Midweek fixture: Naughty boys

On paper, Gavin Whyte is one of the best prospects to come out of Northern Ireland in years. When he scored 106 seconds into his international debut against Israel last year he was being hailed as the future of football in the country.

Gavin Whyte is also, at least on paper, a normal functioning human being. If normal functioning human beings pull their trousers down and pull their willies while someone films them on their phone.

Whyte’s antics were posted in Twitter shortly after he was handed the George Best Breakthrough Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. What precisely has ‘broken through’ is now subject to some speculation. Best would have been proud.

Whyte isn’t the first, and won’t be the last of the Oxford United naughty boys, here are a few more.

Ross Weatherstone

Ross Weatherstone was not even the best Weatherstone to play for Oxford in 2000. The younger brother of Simon was a solid, but unremarkable, full-back who made his debut in 1999. At the start of the 2000/01, Ross the Younger chose an odd way to upstage his brother when he was convicted for a racially aggravated assault on a taxi driver.

Adam Chapman

Days before our pivotal Conference Play-Off final, it was announced that midfielder Adam Chapman was due to face trial for causing death by dangerous driving. The conviction pivoted around the fact he was texting before ploughing into 77 year-old Tom Bryan. Chapman put in a virtuoso display at Wembley winning man-of-the-match and left the field in tears. He was sentenced to 30 months in a young offenders institute. Chris Wilder re-signed him on release and he periodically returned to the first team, making more headlines when he missed a game after scolding his nipple on baby milk.

Luke McCormick

Chris Wilder was never one to let a conviction get in the way of a decent signing. He signed Luke McCormick in 2013 when Ryan Clarke’s season was ended by injury. To be fair to everyone, McCormick was a free man having been released from prison following his conviction for causing death by dangerous driving which resulted in the death of two children. Driving while over the limit and without insurance he was sentenced to seven years in prison. After his release, Wilder needed an experienced keeper he could sign outside the transfer window; McCormick was playing for Truro City meaning he was free to sign.

Firoz Kassam

The shadow that has hung over Oxford United for nearly 20 years is Firoz Kassam. Kassam was never one to avoid a fight if he could help it. In 2002 he used a spurious technicality to get out of a speeding fine. Which is just the kind of upstanding guy he is.

Joey Beauchamp

Joey Beauchamp is a bona fide club legend, voted The Oxford United Player of the 90s. The following decade didn’t treat him so kindly. In 2009 he was convicted of being three times over the drink drive limit while driving along The Banbury Road. In mitigation, Beauchamp said that his life had gone down hill and he’d turned to drink after ‘an incident over an MFI kitchen’. The mind boggles.

Mark Wright

Mark Wright was an Oxford boy done good. Making his debut in 1981 he was sold to Southampton before moving on to Liverpool where he lifted the FA Cup screaming ‘You fucking beauty’ live on television in front of the grimacing dignitaries. After playing a pivotal role in England’s fabled 1990 World Cup campaign he became Oxford manager as the club moved to the Kassam Stadium in 2001. In the October, he was accused of racially abusing a linesman, Joe Ross in a game against Scunthorpe. An act made more unedifying in that it was ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ day. Shortly after he was sacked.

Jefferson Louis

There’s little doubting Jefferson Louis’ conviction… for dangerous driving while disqualified. After his release, Ian Atkins signed him from Aylesbury United in 2001 where he became a cult hero almost before he’d made his debut. All arms and legs, his legend was cemented when he scored the winner in a 1-0 FA Cup tie over Swindon before he was seen, live on TV, flashing his bare arse while celebrating being drawn against Arsenal in the next round. Louis is still playing for Chesham United, his 37th (THIRTY-SEVENTH) club.

Steve Anthrobus

One thing Steve Anthrobus wasn’t known for was scoring, in 69 hopeless games he managed a total of four goals. It was something of a surprise, then, to find Anthrobus scoring in a very different way when he was caught having sex, on a picnic blanket indeed, with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He was convicted in 2007 for ‘outraging public dignity’.

