World Cup of Central Defenders

Runners and riders

From Mark Wright to Rob Dickie, Oxford United have a rich history when it comes to central defenders. They are towering oaks, immovable, reliable bedrocks of any success. For me, your central defensive partnership speaks volumes about where you are as a club; when they are solid, so are we, when they are flakey, so are we. We’ve had some great central defenders; so many that I couldn’t narrow the field to the normal sixteen competitors so I had to go with an epic thirty-two, even though there was a bit of chaff to make up for the abundance of wheat.

The tournament wasn’t without its controversy. I’m meticulous in trying to be fair, but the first draw I did put a group together which included Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton, Matt Elliot and Phil Gilchrist. I decided to do the draw again.

The tournament was then thrown into crisis when it was pointed out that Canadian international Mark Watson had been omitted from the thirty-two. Watson was a steadying influence at the turn of the millennium and worthy of inclusion. My bad. Following a dead heat in a vote as to whether he should be included from the second round, one tweet in support decided it.

From there, battle commenced.

Group A

Even in the second draw it wasn’t possible to separate Gary Briggs and Phil Gilchrist who together comfortably took over 80% of the vote. In their wake was Darren Purse, a very capable back up to Elliott and Gilchrist in the 90s. Purse had all the attributes to stand alongside the greats, but largely lived in the shadows of those two before moving onto better things. Phil Whelan never stood a chance and would probably be happy with his five votes

Group B

Group B was a bloodbath, Malcolm Shotton blew everyone away with 80% of the vote. Second place, a long way back, were Elliott Moore and Luke Foster who presumably picked up their votes from people for whom Shotton is just a grainy video clip on YouTube. In the end, there was just two votes in it with Moore prevailing. Phil Bolland was left bewildered, picking up two votes.

Group C

Group C seemed more even, Steve Davis’ place in the team was a signal of the club collapsing in the late 90s, but the others were all well regarded in their time. There’s a lot of respect for John Mousinho, so he came out on top with 58.2% of the vote, followed by the most educated of all the competitors Kiwi Ceri Evans (MBChB MA MSc Dip ForMH MRCPsych PhD). Michael Raynes won a lot of friends during his time at the club but couldn’t compete.

Group D

Similarly Group D looked an even fight. Tommy Caton played in Division 1 for the club, but his time at the club is mostly forgotten. Mark Creighton’s time at Oxford was relatively short, but his impact was immense meaning he came out on top with 48.6% of the vote. He was followed by Andy Crosby, a John Mousinho-type commanding defender from the early 2000s. Michael Duberry had a lot of fans during his two years with the club, but couldn’t quite live with the big guns in the group.

Group E

Curtis Nelson laid waste to Group E picking up the same landslide victory as Malcolm Shotton in Group B with 83.4% of the vote. The rest were fighting for scraps, it was Brian Wilsterman, the hapless, accident prone, but charismatic Dutchman who picked up just 9.6% of the votes to ease into the second round.

Group F

Group F was all about the younger pretenders. Both Andy Melville and Steve Foster were club captains and internationals – Foster played in the 1982 World Cup. But, with Twitter skewed towards a slightly younger demographic and the fact that football fans tend to have short memories, Rob Dickie and Chey Dunkley took the honours.

Group G

Had only the winner gone through from Group G, then it would have been a group of death with the presence of Matt Elliott and Jake Wright together. In the end their combined forces blew away makeweights Rhys Day and Charlie Raglan. Elliott prevailed with 59.6% of the vote. Day was the only player in the competition not to pick up a single vote, which is a shame given his contribution to Alfie Potter’s goal at Wembley in 2010.

Group H

An epic group stage concluded with a fairly convincing sweep from Johnny Mullins and Mark Wright. Wright was probably the best defender in the competition he went on to play a pivotal role for England in the 1990 World Cup and captained Liverpool, but his time at the club when manager tainted his image, so he ran out second to the amiable Mullins.

