Midweek fixture: 2010 play-off winners – where are they now?

Ryan Clarke

A goalkeeper who saved his team more times than any other player is ironically most well known for dropping the ball into his own net with the score at 2-0. Clarke went on to play more than 200 times for the club before moving to Northampton Town. His career stalled a bit and he failed to make a single appearance, later admitting to depression. After a brief spell at Wimbledon he moved to Eastleigh and Torquay and is currently at Bath City.

Damian Batt

A full-back with pace and a prodigious engine, Batt played on for three more years before briefly claiming a move to Vancouver Whitecaps. It came to nothing and he announced his retirement allowing him to focus on his business Alexander Du’Bel. He made a brief return at Eastleigh and then Dagenham and Redbridge before fully retiring in 2015. In 2017, the Telegraph raised a series of concerns about his dubious claims to be raising money for charity.

Mark Creighton

The Beast who kick started the season with a last minute winner over York was a wall of a central defender. Almost as soon as the following season started Creighton was loaned out to Wrexham, before moving to Kidderminster Harriers permanently. After two years he retired due to injury and set up his tattoo business Raw Ink Studios.

Jake Wright

Signed midway through the season to replace Luke Foster, Wright evolved into a formidable centre-back and leader. Wright steered the club through the League 2 years and into the Appleton era where he captained the team to promotion in 2016. He signed for Sheffield United, rejoining Chris Wilder during that summer and promptly won promotion with them to The Championship.

Anthony Tonkin

A sanguine full-back signed in the January before the play-off final. Tonkin drifted out of the team after promotion, but had a moment in the sun against Swindon Town. In 2012 he moved to Aldershot Town before moving onto Frome Town. A business graduate, he had a sideline as a property developer during his playing days. He became a Financial Advisor on retiring before becoming a Quantity Surveyor.

Dannie Bulman

Bulman was signed at the start of the promotion season after leaving Crawley Town. He had already played over 350 games for Wycombe, Stevenage and Crawley. Bulman was quickly moved on back to Crawley following promotion; Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake. After that he moves to Wimbledon where he was the Football League’s oldest player in 2018. Currently back at Crawley.

Adam Chapman

Signed from Sheffield United, Chapman took over from the injured Adam Murray as the creative force in midfield. Immediately before the final it was announced that Chapman was set to stand trial for killing someone in car accident. He was convicted and spent a year away in a young offenders institute. He returned and played spasmodically before moving on, at one playing a game against Wycombe with a burnt his nipple from baby milk. He now plays for Sheffield FC.

Simon Clist

An invaluable water-carrier in the middle of midfield. Clist became our unlikely first goalscorer on our return to the Football League. In 2012 Clist moved to Hereford on loan and then permanently. The trail runs cold at this point, although he reappeared as guest of honour at the club in 2018.

Jack Midson

A player with a deft touch and great poise; Midson was another player who undeservedly was moved out of the club by Chris Wilder following promotion. He eventually settled with Wimbledon, taking them back to the Football League and having the honour of scoring against the Dons’ nemesis MK Dons. Following a number of moves he became assistant manager at Concord Rangers. He’s also a director of M&M Sports Coaching with his team mate Sammy Moore. Recently appointed manager at Hemel Hempstead Town.

James Constable

A bona fide club legend. Constable scored over 100 goals and just one short of the club’s goalscoring record left for Eastleigh. After four years he moved to Poole Town one loan, recently announcing his semi-retirement and became a patron of Oxford United in the Community. Left Eastleigh permanently in May 2019.

Matt Green

A peculiar career which started at Cardiff, he had a brief loan spell at Oxford before controversially moving to Torquay. He came back in 2010 and became part of a formidable three pronged attack. Another player who was moved on a little too quickly, in 2013 he scored a bucketload at Mansfield earning him a move to The Championship and Birmingham City. Injury stalled his career and he moved back to Mansfield before moving to Lincoln and Salford.

Subs:

Billy Turley

A character and a dying breed, Turley lost his place to Ryan Clarke at the beginning of the season. He was released immediately after the final before spending some time at Brackley Town.

Kevin Sandwith

An early Chris Wilder Signing, he lost his place to Anthony Tonkin at Christmas. Released after the final he went to Mansfield before drifting around the non-league and disappearing.

Alfie Potter

Potter came on to score the iconic third goal at Wembley. He played on until 2015 enjoying moments in the sun such as a winner over Swindon and a leading part in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth. Joined Chris Wilder at Northampton in 2015 before moving to Mansfield and Billericay Town.

Rhys Day

Day came on with three minutes to go and won the header which set up the breakaway for the third goal. Another player who played briefly for Mansfield before popping up at Hyde. Currently an Operations Manager in Manchester.

Sam Deering

A diminutive forward who set up Alfie Potter for the third goal. Deering drifted in and out of the team until 2011 before moving to Barnet. Enjoyed an FA Cup giant killing with Whitehawk before ending up at Billericay.

Manager: Chris Wilder

Battled on with the club until everyone forgot what a remarkable job he had done. Left acrimoniously in 2014 for Northampton who were, at the time, bottom of League 2. He saved them by beating us on the last game of the season. He followed it up by winning the title while we came second. Shortly after, he moved to Sheffield United where he won promotion to the Championship and then, in 2019, The Premier League.

Farewell Beano, and farewell the golden age

So, that’s that then. James Constable, Oxford United’s most important player since Joey Beauchamp, has gone.  Just think, we may not see his likes again for a decade or more. I thought that about us winning a major trophy – that it could be years before we lifted another piece of proper silverware – and that was 28 years ago. Perhaps we’ll never see his likes again.