Julian Alsop

Julian Alsop was a great steaming lummox. A footballing Hagrid, part-striker, part-Wookie. He was signed by Ian Atkins as a target man in his team of long-ball merchants. In 2004, while already on his way out of the club, Alsop was fired for unprofessional conduct. Legend has it, he was caught engaged in some harmless banter, shoving a banana up the arse of a young apprentice.

Graham Rix

Graham Rix was one of the finest coaches in the country. That’s what Firoz Kassam said, and who are we to judge a man with such impeccable judgement? One of the finest in the country and perhaps THE finest to have been convicted for sex with a minor. In 1999, Rix was literally forty-one years old when he was arrested for having sex with a fifteen year old girl in a hotel. Rix’s defence was that she made no ‘strong’ protest to his advance. Which is to suggest there were some weak protests. But they don’t count, do they Graham?

World Cup Yellows #6 – Graham Rix – Spain 1982

Anyone watching football in the 1980s will remember how rare it was to see live games on TV. Not every Sunday was a Super Sunday so live games left an indelible mark on your memory. One of mine was the Cup Winners’ Cup final between Arsenal and Valencia in 1980.

In what was a dreary affair, memorable only because it was live and my parents let me watch it, the two teams slugged their way through normal time, extra time and onto penalties – the first time in European club history.

Arsenal were wearing a special shiny version of their yellow away kit which had numbers with an unusual blocky font. To my increasingly sleepy eyes, it was all very exotic. With the scores 0-0 and penalties carefully poised, a gangly winger with his socks rolled down to his ankles stepped up for Arsenal. He juggled the ball clumsily while the referee fussed, then rolled his kick harmlessly into the grateful arms of the Valencia keeper to give the Spaniards the win. That was the first time I remember seeing Graham Rix.

Incidentally, that game was also the only European cup final to feature two ex-Oxford managers – Brian Talbot was also in the team that night.

During the early eighties I went to Highbury a few times, so Rix became a bit of a recurring theme. For some reason I loved the number 11 shirt – John Robertson at Nottingham Forest, Clive Woods at Ipswich; this was the number Rix would wear at Arsenal.

Like many wingers, Rix’s international career was spasmodic, he made his debut for England in 1980 against Norway but only played in 17 games in the next four years, about a third of England’s games played during that time.

In 1982 England qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years. Rix was selected for the squad, wearing number 16. He was somewhat lucky to be in the squad, let alone the team. Typically, manager Ron Greenwood would have played Trevor Brooking on the right, but he was injured and would only be fit for the latter stages.

Many preferred Tony Morley of Aston Villa as Brooking’s replacement, fresh from winning the European Cup against Bayern Munich, but Greenwood opted for Rix. It was generally accepted that this was due to the influence of Greenwood’s deputy, and Rix’s former coach, Don Howe.

The opener was against France in Bilbao. England were wearing a fancy away kit which was red with blue and white lapels. England playing in the World Cup was exciting but I was used to watching highlights on TV when the action and goals came thick and fast. It’s possible that if the match had been boring, I might not have been gripped like I was.

Kicking off though, the ball bounced out for a throw on the right under the shadow of the stand. Steve Coppell took it quickly, Bryan Robson ghosted in at the far post and scored in the opening seconds – the fastest England goal in the World Cup. France scored in the 24th minute, but Robson grabbed his second just as it appeared England were faltering. A third from Paul Mariner made it a triumphant 3-1 win.

Rix would go on to play in wins over Czechoslovakia and Kuwait qualifying for a second group stage with West Germany and Spain. Injuries to Trevor Brooking and England captain Kevin Keegan meant they missed all the group games, but were thrown in against Spain to try and salvage things. It was too little too late and they bowed out.

Rix left Arsenal in 1988 and headed for France with Caen before he developed a coaching role with Chelsea just as the Premier League was dawning. Following the departure of Ian Atkins in 2003, Firoz Kassam thought he’d take the up-and-coming coach route and landed Rix as manager.

