Lockdown wrap: The club’s world class response to the lockdown

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of our Conference Play-Off Final win against York. You may have noticed. I wonder what how it might have been marked in normal circumstances. A livestream? A podcast? We might have been basking in the glory of a 2020 promotion season, maudling at throwing away a golden opportunity, preparing for another shot at the play-offs and Wembley. Sure, we would have marked the occasion, but would it have enjoyed the same prominence in our consciousness, would we have come together on a Saturday afternoon if there had been the distractions of normality?

There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, about who they played when they were the first and only club around. The answer is obvious; themselves. Sheffield FC was a club in the truest sense; a place for people to gather with a common interest. Only later came the notion that clubs would send representatives to play against other clubs. Later still that we might pay those representatives. Even later than that was the idea of football as a business separated from the original concept of a club.

The lockdown has removed the business of playing games from our lives and revealed the club on which we’re built. The club’s response has been nothing but exemplary; the branded facemasks, players and management phoning vulnerable and lonely fans, the podcast, the mental health advice. I don’t pay much attention to other clubs, but if the biggest ones are doing the same thing, even with their gigantic marketing machines, it hasn’t permeated my consciousness.

The club could have simply folded in on itself; mothballed its activities until it all passes. Oxford United is a small business, shutting the shop would have been perfectly acceptable. 

Karl Robinson contributes a lot to that; he has always got the concept of a club from his Liverpool days. In fact, when times have been hard for him on the pitch he’s almost too much of a fan; too involved. He wants to please, to entertain, he wants to create something meaningful. His wife is a health and wellbeing adviser and the club have been quick to respond to the mental health challenges evident across its community. Listening to Dan Harris and Gary Bloom talking about the welfare of players, from juniors to the first team, and the duty of care they have to them is as reassuring as it is impressive. Most of the youngsters in their charge won’t make it to a professional football pitch, but they will all walk amongst us in society.

None of this could happen without the support of the club’s sponsors; Tiger and the rest of the board. When you have ‘foreign owners’ – it’s easy to think of nefarious means and dirty money – that fans are consumers and stadiums are real estate. But the owners confound that unfair assumption.

The club’s regular podcast has been a particular joy; the limitations of technology and the detachment from the corporatisation of the club means that the discussion is authentic and candid whether it’s talking to Paul Moody or Ryan Clarke about mental health or giggling incessantly about The House In Kidlington or naked kickabouts in 2016. 

It’s not just boorish lad speak, while Simon Watts bonds things together, Chris Williams is often master of ceremonies, a fatherly figure both proud and exasperated by those in his charge. He’s spent time with them all and knows them as people. Fans have a very simplistic relationship with players and managers – to most Ian Atkins was a tactical caveman, Williams introduced him as ‘the man who taught me everything about football’. With him is Kath Faulkner, one-part club insider to two parts fan and Jack Brooks brings his experience from professional cricket, bridges the gap between those paid to do the job and those paying. 

And in essence, that’s the club; people who have been in and around it for years. Our representatives – the players – come and go. I’ve always said that all I want for players is for their experience to be the best of their career. That they take a little bit of the club with them and tell others about how good it was. Listening to Mark Creighton describe the excitement of Wembley, Steve Kinniburgh taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere against Luton in 2009 or Alex MacDonald’s memories of playing in derbies makes you feel like we can achieve that goal. It’s also the bonds that still exist between them – Chey Dunkley’s deference to Johnny ‘Uncle Muls’ Mullins, even when Dunkley’s career is on an upward trajectory. Or how the class of 2010 listened to Ryan Clarke as talked about mental health – confiding with Alfie Potter at Northampton, and Adam Murray chipping in with warm words of support. And then, click, Clarke is describing Matt Green as ‘a cannon and a mess’ on a night out and everyone is laughing with him. Normal guys, with otherwise normal lives, nice people who work hard and sometimes do silly things. There isn’t one that I haven’t liked.

Those within the club should be proud of their response to the lockdown, it could easily have been different and we probably wouldn’t have complained if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If there is to be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud, then the reminder of what a football club is and should be may be one if its lasting legacies. 

Midweek Fixture: The top 50 players of the 2000s – Ranked

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. The 2000s was a bleak decade for Oxford United, we dropped into the bottom tier of the Football League in 2001, then just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, out of the Football League altogether.

At the back end of last year, I asked you to vote for your favourite players from that godforsaken decade. This is how the top 50 ranked.

50. Matt Robinson

A friend of mine once asked why Matt Robinson wasn’t playing in the Premier League. The bald wonder had magic in his boots, if he had a decent striker to get on the end of his crosses, or alternatively Julian Alsopp, we always threatened.

49. Alan Judge

The first of many whose ranking is probably not down to his performances in the decade in question. Alan Judge played just two games as emergency cover in 2003 and 2004 and while that had a certain something about it, his ranking is probably more down to his Milk Cup Final appearance in 1986.

Defining moment: In the decade in question, let’s go for his last game for the club 19 years after his debut, aged 44. A 4-0 defeat to Southend.

48. Eddie Anaclet

A spritely full-back from our first season in the Conference. I had him down as the player of the season that year, another poll ranked him as the worst player in the squad. A breath of fresh air in a squad of has-beens and never-wases.

