Crewe Alexandra 3 Oxford United 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What now for James Constable?

For a short and very intense period on Wednesday night it seemed like James Constable was slipping from our grasp. The known affections of Luton and Swindon earlier in the window were joined by a serious and sustained approach by Bournemouth.

Luton’s approach would have been relatively easy to rebuff, the money they needed to offer needed to be substantial, they wouldn’t have had much scope to up any offer to the point of it becoming a no-brainer. Plus, the player himself would have to swallow the fact he would be dropping out of the League again.

Swindon’s approach, if there was any seriousness in that at all, was always going to be difficult. Constable would have to be stupid or incredibly arrogant to want to make the move in the first place – and I don’t believe he’s either. The club would have to deal with the fact they’ve sold a key asset to a rival and stare down the resulting the PR calamity.

Bournemouth – not a promotion rival – was a different kettle of fish altogether. The reported fee of £225,000 would have comfortably have paid for 2-3 players. As much as Constable represents the soul of the club, we are far from a one man team. His loss – though a blow – can be mitigated by Craddock and perhaps Smalley (who looks out of position, currently).

Apparently the deal broke down over Constable’s personal terms. He’s a ‘proven’ goalscorer which carries a high tariff. But, he’s also had experience of going to league clubs and being side lined like he was at Shrewsbury. He’s 27, so his next move is crucial. At Bournemouth he would have to prove himself. If it doesn’t work, the trapdoor could open once again and he may well see himself back in the Conference. From which it could take him some years to return back to the League.
He would want to be compensated for taking such a risk with his career, particularly when you consider what he’d be leaving. The sort of club that would be able to comfortably afford Constable at such a high price is likely to be at the top end of League 1 or the Championship. And for any club in that bracket; Constable, as opposed to an available Premier League striker on the slide, would represent a massive risk.

Meanwhile, at Oxford he has a barrel load of good will and a nice long contract. His aspirations to play higher up the league could be fulfilled at the club. So does he stick or twist?

There is clearly a market for him, which is good for the club, because come Christmas they can sit tight and wait for the bidding to start. For us, of course, it means that the New Year transfer window could be an even more painful affair.

Kassam All Star XI – Strikers part 3

Yemi Odubade and Steve Basham took us into the Conference era and were joined by the enigma that was Rob Duffy. Duffy’s extraordinary achievement was to score 20 goals in a season and still fail to impress an Oxford public starved of success.

Duffy’s goal tally was inflated by a large number of penalties. When these eventually dried up, he quickly fell from favour. His coup de gras was rolling the ball gently into the arms of the Exeter keeper when clean through and facing promotion and immortality in the face during the play-off semi-final in 2007.

Duffy’s impotence meant a number of replacements were tried to save our season. Marvin Robinson was a massive battering ram who eventually wrecked himself in a car crash. Chris Zebroski was the real deal and very nearly made the difference.

These paled into insignificance in comparison to Kristaps Grebis. Grebis was a Latvian with Champions League experience. He arrived midway through the 2006/7 season and looked utterly lost. Which pretty much describes our decision making at the time. He made just four appearances, but goes down in Oxford history as one of the all-time worst signings.

2007/8’s big summer signing was Gary Twigg. That fact alone proving how destitute we were . The myth of our largesse within the Conference remained, we signed Paul Shaw, but as soon as he realised what a mess we were in he moved to Hungary. Hungary, I tell you.

With Darren Patterson’s appointment came a flurry of loan deals including one Matt Green from Cardiff. Despite a troublesome knee, he just kept scoring. That summer it looked like he would make his move permanent. As people queued for their season tickets, and Nick Merry preened himself preparing to parade his new star, Green headed south and signed for Torquay. It was one of the greatest swindles in nothing-league football. He’d be back, though, being part of the strike force that got us to Wembley and back to the league.

Darren Patterson really knew how to sign a striker. At the start of 2008/9 he signed two loanees; Jamie Guy was one, the other James Constable.

Guy was an instant hit, storming the pre-season but was injured just before the opening game. He wasn’t the same when he returned, chugging his way to Christmas before being dispatched back to his parent club with just five goals to his name.

Constable was a slower burn, the catalyst for him coming to the fore was Chris Wilder. Sometimes Wilder’s decisions are moments of genius. An early decision was to invest his spirit and philosophy into Constable. Constable was Wilder on the pitch, someone he could trust and we could follow. He is so much more than a striker; he’s the only true icon of the Kassam Stadium era so far.