Round 2

As if to illustrate that these competitions are not wholly a judgement of ability, Gary Briggs blew away Mark Wright in the first game of Round 2. Rambo took 85.8% of the vote setting his stall out for the rest of the tournament. On the pitch and in Twitter polls, he wasn’t going to take any prisoners.

A battle of the hardest of hard men. I’d have paid good money to see Mark Creighton and Malcolm Shotton go up against each other on the pitch. In the end, Malcolm Shotton made it a double for The Milk Cup duo taking over 75% of the vote. Farewell dear Beast.

John Mousinho is a mightily impressive man, a great communicator and leader and a real asset to the club, but when put up against Matt Elliott, he really didn’t stand a chance. Elliott blazed past him with nearly 80% of the vote.

Game 4 was a 2016 derby, an old partnership which saw us through the late Wilder years, right up to the point where Chey Dunkley emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Head to head, though, there was no contest, Wright took it with the highest vote percentage of the tournament so far.

Then things started to unravel, a frantic thirty minutes when I had a shopping delivery and a log delivery in quick succession coincided with the conclusion of the first round and someone pointing out that I’d forgotten Mark Watson. Watson was a Canadian international and club captain in the late 1990s. While the club collapsed around him, he remained steadfast and was worthy of a place in the tournament. An emergency poll as to his inclusion came out 50:50, so in the end, one supportive tweet decided it. It didn’t do much good, Phil Gilchrist won comfortably with 66.9% of the vote, Watson’s inclusions simply seemed to split the vote with Andy Crosby.

After that drama, we all needed a bit of knockabout fun, so watching Brian Wilsterman get schooled by Chey Dunkley was just what the doctor ordered. Dunkley broke the record with 95.6% of the vote, with people admitting that they voted for Wilsterman out of sympathy.

But if Chey Dunkley’s win was convincing, Rob Dickie’s destruction of his old defensive partner Elliott Moore was devastating. Dickie humbled the big man with 97% of the vote, the biggest win advantage in this or any other tournament.

The final game was nearly as convincing; Curtis Nelson’s more recent escapades fried 90s-guy Ceri Evans who would probably be happy with a second round place. Evans can go back to his books while Nelson booked his place in the quarter-finals.

Quater-Final

The second round shed the tournament of its makeweights, all eight quarter-finalists were veterans of epic campaigns and leaders in their own right. There were no easy ties. First up, was Rob Dickie against Phil Gilchrist. It should have been close, but Dickie’s more recent escapades made him the comfortable win with 60% of the vote.

There are moments in these things where people you think of as imperious, suddenly look meek and vulnerable. Matt Elliott ominously swept aside Curtis Nelson in game two with 83.1% of the vote. Could anyone stop him?

Game three was the tightest of them all. Jake Wright lived more recently in the memory and was arguably the more refined defender, but would that be enough? The legend of Gary Briggs lives strong, the blood streaming down his face and splattered on his shirt, these evocative images gave him just enough to sneak by with 54% of the vote.

The final quarter-final was another case of a legend coming up against a more lived experience. Once again, the legend lived on with Malcolm Shotton comfortably taking 71% of the vote.

Semi-Final

The strength of myth and legend saw Malcolm Shotton prevail in the first semi-final. Rob Dickie would have to be pretty pleased to have got this far and lay a glove on the moustachioed maestro with nearly 40% of the vote.

Semi-Final 2 looked tighter on paper; Briggs is a titan of Oxford United lore, could anyone overcome him, would anyone dare? It turns out, yes and convincingly. Matt Elliott eased through with 78.6% of the vote.

Final

And so to the final and two worthy pugilists, masters of their craft, veterans of legendary campaigns. Shotton, the captain of the glory years, Elliott, the jewel in the mid-90s promotion crown. Early voting was split with the two sharing the spoils, but slowly, Elliott began to ease ahead. Just like he was on the pitch, there was a gracefulness to how he did it, by the end he’d picked up 61.8% of the votes. Following an epic and brutal contest, the two contenders fell into each others arms; Elliott the victor.

