Kassam All Star XI – Midfield part 2

The Conference era opened with the signing of Eddie Hutchinson a player that always seemed to need another chance. He looked big and strong, he looked able, but when you expected him to be big, strong and able, he didn’t quite pull it off. So you gave him another chance to see whether he could do it. And he invariably didn’t.

Hutchinson’s ultimate claim to fame was to be the player who, despite being with the club for 3 years, in his final season was unregistered while playing for us. That cost us 5 points, and conceivably a place in back in the League a year before we actually did it.

Another member of the new crew was Carl Pettefer, a tenacious gerbil signed from Southend. With Chris Hargreaves dictating tempo and Andy Burgess offering creativity, for a moment it looked like, for the first time, we had a balanced and productive midfield.

Like all good things, this came to an end. Like all good Oxford things, it came to an end nanoseconds after it started. Burgess was fleetingly brilliant while the pitches and weather were fine, thereafter he plodded on in the hope that he would regain his early season form. Hutchinson ran around slightly behind the play. Pettefer had an excellent first season, but faded with injury.

It’s difficult to know what went wrong with Chris Hargreaves, perhaps it was the shambles around him. As the season progressed his challenges became more lunging and late. The last we saw of him was kicking over a water bottle as Exeter won the play-off penalty shoot out. It was the cleanest strike he’d had in months. He left at the end of the 2006/7 season, where he did a Ricketts and got promoted with Torquay.

As the money ran out, players like the ‘budget busting’ Michael Standing and Phil Trainer came in. Trainer had his moments, but had the unenviable habit of getting slower as he got fitter. Joe Burnell arrived with the promise of much needed bite and leadership. But despite creating the acorn that sprouted an oak, he offered little.

Darren Patterson’s reign was also notable because of the raft of loanees he brought. This including the peculiarly coloured Lewis Haldane, a strong, orange, winger who frustrated and dazzled (in more ways than one) in the way lower league wingers always do.

Chris Wilder adopting a midfield consisting of Haldane, Trainer and Adam Murray; who could pass a ball with some style, but like Hargreaves before him, was often left chasing shadows as a result of the ineptitude around him.

By the end of the season, we had a new look; Simon Clist and Adam Chapman came in alongside The Fighting Dwarf – Craig Nelthorpe. Nelthorpe was released at the end of 2008/9 to be replaced by Dannie Bulman. Clist offered unspectacular reassurance which you don’t see when it’s there, but miss when it’s not. Bulman was the magic piece of the puzzle and the Kassam years were blessed with its first and only seminal midfield.

Bulman, Clist and Murray were the perfect mix of aggression, control and creativity. When Murray was sidelined with injury, and following a crisis of confidence, Chapman joined the battle and re-pointed the trajectory of our season to promotion. Promising, following his arrival from Sheffield United, Chapman had been surprisingly subdued throughout the season but found form at just the right moment. Days before Wembley it was announced had been charged with death by reckless driving; which explained everything. With a year’s chokey hanging over his head, he put in a match winning performance at Wembley which took us up.

The Clist/Bulman/Murray/Chapman midfield lasted less than a year. Murray left for Luton, Chapman was doing his time, Clist suffered a series of niggly injuries. To the surprise of everyone, Dannie Bulman was shipped out to Crawley. He got too involved in games, said Chris Wilder, although there were times when we could have done with a bit of that during the League campaign.

From the settled trio of the promotion campaign to the tossing and turning of the first League season. Asa Hall and Simon Heslop came in from Luton, but neither could hit the consistency needed to sustain a whole season in the middle. Josh Payne suffered similarly. Paul McLaren was eventually brought in to offer experience and proved a valuable asset to the squad by anchoring a midfield full of youthful nervous energy. Although the 2010/11 midfield model saw lots of good quality attacking football, there was still a missing ingredient to take us into the play-offs and beyond.

Only Dean Whitehead made the Kassam Years All-Star XI from our first period of League football at the stadium, it seems fitting that the other two members of the squad are drawn from the seminal promotion midfield. Dannie Bulman and Simon Clist, welcome both.

News Round Up: The retained list

No major surprises in the elegantly named ‘retained’ list. Carl Pettefer was always a bit of an oddity; he did that Paul Scholes industriousness really well but neither Jim Smith nor Darren Patterson seemed to like him. Maybe it was wages, injuries or attitude, but something prevented him from being a more permanent member of the squad.

You always knew when Eddie Hutchinson was about to get injured because he started playing well. His eager bluster did little to disguise a lack of quality. He may have been a useful player to throw in at times of crisis, but salary meant carrying a rarely needed footballing Kate Aide was a luxury too far.

Rob Duffy, The Enigma, will no doubt be seen trotting up and down the touchline as a substitute for some aspirant promotion hopeful in the coming months – “Ooh, he scored over 20 goals for Oxford one year”. His defining moment was his one-on-one against Exeter, the moment he tamely rolled the ball into the arms of the keeper was the moment his Oxford career was effectively over.

The Danny Rose brand – Ex-Captain of Manchester United Reserves – fooled many a Kassam regular who would obliquely comment on how much we needed his ‘creativity’. The sad truth is, as small and cute as he looks, he just wasn’t up to the job.

Richards and Blackwood never looked likely to stay long. Jamie Hand was improving and one wonders whether Patterson may have another look at him if he’s still available in August. One must question just how long Chris Willmott’s contract is for. I was sure his name would eventually surface.

The biggest surprise was probably Craig McCallister; who I thought was a useful foil for speed freaks like Yemi and Matt Green. Whilst he was never going to net 20 goals a season, his ability to hold the ball up and link up with the midfield allowed us to control games much better than we did with the sauntering Duffy.

What’s more, I don’t think we’ll keep Matt Green, it feels like his gaze has gone elsewhere already and there’s a long summer and a lot of clubs looking to take a chance on a half decent striker ahead. With only the recently revitalised Yemi staying, but still not fully redeemed, we could start next season right back where we started.

News round-up – Six to go

So Patto’s unleashed a can of whoopass on the squad. It’s a risk, of that there’s no doubt, he’s effectively conceded the season and now may not be a good time to unsettle the squad. The timing is odd, coming just 2 weeks before the end of the transfer window so there’s every chance some of these will still be with the club come February; Patterson may end up relying on some of them as the season progresses. He’s made a clear statement to Merry and Smith that he’s his own man and he’s showing a lot of faith in the players he’s brought in; neither of which have had time to settle.

The move is apparently driven as much by finances as by ability. Focus has been put on areas which are clearly over-resourced – the middle of midfield (Pettefer, Hutchinson) and defence (Corcoran and Day).

Both Pettefer and Hutchinson have shown what they can do, but never more than in bits and pieces. Hutchinson has a habit of looking good just before falling to injury. Pettefer’s work rate hides a deficiency in ability. Day’s fitness and work rate has slowly eroded and he’s a shadow of the goofy goal showboater of early last season. Duffy is an enigma, but his work rate is more than exposed by McCallister’s arrival. These four were characterised by the fact they all need the help of others in order to perform.

Corcoran might feel himself unlucky. His performances have been solid and he’s young. He’s been more reliable than the retained Danny Rose and fitter than the expensive Chris Willmott. These two, plus Yemi, Trainer, Ledgister will be breathing easier as all could have a strong case for the boot. Robinson has only avoided the list because he’s crocked.

The biggest surprise of all is probably Alex Jeannin. Whilst hardly a roaring success, he is the only naturally left sided player, he’s just had a contract extension and he can deliver a cross or two. One can only think (hope) that Patterson has a replacement lined up.