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: Naughty boys

On paper, Gavin Whyte is one of the best prospects to come out of Northern Ireland in years. When he scored 106 seconds into his international debut against Israel last year he was being hailed as the future of football in the country.

Gavin Whyte is also, at least on paper, a normal functioning human being. If normal functioning human beings pull their trousers down and pull their willies while someone films them on their phone.

Whyte’s antics were posted in Twitter shortly after he was handed the George Best Breakthrough Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. What precisely has ‘broken through’ is now subject to some speculation. Best would have been proud.

Whyte isn’t the first, and won’t be the last of the Oxford United naughty boys, here are a few more.

Ross Weatherstone

Ross Weatherstone was not even the best Weatherstone to play for Oxford in 2000. The younger brother of Simon was a solid, but unremarkable, full-back who made his debut in 1999. At the start of the 2000/01, Ross the Younger chose an odd way to upstage his brother when he was convicted for a racially aggravated assault on a taxi driver.

Adam Chapman

Days before our pivotal Conference Play-Off final, it was announced that midfielder Adam Chapman was due to face trial for causing death by dangerous driving. The conviction pivoted around the fact he was texting before ploughing into 77 year-old Tom Bryan. Chapman put in a virtuoso display at Wembley winning man-of-the-match and left the field in tears. He was sentenced to 30 months in a young offenders institute. Chris Wilder re-signed him on release and he periodically returned to the first team, making more headlines when he missed a game after scolding his nipple on baby milk.

Luke McCormick

Chris Wilder was never one to let a conviction get in the way of a decent signing. He signed Luke McCormick in 2013 when Ryan Clarke’s season was ended by injury. To be fair to everyone, McCormick was a free man having been released from prison following his conviction for causing death by dangerous driving which resulted in the death of two children. Driving while over the limit and without insurance he was sentenced to seven years in prison. After his release, Wilder needed an experienced keeper he could sign outside the transfer window; McCormick was playing for Truro City meaning he was free to sign.

Firoz Kassam

The shadow that has hung over Oxford United for nearly 20 years is Firoz Kassam. Kassam was never one to avoid a fight if he could help it. In 2002 he used a spurious technicality to get out of a speeding fine. Which is just the kind of upstanding guy he is.

Joey Beauchamp

Joey Beauchamp is a bona fide club legend, voted The Oxford United Player of the 90s. The following decade didn’t treat him so kindly. In 2009 he was convicted of being three times over the drink drive limit while driving along The Banbury Road. In mitigation, Beauchamp said that his life had gone down hill and he’d turned to drink after ‘an incident over an MFI kitchen’. The mind boggles.

Mark Wright

Mark Wright was an Oxford boy done good. Making his debut in 1981 he was sold to Southampton before moving on to Liverpool where he lifted the FA Cup screaming ‘You fucking beauty’ live on television in front of the grimacing dignitaries. After playing a pivotal role in England’s fabled 1990 World Cup campaign he became Oxford manager as the club moved to the Kassam Stadium in 2001. In the October, he was accused of racially abusing a linesman, Joe Ross in a game against Scunthorpe. An act made more unedifying in that it was ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ day. Shortly after he was sacked.

Jefferson Louis

There’s little doubting Jefferson Louis’ conviction… for dangerous driving while disqualified. After his release, Ian Atkins signed him from Aylesbury United in 2001 where he became a cult hero almost before he’d made his debut. All arms and legs, his legend was cemented when he scored the winner in a 1-0 FA Cup tie over Swindon before he was seen, live on TV, flashing his bare arse while celebrating being drawn against Arsenal in the next round. Louis is still playing for Chesham United, his 37th (THIRTY-SEVENTH) club.

Steve Anthrobus

One thing Steve Anthrobus wasn’t known for was scoring, in 69 hopeless games he managed a total of four goals. It was something of a surprise, then, to find Anthrobus scoring in a very different way when he was caught having sex, on a picnic blanket indeed, with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He was convicted in 2007 for ‘outraging public dignity’.

Julian Alsop

Julian Alsop was a great steaming lummox. A footballing Hagrid, part-striker, part-Wookie. He was signed by Ian Atkins as a target man in his team of long-ball merchants. In 2004, while already on his way out of the club, Alsop was fired for unprofessional conduct. Legend has it, he was caught engaged in some harmless banter, shoving a banana up the arse of a young apprentice.

Graham Rix

Graham Rix was one of the finest coaches in the country. That’s what Firoz Kassam said, and who are we to judge a man with such impeccable judgement? One of the finest in the country and perhaps THE finest to have been convicted for sex with a minor. In 1999, Rix was literally forty-one years old when he was arrested for having sex with a fifteen year old girl in a hotel. Rix’s defence was that she made no ‘strong’ protest to his advance. Which is to suggest there were some weak protests. But they don’t count, do they Graham?

