defeat, and freak goal, to the Netherlands ended the adventure, if not the wanderlust for more.
The Euros became a recurring nightmare for Mark Wright. In 1992, days before the tournament in Sweden, he aggravated his Achilles and dropped out of the squad. It came so late England weren’t allowed to replace him and he remained an official, if unavailable, squad member. Four years later, in Euro 96, Wright was set to be a surprise pick having worked his way back into contention after two years out of the squad. Two months before the tournament, he strained knee ligaments ruling him out again.
With Mark Wright missing Euro 92, it took until Euro 96 in England for an Oxford presence to re-emerge on the Euro stage. Ian Walker – who’d played three games on loan at The Manor six years earlier – was the perfect nineties footballer with his ‘curtains’ haircut, mock Tudor mansion and page 3 girlfriend. He also had an extraordinary International career that lasted eight years, two European Championships – he was picked again in 2004 – and just four games. In 1996 he played third fiddle to David Seaman and Tim Flowers, eight years later he’d been overtaken by David James and Paul Robinson. It goes without saying, Walker didn’t get a sniff of even the substitutes bench for either tournament.
Memories of Euro 96 are heavily skewed by England’s glorious failure. Elsewhere, the tournament was a bit ho hum; stadiums were half-full and there were few genuine stand out games. Scotland’s tournament was very typical – an encouraging draw with the Netherlands preceded a defeat to England. A win over Switzerland put them on the brink of qualification, but England conceded in a win over the dutch meaning Scotland were edged out on goals scored. On the bench throughout was Scot Gemmil, a disappointment no doubt that was extinguished when he moved to Oxford in 2006 as Jim Smith’s player-coach. He made one substitute appearance at Mansfield, an experience he found so overwhelmingly fantastic he immediately emigrated to New Zealand.
And that was it until this year’s tournament. Leeds United’s Tyler Roberts, who was on loan briefly at Oxford in 2016, is in the Wales squad. After the group games, Roberts – wearing the number nine – remains rooted to the bench. If he does make an appearance in the knock-out stages, he’ll be the first Oxford-related player to have stepped onto the pitch since the 1988 tournament 33 years ago. Given the wait, Charles Hughes may have blighted a generation of English football, but maybe we should be grateful for his flawed theories.
In what is turning into what we call in GLS world, an ‘I wonder what Samir Carruthers is doing’ week, Birmingham Live have been wondering what Samir Carruthers is doing. The self-styled ‘idiot who urinated in a pint glass’ is now at Hemel Hempstead.
After over 300 games and 8 years at the club, Josh Ruffels has finally signed for Huddersfield Town fulfilling his lifelong dream to play in the Championship relegation zone. Ruffles leaves behind many great memories; Wembley, derby wins, promotion and giant killings, we will never forget his name, even if half of us can’t spell it.
It’ll soon be time for Oxblogger’s Absolute State of Oxford United Survey for 2021, but with the season complete and the spoils of war dished out, let’s look back at what you were predicting for us last year and how it turned out.
When asked where we’d finish 56% of you thought we’d end up higher than 6th, so even though we sneaked into the play-offs, most expected more. It’s a different picture when predicting the final table compared to others; in that you thought we’d finish 8th, showing how fierce the competition was. But this meant we were ahead of expectation in that respect.
Hull City were champions, but you had them down as 4th. You predicted that Wigan Athletic would be top, even though they finished 19th. To rectify that terrible prediction; you also said Swindon Town would be anchored to the bottom, but they over-performed to finish 23rd. In a hard fought battle of ineptitude, the wooden spoon went to Bristol Rovers, who you thought would finish 11th.
Charlton Athletic, in seventh, was the only team whose place you predicted accurately. Surprisingly, perhaps, Crewe Alexandra were the team that over-performed nine places ahead of their predicted 21st. Lincoln City’s 5th place was the next biggest, eight places higher than you’d predicted, with a similar performance from Accrington Stanley.
Biggest failures were Wigan, 19 places below where you said they’d finish, next was Bristol Rovers 13 places below their predicted finish.
Cup predictions were pretty grim; in 2019/20 we’d had good runs in both competitions and hopes were high for this season. 66% of you thought we’d go beyond the 2nd round of the League Cup and a whopping 97% thought we’d go beyond the 1st Round in the FA Cup. So, under-performances all round.
Hopes for the season
In terms of more general hopes for the season, the themes produced a mix bag.
The biggest single hope was us achieving promotion, even though, as illustrated above, we were expected to finish outside the play-offs when considering the opposition. So, a failed objective, but perhaps it was an expectation bar that was too high.
The great perennial hope was around the resolution of the now 20 year old stadium situation – new stadium or buying the Kassam – you weren’t fussy. In reality, and understandably, this may have been the quietest year on record in that particular issue. It remains our eternal and elusive hope, could it be resolved next year? Probably not.