Verdict

It took nearly 4000 votes to decide it, but Matt Elliott was a more than worthy winner. We are easily impressed by the brutality of central defenders and it the debt the club has to Malcolm Shotton will never be fully repaid, but Elliott had something extra and so it proved. In truth, the Shotton/Briggs partnership was found out in the First Division and our survival relied on the goals of John Aldridge rather than the backline. Elliott, though, never looked uncomfortable whether playing for us, in the Premier League or on the international stage. Elliott was the one that made the difference in the 1990s and we were lucky to have him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Lawrence’s Summer Shorts: Magnetic feels

Monday 13 May 2019

We open the week with an apology; GLS maintains high standards of professionalism and we forgot to mention the escapades of our benchmark professional Daniel Crowley. If you don’t recall, Crowley was a diminutive attacking midfielder who joined us on loan from Arsenal in 2016 – think Jack Payne in Cuban heels. Crowley’s time was cut short due to Michael Appleton’s dark mutterings about his conduct (following a spell at Barnsley, who made dark mutterings about his conduct). His career has been revitalised Jadon Sancho style by moving to Europe – taking his brand of ill discipline to Willem II in the Eredivisie. A couple of weeks ago, Willem II, which is Dutch for Will.I.Am, lost 4-0 to Ajax in the Dutch Cup Final with Crowley coming off the bench for the last half hour.

In other news, lovable Le Petite Boule de Bowling, Alex MacDonald had play-off heartbreak when Mansfield were knocked out by Newport County on penalties. Armani Little – which also describes the only clothes GLS ever finds at Bicester Village – scored in Woking’s play-off final Conference South win; The Millennial Julian Allsopp, Harvey Bradbury, was a late substitute.

Tuesday 14 May 2019

As they say in Game of Thrones; The North Remembers, unfortunately the south forgets. In the hullabaloo about new contracts and released players last week, the name T’ony McMahon was completely overlooked. The whippet worrying full-back remains on our books despite spending a good chunk of the year on loan at Scunthorpe who he helped steer to a comfortable relegation spot last season. KRob doesn’t expect him to return south next year; he doesn’t want to take a “bad signing and make it into a good signing.”; applying his trademark bewildering logic. Some would argue he spent a decent part of last season achieving the exact opposite. Not us, though, not us.

Wednesday 15 May 2019

Exotic foreign coach Chrïstophé Wïldé has beaten Pep Guardiola and other Johnny Foreigners to become the LMA Manager of the Year. The Brexiteers’ choice is responsible for the Oxford careers of legends Tom Newey and Ben Futcher; the award is recognition for Wïldé’s journey from non-league to the Premier League via the second best footballing team in League 2. He says his success won’t change him, although we understand that he’s already started buying Carte Noir coffee and is shopping for some of the more premium brands in Home Bargains.

There was an assistant manager glare-fest at The Hawthorns on Tuesday as John Terry and Michael Appleton faced each other down in their play-off semi-final. Villa sneaked through on penalties, although everyone agreed West Brom took the better footballing spot kicks.

Thursday 16 May 2019

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; so we can say with a degree of confidence that nobody killed Robbie Cundy during his time at the Kassam. With his career solidly rooted in a single Oxford United appearance against Dagenham and Redbridge in the JPT in 2015, Cundy dropped out of the Football League in 2017 eventually joining Bath City. As a result of his performances as The Romans’ Jake Wright to their Ryan Clarke, who also happens to be the actual Ryan Clarke, Bristol City have signed him up on a two-year contract.

The curse of the play-off semi-finals continue. After Alex MacDonald on Sunday, MApp on Tuesday, The Roofe was not on fire on Wednesday as Kemar sat in the stands watching Leeds get mauled by Derby in their play-off semi-final second leg. Chris Maguire is up tonight in Sunderland v Portsmouth. Uh oh.

Friday 17 May 2019

Johnny Mullins has retired. Mullins was part of the promotion winning team of 2016 before leaving for Luton Town. He was at Cheltenham Town last season, but has chosen to jack it all in. Mullins was known as as The Magnet because he twice scored from a corner in 127 games. At approximately 5 corners a game, that’s a magnetism of 0.2%. Coincidentally, he also has an excellent, if slightly pricey range of kitchens.

