World Cup of: Oxford United Goalkeepers

Runners and riders

So, the tournament format is simple; four groups of four players. People vote for their favourites via a Twitter poll. The top two qualify for the knock-out stages – head-to-heads in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, until you have a winner.

Choosing sixteen goalkeepers is pretty easy; I could have gone back to the 60s – Jim Barron was mentioned in despatches – but it seemed pointless. Plus, I couldn’t tell one decent keeper from yore from another. There was also the temptation of including players who were one-offs; there’s Elliot Jackson, who was in goal when we played Chelsea in 1999, or Mike Salmon who conceded seven against Birmingham in his one and only game.

No, in the end the choice was reasonably straight forward. A regularly starting keeper often stays for three or four years, meaning over a 30 year period the sixteen selected themselves.

Group A

Group A was a mixed bag; first up was Steve Hardwick, something of a forgotten man during our heyday. Hardwick was our first choice keeper during both title seasons between 1983 and 1985. He lost his place to Alan Judge when we got to the top flight meaning he missed the Milk Cup.

He was up against a clear contender in Ryan Clarke. Clarke, a legendary keeper in our promotion back from the Conference was in the sweet spot a first choice keeper with a notable success, that most people will remember him.

Andre Arendse was third; the South African international keeper was brought in at the start of the 2000 season. Despite having played in The Word Cup, Arendse was never likely to last long in such company.

And finally, Billy Turley; a classic terrace favourite; a bit of a clown and a decent, if erratic, keeper. Against him, though, was the fact he was between the sticks when we were relegated to the Conference in 2006. All said and done; most people will look back fondly.

Inevitably, Clarke took the honours with 77% of the vote with Billy Turley edging out Steve Hardwick for second.

Group B

There was no more one-sided group than Group B. Current glovesman, Simon Eastwood, was first out of the hat at which point it was all about who might finish second.

Chris Tardif, mostly an understudy to Billy Turley, was next with Ken ‘The Tree’ Veysey. Veysey played between 1990 and 1992. He was also in goal for Dorchester when we inflicted out 9-1 record win in 1995. There’s always one player who your not sure about including; Veysey was the man this time.

Finally, well regarded Andy Woodman completed the group. Woodman was Ian Atkins’ go-to man in 2002 and was part of an effective, if not particularly pretty, defensive unit which threatened, briefly, to get us promoted.

Inevitably, Simon Eastwood took the crown with no less than 90% of the vote; Andy Woodman joined him in the quarter-finals with 5%, inevitably the lowest qualifier.

Group C

It all kicked off in Group C. Benji Buchel, the Liechtensteiner who kept goal for a majority of our 2016 promotion season was the obvious choice to many. Let’s face it, Twitter is a young-ish crowd, anyone who helps recall such vivid memories is always going to do well.

But, the hipsters were having none of it. The three other contenders had their own qualities; like Krautrock or ambient house, if only the kids would spend time getting to know it, they would learn to look beyond the immediate.

Paul Reece was second up; Reece, like many Oxford goalkeepers, had a good rapport with the fans. Many London Roaders will remember him with fondness. He also had one thing up his sleeve; he was the man who put in, perhaps, the greatest goalkeeping display of any goalkeeper in our history. On live TV; the 1-0 win over Derby County.

Then, there was Pal ‘porn star’ Lundin, who alongside Arendse, kept goal at the turn of the millennium. And finally, there was Richard Knight one of our greatest goalkeepers in our worst ever team. Knight conceded over 100 goals in 2001, but still put in displays that earned him player of the season. He was so shellshocked by the experience, he never really recovered.

In the end Buchel’s early surge took it with 42% of the vote. Paul Reece devotees ensured a narrow second with 25%.

Group D

And finally, Group D. This was headed up by Alan Judge, the mullet haired goalkeeper in our Milk Cup win and a player whose appearances spread no less than 19 years due to a goalkeeping crisis in 2004 .

Second, was Sam Slocombe, who shared duties with Benji Bucheli in 2016. Slocombe never really lived up to expectations, and was always likely to struggle in such hot company.

Third was Roy Burton, the oldest contender in the competition. Burton was known for his enormous shorts falling down as he kicked the ball downfield with his bum crack regularly on show. They were different times.

And finally, there was God, Phil Whitehead. A giant of the 1996 promotion winning team, and surely a contender for the ultimate title.

In the end, Whitehead took the group with 44% of the vote, a tough battle saw Roy Burton edge out Alan Judge for second.

Quarter-finals

With the wheat and chaff separated, it was down to business. The first quarter-final saw Ryan Clarke up against Roy Burton. Clearly Clarke had currency on his side, taking 71% of the vote, but Burton, a genuine legend who wore the ‘keeper’s shirt for 11 years and whose last game was 37 years ago took a decent chunk of the vote.

Second up was the increasingly dominant Simon Eastwood against Billy Turley. Turley’s crowd pleasing banter was no match for Eastwood’s understated consistency, showing that ability was always going to outgun personality. Eastwood scorched away with 93% of the vote.

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul Reece’s gallant run to the quarter-finals came to an end at the hands of Andy Woodman. Again, Woodman probably benefitted from being slightly more recent than Reece, but Reece was the ‘keeper most people actively supported.

Finally, Benji Buchel was up against Phil Whitehead. Two promotion goalies; twenty years apart. But, Buchel was never the most convincing between the sticks and Whitehead was, well, God collecting 79% of the vote.