In the end it was both predictable and unpredictable. Unpredictable because like all institutions you grow to expect them to be around forever. Predictable because it had to happen at some point; the longer he stayed, the older he got, the less goals he scored, the more likely he was to leave. His last contract was signed when we were on the up, he was expected to deliver 20+ goals a season in the Football League and he didn’t. That adjustment of his value when his contract was up was always going to be uncomfortable. Nobody wants it to end like this, but at the same time it was always likely to.

The era of Wembley, Wilder and Beano slowly grinds to a halt. A golden period hermetically sealed and buried only to be opened during dark and barren days. Late night trawls around YouTube, a DVD found in a box of memorabilia in the loft. It was always going to happen, but it’s still sad that the day has come, especially with those dreams of Championship football and goalscoring records left unfulfilled. Perhaps the best stories are those where you’re left wanting a little bit more.

I have always been a fan of Chris Wilder, the reason is that he guided us into a golden period and you have to treasure those while you can. James Constable was his man on the pitch. Next year it will be the fortieth anniversary of me first going to The Manor, I’ve experienced three golden periods in that time – the mid-80s – John Aldridge, the mid-90s – Joey Beauchamp and 2009-2014; James Constable. For clubs like us, they don’t come around very often; you need to recognise when you’re in one, and look after it best you can.

Those looking for a replacement for Constable are likely to be disappointed. It’s not just his goals that made him who he was; it was the timing of his arrival, what he lead us to, how he carried himself. It is not just Constable that makes him a legend; it’s the period in which he was with us. We’re in a different time now, if you go looking for a hero you’ll come up disappointed, they will appear, if you’re lucky, from somewhere least expected.

From a reputation perspective, the club will always lose out in these situations. Most fans have a romantic view of players, and they expect clubs to act in the same irrational cavalier way they do. There are some who would have happily released every player from the squad at the end of last season. Now, losing Beano is like ripping your heart out. Had the club fired the squad after the Northampton game and then tried to reinstate them in the same way, they would have been considered beyond a joke. If they had offered Constable £100k a year to score two more goals people would have laughed them out of the county. But, you can almost guarantee that there will be calls to ‘get Beano back’ for the next 3-5 years as there was with Beauchamp, Paul Powell, Jim Smith, and others in the past.

But the club needs to look pragmatically. There is plenty of speculation around what Constable’s salary was and what he was offered. It seems bizarre that salaries appear to be such common knowledge. I barely know the salary of members of my team at work and yet it seems that everyone knows what Beano wanted and was offered. Was it streamed live on the Yellow Player? Or maybe people pick up fragments of various rumours and lies until they eventually coagulate into supposed facts.

Claims and counter-claims have already flown around; Beano is the wounded bird, he loves the club and is devastated to leave. He’s always been the great servant rather than the most bankable asset and I genuinely believe he saw the club beyond the immediate issue of money. Less helpfully, Richard Hill at Eastleigh said that Constable was looking for a ‘fair deal’ which has sent the cat amongst the pigeons. Fairness is like the truth; there are always at least three versions of it – your version, my version and the actual version.

One figure suggests that the club offered him what they believed to be a fair figure; £800 per week. Football wages are always expressed as a ‘per week’ figure which makes them sound huge, but that’s about £40,000 a year; a typical salary for a fairly experienced professional working for a small company.

Eastleigh, it’s alleged, have offered him more than twice that. Which presumably they consider to be fair and no doubt James Constable would do too. But this is a frankly ridiculous amount of money for any player at that level of football. It’s difficult to know whether to back the fairness of a realistic and down to earth club, or the fairness of one that is ambitious to the point of wrecklessness. We’d love a club to be ambitious and realistic, but that’s rarely possible.

What does seem true is that Constable has made his decision for pragmatic reasons. For all the talk of loving the club, this is not a football decision, it’s a career decision. Eastleigh have offered him whatever it is they have offered him to play in front of two men and a dog. He should do well  back in the Conference, but it seems a decision in which he recognises that at some point playing football with your heart has to give way to sustaining your career using your head.

The reality is that Constable’s market value has fallen from the heady days when Swindon and Bristol Rovers were offering him silly money. He has even fallen within the club from the 20 goals a year striker to 15 goals. He was never likely to reverse that trend as he approached 30.

In February, after Constable scored against Bristol Rovers putting him 4 short of the record, I tweeted a scenario where he would break the record on the last game of the season to send us up and Chris Wilder and Northampton down. Someone replied and said they expected Beano to have passed the record long before then. Nearly four months on and he still fell two short, it isn’t so much that the club didn’t allow him the opportunity to break the record, it’s just that he wasn’t good enough to do it.

The romantics amongst us will mourn the fact that Beano didn’t become the leading goalscorer and that we were never there to give him the ovation he deserved. With a bottomless pool of money, yes the club might have paid whatever he wanted just to push him over the line, but there is no bottomless pit.

The club has responded responsibly in terms of its long term stability and its future prospects, whereas Constable has acted responsibly in terms of the long term security of himself, his girlfriend and daughter. Eastleigh have acted responsibility in terms of the pursuit of whatever dream it is they’re pursuing; even if it is foolhardy and unsustainable. Somewhere in the middle of that is a compromise; Oxford have compromised by losing the player, Eastleigh have compromised their future stability and Constable has compromised his status as a league player. We are the ones who lose out because we’re dreamers who can’t compromise. Sadly, while we might want to look for one, sometimes nobody is at fault.

