Back to The Future

There’s no question of the story of the last fornight; the emergence of James Roberts as a real-life homegrown striker who actually scores real professional goals.

There’s always a frisson on excitement that comes from an emergent talent like Roberts. There’s the vicarious joy of watching someone doing what you always dreamed to do – play and score for your team. We also hope beyond hope that he might be the Chosen One who will propel us forward. A hope to cling to, a sign of a brighter future.

But, tread carefully, for he is not the first, and history tells us that rarely does the flame of hope grow beyond a fleeting flicker.

When I first started supporting Oxford, home grown players that went on to greater things were the norm; my dad predicted an international future for Mark Wright during his league debut against Bristol City. We already had Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas, both in the squad for Wembley in ’86 and both would eventually forge decent top flight careers. Brock, in particular, played at Under-21 level for England. Those two aside, the glory years were characterised by players that were bought in, than by those brought through. However, it there wasn’t the perception that we were buying in success. Because it was more normal to have British players coming through your youth system, it wasn’t quite the political issue it is today.

Joey Beauchamp was a ballboy on the touchline at Wembley. There’s a very youthful picture of him in Roger Howland’s Oxford United Complete History wearing that horrible yellow and white striped shirt that became synonymous with the latter glory years… ones which were less than glorious. Beauchamp was almost the son of the Glory Years; being born out of those successes and sustaining them, despite a brief transgression with Swindon, right through to the Kassam Years (the Inglorious Years).

Beauchamp was a proper hometown hero; he supported the club, found that he couldn’t live without it. When he signed for West Ham, however, it seemed that we would forever be a team that grew and then sold our best talent. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me because we weren’t the kind of club who could or even should hold onto such talented players.

Alongside Beauchamp, and to reinforce the theory that there would forever be a conveyor belt of talent, was Chris Allen. Allen was a particularly raw, hardly the type, you’d think, to evolve into an excellent coach. Allen’s head was turned by Nottingham Forest. By the time he left, he’d fallen out of love with the club and we were happy to cash in. Like Beauchamp at West Ham, Allen didn’t last long in the shiny world of top flight football.

Behind them, however, was the player I thought was the most talented of them all. Paul Powell could take teams on all by himself. There were few more exciting sights than Powell cutting in from the left and chipping home in front of a delirious London Road. I thought he’d play for England, and he was periodically linked with moves away. Injury and attitude did for him before he had a chance, a shadow of his former dynamic self, he continued in the margins deep into the Kassam years before falling by the wayside.

There were others; Simon Weatherstone hit a hat-trick in a reserve game against Arsenal which had the London Road salivating. But Weatherstone, when he did get his chance, was limited in his impact and settled into becoming a effective, but unremarkable holding midfielder in the lower leagues. Simon Marsh showed enough form under Malcolm Shotton to be considered for selection at England Under 21 level. Sold to Birmingham, his career fizzled to nothing. Rob Folland enjoyed international recognition with Wales, but didn’t do much beyond a goal at the Madjeski against Reading. Chris Hackett had pace to burn but little sense of direction, a move to Hearts and then Millwall was little return for someone who apparently, and improbably, once attracted the interest of Manchester United and Nottingham Forest.

Of course, with the great dawning of the Kassam years came the latest in the long lineage of great hopes. Jamie Brooks’ debut was at the first game at the Kassam Stadium, and his was the first goal scored; a delicate lob in a 1-2 defeat. I don’t think I fully appreciated Brooks’ talent, I just seemed so obvious that the new era, which would surely herald a period of unbridled success, would have a locally sourced hero on the pitch and, with Mark Wright as manager, in the dugout.

Brooks lasted a season (Wright even less) and was about to go on trial at Arsenal when he was struck down by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which left him in intensive care. He never truly recovered, although he remained at the club until we were finally relegated from the Conference in 2006.

Brooks’ talents were prodigious, but it was two others who would work their way into the top flight. Dean Whitehead was fully forged by Ian Atkins, who resisted persistent calls to play Whitehead. When he did he matched talent with a prodigious appetite for work which saw him heading for Sunderland, and eventually the Premier League. Sam Ricketts took a more circuitous route. Never a spectacular player, he similarly never let anyone down when he played. Oxford let him go and he dropped out of the league to play for the, then ambitious Telford.

Telford imploded but he managed to get a contract with Swansea, just as they were starting to take off. A couple of smart moves to Hull and then Bolton, saw him playing Premier League football. Of all the supposed greats, it was Wright, Whitehead and Ricketts, arguably the least remarkable, that had the biggest and longest impact at the top of the game.

After Whitehead, Ricketts and Brooks, homegrown players seemed to play for mostly financial reasons. I remember those around me in the Oxford Mail stand talking enthusiastically about Alex Fisher, who scored on his debut, but ultimately needed a few more protein shakes to deal with the physicality of Conference football. Aaron Woodley was so highly rated that the usually cautious Chris Wilder fast tracked him into the first team to ensure that the club could get a fee from any sale to a bigger club. It never came.

During the Conference years, the strategy was never about developing players or anything long term, it was about securing the immediate return to the Football League and then, when that was achieved, out of League 2. Heroes were bought, not bred.

That is until last season, when financial constraints really began to hit once more. The club divested itself of the likes of Peter Leven and Michael Duberry and invested, instead, in a host of ‘Development Squad’ players, many of whom graduated into the first team and gave excellent accounts of themselves. Ian Lenagan’s new vision of a team of homegrown players seemed to be taking shape with Crocombe, Bevans, Marsh all giving good accounts for themselves, and Josh Ruffels and Callum O’Dowda, in particular, making legitimate claims to being first choice.

The pick of the lot, it seems, is Roberts. His goalscoring feats have been bubbling around the margins of the club for the last year or so. When he scored last week he tweeted that ‘it was just the start’; a typically alpha thing to say. Scott Davies crassly followed it up by saying that Roberts would soon be out of the club (and therefore onto greater things). The biggest question is whether he will do, a romantic might try to argue that Roberts is the latest line of great talents produced by the club. More cynical could argue, reasonably, that sustained and proper success have only been enjoyed by Wright, Rickets and Whitehead, of which only Whitehead’s success was forged at Oxford. While we will all pray that Roberts does go on to greater things, perhaps even within Oxford, but as history tells us, when it comes to great white hopes, frequently the start is more often than not, swiftly followed by the finish.