47. Scott McNiven

Once Scott McNiven got his backside between a striker and the ball, there was no getting around it. It was that big. A full-back – with Matt Robinson (50) on the other side – of the Ian Atkins vintage. 

46. Andy Scott

Endlessly likeable striker bought by Firoz Kassam in a panic from Brentford in 2001. Scott had scored a bucket load in the first half of that season, but never really hit the groove for us in what was a hopelessly failing side. 

Defining moment: Scored in a Boxing Day game against Luton Town in front of a full-house (we still lost).

45. Sam Ricketts

Angular faced full-back and academy product, Ricketts was squeezed out of the club in 2002 due to competition for players. He stepped down a few levels, but worked his way back into the Football League before playing 52 times for Wales. One that got away. 

44. Andy Burgess

A mercurial talent, but when the going got tough, Burgess went missing. Scored a wonder goal in the first game of the Conference season, but spent most of the rest of the season with his sleeves over his hands like a reluctant goth playing 4th Year house football.

Defining moment: The moment of magic against Chris Wilder’s Halifax Town in our first game in Conference.

43. Chris Tardif

Perpetual understudy to Andy Woodman, Tardif was a bit of a luxury in that he was too good to sit on the bench, though that’s what he did. Watching him and Alan Hodgkinson checking out the half-time scores instead of warming up was a staple of the Kassam Stadium mid-2000s experience.

42. Mark Watson

Our collapse down the league could be plotted in the quality of our centre-backs. From Elliot and Gilchrist to Wilsterman and Whelan. Mark Watson was the last of the great stoppers. Walked out of the club in 2000, and given what happened next, understandably so.

41. Barry Quinn

Barry Quinn was one of those salt-of-the-earth kind of players. He battled against hope to keep our promotion hopes alive during the mid-2000s. 

40. Rob Duffy

Perhaps the most divisive player of this or any decade. Jim Smith brought Duffy from Portsmouth to spearhead our fight back to the Football League in 2006. Duffy immediately started to repay him in goals, many from the penalty spot. Otherwise, he didn’t seem that bothered. Nobody could decide whether he was a goal machine or a lazy sod. In the play-off against Exeter in 2007 he found himself clean through only to weakly tap the ball back to their ‘keeper. It summed him up perfectly.

Defining moment: Rolling the ball into the hands of the Exeter ‘keeper in the play-off semi-final when clean through.

39. Sam Deering

A pocket sized ball of trouble. There was much wrong with Sam Deering; his racist comments about nurses, his Ugg boots, the fact he couldn’t get the ball in the box from a corner. When he broke his leg in Chris Wilder’s first game, Wilder – who called him ‘our best player’ – used it as a way of leveraging support for his way of working. In 2010 at Wembley he picked the ball up from Rhys Day on the edge of the area exchanged passes with Alfie Potter and the rest was history.

Defining moment: Best supporting actor in the third goal at Wembley.

38. Danny Rose

An absolutely solid, if unremarkable midfielder who joined in 2007 from Manchester United where he was their ‘reserve captain’. Too much was expected of him. Returned later to play his part in our 2015/16 promotion campaign. Then ruined it all by going to Swindon.

37. Paul Wanless

Another two-spell man. Having cut his teeth at Oxford, Wanless headed off to Cambridge where he became something of a legend. Returned at the tail end of his career in 2003.

36. Nigel Jemson

Yet another two spell man and, like Alan Judge, probably not at this level because of what he did during the decade. In his pomp, Jemson spearheaded an attack which kept us in the Championship during the late 90s. His return in 2000 miserably yielded no goals from 18 appearances. 

Defining moment: Screaming in the face of a kneeling and crestfallen Paul Moody for not passing to him when clean through on goal.

35. Manny Omoyimni

Manny Omoyimni was famous before he reached Oxford, while at West Ham he featured in a League Cup game for the Hammers having previously turned out for Gillingham in an earlier round. As a result, West Ham were thrown out of the competition. Omoyimni, didn’t really do much at the Manor in another failing team, but he tried hard and around that time, that was all you could ask for.

34. Matty Taylor

Memorable though they were, I’m speculating that Matty Taylor’s two appearances in the Setanta Shield in 2008 were not the prime reason for making number 34. Slipped off the radar, made his name elsewhere; a return this season has propelled him up the ratings.

33. Mateo Corbo

A surprisingly enduring spirit. Corbo’s defining characteristic during his thirteen game spell at the club was his ability to get booked. 

32. Lee Bradbury

A striker who was too good for the team that he played with; or so the argument goes. Bradbury signed from Portsmouth with a reputation for goals; signing him was quite a coup. The problem seemed to be that he was so ahead of his team mates that he was never in the right place to put the ball in the back of the net.  

Defining moment: A bicycle kick from point blank range against Torquay.

31. Matt Murphy

Very much a nineties man; his career just about dipped into the 2000s, but it was what he did before that really made his name.

30. Jefferson Louis

Before characters like Danny Hylton and Jamie Mackie, there was Jefferson Louis. Signed from Thame United after a spell in prison, Louis was all arms and legs. In 2003 he got on the end of a James Hunt throw-in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup against Swindon Town to score the winner. He was then filmed stark naked live on daytime TV celebrating the fact we’d drawn Arsenal in the next round. Not exactly a one man club, at the last count he’d played for 45.