Shooting sacred cows

Gary Waddock put on a brave face in front of the television cameras as we were annihilated by Southend on Monday night. Deep inside he must have been wondering what he’s inherited, and more importantly; where does he go next?

It’s pretty easy to get carried away by any defeat; especially one that’s been magnified through the medium of TV. It’s easy to think that the world spent all day thinking about the game and how it might pan out when in reality many will probably have been unaware it was even on.
However, it’s fair to say that if the Southend defeat confirmed anything at all, it’s that if we do get promoted this season, it is most likely be down to the collective incompetence of the division rather than the brilliance of our play. 
So, while the season remains, astonishingly, all for the taking, it leaves you wondering what misery might be waiting for us in League 1 next season if we do make it.
A quick look at the current League 1 table suggests to me that the highest we might hope to finish should we get there is around 19th or 20th. Teams above that position just look too good for us to be able to trouble.
It seems pretty clear that changes will be needed regardless of where we are next season. With endless talk of ‘new eras’ under Gary Waddock (I think we’ll let history decide whether his reign might be considered an ‘era’), it may be time to think the unthinkable and shoot some of the sacred cows of the squad.
I’m not suggesting that there should be a arbitrary cull, but those you might think of as permanent fixtures, shouldn’t be above scrutiny.

Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville
Call it the power of TV, but shots of Waddock hunched behind hoardings in the away dugout flanked by Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville looked like the three ‘see no evil’ wise-monkeys. Waddock, we shouldn’t judge (although many did), but his new face did make Lewis and Melville’s presence seem a little odd. Like trying to explain to a new girlfriend why your settee make a noise like a loud fart when you sit on it, it was almost as if Lewis and Melville were apologetically explaining to Waddock the failings of squad. It was like when you decorate a room in a house and all the other rooms suddenly look tired and in need of a refresh. Will Lewis and Melville add value to the new set up? It didn’t seem as though they learned much from Chris Wilder, which might suggest their key benefit was in carrying out instructions of the man in charge. Perhaps that’s a good thing, everyone needs able foot soldiers, but it would be nice to think we weren’t reliant wholly on Waddock for ideas and insight.

James Constable
Constable is an interesting one, he’s approaching the goalscoring record and he’s a bona fide club legend. To get rid of him would be a massive risk to Waddock’s credibility. Despite his goalscoring record, he missed two excellent chances against Southend and scores only fitfully now he’s in League 2. Waddock may also view him as a relic of the past, and that moving him on would be symbolic of any change he might want to instigate. However, as is often the case, Constable was a rare positive with his work rate and commitment compensating for any failings in front of goal. My view is that Constable is worth keeping, but he needs pace and goalscoring ability to play off. I’ve no doubt he is willing to play any role, but his position as a key source of goals – and with it his right to a shirt – has to be under threat.

Jake Wright
There were times last season when Jake Wright was almost Bobby Moore-like in his command of the defensive arts. He didn’t put a foot wrong all season. This season injuries have taken their toll along with the change of management. It’s easily forgotten but Jake Wright, along with Constable and Ryan Clarke were lolling around in reserves teams or the non-league before Chris Wilder turned them into exemplary professionals. Wright has looked much shakier this season, perhaps a consequence of playing alongside so many different players, but it may be that injuries are getting the better of him, or the discipline Wilder instilled in him is on the wane. Can we afford to find out whether he’ll shake off his current shakiness? Waddock may decide that Wright is, in fact, wrong.

Ryan Clarke
Only Sky’s convention of awarding man of the match to someone from the winning team prevented Ryan Clarke from taking the accolade. Given that he also conceded 3, and he gave away an unnecessary penalty, that’s a damning indictment of those who were playing in front of him. Waddock cannot have failed to be impressed by Clarke’s performance; a minor bright spot in a bleak evening. Regardless of Max Crocombe’s potential, it would be hard to see why Clarke’s position would come under any threat.

Alfie Potter
Oh Alfie, when do you become the complete product you’ve always threatened to be? Potter enjoys a lot of protection due to his goal at Wembley and his ever present ‘promise’, but there is a point when promise needs to be converted into something more productive. On a good pitch and given plenty of space, Potter will excel, but in the rutted envrions of Southend and the like he tends to bimble along around midfield without much end product. How much time do you give him? When should we expect him to put in a season (or even half a season) of game changing wing-play? It pains me massively to say it, but of all the sacred cows, Potter could easily be the first to go.

#beano100

There’s only really one topic you can cover after Saturday’s game; James Ashley Constable.

The Stranglers were right when they said that there are no more heroes anymore. But while they whimsically pine for some ill-defined loss of cultural values, there’s sound sociological reasoning underpinning this observation.

When you’re young you’re much more likely to see something you consider to be remarkable. That’s not because you’re seeing something remarkable, it’s because you’re seeing something for the first time, which is a pretty big step up from not seeing it at all. When I was about seven, my favourite footballer was John Doyle due to the fact I’d seen him kick a ball to the half way line and because he had shiny thighs lathered in Deep Heat. These were remarkable things I’d never seen before. A number of years later I saw George Lawrence’s lathered thighs shining under The Manor floodlights and realised that Doyle wasn’t, after all, all that.

As we get older we become more knowing; we’re less impressed by what we see. Because we’ve seen it before, we can rationalise why it’s happened. We can assess things we might once have felt heroic in a more objective way.

