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.

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.