More generally, people wanted to see progress; this is a nebulous concept – fans back at the stadium? Promotion? A general feeling of goodwill? More investment? While there isn’t the fervour of last season’s successes, there still seems to be a good vibe around the place and a general enthusiasm for the club. So, we’re probably in a similar place to where we were this time last year and in the circumstances, that’s no bad thing.
A return to normality
What everyone was looking for back in September was a return to normal and we’re still a way from that. There does seem to be some indication that we’re moving in the right direction with fans back at games, albeit in a limited way. The return to normality didn’t just focus on our own situation, there was also a real hope that the financial damage to other clubs wasn’t too deep either. So far, although full recovery is still a long way away, the fact that no clubs have gone bust is, perhaps, a big bonus.
Nine in a row
This season offered the opportunity to turn seven in a row against Swindon into nine. Naturally, that all went up in a puff of smoke. Despite the hope, lots of you were predicting this, just by the law of averages.
Your predictions were wild, varied and mostly misguided, but there were a few gems in there:
The most optimistic prediction was the return of fans by October, so the brief return in December wasn’t miles off even if it was short lived. One prediction was that we wouldn’t see a live game and we were pretty close to that. Someone predicted that crowds wouldn’t top 4000 all year, which was bang on. Many of you were right to predict that away games would be out of the question, but at least the season wasn’t interrupted as some thought it might.
Matty Taylor was predicted to notch 20-30 goals, but fell short by a single goal, Dan Agyei was also predicted to score 15-20 goals, so six was some way off that. Rob Atkinson did emerge as a key talent as some thought he would.
Cameron Brannagan is still with us, when many thought he wouldn’t be, but Marcus Browne’s return in January failed to materialise.
One person predicted that Simon Eastwood would be ousted as our first choice keeper, which was inconceivable at the time, although it has surprised many that he hasn’t moved back north and has, in fact, signed a new contract.
Off the field
You predicted financial chaos across the divisions, which, miraculously, hasn’t yet shown itself. Some thought we’d have a winding up order, which we didn’t, others thought there’d be a cash injection, which, if rumours of a boardroom shake up are anything to go by, could actually be right. You also thought Karl Robinson would leave for the Championship, but he’s still here.
On the field, someone predicted there would be a 1-1 draw with Sunderland, which, for the first time ever, there wasn’t, nor was there another cup game against Manchester City.
Elsewhere, the season didn’t end with 10 teams with a chance of the play-offs but Lincoln City did turn out to be the dark horses of the division. At the other end, the expectation that relegation would be determined by points deductions didn’t happen.
And finally; there was no red away kit and Jerome Sale didn’t win commentator of the year nor, thankfully, did he swear live on air.
Purely objectively, based on your predictions and hopes, it’s been a disappointing season with general under-achievement all round. Why doesn’t it feel like that? Probably because there was a realisation that after narrowly missing out on promotion in 2019/20, expectations were very high, perhaps too high, as was the competition within the division. In such a volatile environment, standing still could easily be seen as progress in itself.
The end of season’s best hackers table has been released and it turns out that Oxford are the third dirtiest team in the division. So proud. The club have kicked their way to seventy yellow and three red cards this season, which has only been bettered by Northampton Town and Charlton Athletic. Bookie monster, Alex Gorrin was seventh.
KRob has paid tribute to Instagram influencer, Nico Jones, as he leaves the club. ”It’s not the end of the road for him in his career. I think he feels going out playing men’s football and being released is better for him and we felt it was as well.” There’s nothing like a bit of redundancy to make you a man. No doubt, he’ll soon be gracing the greatest theatres of football that the Conference South has to offer.
“Una paloma blancaaaaa” KRob is thinking of his summer holibobs with the lads. Pre-season is up in the air because of the pandemic, but he’s hoping to line up a ‘foreign giant’ to play during the summer, which we can only assume is Gérard Depardieu. “We want to be creative with the pre-season, we want to be better than ever before.” he said, better even than our previous best start of two wins in eight.
Tuesday 1 June 2021
The Sunderland Echo have been trying to come up with ways to show that Permier League Sunderland probably won the division after all. They’ve compared how the League 1 table finished to how it was predicted to finish, Oxford were predicted to finish 5th, but finished 6th.
Rob Atkinson has been named in the PFA League 1 Team of the Year. The team is a veritable who’s that? of players you’ve only vaguely heard about. Atkinson is understandably chuffed; “It’s nice to win awards, quite humbling, and I am very proud to accept it but the goal for all of us was promotion and we will come back looking to go one better and hopefully achieve that next time around.” said the club’s communications team playing with their new Quote-o-matic app.