Defining moment: His glancing header that beat Swindon in the FA Cup in 2003.

29. Andy Woodman

When Ian Atkins became manager in 2001 he rolled into town a battalion of proven players. Andy Woodman stood behind an impenetrable defensive unit and never looked flustered. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective.

Defining moment: Saving a key penalty in 2002 to dump Charlton out of the League Cup.

28. Simon Clist

Not all heroes wear capes. Simon Clist was integral to the 2010 promotion team as the balancing force in midfield. Dannie Bulman won the battle, passed it to Clist, who passed it to Adam Chapman or Adam Murray to create something. It was fantastically effective. Clist was integral to that machinery.

27. Mike Ford

Another player whose position is probably more down to what he did outside the decade than what he did in it. Mike Ford was never the nimblest of players and by 2000 he was on his last legs. But, in terms of what he gave to the club before that, he’ll never be bettered.

26. Tommy Mooney

Notoriously tight with his money, Firoz Kassam was prone to the odd panic buy – Paul Moody, Andy Scott, Lee Bradbury. Tommy Mooney came with baggage, a former Swindon striker, but at a time when we were so self-possessed, that didn’t matter too much. Mooney came with an excellent reputation. He didn’t let us down scoring 15 goals in the season he was with us. In reality he was just squeezing out a few more signing-on fees before age caught up with him. In a flash, he was gone. 

25. Matt Green

Matt Green would have been much higher up the list had his Oxford career been more straightforward. His first stint was in 2007 on loan from Cardiff, then he was all set to sign on a permanent deal, but took a diversion on the way to the ground and spent a year at Torquay. Eventually Chris Wilder signed him to make up part of a devastating three pronged attack in our Conference promotion year. 

Defining moment: His sensational volley to open the scoring at Wembley in 2010.

24. Adam Murray

Something of a forgotten man; Adam Murray joined in 2008 and skippered the promotion side for a good chunk of the season. Sadly injury meant he missed the last 4 months of the season meaning James Constable picked up the arm band and Adam Chapman pulled the strings in midfield. A creative talent that dug us out of the hole we were in at the time.

23. Jamie Cook

Jamie Cook had a curious Oxford career; he emerged in the 90s but played second fiddle to brighter homegrown stars. Left to pursue a very serviceable career. Returned in 2009 where he again played a bit part in our promotion campaign. Despite this, will always be fondly remembered at the club.

Defining moment: A 25-yard screamer against Luton Town in 2009.

22. Chris Hargreaves

A warrior who led his team into a hopeless battle to avoid relegation from the football team in 2006. Vowed to right a wrong in the Conference, but was last seen kicking a water bottle in frustration as we fell to Exeter in the play-off semi-final. Came back 3 years later mostly as a cheerleader to finally see us get back into the Football League in 2010.

21. Andy Crosby

Sometimes you just need to be held in the arms of a big strong man who will protect you. Andy Crosby was a colossus in Ian Atkins’ pragmatic team of 2001-2004. A metronomic ability to score penalties also meant that he threatened the goalscorers charts as well as held the back line together.

20. Bobby Ford

An enigmatic lost soul who seemed blighted by his talent. Returned to the club in 2002 having played in the top flight with Sheffield United to play in a team barely suited to his style.

19. Jack Midson

Gentleman Jack Midson first floated into view scoring an imperious lob over Billy Turley while playing for Histon in 2008. Eventually Chris Wilder brought him to the club, where he provided all the craft we needed to see us promoted in 2010. Quickly ejected by Wilder, Midson returned from a loan spell to score a hat-trick against Torquay in the Miracle of Plainmoor. And that was pretty much him done.

Defining moment: His winner versus Yeovil Town in the FA Cup in 2009

18. Les Robinson

Les Robinson wasn’t a millennium guy; he only played 26 games in the 21st Century, just 6% of all the games he played for us. But it’s a lasting testament to his legacy that he was still better than over 200 players who did play during the decade.

17. Dannie Bulman

Dannie Bulman was key to Chris Wilder’s rescue effort in 2009 being the tenacious ball winner that galvanised our promotion effort. He quickly fell out of favour and we spent much of our first season back in the Football League trying to replace him. Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake?

16. Paul Powell

Paul Powell was long past his best as the century turned. At one point he’d been our finest asset and could have played for England. But, a broken leg and erratic temperament meant he never quite fulfilled his potential. He did have the dubious honour of scoring the club’s first ever goal at the Kassam Stadium.

15. Phil Gilchrist

Another one of the 90s guys. Phil Gilchrist was re-recruited in 2006 with the help of a Coca Cola competition winner, who funded his transfer. By this point Gilchrist was mostly being held together with sticky tape and rubber bands. For a season, it worked fine, but he fell apart just as we did. 

14. Adam Chapman

Adam Chapman never did things the easy way; he initially joined from Sheffield United on loan but really came into his own taking over from Adam Murray in the final weeks of the 2009/10 season. A week before the play-off final, it was announced that he was to be sentenced for killing a man while driving and texting at the same time. Chapman put in a man-of-the-match performance before being sentenced to a year in a young offenders institute. He was never quite the same again, but did hit the headlines again when he burnt his nipple on baby milk in 2012.

Defining moment: His party-pooping free-kick at Burton which ruined their promotion celebrations in 2009.