Trolly is on his way to Wembley – Charlie Methven’s Sunderland featuring Chris Maguire drew 0-0 with Portsmouth last night sending the Mackems through to face Charlton.

KRob has spoken. Let’s face it this is not an unusual thing, he seems to have spoken continuously since the end of the season. So much so that it’s possible he’s still standing pitchside at Kenilworth Road speaking to an increasingly weary Nathan Cooper. That’s probably not true, although it’s exactly the kind of thing he’d do, isn’t it? His latest ejaculation focuses on his wish list for next season. Nothing remarkable about the list, although he did mention that he was hoping to bring back Wonderfoot Luke Garbutt and ban-magnet Ahmed Kashi and the sloth in the box, Jerome Sinclair.

Saturday 18 May 2019

It’s the day that the whole nation stops, gathers together around the TV set and watches a great annual institution play out in front of them. As well as Eurovision, it’s also the FA Cup final. It’s Watford’s first appearance since 1984 when they were captained by former Oxford United player and now Youth Team Officer Les Taylor. You can read him banging on about it like your drunk uncle here.

Back in the future, Leeds’ capitulation against Derby as raised question about Kemar Roofe. With a year on his contract, speculation is that he’ll be snapped up by a Premier League club this summer. Wait, who’s the cat in the beret with Yvette Carte-Blanche from Allo Allo on his arm? It’s only remodelled bon vivant Chrïstophé Wïldé. He wouldn’t would he?

Sunday 19 May 2019

Our week closes with the news that conscientious objector Callum O’Dowda has joined us the the Republic of Ireland squad. Nothing unusual about that except he hasn’t played for Bristol City since March due to a mystery injury. Always a highly principled young man, O’Dowda and his medical team have searched for a diagnosis. It appears that it could be suffering from a broken contract resulting from an inflated ego with a number of Championship and Premier League teams interested in his signature. All very treatable if you apply a great pile of money to it.

Midweek Fixture: The 2016 JPT Final team – where are they now?

Before it was infested by Under 23 Premier League teams, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was a half decent tournament. At least when you got to the final. The last to maintain its integrity was 2016 where we faced Barnsley in the final. It was a joyous affair, despite the 3-2 defeat. Where are those brave men now?

Benji Büchel

Likeable weak link in an otherwise relentlessly effective team. Shared glove-based responsibilities with Sam Slocombe for most of the season. Replaced by Simon Eastwood once promotion was confirmed. Eventually went to Barnet on loan where he was briefly announced as playing for their ladies team. Now at FC Vaduz, he’s been capped by Lichenstein over 20 times and recently played against Italy.

Jonjoe Kenny

More than capable right-back signed on loan from Everton filling a not inconsiderable hole left by George Baldock. Slotted seamlessly into the team under the tutelage of Alex MacDonald. Headed back to Everton, playing the final game of the 2015/16 season. He was part of the England team which won the Under 20 World Cup in 2017. Has spent most of his time since in and out of their starting eleven at The Toffees.

Johnny Mullins (captain)

Started the season as a first choice centre-back before falling down the pecking order. Captained the side due to Jake Wright not being fully fit. Headed for Luton at the end of the promotion season where he won promotion, before joining Cheltenham.

Chey Dunkley

Cheyenne Amarni Keanu Roma Dunkley cemented a place in Oxford United folklore at Wembley by doing a Cruyff turn in his own box. Also managed to score Barnsley’s first goal. Spent most of the season overcoming Johnny Mullins in the centre of defence. Scored a decisive goal against Wycombe to seal promotion, dominant in our first year in League 1 before signing for Wigan Athletic. Won promotion to The Championship the following season.

Jordan Evans

Signed on loan from Fulham in January 2016, played only nine games before heading back. Started due to an injury to Joe Skarz. A Welsh Under-21 international, his professional career petered out, playing for Wrexham and Bala Town before ending up at Cefn Druids, A man with hidden talents, Evans is a qualified hairdresser and plays in the band Faded Strangers.