Eventually the heroism meter becomes so sophisticated, the bar over which someone must leap so high, it becomes no longer possible for anyone to actually meet the criteria. At that point, there are no more heroes.

I thought that I’d grown out of Oxford United heroes years ago. Partly through age and partly because we’ve not had a lot to admire, I mean you know something is up when people start idolising Dave Savage. As my cynicism grew and we got worse, the prospect of stumbling across another genuine Oxford hero became increasingly remote.

You hope, of course, that perhaps Gary Twigg can be the next John Aldridge, or Alex Fisher the next Paul Powell. I’ve lost count of the number of wingers I hoped would turn out to be the next Joey Beauchamp.

Yes, Courtney Pitt, you failed me.

Enter James Constable; a genuine modern-day club hero. Even my dad is taken to texting me whenever Constable scores or is dropped with a message ‘When will they ever learn about Constable?’ How is it possible for a player in the modern age to become a hero to thousands of embattled cynics?

In simple terms, 100 goals for one club, for that’s what we’re celebrating here, is a remarkable feat. In the last 20 years of the Premier League only 5 players have done it. At Oxford, only two in our entire history have hit that landmark. But, whereas Graham Atkinson – who Constable now trails by a mere 7 goals – was from an age when staying with one club long enough to notch up that score was a norm, in the modern age, in the lower leagues, it’s close to unheard of.

Goalscorers are bankable assets, even in the in League 2, and it takes some doing just to be at a club long enough to even come close to a milestone like 100 goals. Take a contemporary like Richard Brodie; he got to 50 goals before Crawley offered up an obscene amount of money that York couldn’t ignore.

This is why Constable is unusual. He’s been able to score 100 goals because he’s stuck with us. He’s turned down attractive offers from Swindon and Bournemouth, and the club have had offers from Crawley and Bristol Rovers they’ve rebuffed. That says two things to me; firstly, Constable is a considerate and thoughtful professional who thinks beyond the money, and, in return, the club values those attributes in him.

Whether he’d have survived at Swindon or Bournemouth is open to question; he has mountains of credit with Oxford fans and occasional lapses in form need that to get you through to the other side. However, with big offers come big salaries; he could have simply taken those wages, but he didn’t.

The loyalty; which always sounds slightly wrong because it implies that he’s at the club because he feels too guilty to leave, is just one thing. The nature of the loyalty has taken Constable to another level. Had he signed for Bournemouth, I suspect he’d have been filed away with Tommy Mooney and Dean Windass as brief passing conquests who left to find something better to do. Typical of our luck.

But Constable bucked the trend; he didn’t chase the money, he considered more; his family, the credit he has at the club and he stayed with what he knows.

And then, there are the goals. Not just the number, its about the right type. Peter Foley scored 90 times for Oxford, yet it’s difficult to remember a single one as being significant. The goals James Constable has scored give you goose bumps.

The header against Wrexham in the middle of the head rush of the ‘Believe’ campaign. Billy Turley fell to the floor as Craig Nelthorpe threw in a last gasp cross. Deep into injury time; if Constable connects, we fight on, if not; that’s it, the season is over. It was as stark as that. Constable stretches and does connect; the ball clips the crossbar and goes in. I’ve only ever experienced the momentary silence of a stunned crowd twice, the goal Joey Beauchamp scored against Blackpool in 1996 and that goal against Wrexham. Still my favourite.

In the first leg of the semi-final against Rushden, he span tightly to drill home and then a few days later raced through the Diamonds defend to rifle home wheeling away, backwards, in front of a frenzied Oxford Mail Stand. The giddy abandon of people who actually thought were about to be released from their purgatory.

And Wembley, of course, a freight train through the York defence, an irresistible force channelling an unstoppable energy. Quick feet and a drive into the corner. 22 minutes, Wembley, 2-0. This just didn’t happen to Oxford United. Except, when James Constable is present, it does, it seems.

Back in the football league; the League Cup, our cup, and a barmy joyous night of goals against Bristol Rovers. Two wonderful strikes amongst six.

Town End, Swindon. Goaded by Paolo Di Canio as a Swindon fan, a cynical attempt to destabilise him and the club in the light of the first league meeting in a decade. 12 minutes, Leven swings in a cross; Constable connects, 1-0. Half an hour later; Leven’s free-kick; who’s on the line? Do I need to ask? A Swindon fan, Mr Di Canio?

Goals and goals and goals and goals.

And not just goals; against Swindon in the JPT. Constable’s been quiet, some half chances, a penalty appeal, a minute to go; the ball bounces free and he’s on his way. Perfect pass to Alfie Potter; 1-0. He did it again.

Even his sending off against Swindon the year before seemed wholly in harmony with the narrative of the day – the injustice, the plight and then the heroism and a victory for the good. James Constable is interwoven into our history. The common thread through our resurrection from the Firoz Kassam years.

Oxford United fans are embittered, unforgiving people. We’re damaged. People have let us down; Maxwell, Herd, Kassam, Merry. Aldridge left, Houghton left, Saunders left, Elliot left, Windass left, Mooney left. Countless others have taken the money and not performed. Every single one has left us. But not James Constable. On the pitch his goals have dragged us from darkness. Off the pitch he bucks the stereotype of a heartless money-obsessed footballer.

When we were sitting just outside the relegation zone in the Conference all we needed was someone to love and to love us back. James Constable did just that.

Is James Constable a dirty player?