13. Damian Batt

A quicksilver full-back with an unstoppable engine, Damian Batt seemed to be capable of defending in his own six yard box one second, then driving in a cross at the other. A key player of the promotion season, he left in 2013 and pursue a somewhat curious life.

12. Jamie Brooks

Jamie Brooks could have been the greatest of them all. A prodigious talent who sparkled during a grim first season at the Kassam. Arsenal took an interest, and apparently on the verge of a move to the Premier League giants was struck down with Guillain–Barré syndrome which nearly cost him his life. Struggled on until 2006 before being released.

Defining moment: Scoring the first competitive goal at the Kassam Stadium.

11. Paul Moody

Paul Moody had provided the goals that brought us promotion in 1996, he left in 1997 but returned in 2001 as a crowd pleasing folly from Firoz Kassam. Actually made a decent fist of it, coming out as leading scorer but seemed to hate every minute. Left after a season.

Defining moment: Hanging off the crossbar at Wycombe in 1996.

10. Chris Hackett

A product of the youth system and a hare down the flank. Threatened to follow the lineage of Brock, Thomas, Beauchamp, Allen and Powell. When you needed a spark, Hackett was your man.

Defining moment: Probably being sold to Hearts just when we needed him most.

9. Billy Turley

A self-consciously self-styled ‘character’ whose lunatic antics in goal between 2005 and 2010 kept our spirits up during bleak times. At times magnificent, but equally susceptible to the odd calamity as illustrated by his gaff that led to Leyton Orient’s first goal in the relegation decider in 2006 and a missed penalty against Exeter in 2007. I mean, they were biggies; but that was Turley.

Defining moment: Maybe his last meaningful contribution to the club, an unbelievable save in 2010 against Wrexham.

8. Mark Creighton

The Beast. Chris Wilder had a strategy for us in 2009/10 – we were finally going to use our status as a large fish in a small pond to our advantage. Creighton dominated in every thing he did. A rock and a leader, he was surprisingly moved on by Wilder in 2010. 

Defining moment: Last minute goal against York City in 2009

7. Yemi Odubade

Yemi Odubade appeared if by magic during an FA Cup game at Eastbourne Borough. He won a penalty which snatched them a draw and ran us ragged in the replay despite losing. Brian Talbot wasted no time in snapping him up. Possessed blistering pace and was a rare joy in a dark time, his 45-yard goal against Dagenham and Redbridge in 2007 a moment of pure ecstasy.

Defining moment: That goal against Dagenham and Redbridge.

6. Ryan Clarke

There’s a good argument that Ryan Clarke was pound-for-pound the best Oxford player of the decade. Others had goals, Clarke probably saved more than everyone else put together.

Defining moment: Too many to mention, but let’s go with saving 8 out of 14 penalties around 2010 and 2011.

5. Joey Beauchamp 

Joey Beauchamp was not a man of the 2000s, by that point his career was in decline. But it is his enduring legend which has placed him at number 5. Disgracefully dumped by the club without the sniff of a testimonial in 2002; the streets remember Joey.

Defining moment: Joey’s 35-yard screamer against Blackpool in 1996.

4. Steve Basham

Blighted by injuries, Steve Basham was too good for a club falling apart. A striker who played with his head, which was somewhat out of keeping during the brutish Ian Atkins years. Always scored goals, but at the same time looked a little out of place.

Defining moment: Scoring the winner to knock Millwall out of the League Cup in 2003.

3. Dean Whitehead

The nineties produced a raft of great homegrown talents, it was a machine that helped keep the club afloat. It was dismantled in the 2000s, which makes Dean Whitehead’s talent all the more remarkable. Not only did he possess a skill with the ball, he developed a work ethic and discipline which saw him play at the very top of the game.

Defining moment: A breathtaking farewell free-kick against Rochdale in 2004

2. Alfie Potter

Alfie Potter arrived in 2009 and only played 13 games in the decade, but while he wasn’t the most regular of starters, nearly everything good that happened involved him. Scoring the iconic third goal at Wembley in 2010, destroying Portsmouth 4-1 in 2013 and scoring the winner against Swindon in the JPT in 2012, Potter’s career was defined by magical moments.

Defining moment: The third goal at Wembley.

1. James Constable

Was James Constable a player for the 2000s? Or the 2010s? Or was he just the greatest Oxford United player of the century (so far). Let’s go with that. A goal machine, a loyal stalwart, a thoroughly nice bloke, there’s nothing Beano couldn’t do.

Defining moment: Where do you start?

Midweek fixture: James Constable, the making of a legend

There are some good players, there are bad some players, there are even more players you completely forget about. The throne on which a genuine club legend can sit has space for just one person at a time. Ascent to it is a once in a generation thing.

James Constable’s dominant win in the Favourite #oufc Player of the Decade World Cup showed that though many great players have had a significant impact on both the fans and club – particularly in a decade of progress – getting to the very top requires something else, something a little magical.

As I got older, I thought heroes were just for children; people who give you formative experiences, who do things you physically can’t imagine being able to do. I remember John Doyle in the 1980s kicking a ball from the penalty box to the halfway line and thinking he was a god. Experience makes those feats less novel, the things they do, you can do, sort of. As a result, the bar of expectation, of what constitutes legendary status, gradually increases until nobody can obtain it anymore. Age reminds you that even the biggest achievements by the best players are tempered by the fact they still sit within a range of what you know is possible.