Around Constable Wilder built a powerful strike force. Perhaps it was a way of buying himself some time by announcing that Sam Deering was our best player days after we lost him to a broken leg. Fans wanted so desperately for Deering to succeed, but he, um, came up a little short.

Deering has his little part in our history; exchanging passes with Alfie Potter at Wembley before Potter slammed home the third decisive goal. Potter too is somewhat of an untouchable amongst fans and seemingly the manager.

Jamie Cook, The True Carrier Of Hope, had his moment of fame. But the classic trio was Constable, Green and Jack Midson, who will always be fondly remembered for his titanic performance at Wembley, but also The Miracle of Plainmoor.

The trio didn’t last long. More guile was needed for the league and Chris Wilder brought in his favourite ever toy; Tom Craddock from Luton and the mercurial Steve MacLean.

But throughout all of this was Constable, no Kassam Stadium XI will be complete without him. When we come to review the 20th anniversary of the Kassam Stadium; his name will be first on the teamsheet.

Swindon Town 1 Oxford United 2

Removed from the collective consciousness that is the 3pm Saturday kick-off and ignored by TV, it was fitting that the derby win was dumped into a football vacuum, meaningful only to those who truly understood it.

Ours is a derby that repels those not in the know; other derbies give the outsider reference points to help their understanding of the rivalry. At least you can empathise with derbies coming out of Sheffield, Manchester, Milan and Glasgow because we all know what it is to dislike our neighbours.

No such thing for Oxford/Swindon, this is a fiercely parochial affair. The clubs don’t share the same county, let alone the same town, and the likes of Wycombe, Reading, and the Bristol clubs are dotted around to confuse the picture geographically. Its name – presumably chosen by the Derby Naming Committee – is practically in code. Ask most people what the A420 is and they’ll shrug blankly – it’s a road, right? Radio 5 thought it was the M4 Derby.

In theory, there is a class divide but it’s hardly something that permeates the rivalry. Both sides consider each other to be ‘knuckle dragging, inbred scum’ as opposed to upper/lower class or Catholic/Protestant scum.

It’s not a rivalry based on class or religion or economics, but on football, two teams that have grown to dislike each other on the football field and in the stands. Important only to those involved. Outsiders are not welcome. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the fixture, and the ambivalence of everyone else, that makes it so intense. When you’re stuck in a vacuum nobody hears you scream, so you might as well scream at each other.

The lack of meaningful games between the two clubs has contributed to its increased intensity. Previously there was little more than a nagging, depressing familiarity about defeats at the County Ground. Look at footage from 15 years ago and you can see empty seats in all parts of the ground. People simply couldn’t muster the energy to drive down the A420 for another panning – it wasn’t so much like being stabbed in the heart, more like grumbling irritable bowel syndrome.

Only in 1996 when Skinner and Baddiel started banging on how long it had been since England’s last triumph, did people start to actively quantify ‘hurt’. Nowadays most people know how many weeks of hurt it’s been since you scored from a left-sided set piece. 10 years ago if you asked someone how long it had been since we’d won at Swindon and the answer would typically be ‘ooh, a loooong time’. Somewhere along the line, it was given a label, a ticking clock – 36 years, 37 years, 38 years – it was hardwired into our psyche. Not even that permeated into the stat-hungry mainstream media. Sky was more interested in Paolo Di Canio’s sending off than the breaking of a hoodoo.

The A420 Derby, the 38 year-old voodoo, the bubble of the County Ground, the world looking at anything but what was going on in Swindon. A local derby for local people. The coming together of all these factors took us to Sunday and That Game.

At the brink of triumph, I still I fear that as the team and manager head towards immortality that we find out, in fact, that they are anything but. But each test, no matter how daunting, is confronted and smashed to pieces.

Constable, the soul of a club. The target of a mad fascist Italian manager. Is he on the brink of leaving? A Swindon fan? Off form and unhappy? If any or all of these are true, he remains the constant we can rely on. Football fiction is strewn with heroes rising, phoenix like, when a challenge is put before them. With everyone looking on him and his every move, there he is with the two goals that matter. Read any Roy of the Rovers story, and you’ll see James Constable’s Oxford career. In a cynical world, he’s a proper boyhood hero.

This is the football many of us fell in love with. Not through a TV lens, but live and without the voyeurs of armchair fans making comment and analysis about things they know nothing about. Those who saw it weren’t the privileged few with connections to large corporate sponsors. They were people who go to games every week. Football as a visceral, not intellectualised or media friendly experience.