Semi-finals

There’s a point in every tournament when the immovable object meets the irresistible force. The semi-finals threw up the holy trinity of modern Oxford ‘keeping – Eastwood, Clarke and Whitehead, with Woodman bringing up the rear. They couldn’t all win.

The first semi-final was the first true clash of the titans. Ryan Clarke went up against Simon Eastwood. The result was perhaps a surprise, nobody doubts Simon Eastwood’s ability or influence on the current team, but has his legend cemented into Oxford folklore in the same way that Ryan Clarke’s has? Or is it that Clarke is already ancient history and we’re just getting old? It was Eastwood’s biggest challenge yet, and though less emphatic than previous rounds; 67% of the vote was still pretty resounding.

Semi-final two was perhaps more predictable. Andy Woodman was a solid cog in a solid team, but he was never likely to match Phil Whitehead. Whitehead romped home with 80% of the vote.

Final

And so to the final. Simon Eastwood v Phil Whitehead. Eastwood had streaked through the early rounds taking over 90% of the vote before trouncing a clear favourite. But, arguably – up to the semi-finals – he’d had the easier run. Also, Whitehead’s career is behind him, so his mistakes and failings are long forgotten leaving a unblemished record.

The early voting saw Whitehead streaking into the lead, a sign, perhaps, that there were more nostalgic types idly flicking through Twitter. Eventually, though, Eastwood began to claw it back and by the half-way stage was polling around 2/3rds of the vote.

Although in the second half of the vote, Whitehead pulled it back to 38%, the gap was too great. Simon Eastwood had won the World Cup of #oufc Goalkeepers.

The verdict

The right result? That all depends on what you’re voting for. The best keeper? The most legendary? If you’re talking personalities, then Billy Turley and Andy Woodman would be strong contenders. On ability alone, Steve Hardwick and Paul Reece were both exciting to watch.

For me, I’ll always fondly remember Roy Burton because he was the ‘keeper when I started going to The Manor. I’ll never forget his bum crack poking out from his shorts, or how impressed I was that he could kick the ball to the half-way line. I remember very clearly, the day he started wearing gloves thinking that he’d done the goalkeeping equivalent of landing on the moon.

But, the Holy Trinity of modern Oxford goalkeeping is Phil Whitehead, Ryan Clarke and Simon Eastwood. It was appropriate they made the semi-finals. For me, though, Eastwood is the junior partner in the trio, and his lasting place in it will depend on what happens in the rest of his time at the club. He’s a great keeper, but he needs a moment, a promotion perhaps, to truly cement his place in our history.

Of the other two; Phil Whitehead has the benefit of history, and the 1996 promotion, on his side. He also played at a higher level than the others. I can also remember a save against Port Vale which was nothing short of miraculous. Clarke, I remember more abstractly, as generally critical to our success. Promotion to the Football League, I think, was more important than ’96, but Clarke’s ‘moment’ was dropping the ball into his goal in the play-off final. A cruel thing to be remembered for, there were so many other times when he saved us.

All told, I think, just about, Phil Whitehead is still probably the best ‘keeper I’ve seen, but it’s pretty close.

Oxford’s World Cup All Stars #1 – Andre Arendse

Andre Arendse didn’t look like a goalkeeper. He wasn’t impossibly big and/or fat and/or funny looking like most ‘keepers. He was slight and immaculately turned out and wore tracksuit trousers whatever the weather. He looked like the effete twat at school who hated football but hung out with the cool girls. The one you’ve since found out, via Facebook, is living in a gay civil partnership in a North London townhouse with a trademark lawyer and their two adopted Vietnamese children.

The timing of his arrival wasn’t good. Austerity measures were biting and Arendse was the latest solution following the Phil Whitehead firesale. Becoming the new ‘God’ was always a tall order.

But, he was an international. South African, yes, but with African football starting to lose its naiveté stigmata, there was a ripple of optimism around the place.

The club seemed to have two first choice ‘keepers. The other was Pal Lundin, a ‘keeper so stereotypically Swedish he could have been a Roy of the Rovers character. Looking like a Nordic woodsman with flowing locks he was already a Manor favourite. He even scored the winning penalty in a Full Members’ Cup tie against Wycombe – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Arendse was above all this competitiveness. He indulged only in his favourite bits of the goalkeeping craft. For him, only shot stopping was worthy of his attention. The more prosaic elements of his profession; crosses, kicking, organising your back-four, were indulges of the peasantry. Arendse never belittled himself with these trivialities.

Fittingly for his stature, he played in the underwhelming World Cup of 2002 where he used his three group games to demonstrate his goalkeeping philosophy.

As a pure aesthete, Arendse’s performance was less sporting more an art installation. Against Paraguay he charged out to a cross missing his punch, conceding the first goal. Against Spain, unchallenged, he let a harmless through ball squirt out of his hands to the feet of Raul who gratefully slotted home. By demonstrating the futility of these guttural goalkeeping qualities, he was able to emphasise the beauty of his shot stopping.

Arendse managed just eleven appearances for Oxford in a failing team. He sloped off after one season playing for clubs that sound like holiday camps; Santos, Mamelodi Sundowns and Supersport United. His international career ended in 2004, although his credibility as an international goalkeeper departed some time before that.

According to Wikipedia he’s still with Supersport at the age of 42, Supersport’s website has no reference to him. It seems he’s lost in the wilderness somewhere. Which pretty much describes his positional sense.