It means physical achievements are just the starting point of what makes a player a club legend. To truly cement yourself at the top of the tree, you have to soak into the fabric of the club, transcend the physical. As you get older you begin to realise that club legends have to be, in some way, metaphysical.

When Joey Beauchamp left Oxford in 2002 it changed my relationship with the club. Beauchamp was a different kind of hero for me – a contemporary rather than the unobtainable supermen of my childhood. After that every player was younger than me, making it harder for them to be heroes. I became less interested in individuals and more in the collective whole; the club. I didn’t think it would be possible to look at another individual player as a genuine club legend, until James Constable arrived.

Even then it crept up on me, Constable was originally signed by Darren Patterson on loan from Shrewsbury Town in 2008. His arrival benefitted from coming in the slipstream of Jamie Guy, who signed from Colchester with a bit of a reputation and therefore more expectation.

Guy started pre-season encouragingly, but was injured in the last friendly before the season started and never quite recovered. A gloom was descending over the club, Jim Smith had failed to get us promoted back to the Football League and money seemed to be running out. The financial and spiritual weight of the Kassam Stadium was weighing around our necks, dragging us down. Perhaps the preoccupation with our plight allowed time for Constable to settle in; in the first fifteen games of the season he scored four times, but only in two games.

Thereafter Constable scored steadily, but the team’s results and consistency weren’t there; Patterson’s job slipped through his fingers, eventually being relieved of his duties after defeat to Torquay United in the FA Cup. In his place came Chris Wilder.

Wilder’s first game was a Boxing Day defeat to Salisbury which was marred by Sam Deering breaking his leg. Wilder described it as losing his best player, but that seemed a smokescreen to give him a chance to lower expectations while he got the club organised.

Constable was at the centre of the change, his reaction to Wilder’s arrival was instant. He scored in the next five consecutive games and though hampered by a five point deduction for fielding an ineligible player, Wilder’s influence seemed to be firing the club to an unexpected tilt at promotion. At the heart of the club’s revival was a symbiotic relationship between Wilder and his striker.

Jamie Guy returned to his parent club leaving Constable a clear run as the club’s main striker. In the last 20 games of the season, Oxford lost just once with Constable scoring 14 league goals, including a heart stopping injury-time winner against Wrexham, making 26 for the season. Defeat to Northwich Victoria on the last day denied a place in the play-offs, the club missing out by the five points it had been deducted earlier in the year.   

The anger fuelled an expectation that things would improve, but all expectation was that Constable would return to Shrewsbury or be picked up by a bigger club, his goals no doubt attracting interest from elsewhere. In fact, with chairman Kelvin Thomas driving an aggressive agenda of change, in the summer of 2009 it was announced we’d signed him permanently. 

The summer was one of big signings and with the momentum gained from the previous season we started the new year in storming form. A front three of Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green made us unplayable. Against Luton Town, Constable scored seconds after missing a penalty and notched a hat-trick against Chester which was eventually chalked off when they went bust and were thrown out of the division. The loss of those goals from the records was something that would become significant in later years.

Our form dipped in mid-season with Stevenage Borough’s consistency putting paid to our championship hopes. In the end we had to settle for a play-off spot against Rushden and Diamonds for a tilt at Wembley. Constable scored in the first leg at Nene Park before adding another in a riotous win at The Kassam a few days later.

Over 30,000 Oxford fans descended on Wembley for the play-off final against York City, though his moment was eclipsed by the iconic third goal by Alfie Potter, Constable’s second was a classic of its type; all power and technique. We were back in the Football League, for the second season in a row Constable topped the goalscoring charts with 26 goals.

Despite talk of back-to-back promotions, the Football League proved tougher than we’d expected. The step up in quality, particularly defensively, and over-tinkering of the squad by Chris Wilder clipped our momentum. We were just happy to be back, quietly Constable clocked a very creditable 17 goals. It prompted a speculative bid from Luton for Beano’s services which was quickly rejected.

A by-product of that season of consolidation is that it put us on a direct collision course for our first League encounter for nine years with Swindon Town, who had been relegated to League 2. The re-ignition of the our fiercest rivalry was a true confirmation of our return. 

The away game was only the fourth league game of the season. Swindon had recruited the controversial and charismatic Paolo DiCanio as manager. In the run up to the game, Di Canio targeted Constable claiming that he had been a Swindon fan who had stood on the terraces at The County Ground. Though it was possible that he had spent time there as a child, Constable had always presented himself as a Spurs fan. The point was to disrupt Oxford’s preparation for the game. The stunt backfired as Constable grabbed both goals in a 2-1 win, the first away win in the derby for 38 years. 

A few days after the win, the club’s nerve was tested as Bournemouth, who by this time were a team on the up, made a bid for Constable’s services. After failing to agree terms, he stayed. It was a sign of things to come. For the next few transfer windows we were faced with the novel experience of having a player others wanted. What was more unusual, was that the player, though not the club, resisted the temptation to cash in.