Coming up: Notts County

The drop

There are typically two reactions to relegation; the first is the development of a sense of entitlement to return from where you’ve dropped. A few good results early in the season and it’s easy to get into a rhythm that drives you to a successful season. We’ve seen this with teams like Chesterfield, Shrewsbury and Swindon in recent years. The other is the sudden panic that ‘the drop’ doesn’t actually mean ‘to the bottom’ and that there is much further to fall. Bristol Rovers, Carlisle, Portsmouth and Hartlepool have all experienced that.
Early season form is an important factor in determining which type of team you’ll be. It’s easy to become optimistic during close season and believe that you’re about to face a wad of inferior teams. But the differences between top and bottom are far smaller than you expect. County are probably still working out how things are; their opening win over Stevenage will have given them confidence, but their defeat to new derby bedfellows Mansfield will have been a shock on a number of levels. It’s a bit like our constant denial that Wycombe isn’t a derby; to some extent to admit it is to admit how far we’ve fallen. To be beaten at home by them is a deeper pain still.
So this is important for a number of reasons. We need a win, of course. We also need to give a potential promotion rival a bloody nose to knock them off of their stride before they get into it. 

Old game of the day

We haven’t played County for nine years, so not a lot to choose from in the archive. I’m going with this from 1994, a time that football kit design forgot. This was our last game of the season and the day we went down after a decade in the top two divisions. Mathematically it was still possible to stay up, but nobody in their right mind relies on maths.

But, it was also notable for a moment of Joey Beauchamp magic in his last game before moving to the Premier League where he would go on to play for England and win the World Cu… oh.

30 years of the Swindon derby – part 2

A number of factors converged to affect a step change in the nature of the A420 rivalry. Firstly, after 10 years lording it up, Oxford finally lost its grip on the upper reaches of the Football League, this coincided with the formation of the Premier League  and the emergence of Oxford’s finest ever homegrown player.

The start of the Premier League in 1992 ignited a gold rush Oxford failed to react to. They’d been stymied by an inability to secure planning permission for a new ground and without sufficient funding or infrastructure, they were always living on borrowed time. Relegation almost came as a relief, it was an opportunity to flush out some of the detritus and start again. It was confirmed at home to Notts County with the club’s most bankable asset, Joey Beauchamp, signing off with a magnificent goal.

Beauchamp’s departure was inevitable, he wasn’t going to slum it in the 3rd division and the club weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to cashing in on him. He left with everyone’s best wishes; we’d enjoy following his career wherever it took him. At least that’s what we thought. Famously, he then joined West Ham and left within 6 weeks claiming to be disenchanted with the commute to East London.

Swindon had hit somewhat of a purple patch. They’d taken a chance on Glenn Hoddle, a player so talented it seemed unlikely he was going to have the patience to coach players whose abilities were below his own. To everyone’s surprise, he turned out to be a natural manager and took the Robins into the Premier League. This could have killed the derby off for good had they not been caught out by the heat of the competition the top flight, and all its new-found riches, had bought. The toxic shock of losing Hoddle to Chelsea before the season began, itself an act of the cynical Premier League elite, and a torrid season in which they were persistently outclassed, resulted in an inevitable relegation back to Division 2.

The Premier League was a slightly different proposition to the one it is today. Debt was investment, and there were no foreign gazzilionaires pumping money into their toys. The supposed opportunity to succeed at the top end of the game remained a possibility, even for clubs like Swindon. They were happy to bet the farm to get a piece of the action and Swindon specifically, were convinced that they were deserving of their place back at the top.

John Gorman set about rebuilding his addled team with an eye on instant promotion back to the Premier League. He needed some impetus and a bit of class and knew of a homesick winger looking for a club. Beauchamp signed. He wasn’t the first to cross the border, Mark Jones had moved directly to Swindon without any fanfare. But there was deep symbolism in Beauchamp’s move. Oxford were failing, Swindon were thriving and the signing of Beauchamp was like us pawning a family heirloom to pay for food.

The lure of the Premier League shouldn’t be underestimated here; the £800,000 Swindon paid would be the equivalent of £5-6 million today. This was being paid by a team just relegated into the 2nd Division, for a player who was untried at the top level of the game and who showed some signs of, well, flakiness. 

The recoil from their Premier League season was just too great and Swindon collapsed to another relegation. They started 1995/6 in the same division as Oxford. The previous season, with an instant return to Division 2 in our sights, we had one of our trademark storming starts followed by a post-Christmas collapse. However, there was class in the squad, with Matt Elliot, Phil Gilchrist, Phil Whitehead, Chris Allen and Bobby Ford all playing. Paul Moody gave the side goals. The failure in 1994/5 spurred us on to believe another crack at promotion was on the cards.

For the first time, Oxford and Swindon were gunning for promotion in the same division. And to add extra spice, our golden boy, the epitome of Oxford United, the player we had all wanted to be, was playing for them.