By this time, dark clouds were gathering over Rix’s name. In 1999 he’d been convicted of sex with a minor at the Chelsea team hotel. In the pre-Me-Too era, there was a narrative that Rix had been somehow tricked by the girl’s charms and he kept his reputation despite a period in jail. 

None-the-less, having sacked Mark Wright 3 years earlier – ostensibly for racial abuse of a referee – Kassam persevered with Rix as his latest solution to his endless managerial problems. Atkins had built a muscular, effective fighting unit, which had raced to the top of League 2 before falling away. On his departure, the side had started to stabilise and there was some hope that the play-offs were still possible.

Rix dropped goalkeeper Andy Woodman and brought in disinterested winger Courtney Pitt from his Chelsea days, insisting that players built for booting the ball as far as they could must play the ball on the ground. The results were instant – 5 defeats and 3 draws in 9 games, our play-off changes drifted away. He lasted 20 games into the new season – winning just five before being fired and replaced by another World Cup Yellow – Ramon Diaz.

Following a brief spell at Hearts, Rix largely disappeared only to reappear recently in a variety of troubling stories about racism and bullying at Chelsea in the late 90’s. Nice guy.

Heed the Rix Parable

Hang on, this is starting to sound very familiar…

I remember it as if it were yesterday; Paul McCarthy and Andy Crosby; tree-people with feet like they were encased in concrete, swinging away hopelessly at the ball as though they were trying to kick a panicked buttered piglet. There they were flailing six feet from their own goal while debutant keeper Simon Cox watched with the horror that a child might have if his otherwise dependable and reliable parents had consumed large numbers of hallucinogenic narcotics and were masturbating in the kitchen.

We were playing Doncaster Rovers who were top of the league and what we were watching – wincing at  – was Oxford United’s new more enlightened philosophy. This was a passing game forged on the chalkboards of Ajax of Amsterdam and globalised as ‘the right way’ through the messianic qualities of Johan Cruyff. Total football, sexy football – playing it from the back, on the floor, a style that would become rebranded for the Opta generation as tika-taka.

This was a statement of intent from our new manager, a wiry bubble haired ex-winger turned sex-offender called Graham Rix. The luddite dark ages of the previous manager, Ian Atkins, were over, Rix – one of Europe’s most promising coaches, as Kassam would read verbatim from the manager’s carefully crafted CV – was here to introduce us to the light.

Binmen doing ballet, shot-putters lacemaking, the analogies of the early days of Graham Rix’s reign are nigh on endless. Keyhole surgery with a crossbow, there’s another one. Out on the wing, looking like a frightened kitten who had just been promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer was Courtney Pitt. This was Rix’s marquee signing; a tricky winger who would dazzle all those in front of him. He would be supplying the crosses that would harvest a hatful of goals while, in his wake, defenders untangled each others’ legs as though tending to the dead and dying on a First World War battlefield.

It was horrible, terrifying and completely unnecessary. Under Atkins we had charged from the blocks in 2003/4 like a North Korean dictator sensing treachery before breakfast; topping the table at Christmas and beyond. We were undone 4-2 in mid-January – only our second defeat of the season – in an early promotion selection at Hull before hitting a patch of troubling form which saw us into and then out of the play-off spots. The Atkins philosophy was of single minded belligerence, a triumph of science and rationalism over art and inspiration, and he had faith – nay, he had calculated, that by following his template our form would eventually return. And there was a suggestion that he was right; after six games without a win we squeezed out a 1-0 win over Cheltenham.

But, rumours began flying around before the game which only grew after. Things were afoot; Atkins had become frustrated with his owner and particularly his reluctance to extend the manager’s contract. The lack of trust stretched the patience of both sides. He would also, later, claim frustrations with a lack of quality signings, especially when Rix started the following season with Lee Bradbury, Tommy Mooney and Craig Davies amongst his number. Atkins cited a need to protect his family and pay his mortgage. When Bristol Rovers came sniffing around; Atkins took the opportunity to jump.