Despite that early season high, consistency was difficult to maintain with Constable scoring less frequently. Hopes of the play-offs dwindled. In January DiCanio was back, this time with an offer to buy Constable. Swindon were heading for an inevitable promotion and spending heavily, though battling admirably, we were struggling to find the resources to really fire us forward. Cashing in on our prize asset, just as his goals had started to dry up was an attractive proposition and Chris Wilder was nothing if not pragmatic. But, it was Swindon, and for the fans, that changed everything.

Wilder saw an opportunity; DiCanio’s offer was accepted and Constable headed to Wiltshire to talk terms. As the January window closed, Oxford fans panicked at the radio silence. It felt pivotal, a worrying depiction of who we were as a club. Did we have our own identity and purpose, or were we simply going to cow-tow to our greatest rivals, surviving on the scraps others fed us?

Then, nothing, Constable turned the offer down and stayed at the club. DiCanio had been spurned, Oxford’s number 9 would stay Oxford’s number 9 passing up the opportunity to play at a higher level and, presumably, earn more money. Goals made Constable, but turning down Swindon propelled him to a different level. The episode also damaged Wilder’s reputation with the fans.

The decision wasn’t without consequences, Constable now says his relationship with Wilder never quite recovered. The by-product of the affair meant Constable had the power, and even though Wilder ultimately benefitted, it wasn’t something he was likely to be tolerant of.

The return fixture with Swindon was in March, they were storming to the title and on a long unbeaten run. The Kassam was hosting its first league derby and the atmosphere was febrile. The away win back in August would mean nothing if The Robins simply snatched the initiative back at the first opportunity. The opening exchanges were tense, in front of the Swindon fans Constable appeared to break clear of his marker, but the referee pulled the play back, reached for his pocket and pulled out a red card for an apparent elbow. The video is inconclusive, there appeared to be a trailing arm, but all Constable’s momentum seemed to be in the opposite direction.

Constable disappeared down the tunnel, Swindon fans sensed revenge, but ironically, even with him not there, he had a telling impact on the result. The dramatic change of dynamic unleashed attacking threats from midfield and gave us licence to defend resolutely. Two quick-fire goals from Oli Johnson and Asa Hall secured a famous 2-0 win and the double.

In reality Constable’s on field effectiveness appeared to be on the wane. The flow of goals slowed despite notching his 100th club goal in a win over Mansfield to take us top of the table.

He ended 2011-12 again as top scorer, but with just eleven goals. He was a power player rather than a clever or fast one; it seemed to be becoming less effective and certainly not enough to propel us to promotion.

Wilder had been prospecting for re-enforcements, perhaps even replacements – Tom Craddock, a huge favourite of Wilder’s, signed from Luton, and Deane Smalley – a very similar type of player to Constable from Oldham. Neither could topple the striker.

In the following season, Constable didn’t score a league goal until the end of October and though he ended the season with an improved 14 goals as a club we seemed to be losing our way.

He did have another telling contribution; we drew Swindon in the EFL Trophy. In a tense and tight game, with two minutes to spare Constable suddenly broke forward squaring the ball to Alfie Potter who slotted home for another famous win.

But, overall the season had been a disappointment, there was speculation that Chris Wilder’s time at Oxford was coming to an end. After three years in League 2 the prospect of promotion seemed to be getting further away, not closer. Owner Ian Lenagan called a press conference but rather than announce Wilder’s departure, he confirmed a short extension to his contract and a new vision of youth team players leading us to future glory. On one level it seemed compelling, on another, it was a vision to cope with austerity. Wilder, though, looked broken; a prisoner in Lenagan’s vision.

The season, though, started spectacularly with a 4-1 win over Portsmouth at Fratton Park, but things plateaued. Wilder was given the opportunity to talk to Portsmouth about a vacancy later in the season and would eventually walk out on the club to go to Northampton where he saved them from relegation and revitalised his career. Mickey Lewis took over as caretaker, playing Constable on the wing before Gary Waddock arrived for a short-lived hapless spell. Constable scored a solid twelve goals, topping the goalscoring charts for the fifth consecutive season, but the mood had darkened.

The summer saw the club stagnate amidst rumours of a takeover, weeks passed with just one signing coming in – Danny Hylton. Otherwise, there was silence. Constable’s contract was up and with him being a high earner, there was uncertainty about his future. When the offer did come in, it was obviously some way below what he was expecting. With the club about to undergo a revolution under Darryl Eales, Constable left for Eastleigh and their ambitious project to recreate the Oxford glories of 2010 under Yellows fan Stewart Donald.

James Constable played over 270 games for Oxford scoring 106 goals. He’s the second highest all-time record goalscorer, the hat-trick against Chester in 2009 that was chalked off meant he missed out on the top spot by one goal.

He remains a constant presence around the club, Karl Robinson invited him to train with the current squad and against Walsall in November he preferred the Oxford away end to the hospitality he could have enjoyed as the match’s guest of honour.

Above all, Constable seems to be a thoroughly nice bloke, always affable, happy to immerse himself in the culture of the club even though it means he can barely walk two feet without someone asking for a photo or autograph.

His goals fired us back to the Football League and kept us steady once we were up. His rejection of Swindon, and his contributions to their demise and his loyalty to Oxford cemented his position at the top of the tree.

What makes a legend? Performances are just the start, loyalty in the face of temptation is also important, a willingness to engage with the culture and purpose of the club draws you out from the norm. Beano did all these things and more.

