Kassam All Star XI – Midfield part 1

Oxford United didn’t have a midfield for the first three years of life at the Kassam. Under Mark Wright they used to melt into the gaps in between the defenders effectively creating a flat back 8. Under Ian Atkins they were bypassed completely. In fact, no player touched the ball in the centre circle apart from kicking-off between 2001 and 2004.

Across the midfield, as was the way with the move to the Kassam, we started the first season with a new look. Matt Murphy was left behind in the rubble of the Manor, Joey Beauchamp gazed on like a child sitting on the mound behind the open west end of the ground on match day.

Paul Tait made it across the divide to the Kassam, but his most memorable moment was years before showing off a shirt bearing the legend ‘Shit on the Villa’ when scoring for Birmingham at Wembley. He was joined by Dave Savage, a player who survived deep into the Atkins revolution. Savage was afflicted by the “Kassam Spiral”; hated in his first season, loved in his second.

Waiting in the wings was the pock marked junior Dean Whitehead. He and Chris Hackett would occasionally make cameos under Wright and Atkins, but calls to play him regularly were often resisted. By the time Whitehead was a regular, he was dynamic, creative and a much more complete footballer than the club had produced for years. The nuturing seemed to instill in Whitehead a work ethic that has served him well in a career that has taken in Sunderland and Stoke.

For all that Atkins did that was good with Whitehead, his pragmatic football philosophy did not breed a great dynasty in midfield maestros. Bobby Ford returned, but had his spirit truly broken by the long ball game. James Hunt joined but his role was primarily to stand in the middle of the pitch shouting ‘Great punt Crozzer, now get something on it Alsop” as he watched another ball sour over his head.

You’d think that Graham Rix, one of the country’s most respected young coaches (and convicted sex offender) would have put passing football at the heart of his gameplan. Oddly, despite everything he claimed to be, he seemed completely incapable of selecting a midfielder with any degree of competence. Derek Townsley came and went, Rob Wolleaston came, had great hair, looked OK and then went. At least Paul Wanless returned and gave a half decent account of himself.

Rix’s reign removed the last chock of sanity keeping the United juggernaught from sliding down the hill to its death. We simply descended into a form of mania. Ramon Diaz introduced to the midfield the likes of Diaz (junior), Raponi, Cominelli and Karam – they had an average height of 5ft 4 and spent most of their time shivering with their sleeves pulled over their hands. They might have been a boy band in a reality TV show doing whacky challenges. Had they not kept turning up to games, Diaz would surely have been accused of using his position to smuggle illegal immigrants to the country. They were barely footballers, let alone League 2 footballers.

Uncharacteristically, Brian Talbot introduced some normality to the midfield. In particular, his signing of Chris Hargreaves, which offered a degree of maturity and level headedness that couldn’t be fostered throughout the rest of the side.

Later Andy Burgess joined, a man with a fantastically overstated ego. For most of the time he sloped around waiting for the world to offer him a living. For a few weeks at the beginning of the Conference era, he turned into Zinedine Zidane. There was fleeting talk of a transfer to Leeds. At which point he seemed unwilling to allow his talents to be displayed on the pitch – a protest, one assumes. A few years later he returned to the Kassam with Rushden, he preceding the game with trash talk the very best heavyweight boxers would be proud of. He was clearly motivated to teach us a lesson. He subsequently put in a performance of spectacular ineptitude and disinterest.

And with that, we lost our league position. The first five years, in which we succeeded in doing nothing more than plummet into the Conference, only Dean Whitehead is really deserving of a place in the Kassam All Star XI.

Yellows 2 Mansfield 0

In the dead of the night, Andy Burgess sits in his kitchen cupping hot milk and popping sleeping pills. His eyes, like saucers, his skin, sallow and pale.

“Curse my blessed talents” hisses Burgess as he sprays a melon from the fruit basket, out the window, and sixty yards to a cat screeching on a distant fence. “When will is ever end?”

How much does Andy Burgess hate playing football? He spends an unnatural amount of time goading Oxford, and then when he gets a chance to ram it down our throats he slouches around like a man who just wants someone to put in a leg breaker and relieve him from his prison of a professional football career. It’s not the first time either.

Any team that contains Andy Burgess, or a less effectual version of Jamie Slabber (Rob Duffy), hardly tests our credentials as play-off contenders, but the decisive win against Mansfield highlighted the winning formula we’ve been looking for.