James Constable’s sending off seemed to cast a shadow over the otherwise excellent 3-0 demolition of Wimbledon on Saturday. But who is at fault? Constable, the referee, Will Antwi, or is it something else?

James Constable was sent off for the 4th time since we’ve been back in the Football League. In that respect he’s our most indisciplined, dirty, player. But something about that doesn’t sound right. The straight red he got against Wimbledon threatened to overshadow what was another tremendous display. And, of course, the sending off was a complete travesty with Constable appearing to elbow Will Antwi in the face without the aid of any elbows. This follows his ‘elbow’ against Exeter earlier this season which was similarly innocuous, and another raised arm against Swindon which didn’t seem to contain any particular malice.

It’s easy to blame the referee in situations like that. Referees are subjected to an unspoken conspiracy  by managers, players and experts within the press (i.e. made up of former players and managers). Last week Mark Lawrenson came out with the classic ‘If that’s not a penalty then why didn’t the referee book him for diving’ line. This insinuates that the referee did think it was a penalty and for sinister and conspiratorial reasons decided against awarding it. Or he thinks the referee is a cheat. Which is slander. And yet totally acceptable, it seems.

Was the referee cheating when sending off James Constable? Probably not. The idea that all referees are, for some reason, are just trying to piss off the entire world by deliberately making bad decisions seems somewhat far fetched.

Let’s Consider three most common areas of contention within football. Firstly, the penalty. The purpose of a penalty box is to penalise those who prevent a goal from being scored. And yet, a striker apparently has a ‘right’ to go down at the faintest of touches. Secondly, there’s offside; a rule that exists to prevent goal hanging, that irritating little shit at school who used to hang around 10 yards from the goal and do nothing but pop the ball in net every time it dropped to him. Now, offsides have to consider whether a player is ‘active’ or not. The third is handball; a simple rule designed to prevent someone using their hand to gain an advantage. Now, we have the chicken and egg debate about ball-to-hand or hand-to-ball. Most handballs now are simply players being penalised for not getting their hand out the way fast enough; even if there’s no real intention to prevent the opposition gaining an advantage.

In each of these three areas the rules have over evolved from their simple purpose. The margin of error in judging it, though, has been eroded away to a point that no human can make a simple objective decision based on what they see. Instead, they have to interpret what they see. Video evidence won’t help because you still can’t get into the player’s head to understand the intention of their action.

Each of these situations are easily resolved by objectifying them. Did the attacking player deliberately get prevent the attacker from scoring? For offside, why not draw a line across the pitch, Subbuteo style, to signify where offsides begin? And a handball is a handball when the player’s hands are outside the contour of his body (i.e. if his hands are by his side or in front of him, then it’s not a handball).

In Constable’s situation, it seems referees are starting to interpret his actions as being violent or dangerous. He’s a physical and aggressive player, he’s always been better when he’s had that fire in his belly. During the Conference years in particular he could easily have been guilty of ungentlemanly conduct, that’s a fair cop, but a dangerous player? Never.

The referee, however, now has to interpret what he saw to decide Constable’s fate. There was a physical aerial challenge, a player fell to the floor holding his face, people reacted and, well, Constable has done this before hasn’t he? Therefore, the balance of probability is that there was a foul.

Why is the referee forced to make a decision on the spot? Judging the “intent” in a split second based on a series of circumstantial signals, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to pause and look at the player on the ground. Is his injury consistent with being smashed in the face? Given that Antwi hopped to his feet and allegedly gave the crowd a smile suggests perhaps not. A quick inspection of the injury would have helped make the referee’s decision. No injury, no problem. This won’t rid football of controversy, but it will take the subjectivity out of referee’s decision.

It’s not fair on the referee, it’s definitely not fair on the player. If the club are successful and rescinding James Constable’s red card, I suspect this isn’t the end. Constable’s card is marked; he’s a player gaining a reputation that he’s likely to commit red card offences. Referees are unlikely to take the Wimbledon mistake into account when making their decision. Given that Constable’s game is based his combative nature, he’s more likely to get into trouble when he’s on form. I hope that the undeserved reputation he risks acquiring doesn’t deaden his impact.

The return of a slightly different kind of Constable


Has there ever been a more sung unsung hero than James Constable last Saturday? Manager, players and fans were all lining up to give their special mentions to the striker, acknowledging that it would be Tom Craddock who would take all the headlines after the 5-0 biffing of Accrington on Saturday.

Constable’s performance didn’t wholly come out of the blue, he has been looking better in recent weeks. You can chart his problems right back to the start of the year and all the shenanigans with Swindon. Constable strikes you as the kind of person who needs security around him to perform well. The Swindon approach was destabilising putting him in the uncomfortable position of being a striker with a price on his head.

Suddenly there was the pressure of a benchmark to meet. Then, of course, he was sent off in the derby for being little more than being himself; bustling and aggressive. It was like everything that defined him was suddenly considered wrong. Towards the end of the season he got injured, then he eased his way back to fitness, via more money bids, this time from Bristol Rovers, only to be sent off against Exeter. Another blow.

Now he seems to be getting a clearer run at finding some form. Apparently he was helped by the club who supplied him with a DVD of his goals from the Conference. Even without spending a few idle hours on YouTube, one of the lasting memories of the Conference vintage Constable, is of him alongside Adam Murray and Dannie Bulman getting in the faces of referees, linesmen and opponents tipping the balance of games in our favour in the process. That has ebbed away in recent months.