The modern game is full of short contracts, predatory big clubs and players seeking the security of larger contracts wherever they can find them. It’s hard to imagine a player coming close to Constable’s status in the foreseeable future. Effectively retired, his football career earnings won’t sustain him and he needs to find a new path. The club is indebted to his contribution and hopefully it may be able to accommodate him in a meaningful way. If not, there are thousands of Oxford fans willing for him to succeed. Whatever he ends up doing, his legacy at least fills him with pride.

George Lawrences Shorts: Exiter Pity

Saturday 30 November 2019

A master of his craft, even at 35 James Constable still knows where the goal is. He was stood right behind it for our 1-0 annihilation of Walsall in the FA Cup on Saturday. Beano was welcomed into the away end with open arms, but wouldn’t be drawn on his rebuffing of an Italian former Swindon Town manager with right wing peccadillos.

Sunday 1 December 2019

Walsall manager Darryl Clarke is a barrel of laughs isn’t he? He had nothing but uplifting and positive comments for his charges following their exit from the FA Cup “My players aren’t at their level, anywhere near it to be honest at the minute.” said ray of sunshine Clarke.

Alongside the bearded lady and the pushmepullyou, Sheffield United are turning into one of history’s great freakshows. The Telegraph – who always look at outsiders with suspicion – did their 426th profile of Christophe Wilde on Sunday and how he dragged himself up by the bootstraps. The story has acquired magical legend now featuring a magical sprite, pocket racist, Sam Deering; ‘his best player’ when he joined Oxford in 2008.

Monday 2 December 2019

If it’s Monday, then it must be another reference to rummaging in a velvet ball bag. Oxford have been drawn to play either Our Friends in the North – Hartlepool or our friends in the South – Exeter City

Tuesday 3 December 2019

To the Championship, all the way. Stat virgins FiveThirtyEight have crunched the numbers on our current form and predicted that we’ll finish second in League 1 this season.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Oopsy. Oxford missed out on a trip to Wembley for a game against Bournemouth’s Walking Football Team in the MySpace.com Trophy on Wednesday. The 0-0 draw meant there were only marginally less goals than supporters. We trolled the competition by missing three penalties in a row in the shoot out. That’ll show them.

Before the game KRob said he’d secured the services of a stand-in ‘keeper after Simon Eastwood picked up a boo boo on his knee against Walsall. As an early for Christmas parlour games, KRob mimed some clues as to his identity; four syllables, promoted from League 1, full international. This rules out Alan Judge, which is a shame as he was ironing his goalie gloves in preparation for a recall at the time.

Thursday 5 December 2019

It was the Seven Minute Six Second Fans Forum on the radio on Thursday with charisma hoover Niall don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams. Mrs Don’t Call Me Niall McWilliams will be pleased to hear that he mostly plans to do his Christmas shopping in the club shop, so she’ll be stealing herself to smile thankfully when she unwraps her novelty Jamie Hanson thong and bra set on the big day.

Friday 6 December 2019

It’s everyone back to the Kassam on Saturday to watch eager families heading into Vue to watch Frozen 2. The visitors are Shrewsbury who are led by angle faced ex-Oxford full-back Sam Ricketts.

Oxford’s glovesman will be Jordan Archer who has been signed to cover Simon Eastwood. Archer was released by Millwall in the summer and appears to have been scratching a living as a Kane Hemming’s impersonator. The job involves turning up to things which have long been decided and taking credit for its success by making a last-minute meaningless contribution.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Potato ROFLs

Saturday 5 October 2019

At the Wham Stadium on Saturday Tariqe Fosu proved He’s Our Man opening the goalscoring against victorian non-leaguers Accrington Stanley. Young Gun, Cameron Brannagain saw an opportunity to Go For It from 25 yards to make it 2-1 before we were pegged back to 2-2 with a low strike to the left of the goal; or was it a Different Corner? Jamie Mackie was booked for Careless Whispers with the ref.

Monday 7 October 2019

Liverpool wunderkind Ben Woodburn had a little bump playing with the big boys on Saturday. He was a very brave and didn’t cry, after a cold compress, a cuddle, a Paw Patrol plaster and twelve weeks on the sidelines and he’ll be out to play again. 

Tuesday 8 October 2019

In the MySpace.com Trophy, Oxford won through after losing in the draw against Portsmouth. The game of futility wrapped in a cloak of pointlessness, balanced on a plinth on inconsequentiality ended 2-2, with goals from Matty Taylor and Rob Dickie which left Pompey with the humiliation of having to win the penalty shoot-out and pretend it meant something.

In alopecia news; dome bonced Conference crushing pass-master Adam Murray has taken over as Barnsley manager after Daniel Stendel was sacked.  

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Weekly Scottish full-back news (that isn’t about Chris Cadden bowel movements or ice cream preferences): former loanee Todd Kane could be set to join the Scotland squad

Thursday 10 October 2019

After legitimate ice hockey fan and player Petr Chech joined Guilford Phoenix as a way of keeping fit during his retirement, Oxford City Stars announced the absolute mega-lolz and cry-face emoji news that the greatest Oxford goalscorer with a head shaped like a potato, James Constable, had signed for them. It was double ROFLs from hairdo’s worst nightmare Greig Box Turnbull who cracked the joke to acceptable apathy on Twitter a few hours before doubling down on it in a press release which was also royally ignored. As GLS knows more than most, there’s nothing funnier than a re-fried joke.