The two teams met at the County Ground in August in a high quality 1-1 draw. Beauchamp skulked around on the bench absorbing abuse from the Oxford fans about his girlfriend. He made a brief substitute appearance but cut a lonely figure. He was in no-man’s land – disliked at the club he was at, hated at the club he’d left.

With some inevitability, Beauchamp was released and Oxford were happy to take him back. All was forgiven back at The Manor. Swindon fans, of course, could barely contain their loathing of a man they considered to be at the heart of their ignominious collapse. In their eyes, the sulky, homesick, mummy’s boy was the manifestation of what Oxford was about and he’d been a cancer within their club.

Beauchamp’s decompression from the Wiltshire wilderness took some time, but as he found form, our season spluttered into life. Swindon’s big diesel locomotive chugged its way towards the title under the tedious, but effective, reign of Steve McMahon. Our form had been patchy; strong at home, but without an away win until the end of January. By the time we met at the end of March, however, we were on a run which had taken 16 from a possible 18 points. At that point, the play-offs were a vague aspiration, automatic promotion had been largely written off. But something had clicked, and all the struggles of earlier in the season fell away.

The immovable object was about to be meet the irresistible force.

Next… 19th March 1996

Wingers’ Week Part 2 – The winged trinity

By 1988 the club was beginning a period of Division 2 stagnation, dog days in comparison to today and at any other club it might have been considered a halcyon time. The thing was, what had gone before was so wonderful it meant that life in the 2nd tier was decidedly mundane. Despite this, the winger production line was about to shift into overdrive.

Joey Beauchamp had been a ball boy at Wembley in 1986 and eventually made his first-team debut three years later. All great clubs should have a homegrown legend. It wasn’t quite a one club career, but his dalliances with West Ham and Swindon proved only that money wasn’t as important as happiness. 

People brand Beauchamp as a lightweight and a mummy’s boy. He was notoriously quiet in the dressing room, but was mentally strong enough to know what he wanted. When the club was in financial difficulties, he was linked with moves to Nottingham Forest and Southampton but turned them both down. He got to the Kassam, providing a lineage from the peak of the Glory Years to the new era of the club, but was soon unceremoniously dumped by Firoz Kassam for being expensive, injured and ageing. A reasonable business decision, but one that indicated the callous and cold hearted Kassam-era within which the club suffered. Beauchamp left after 13 years, and was involved in almost all the good things that happened in that period – Tranmere, Blackpool, Swindon

On the other wing, for the early part of Beauchamp’s reign, was the gangling form of Chris Allen. Nowhere near as refined as Beauchamp, it’s fair to say that Allen was a little, well, raw. The joke was that he only knew when to stop running when he saw the Unipart advertising boards at the end of the pitch. His emergence suggested that Oxford were a natural breeding ground for wingers. 

In 1996, when we were hunting for promotion, Allen’s head was turned by a move to Nottingham Forest. He didn’t see the season out, moving to the City Ground and scoring his only goal for Forest in a Premier League game against Liverpool. He stayed at Forest for 3 years, playing just 25 games. At 27, his career capitulated and he played just 21 more league games. Interestingly, although Beauchamp’s career was more fulfilled, Allen’s involvement in football has been more sustained. Perhaps it was a sobering lessons of missing his opportunity, he now coaches the youth team.

Amidst these two homegrown talents was Stuart Massey. For all Beauchamp and Allen’s empathy, pace and youthful talent, I think Massey was absolutely pivotal to the 1996 promotion season. Beauchamp or Allen played instinctively, with Paul Moody providing a target up front, the temptation was to get the ball to him quickly. Massey, however, refused to be rushed. It gave us the patience to create a quality, not quantity, of chances. This was key to us to building up a momentum that became the great promotion onslaught of 96.

With Beauchamp, Allen and Massey at their peak in 1996, hiding shyly behind the scenes was yet another local winged wonder. Paul Powell, unlike his predecessors, was a spiky, feisty character. His pugnacious attitude suggested that he might have the steel to succeed where the others had failed. I thought he was more talented than Brock, Thomas, Allen and even Beauchamp. He completed the trinity of mid-90s Oxford-born wingers. It’s very rare that a player changes games on his own, Powell could do just that. Not only did he win balls and beat players, he scored too. None of the others were that complete. I thought he’d play for England. 

With the club teetering on the edge of collapse, Powell represented a beacon for our survival. If he stayed, he’d play to get us out of trouble, if he went, with the money madness ramping up in the Premier League, he’d pay for it. During a late season revival under Malcolm Shotton in 1998 Powell joined Simon Marsh in an England Under 21 squad which he eventually had to pull out of. His problem was fitness, much of it apparently self-inflicted. His career was already on the wane when he got a bad injury against Luton. Although he returned and had the honour of scoring the first goal at the Kassam, he was never the same again.