At Oxford, of course, he has been afforded the unusual gift of both time and patience by the fans. Although he has plenty of good will in the bank.

Perhaps he is settling in the role that his abilities are best suited to at this level; as a target man, ready to bully defences. While he lies tangled up on the floor with some lump of meat and gristle centre back, others can capitalise. Craddock is the more natural goalscorer, always looking like he’s soft peddling until a chance comes along; he’s never going to waste energy on things which don’t lead to goals.

We forget that Craddock missed all of last season, another big miss for both the effectiveness of Constable and the team as a whole. It is rather too easy to assume that Craddocks 4 goal haul is a sign that things have turned around, as the result against Rochdale proved. However, having both of them on the pitch understanding their respective roles has got to be a sign that some things are beginning to improve.

Constable and Chapman – case studies in career management

Football’s capacity for myth making is almost without boundaries. We talk of heroes and legends and destiny and glory. Names are written on cups as if there are magical powers at play. Everyone does it, it’s how we want football to be. Not as a branch of the entertainment industry; attracting customers, delivering a service, and making money for its investors and actors. Football is an epic battle of good versus evil with heroes and villains at every turn. Transfers and contract negotiations are not a simple financial transaction, they are the Trials of Hercules; a test of loyalty.

This week, we learned that Adam Chapman has stalled on a new contract. He plans to stay at the club to ‘earn’ the terms he thinks he deserves; whatever that’s supposed to mean. For some, his stance is a snub against a club that stood by him during his darkest days. A grand betrayal. Some claim (seriously?) that he should be playing for free.

Meanwhile; talismanic hero and paragon of loyalty; James Constable, continues to be picked at by clubs wanting his services. Constable has faced The Trials before and still seems reluctant to agitate for a move. Some view this as an ongoing campaign by the club to oust the lapdog-loyal striker. The club; betrayed by Chapman, are betraying Constable – this is a epic tale of Roman proportions.

What role does loyalty really play? If it were the only factor, then Constable would have been off last year when the club showed their supposed disloyalty accepting a bid from Swindon. By contrast, loyalty would have compelled Chapman to sign the moment he was given an offer. If it’s not loyalty, then it must be money; which is often claimed to be the single defining factor in any football decision. Or is it?

Constable and Chapman’s situations may offer a clue. Constable has been in the game for longer than Chapman and has played at four clubs shuttling above and below the line between Football League and Conference. He’s had good experiences and bad. He knows football is fickle. He is on a good contract at Oxford and, more critically, has the good will of those around him. Dips in form and goal droughts – an inevitability in every footballer; particularly one in the lower leagues, are tolerated by fans and owners alike.

Had he accepted the opportunity to go to Swindon last year, then he would have been in a better position financially; but far more vulnerable. Nobody at Swindon would have given an ex-Oxford striker time to settle and find his form. If he’d had the kind of post-Christmas record that he had at Oxford, you wouldn’t have been surprised to seem him shipped out. And then where to? Maybe a League 2 club would have picked him up, but there are no guarantees; the trapdoor back to the Conference always looms large when you have failure on your CV.

So, what Constable sacrifices in short term cash, he gains in long term contracts. His current contract will keep him at Oxford until he’s 30, by which point he’ll only be a contract or two from retirement. There is every chance that Oxford will offer him another contract when his current one expires in the next couple of years. By not chasing the buck, he’s prolonging his career.

Chapman is a play-off hero, derby hero, and a redemption story. His short term form can fluctuate without fans or management turning on him. Should he sign for someone else, particularly to a team with high expectations, Chapman needs to perform and quick. He’s only ever 17 football league games. He still has a lot to prove. Unless he does a Sam Ricketts, he’s probably already blown his chances of playing with in the big time with a contract so large, he doesn’t need to worry about the future. He’s probably destined to play no higher than the Championship, with his earning power limited; he might want to think about the long game.

Chapman may want to be here for a good time, not a long time. But if he does chase the money, he’s taking a huge gamble with his career. A bad season somewhere else could send his career into terminal decline. With Oxford, he can find his feet and lay the foundations for a long and successful career – at our club, or elsewhere.

2012 squad review – midfield and attack

On stable defensive foundations can a successful squad be built. In midfield and up front, however, despite having a decent pool for fish from, Chris Wilder struggled to find the right formula, at least not one that he could keep on the field for any length of time. The crucible of the argument about Wilder’s worth centres on whether the seasons failings were one of incompetence or bad luck.

Peter Leven showed moments of genius; not least his 40 yarder against Port Vale and the flick to play in Liam Davis at Barnet. Injury didn’t help him, but he lacked the consistency you get from the more industrious types like, say, Dannie Bulman.

Or Andy Whing; Whing’s Supporters’ Player of the Season award is wholly understandable. There are stories of people with anaemia who chew on metal in a vain attempt to get iron into their system. The Whing vote reflected a call for dogged consistency. He let nobody down and you suspect he never will.

While Leven, when fit, and Whing, when not deputising in the back four, probably makes up two of our first choice midfield three, the final member of the team is somewhat less clear. Paul McLaren, who was the steadying hand during 2010/11 faded from view. Not unexpectedly, his age suggested that he was only ever a stop gap while the club found itself a firmer footing in the league. Perhaps that was the role expected of Mark Wilson when he arrived, though he failed to make any impact.

Simon Heslop started in fine form, but was one of the early victims of this year’s curse of the folk hero – Leven ‘doing what he wants’, Ryan Clarke’s penalty saves, Asa Hall’s goals – as soon as their feats were verbalised, they stopped doing them. Heslop was struck by only moderate form and then injury; the two of which may have been related.