It was the Five Minute Thirty-Eight Second fans forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with KRob. One fan asked whether we talk too much about formations before KRob talked too much about formations – inadvertently giving out his credit card PIN in the process. There was also extended chat about his sweat patches. And people think he talks too much.

Friday 11 October 2019

It’s Doncaster tomorrow and the air will be filled with a chorus of “We’re by far the 427th greatest team, the world has ever seen”. Website FiveThirtyEight – a team of crack statistical virgins – has ranked 628 teams from around the world. We were the third highest League 1 team, comfortably nestled in between Argentinians, Godoy Cruz and Sochaux of Switzerland, and 152 places ahead of Swindon, obviously. GLS doesn’t know how the rankings were done; so we looked at the methodology and realise that we don’t care.

Midweek fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United Part 4 – Your favourite players

It feels like an age since the Absolute State of Oxford United survey went out; you can read Part 1 – Ratings, Part 2 – Predictions and Part 3 – Expectations (folded into the season’s preview). Part 4 looks at one of those perennials – favourite players.

Of the current crop, Gavin Whyte, when he was still at the club, was your overall favourite players. Now he’s gone, Cameron Brannagan takes the reigns with 18.4%. Brannagan ticks a lot of boxes for fans; he’s committed and passionate; there’s never a game where you feel he’s phoning it in. Moreover, he’s got that profile of players from Michael Appleton’s time – Lundstram, Rothwell, Ledson and Roofe – players who came to Oxford from bigger clubs looking to progress their careers. He wasn’t an Appleton player, but it feels like he was.

Next up was Josh Ruffels (16.7%) with Simon Eastwood clocking a solid 11.9%. The appeal of Eastwood and Ruffels is their longevity, their apparent commitment to the cause. Neither are homegrown as such, but it feels like they are.

I wasn’t sure whether asking the question about your least favourite player was a good idea and people agreed; it was a mistake with lots of people refused to answer. I will say one thing; it probably isn’t a surprise to hear that Jamie Hanson was identified by a large minority as a least favourite. He came in with a big fee and didn’t perform last year; but here’s a prediction for next season – I reckon if he’s given a chance, Hanson may become a fan favourite next season in the vein of Andy Whing. Everyone loves a tough tackler who wears his heart on his sleeve and if he can get a run in the team, I can see him thriving.

All time favourites

When it comes to favourite players of all time, no fewer than fifty-seven players were nominated, although I’m guessing that Juan Pablo-Raponi and Justin Richards were a joke and there were one or two nominated because they were nice to the respondents kids once outside the ground.

Thirty-one of the fifty-seven received a single vote; and there’s clearly a story behind every one.

It’s tricky to compare players of different eras and easy to conflate ‘favourite’ with ‘best’. Danny Hylton is one of my all time favourite players – but only received one vote. Paul Powell was one of the best players I ever saw and didn’t receive any. Forced into making a choice of one player, favourite always trumps best.

The votes inevitably favour more recent players – if you’re younger, they’re the only players you know, if you’re older, your memory fade.

There is very much a holy trinity that spans the eras – John Aldridge took 9% of the vote, followed by James Constable (17%) with Joey Beauchamp (20%) topping the lot. 

Beauchamp’s last game for Oxford was in 2002, but he hits the sweet spot for a favourite player – genuinely homegrown, loyal (apart from his Swindon apparition), and above all, breathtakingly good at football. I don’t understand why the club don’t capitalise on his legacy and legend as other clubs have done (benefitting him in the process). In many senses, Beauchamp is Oxford, he should be revered and remembered. 

Notable others? Kemar Roofe was the highest ranked player of the most recent era (Appleton – Clotet – Robinson) with 7% of the vote. Roy Burton is the stand out name from the pre-TV era with 2% nestling alongside the likes of Billy Hamilton and Trevor Hebberd. Of the current squad, only Josh Ruffels made the list with a single vote. It seems to become a favourite player, you need to no longer be at the club, allowing for your legend to be re-edited with all the bad bits taken out.  

I don’t know why I asked for three nominations for a Hall of Fame, it’s a nightmare to analyse and produces similar results to the Favourite Player question. It does give some more latitude in the voting with seventy-one different names nominated. 

The top three all clocking over 100 votes were again James Constable, Joey Beauchamp and John Aldridge. Fourth (Kemar Roofe) polled less than half that (48). The top 10 was completed by Matt Elliot, Ron Atkinson, Paul Moody, Gary Briggs, Roy Burton and Trevor Hebberd. A pretty era-spanning bunch. Malcolm Shotton was 11th, one vote behind Hebberd, clearly that goal at Wembley made all the difference.

Halls of Fame, like the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, only really get interesting once you’ve got the obvious ones out of the way. Yes, get The Beatles and Rolling Stones in, but also recognise Metallica and Run DMC. 

From the Headington days, Maurice Kyle, John Shuker and Graham Atkinson all got a number of nominations. From the 1980s Kevin Brock, Peter Foley and George Lawrence. In the 90s Paul’s Simpson and Paul Reece were mentioned, though barely troubled the scorers. Dean Whitehead and Billy Turley were the only players from the early 2000s to pick up votes, but perhaps that’s no surprise.