Alex MacDonald

Lovable tireless winger signed from Burton at Michael Appleton’s lowest ebb. Boundless enthusiasm for the game dragged us out of the fug and into the 2015/16 season. A regular through the promotion year before being unceremoniously sold to Mansfield Town.

Josh Ruffels

Oxford United survivor originally signed by Chris Wilder from Coventry City. Made the starting eleven due to a lunging John Lundstram tackle which gained a red card and a ban. Players came and went, as did managers, but Ruffels stayed. Mostly played in midfield, but converted to full-back under Karl Robinson, became a specialist in spectacular last minute goals.

Liam Sercombe

Wide shouldered marauding midfielder whose goals from midfield were critical to pretty much everything we did well that season. Scored a decisive goal at Carlisle at the end of the season. The following season in League One he continued his good form until he fell out with Michael Appleton, possibly over his reaction to only being a substitute in the JPT Final against Coventry the following season, where he also scored. Signed for Bristol Rovers in the summer.

Callum O’Dowda

Career-minded local boy flitted in and out of the team throughout the promotion season. Scored the opener in the final to wild celebration. Also scored the last goal of the season against Wycombe before flouncing off to Bristol City in the summer. A Republic of Ireland international.

Kemar Roofe

Ethereal goal machine who initially joined on loan from West Brom. Heralded a new era when he was announced as a permanent signing the following summer, smashed in over 20 goals before joining Leeds United for £4m.

Danny Hylton

Precise, analytical, focussed – everything that Michael Appleton was, Danny Hylton wasn’t. Signed by Gary Waddock weeks before the Darryl Eales revolution took hold. Stuck to the first team like chewing gum on your shoe. Scored the second goal which briefly raised hopes of a revival. At the end of the season, he headed for Luton Town where he won promotion. More recently spent most of his time cheerleading from the sidelines as Luton head for the Championship.

Substitutes:

Sam Slocombe

Initially signed to replace Ryan Clarke, Slocombe’s patchy form saw him chopping and changing with Benji Buchel throughout the season. Missed out on Wembley, but played in our 3-2 giant killing over Swansea. The signing of Simon Eastwood pushed him out the door to Blackpool. Lasted a year before going to Bristol Rovers. Loaned to Lincoln in 2019.

Jake Wright

A leader of men who was signed by Chris Wilder in 2010. Won promotion to the Football League at the end of that year. Injury meant he missed out on being the first Oxford United player to play at Wembley twice. Led the team to promotion, but re-joined Chris Wilder at Sheffield United in a defensive re-shuffle when Curtis Nelson arrived. Won promotion with the Blades where he still is, albeit now sidelined by injury.

Sam Long

A player who seemed to be so frequently injured, successive managers didn’t have the heart to release him. Survived Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and became a regular in Karl Robinson’s starting eleven.

Josh Ashby

Once heralded as the future of the football club; Ashby achieved just seven appearances before being released. Signed for Oxford City.

George Waring (replaced Callum O’Dowda)

A proper unit signed on loan from Stoke City, flitted in and out of the team scoring once. Following a series of loan moves he headed for Tranmere before joining Chester in 2019.

Chris Maguire (replaced Alex MacDonald)

Enigmatic magician signed on loan from Rotherham. Sulked from one club to another, disgusted by the mediocrity around him. At Oxford, however, he bloomed and signed permanently in 2016. Scored twice in a derby win over Swindon and generally oozed genius. Appleton’s departure scuppered chances of a renewed contract where he made a disasterous move to Bury. Following their relegation he was signed by Sunderland where he initially regained form. Slipped out of the reckoning as the season progressed.

Jordan Bowery (replaced Danny Hylton)

One of numerous target men that Michael Appleton signed. Unlike most of the others, he weighed in with seven goals during his time with the club including a critical winner at Portsmouth. Dropped to the Conference with Leyton Orient where he failed to find any form. Signed on loan with Crewe before being made permanent, scoring twenty goals for the club.