Perhaps the most interesting combination was that of Chapman and Hall. They were, in many senses, less explosive, but more consistent. Chapman’s return was remarkable he had a composure and awareness that others just don’t seem to have. His only problem is whether he can hold it together mentally; which is often the difference between good and great players. Hall had less crafted, but benefited hugely from the base that Chapman offered. Hall’s form also benefitted from having a bit lump, like Scott Rendell up front to follow up on knock-downs.The fact Hall has decided not to sign is disapointing; he and Chapman seemed to have a partnership that could be built on.

James Constable needs a break; not in terms of a goal off his backside, but a break from being James Constable; Oxford Icon. Last season he was the focal point of most of the drama involving Swindon; three transfer bids, two goals, one sending off. He seems mentally fatigued by it all, the sparky aggression that gained him so many bookings, but also so many goals in the Conference has been replaced by a subdued and isolated figure. There’s a point in every player’s career when they need re-engineer their game. Constable needs to be less of a focal point. A glimpse of what might be was seen on the arrival of Scott Rendell. Momentarily, Constable was freed from all his responsibilities, he was able to feed off the balls from the ever willing Rendell. That was blown apart with Constable’s sending off against Swindon. It may give us some clues as to how to play next season.

Controversially, amongst fans at least, Chris Wilder’s preference is to play 4-3-3. Which either means you end up with a proven goalscorer playing out of position (Midson during the Conference years) or you have players that frustrate and delight with equal measure. John-Paul Pittman had a curious season with his loan to Crawley, momentary spike of form, then – again due to injury – anonymity. Although I have a huge amount of affection for Alfie Potter as a member of the promotion squad, he seems to be rated more highly by others than me. He has his moments, but he puts lots of pressure on the likes of Constable. When Potter was injured, and Craddock struggle to return, Wilder turned to Dean Morgan – who wasn’t as bad as people say, but is clearly a bit of an oddball and Christian Montano – who was raw and inconsistent. Oli Johnson, however, was the most surprising omission from Wilder’s retained list. He of all the flanking strikers combined a decent supply of creativity with a reasonable number of goals.

For different reasons, we missed Tom Craddock and Dean Smalley. Craddock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I saw him as being an essential component to the season’s success. His sustained absence could easily have cost us 10-15 goals, which would have made all the difference. Similarly, Smalley should have contributed double digits in terms of goals. He didn’t seem to do much wrong, but similarly he didn’t do much right. If he lasts the summer, let’s hope we’ll seem him rejuvenated come August.

…And if you thought Crewe was depressing

There was a predictable wash of simpering good will from Oxford fans on Sunday when it was revealed that jug-eared goalscoring funster, and (perhaps) the last Manor legend, Dean Windass, has been suffering from depression leading him to twice try and take his life.

Depression in sport is particularly on-trend nowadays. Gary Speed’s suicide, despite his apparent balance, talent, good looks and happy-go-lucky demeanour – none of which are signs of depression or otherwise – jolted everyone.

Now they’re all at it, last week Andrew Flintoff presented a documentary on it involving some of the decade’s most celebrated sporting names. In the process he recognised that some of his own misdemeanours were a demonstration of some kind of depressive tendency.

You suspect that when The People, having spent weeks camped outside the Sporting Chance Clinic in the hope of spotting a big star through the tinted glass of some over-sized, pimped up four-wheel-drive, found out that Windass was prepared to come out, they were secretly punching the air in triumph. OK, it wasn’t a real star, but it was good enough.

The Windass story is a convenient one for a tabloid audience, but it is ultimately unhelpful. His is the standard narrative of a man who had it all, then without the structure and lustre of professional football lost his way. It involves; fast cars, loose women, money and booze. But he’s not the first to stare into an abyss after retiring from a profession offering such rewards.

I’m not suggesting that Windass is faking or just suffering from being a bit down. But it doesn’t help the wider message if people think you become depressed as the result of no longer being able to buy top of the range cars. Sadly, you can’t write a story that basically says ‘Everything was normal, nothing much happened and then I had the overwhelming urge to kill myself’.

When Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore both came out as suffering from depression years ago nobody took much notice. Both players were, in their own way, outsiders, and therefore, ‘typical’ of people with mental health issues. Lennon was a gnarly pitbull, maginalised by sectarianism, whose success was down to graft more than talent. Collymore had talent, but managed to throw Ulrika Jonsson across a bar in a depressive stupor. I mean, how can he be depressed? Mate, she’s gorgeous and therefore, you’re an idiot.

Now apparently ‘normal’ people, like Speed, and happy people, like Windass have got it. Accordingly, we react appropriately with a knowing sympathetic nod towards football’s last taboo (apart from the gay thing, obviously).

Hours before The People story broke, Oxford fans were lining up to lambast the team for its sloppy defeat to Crewe. Days after he was being begged to stay, James Constable was being pressed to leave because he’s ‘not up to this level’. Similarly, Chris Wilder should recognise his limited competence and step aside, after we lost our first in seven, conceding our second goal in 6,300 minutes.

Single events don’t, in themselves, cause depression but they can trigger depressive episodes in people who are prone to its grip. The best thing you can do for a depressive is create a healthy and stable environment in which they can function and manage their condition. They need to exercise, eat well, sleep and generally ensure that life remains devoid of extremes.

