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.

World Cup All Stars #7: John Aldridge

Let me try and paint a picture of football in the 1980s. Great emphasis was placed on your first team; so much emphasis that players wore shirts numbered 1-11 and there was just one substitute. Squads didn’t exist, if you weren’t in the first eleven, you were in the second eleven or the reserves.

Football wasn’t strategic, it was tactical. I don’t know if that made it better, but it meant that the action happened on the pitch not in the boardroom. It meant that things were more unpredictable, which probably made it more exciting.

Within your first eleven was a big fat goalkeeper, defenders with wonky noses, nippy little wingers and a star striker. Nowadays you have three or four strikers who are rotated; in the 1980s it was just one. The narrative was pure Roy of the Rovers and it had been like that for decades from Tom Finney and Johnny Haynes through Jack Charlton and into the 1980s.

Oxford always had a star striker; Joe Cook, Keith Cassells, Peter Foley, Mick Vinter, Neil Whatmore, Steve Biggins. Each had their moment, Cassells scored against Brighton in the FA Cup, Biggins scored against Manchester United in the League Cup win in 1984. To me, however, it was all building up to the ultimate star striker; John Aldridge.

Aldridge was signed from Newport in 1984 by Jim Smith. History plays tricks on your mind, but it seemed that there was inevitability surrounding his arrival. He started scoring instantly providing additional impetus to the third division title charge, he followed it up a year later with another bucketful to take us through the to the 2nd division title. It was as if a pre-written destiny was being fulfilled.

In the top flight Aldridge set about keeping us up almost single handedly. For all of the legend surrounding Shotton and Briggs, our defence was porous. Aldridge scored 23 league goals, which kept us up.

If the 1980s was the last embers of the football in its traditional image, modern football was being brewed elsewhere. Jack Charlton had become manager of the Republic of Ireland. He set about putting in place a master plan to make his obscure little island into something resembling a force. In short he put winning at the core of everything he wanted to do.

The first thing he did was employ a philosophy of ‘route one’ football; it was a template that was being adopted in domestic football and was working. Passing, possession and style was effete, balls forward and goals were the new thing; both Watford and Wimbledon had reached stratospheric heights with the philosophy.

Secondly, he used the Irish diaspora to widen his talent pool. Suddenly anyone with a vaguely Irish connection became eligible. Dave Langan – from more traditional Irish stock – was a notable victim, despite, according to his autobiography, introducing both Liverpool born Aldridge and Glaswegian Ray Houghton to the new regime.

In some senses, the new set up was prescient of modern football with teams full of foreign players. It almost didn’t matter where you came from, or where spiritually your heart was, so long as you were winning. The Republic of Ireland was almost a franchise.

The impact was immediate, although Aldridge struggled to some extent. Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 1988, beating England and scaring the living daylights out of the Netherlands and the USSR. Aldridge, however, was being used as a target man rather than a goal poacher and goals were hard to find. Charlton would use battering rams such as Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino (who it eventually turned out wasn’t even vaguely Irish).

The experience was intoxicating and Ireland went on to qualify for Italia 90 where they made the quarter-finals, even though they only scored two goals. In each game Aldridge ran around for an hour before being substituted. Against Romania he lasted 20 minutes.

According to all the autobiographies, the Irish experience was a blast for all concerned. By 1994, however, the empire was beginning to crumble as Charlton struggled to replacing his ageing first generation of imports. They qualified for USA ’94, becoming almost a replacement England side, who had bowed out in qualifying.

Ireland started well, beating Italy in New York, but facing Mexico in stifling heat (something Charlton obsessed; over earning him a touchline ban) the Irish were found wanting. Aldridge, on the bench, was prepared to join the fray with 20 minutes to go and Mexico 2-0 up. With Norway waiting, the defeat could well have meant curtains for their campaign. Aldridge stood on the sidelines while a particularly fastidious official fussed over administrative technicalities. It took 6 minutes to make the substitution with Charlton and Aldridge screaming at the fourth official to let him on. The tirade, amidst plenty of rum language and finger pointing, was clearly audible on TV. It turned Aldridge into a worldwide legend.

He continued to remonstrate even while trotting onto the field. The fire in his belly helped him score his only World Cup goal, reducing the arrears to 2-1 (Ireland’s 4th goal in their World Cup finals history). The goal was essential in reducing their goal difference and allowing them to progress into the second round where they were smited by the Netherlands.

That was the end of Aldridge’s World Cup Finals career; more famous for his effin’ and jeffin’ than for his goals. He played for Ireland for a decade, scoring just 19 goals, although that still makes him the 4th joint top scorer for his country.

Well, I say his country…