Book review: Where’s your caravan? – Chris Hargreaves

Playing for Oxford, Chris Hargreaves seemed to be the right player at the wrong club, then latterly the wrong player at the right club; if you catch my drift.

His autobiography ‘Where’s Your Caravan‘ is the story of a journeyman professional; 20 years, 10 clubs. I thought the title was a simple reference to this fact, but, is a reference to his hair. It’s a joke I think I understand; I guess, in the world of football, the aggregation of a million weak jokes (banter) makes everything more hilarious.

The story has virtually no central narrative – he bounds from one season to another at break neck speed – but, in a sense, that’s the point; few careers are a straight line incline. Few outside Hollywood films enjoy a Drogba like career pinnacle; most just bumble along before fizzling out. There is a high point, of sorts, in his play-off final goal and promotion with Torquay, but it’s not like the story builds to that moment.

Much of the book covers clubs and times that you won’t care much for. Not that it matters a great deal; the banter, drinking, hilarious near-death experiences and childish pranks are the same year after year. It’s only the clubs and players that you might vaguely recognise, that change. Apart from the drinking and fighting, Hargreaves is careful not to admit to having taken part in any of the the womanising or drug taking that seems to happen around him; particularly in his early rave days. He seems always to be in the mix but is at pains to stress he’s a loyal family man and fitness freak.

He paints his wife as either a hard drinking lush, or a rock of stability with the patience of a saint. She is a constant, although he alludes to a relationship that has been strained. It suggests that there’s a darker story about Hargreaves that he’s not prepared to tell; which is his right. Personally, the relentless booze, birds and banter is quite enough for me. One mild night with Mickey Lewis at a wedding reception taught me that hanging out with footballers is probably better done sparingly or not at all. Hargreaves’ career of hijinks grows tiresome and therefore largely reinforces my view.

You won’t learn much about Oxford United from the book, apart from Hargreaves’ assertion that John Dempster was a good player (yes, that John Dempster). The reasons given for our relegation in 2006 are as expected; a venal owner tired of spending money, a series of kneejerk managerial appointments leaving the club with a fragmented squad of bewildered youngsters and mercenary and disinterested pros – Jon Ashton, I’m looking at you.

You will learn a bit more about Chris Hargreaves. He is a member of that lower league elite pivoting around Soccer AMs Helen Chamberlain. His relationship with pretty much every person in football – the imbeciles, morons and nutters – is that they’re all absolutely Top Lads. However, Hargreaves has had run-ins with pretty much every Top Lad he’s ever met. This contradiction in his relationships is a re-occuring theme throughout, possibly because he wants to secure a management or coaching job at some point in the future and doesn’t want to go as far as upsetting people.

As club captain at Oxford, he set about undermining Jim Smith on his arrival. Darren Patterson had just started making an impression on the squad following the departure of the ‘isolated’ Brian Talbot. Smith’s arrival (alongside his takeover of the club – something Hargreaves neglects to mention) creates further instability. Admittedly, installing Smith as manager at the point of takeover was a pretty blunt instrument, and you do get the impression that Smith had lost his touch a little, but you have to question what value Hargreaves felt he was offering by making a difficult situation decidedly worse.

Not that this is an isolated incident, you realise that in his entire career over two decades he renewed his contract on only a couple of occasions – one of which was an awkward guilt-laden one-year extension at Torquay. Otherwise, he signed two year deals and then left for another club at the conclusion of each one. This either makes Hargreaves a mercenary, or never quite good enough to keep, or a combination of the two, of course.

What makes the book is Hargreaves’ melancholic interludes about his life post-football. He didn’t really give up on football, football gave up on him. As he got older, he popped out the back as it trundled on in its inextricable way. He is left with a broken body and a wife, children and all the other things that you and I have to contend with every day – bills, mortgage, tedium. It seems strange that this comes as a shock to someone pushing 40. But then Hargreaves never really seemed to grow up. He’s prepared to do anything to support his family, but a lot of that ‘anything’ seems to be media work or football management, hardly the foundation rock he claims to desire.Eventually he opens a sports shop, which is something.

The almost universal view of Hargreaves is that he is indeed a Top Lad. He certainly comes over as a nice guy who never quite got to grips with the realities of life. He never won a contract that financially cocooned him from these realities. He’s far from unusual in that respect; but in terms of Oxford specifically, at a time when we needed steady, pragmatic professionals at the club, it makes you wonder whether he was, in fact, another part of the problem, not the solution.

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.

Grays Athletic 0 Yellows 4

There will be a time, sometime in the future, when things aren’t going so right, when people will compare an ineffectual midfielder as ‘another Simon Clist’. But this will be immensely harsh. Back in 1996 we had two Simon Clists – Dave Smith and Martin Gray, both much derided in their day. I know I could be alone in pining for such quality and guile in the years since they side-passed the hell out of opponents on the way to promotion.

Clist is the least spectacular of our midfield trio, with Murray’s passing and Bulman’s workrate both widely recognised. Clist is the man who does their housekeeping. When a ball squirms loose, Clist is there to pick it up and get it back under control. Away from home, when it comes loose, he takes off his pinny, puts on his prettiest dress and pops up to score – as he did in the routine demolition of Grays yesterday.

It’s Clist who must be under greatest scrutiny with the, surely inevitable, return of Braveheart Hargreaves. However, it’s difficult to see how it’s all going to fit together. In his pomp Hargreaves was in the Bulman mould, so do we need two brawlers in there? Even in his last season with us, Hargreaves was guilty of lunging tackles resulting from being fractionally behind the game – the years since will surely have slowed him further.

But, there is another side. Hargreaves is a man of obvious experience. More than this, he is a man of integrity and intelligence. Reading his blog, especially recently, has demonstrated how deeply he thinks about his career and its future. His influence in calming everyone’s nerves as the season draws to the close, could be invaluable.

Murray, alongside Constable, are reminiscent of the Mitchell Brothers; controlling the game through the force of their personality. Bulman, for all his bustle, is so focussed on his own game that to have to nursemaid others will be an unwelcome distraction. Perhaps what Hargreaves will lack in ability, he will make up in his influence to steer us through to the title. But, if he does, Clist’s contribution shouldn’t be forgotten.