Football excels in creating an environment of extreme reactions to episodic success and failure. This is conveniently labelled ‘passion’ – the lifeblood of the sport which the media and marketers are happy to play up. Most people who actively attend football were brought up in, or are the product of, the football culture of the 1970s and 80s when football evolved from being a diversion from the working week to being overtly tribal, confrontational and aggressive.

It wasn’t always like this. There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC – the oldest club in the country – if they were the first club, then who did they play? Well, the members of the club formed teams and played each other. It was club for people who enjoyed football. It wasn’t concieved as a way of defining a town or region to the detriment of other towns or regions. In 1939 Southampton fans celebrated Portsmouth’s FA Cup win, now they tear each others’ throats out.

It makes me think of the difference between a patriot and a nationalist. A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates every other country. I’m an Oxford United patriot and a football patriot, but increasingly we seem to be becoming football nationalists. We don’t love our team so much as hate everyone elses’.

Now, on the terraces, abuse is the norm, online it’s more venomous, on the pitch people kiss badges and rip their shirts off as a primal act of celebration following a goal, on the bench people get fired for losing a single match and referees are branded as the mentally retarded enemy of the game. And that’s not a description of the bad old days of the 1980s; it’s a manifestation of a culture that exists today. What’s more, it is wholly acceptable; a rebranded and remodelled version of the hooligan era. At least hooliganism was overtly bad.

Amidst this maelstrom, is the stricture of being a footballer. A cabal bound by common behaviours. Lee Steele’s homophobic tweet that lead to his dismissal from Oxford City last week was the illustration of the environment footballers are brought up in. To a man, it’s reported that Lee Steele is a decent bloke, and Mike Ford, despite firing him, was prepared to go on record to support him and say he isn’t a homophobe. It seems that Lee Steele’s principle crime is that he was engaging with a deeply learnt behaviour amongst footballers – banter. In the changing room this works because the rules are understood, it’s a mechanism for sifting out those who are in the football fraternity and those who aren’t. In any other environment, it’s deeply offensive. He just seems to have to forgetten where he was.

This enclosed environment, full of its extremes, isn’t a healthy one for anyone to be involved in, let alone those prone to depression. And yet, despite its current profile within sport and the apparent meaningful sympathy we have towards its sufferers (well, the famous sufferers, at least) we are quite happy to fuel that unhealthy environment by destroying and worshiping its protagonists with all the extreme passion we can muster.

Statistically speaking, in a squad of 20, 5 will suffer some form of anxiety or depression. James Constable and Chris Wilder, like Windass, Speed, Collymore and Lennon, could be among that number at Oxford. Or maybe Alfie Potter. Or Peter Leven. Or, well, anyone. They may not even know that themselves, but it could be lurking, waiting for something to trigger it. We would do well to recognise this and create a healthier environment than the one we are currently in. Not wait for one of our own to put a noose around his neck before reacting.

Crewe Alexandra 3 Oxford United 1

Football is a business of extremes. No other industry would employ Peter Ridsdale with his track record of taking sustainable businesses and depositing them on the brink of oblivion. No other business with a turnover less than your local supermarket goes from the virtual liquidation to sitting on £1.4 million in cash in barely 2 years.

That’s apparently the position that Bournemouth is in, if their chairman is to be believed. I work for a company with a similar turnover to Bournemouth, we’ve never come near to liquidation and we have twice that amount in the bank. Despite being a business with considerably more financial strength than them, we would consider it utter madness to make a snap investment decision of £225,000 (with ongoing costs of £200,000 a year), which is basically what they’re reportedly committing to with their pursuit of James Constable.

Last week, Sky trumpeted the £440 million spent during the transfer window as though this was a triumph. No concerns about the £3.1bn of debt these teams are already in?

These ludicrous extremes cultivate similarly extreme reactions by fans. The 3-1 defeat at Crewe, our first defeat in 4 (5 if you include the 90 minute score against Cardiff), has been greeted by fans as Armageddon.

And now there’s panic surrounding Constable and the possibility that he may go out on loan. The general consensus seemed to be that if he had played, then we’d have won. Which either suggests a) Constable would have grabbed a hat-trick or b) he is a demon in defence. Rationally, neither is true. The reality is that things went badly and we lost. Constable is not the single difference between good days and bad days. The reality is far subtler than that.

Should Constable go, the impact cannot be measured on any single game. Look at last year; he contributed 17 goals. The worst, and most unlikely, scenario is that those goals will not be replaced. Eight goals had no impact on the points gained from those games. If the team could find 9 more goals between them over the season, Constable’s contribution (in goals alone) could be mitigated. Simplistic, perhaps, but it illustrates that the No Constable = Instant Death scenario is nowhere near the truth.

I don’t want to lose Constable; he is pivotal to the team in its current guise. He gives it an identity it hasn’t had for years which has helped bring the fans and club closer together. But, the psychological impact of his departure far outstrips the tangible impact on the team’s performance.

We’re still working from a solid base, the adjustments required to neutralise his or anyone elses departure are relatively small. Losing to Crewe and Constable leaving does not equal capitulation. It doesn’t mean Chris Wilder is a bad manager. You have to look deeper than a single scoreline or individual player decisions if you want to know the state we’re in.

We have a level-headed chairman, a manager that has improved us every year for two and a half years, and a group of players who have proved themselves at this level. Adjustments are needed, partnerships need to grow, a strongest eleven needs to be identified, but the long-term trend continues upwards; only extreme reactions will prevent that from continuing.