Those outside the bubble caught only snatches of what was going on. I was one, I gave up on the County Ground years ago when all you got was cold, wet, bullied by the police and threatened with violence and then stuck behind a tractor all the way back down the A420. The football was secondary, the derby, as a sporting event, was virtually non-existent. Football needs mass media to survive, but there is something special about it being hidden from everyone but those who cared enough to be there. The scarcity of coverage, the stories from those who were there, this is how legends are created.

For us this was part of a Grand Slam – a Wembley win and a Swindon away win. What would complete it? A league title, perhaps? These require different effort, resources, skills – but in terms of the impact they have on the club and fans, this is the triple crown that could open the debate as to whether Chris Wilder is the best pound-for-pound manager we’ve ever had. Two down, one to go.

Under Wilder and Kelvin Thomas everything is in place. We have a club with the cohesion and a force of personality that could go onto achieve many things. Wembley: done, Swindon away was the next step towards achieving unprecedented legend.

I thought this sort of thing disappeared with the naivety of youth. I was wrong. The only down side from Sunday is that, in terms of this fixture, if we win every derby game for the next 38 years, it will not get any better than this.

So, Constable is a Swindon fan is he?

So, Paolo Di Canio says James Constable is a Swindon fan.

Firstly, let’s deal with what is, perhaps, the closest thing we have to a fact on this. All evidence suggests that he is, in fact, a Spurs fan.

And secondly, so what?

We know he’s from Malmesbury, 15 miles from Swindon, and that he was 9 when Swindon got into the top flight. Similarly, I was 9 at the beginning of the Glory Years and lived 15 miles from Oxford. Although I’d started going to The Manor a few years before that, the attraction of Oxford in the top flight is something, naturally, me and my dad couldn’t resist.

So it’s not inconceivable that Constable went to the County Ground during their Glory Year (Year not Years) and that he developed an affinity towards the club. That’s fine and expected, he probably checks their results from time to time. However, it clearly isn’t enough to declare himself a die-hard.

We can also be certain that Constable is not an Oxford fan, certainly not one in the same sense that you and I are. He couldn’t spontaneously recite *deep breath* JudgeLanganBriggsShottonTrewickHebberdHoughtonBrockPhillipsCharlesAldridgeThomas on demand. But I can imagine that, given the experience he’s had here, when he’s in his dotage, he will check our results and occasionally reappear at the ground to wave to the crowd.

Even if Constable has a Swindon leaning, are we to assume that he has been operating as a sleeper cell and that he joined Oxford 3 years ago, putting in a series of full-gas performances, propelling the club to its healthiest position in over a decade all in preparation for Sunday?

And, even if he is an avid Swindon fan, and hater of Oxford and everything it stands for, even if putting on a yellow shirt is like having shards of glass rubbed into his back, are we truly to expect that he will deliberately turn-off on Sunday sending us to our doom? Even if his performance dropped by 5%. I’m guessing he may be substituted.

I repeat, Mr Di Canio… so what?

Admittedly this could be all about Di Canio trying to bag Constable for himself rather than Sunday specifically. There seems to be something in this story as both Luton and Swindon have made public their interest and the club have, thus far, done little to push them back. Presumably any offers that have been received are in the right ball-park, and there is a contingency in place should he leave. I would be surprised if Thomas and Wilder will allow the player to go until they are absolutely comfortable they can benefit from it. It’s not as if Constable has much emotional leverage – such as family commitments or, say, a boyhood desire to play for his beloved club.

Constable and Wright going nowhere, for now

So, James Constable is going nowhere… currently. And neither is Jake Wright.

That’s the overwhelmingly underwhelming news from BBC Radio Oxford’s interview with Kelvin Thomas today. Constable’s position is consistently under scrutiny, with a persistent fear that he may end up at Swindon.

There are two factors at play here. Firstly, there’s Constable’s position as representing the soul of the club, without him we will become ‘soulless’. Secondly, there’s Swindon’s billing as the devil. So, the fear is that we’ll end up selling our soul to the devil.

We can take the emotion out of this nightmare scenario by looking at Jake Wright’s (non)-situation. Wright has contributed more than his fair share in our success, but unlike Constable, he’s not quite dragged us from the dark to the light in the same way. It’s easier, therefore, to assess Wright’s situation in an objective way.