Sounds familiar? No, it’s not familiar, it’s allegorical, it’s prophetical, it’s a parable. A story from the past that teaches us things about the future. The Chris Wilder story is simply a re-run of the Ian Atkins story. And while it is nearly impossible to control the will of an individual and their decision to seek financial and job security elsewhere, we can definitely learn from what happened afterwards.

Firoz Kassam and Ian Atkins were at loggerheads, the fans weren’t particularly thrilled by the product on the pitch, but we were on the cusp of a play-off place with a style which was prosaic but effective. More importantly we had players designed for a particular job; deep sea trawlermen not sushi chefs (that’s another one, but notably less good than before).

The Rix philosophy was completely at odds with that of Atkins. But, it played to Kassam’s fantasy of having a team to be proud of which would sweep all in front of them with panache and grace. Qualities of which Kassam himself held little. Kassam’s core belief is that people are capital that can be changed at will. What Rix tried to introduce in style would be completely eclipsed by a profound lack of substance. We would take just six points from a possible 27 – three of which were from the last game of the season when all was lost –  we finished the season with a whimper some way outside the play-offs.

Speculation surrounds Chris Wilder’s replacement. Martin Allen and Paolo Di Canio have been mentioned. In the main, they’re favourites because they’re free and famous. As someone more eloquent about ways of the book said; the book is small, any sizable bet will swing the odds wildly at the moment. It seems pretty fanciful that either would be considered.

But, if Oxford were even tempted – both managers have done what we want to achieve in recent years – then they’d do well to take heed from the Rix Parable. Allen and Di Canio are narcissists, their ‘own men’, they are likely to want to change things to their image. Introduce a new style, sweep away any remaining fragments of the Wilderian era. As dry as that philosophy became, players will be forced to change to something else or risk being moved along. Ryan Clarke, James Constable and others are Wilder’s men and therefore prime targets for being shipped out, just to do little more than prove a point, to ‘own’ the space that Wilder recently occupied.

Thankfully, I can’t imagine someone like Ian Lenagan, with his dry, calculated approach, finding these characters appealing. Remember after the Swindon win at the Kassam, with adrenaline coursing through every sinew, the greatest compliment he could pay Chris Wilder was that ‘he understood budgets’. But, if he is ever tempted by the likes of Allen or DiCanio he must remember; we’re not broke, we don’t need fixing, we just need managing. Rix’s failure to realise that from day one killed us stone dead that season, he was gone the next, and it has taken us 10 years to get that close to promotion again.

The managers: Graham Rix (2004)

Graham RixWhilst idly flicking over to check the England score, I found myself not necessarily wanting them to lose, but not really wanting them to win. I want them to suffer, I guess. It’s not the individual players, necessarily, it’s the institution of England football that I dislike. Overpaid, under-performed and still demanding our respect.

I found myself almost wanting Oxford to lose during Graham Rix‘s reign at The Kassam. He arrived with a reputation; partly from his conviction for underage sex, but also as one of the best young coaches in the country.

However, the truth belied this reputation, at Portsmouth he spent something like £4 million and steered Portsmouth to 17th in Division 1.

Although Oxford’s promotion push in 2003/4 was stuttering, it was far from over. Rix’s first mistake was made on day one; the squad was made up of big lumps of concrete drilled to lump the ball to more big lumps up front. The first game against Doncaster we were treated to the sight of Andy Crosby and Matt Bound passing the ball along the six yard box in an attempt to play ‘proper football’. The season ended with just one more win; against Rochdale on the last day of the season.

New season, new start. Rix invested heavily in the likes of Lee Bradbury and Tommy Mooney. Despite this, 20 more games and only 5 more wins left Oxford in no man’s land, meanwhile the strict regime of Ian Atkins‘ time collapsed, and Julian Alsop was sacked for sexually assaulting a youth player with a banana. One of the club’s finest hours.

‘Proper football’ was tedious because it always seemed to end in defeat; and in the end I was left hoping that each loss would be so cataclysmic that he’d be fired. He did, of course, eventually, re-appearing at perhaps the only club in Britain more mad than the Us at that time: Hearts.