It’s simple; control the opening stages with a set-up that accentuates power and strength, as the game progresses introduce creativity to exploit the opposition’s tiredness.

The solution is not pretty, but it’s effective. One characteristic we’ve never seemed to lose is the ability to control a game defensively. Individual mistakes have been made (Ryan Clarke against Tamworth), and we’ve lacked inventiveness, but in the main we’ve been defensively very tight – only conceding more than 1 goal on six occasions all season. Some will look at the goal count and point to that as a concern. It is, of course, we could all do with an easier ride, but the defensive record is a virtue that it frequently underplayed. We can go into the play-offs fearing nobody in this department.

We worry that we’re not scoring goals; but haven’t conceded in six hours. For me, three one-nil wins during the play-offs will do me, thanks very much.

Us 1 Rushden and Diamonds 0

I can remember two masterclasses in the art of ‘returning to your old club’. The most recent was Lee Steele’s return to the Kassam on the last day of the 2005/6 season. He simply got on with what he did well. As gutsy as our performance was; Steele was just too good – he scored and we went down.

Nigel Jemson was hardly in his prime when he turned up with Shrewsbury to the Kassam shortly after we moved there. He barracked and bickered his way through the game as usual. When Paul Tait put in a reckless challenge, Jemson waddled 70 yards to give the ref a couple of reminders as to why he might treat Tait to the ultimate sanction. With the red card issued, the crowd and team went into a blind fury. Two minutes later Jemson popped up in amid the chaos of a disorganised defence to slot home the winner. Irritating, but brilliant.

What you’re definitely not supposed to do when you come back to your old club is saunter around at half pace as Andy Burgess – the Conference’s leading media brand – did last night. If this was Burgess’ big opportunity to show the Oxford public what he could do then I guess he did that, but not in a good way. His contribution was limited to a couple of decidedly Conference style looping crosses and one neat slide rule pass. In a game of some zip and vigour he chose to occupy the illusive ‘corridor of least impact’ just in front of their left back. Perhaps he should remember that as good as he can be, in 10 months at the club, he really only hit form for about 6-8 weeks – he would do well to keep his mouth shut. Presumably he wasn’t substituted simply out of sympathy.

And so to the end of another home programme. We’re looking like a team that can do some damage next season. But ultimately it’s been a miserable campaign. Completing it before April is out feels like being picked up by your mum in her rollers and dressing gown from the school disco at 9.00pm when all your mates are drinking cider until midnight inside. Hopefully it will serve as a reminder to what a pre-season of complacency can bring.

The thorn and the rose

Woh, this must be what it’s like to support a Premier League team (not the Blue Square version). Andy Burgess has used his national newspaper column to SLAM former boss Jim Smith.

It’s an undignified tirade; a signature of the modern professional who has to remain in a constant state of outrage in order to secure requisite media coverage. Burgess argues that Darren Patterson should have remained manager when the Merry revolution rolled into town. On this point, I’ve got to agree. Patterson had a decent start when Brian Talbot left and was able to offer continuity. Smith knew too little of what he was coming into, he would have been better sitting back and taking stock.

But then Burgess rather shoots himself in the foot. It’s the classic myopia of the professional footballer. The suggestion is that we were in the game at half time against Orient. Fair enough, it was 1-1, but we were on course for a hiding. Lee Steele was causing all sorts of problems and Billy Turley was having a storming game keeping them out. Continuing on the trajectory we were on we were going down. For Smith to walk in and reassure the players that everything was going to be OK would have been a dereliction of duty.

It seems that Burgess’ central point is that Smith is a constant moaner. Can anyone disagree with that? His radio interviews regularly single out individuals and it does make you question what the reaction is going to be like in the dressing room.

But then, this is Andy Burgess, the most infuriating player from last year. Just as Smith was building a team around him, he went missing. Just when we needed inspiration, he disappeared. Who wasn’t frustrated by his performances when we knew what he could do; and fundamentally failed to do, for most of the season. Smith’s moaning may be like a drill to the head, but Burgess offered him plenty to moan about.

Meanwhile, the signing of Danny Rose is not a huge surprise, but it’s very welcome because he should offer the reliable creativity that was lacking on Saturday.