It is some time since we had players like Wright who have a market value. For many years our best players were pretty much everyone else’s worst. During the Conference years, we either had players nobody else wanted, or that nobody – at that level – could afford. We’ve been at the top or bottom of our food chains for at least a decade, perhaps longer. Now we’re right in the middle. We have players we want to buy, and we have players others want to buy from us. This is a new experience that we’ll have to get used to.

Presumably Constable is as likely to sign for Swindon as he is any other club prepared to stump up the cash for him. Wright, likewise. And that this could happen at any time, regardless of rumour or gossip. Objectively, however, neither is irreplaceable, even within the current squad we have adequate back up.

As Vitalstatistix, the Gaulish chief from the Asterix books used to say “We have nothing to fear; except perhaps that the sky may fall on our heads tomorrow. But as we all know, tomorrow never comes!!” We need to stop worrying about tomorrow.

Do we really want to know more about players?

Sir Alex Ferguson is almost certainly correct in saying that footballers could do with choosing improving literature over Twitter, but he will almost certainly be ignored. Footballers live for the vaguely homoerotic surrounds of the dressing room and the inter-player ‘banter’ within.

Twitter has turned this fun filled roister-doister into a professional sport, although, anyone who has witnessed the exchanges between Robbie Savage and Rio Ferdinand will see that this apparently rich vein of self-affirmation consist of them arguing over which looks more like a horse.

This insight into the cosseted world of football proves that a player’s life isn’t really worth knowing about and that the most interesting thing they’ll ever do is on the pitch. It makes you wonder why we’re expected to care about the Ryan Giggs affair. The media paint Giggs as a manipulating superstar protecting his sponsorship deals, keeping it from his wife and the baying public. But the revelation is unlikely to make a significant material difference to his wealth, and it’s beyond all credibility to think that his wife only found out after the details were released on Monday. She looked someway short of distraught when walking the pitch after Manchester United’s final game against Blackpool on Sunday. One may reasonably assume that the Giggs’ are resolving any issues the affair has caused – which they’re entitled to do.

Giggs is probably just a bit embarrassed about it all, as you might be if, say, your neighbour caught you scratching your bum in the garden. He’s just been a bit of an idiot, particularly considering Imogen Thomas is one of the country’s more careless girlfriends having previously been subject of a leaked sex tape. But in the end, Giggs is what Giggs was; the finest footballer of his generation what he does in his spare time – whether that’s playing away or going to Tesco – is his business.

The separation of the footballer from the person is a tricky one. Twitter is a hugely positive force amongst Oxford fans with Paul McLaren, Harry Worley, James Constable, Tom Craddock, Ben Purkiss, Jack Midson and new signing Andy Whing all registered and engaging with fans. This builds trust and can only be good for the club, tweets between the players on the bus going to Shrewsbury gave a really nice added dimension to the match day experience.
But I’m not particularly keen on taking it much further than that. My only real experience of a professional footballer outside the stadium was spending some time with Mickey Lewis at a wedding. Whilst he was a lot of fun – at one point rear ending a chair in a deserted hotel bar telling some Wycombe fans of the ‘spanking’ he’d been part of in 1996, there was a point where I just fancied going to bed. I like Mickey, but I’m just not that hardcore and now I prefer the version which bowls around picking up cones before a game.
Adam Chapman is another who has challenged our moral fortitude. But as I said last year, we should maintain a dignified separation between Chapman the footballer and Chapman the dangerous driver. Football is not so important that it should be used as part of the justice system – rewarded to those who do well, or deprived from those who are bad. Prisons are a perfectly sufficient punishment, Chapman’s justice should be serving its course any time soon and, if we do see him in a yellow shirt again, he should be welcomed back as we would any player.
And then there’s Paulo Di Canio, who is a fascist off the pitch and taking over at Swindon Town on it. Should we really care? Certainly the GMB think so, and, well, it’s just a bit too easy to ignore. But footballers don’t engage in improving literature as Ferguson suggests they do; they engage in illicit sex, banal banter, dangerous driving and fascism.
Di Canio is perfectly entitled to his opinion, as misguided as it is. And Swindon are perfectly entitled to appoint him as manager, as misguided as that is. Perhaps it’s just in the nature of football culture and its environment that creates a higher proportion of morons. This may be specific to their type – studies have shown that American football college players are more likely commit rape because they are trained to be unthinking pack animals. Perhaps we only hear about the morons and that football mirrors the rest of the world in having a broad spectrum of views and types. Generally speaking it is probably advisable to keep the player and the person separate, as they say; you should never meet your heroes.