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.

Kassam All Star XI – Strikers part 2

Much to Ian Atkins’ chagrin, Graham Rix was actually given funds to bring in decent strikers. So in came the curious Lee Bradbury and indomitable Tommy Mooney.

Bradbury was a multi-million pound player at Portsmouth. His career pretty much collapsed thereafter and he eventually found himself at Oxford. Some tried to convince themselves that Bradbury’s ineffectiveness was down to the fact his thinking was ahead of those around him. This was rubbish; in two years he only just broke double figures in terms of goals. Although one was a fantastic overhead kick against Torquay. Firoz Kassam cryogenically froze his Oxford career before his appearance total triggered a contract renewal.

Mooney was a bullish centre forward and grizzled old pro. Like Bradbury, he was a former million pound man. His arrival from Swindon was particularly sweet, although after a single season he buggered off to Wycombe. But, he was brilliant, a proper striker who knew the game. His 25 yard strike against Yeovil was up there amongst the best the Kassam Stadium has ever seen.

Third fiddle was Craig Davies, a precocious Mancunian, who looked like he had all the talent to play in the top division. By all accounts, he was a difficult character; Mooney, in particular, seemed to dislike him.

Although Mooney left at the end of 2004/5, the following season we maintained an embarrassment of riches up front. With Basham, Bradbury Hackett, Brooks, and Davies we looked like we should be threatening the top end of the division. At Christmas 2005, in an act of criminal complacency, Bradbury, Davies and Hackett all left. From Christmas Day to the end of the season we scored just 19 goals, three of those on boxing day.

In place of the departing trio was Eric Sabin, lightening quick, elegant, but underwhelming in front of goal. And Yemi Odubade who first appeared in an Eastbourne Borough shirt during a FA Cup game. I was at the game and when he appeared off the substitutes bench the locals went mad. It was like God was coming on.

In the replay he outplayed us all on his own, hitting the bar and post numerous times. Yet, somehow, we won 3-0 with a Basham hat-trick. Yemi’s performances were enough to convince Brian Talbot to sign him on.

When Talbot had gone, Jim Smith scrambled to rescue a sinking ship, bringing Tcham NToya in to spark a revival. The revival spluttered, despite a memorable first game for Smith and Merry against Peterborough in which N’Toya scored.

As we head into the Conference, it’s time to put another one into the Kassam All-Star XI. In a sea of impotent strikers and unfulfilled promises, Tommy Mooney showed in one season what a professional striker was really about. Despite the Swindon background and the Wycombe betrayal, he’s well worth his slot up front.

Kassam All Star XI – Strikers part 1

The attack for our first game at the Kassam was a real before and after shot. Andy Scott’s signing, during the wretched twilight months of The Manor, was truly truly horrible. Scott was a nice bloke, but an inflated deal spiked with bonuses proved the desperate state the club was in at the time.

Alongside Scott was Jamie Brooks; the prodigious talent perfect for a new era. I took him for granted, putting his precocious lob in the first game down to luck. He scored 10 goals, but I expected him to score 20. It’s hard to believe now that had everything gone to plan, his career would have been peaking now a decade on. A move to Arsenal was in the offing when he was struck down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, it nearly killed him and along with it, his career. He stayed until 2006 but scored just three more goals.

Mark Wright knew that a novice and non-scoring striker were not going to sustain the revolution. He had Manny Omoyinmi – a Proto-Yemi Odubade – but when we needed more firepower, he turned to a very familiar face in Paul Moody.

Moody held a special position in the history of the club, spearheading the 1996 promotion team. He’d since hauled his leaden and broken body around Fulham and Millwall and was now 34. He had a much better time than people remember, but was treading water and eventually gave up the ghost after less than a season.

By this time Ian Atkins was at the helm, his signing of Steve Basham was very un-Atkins; whose teams preferred to drop bombs on strikers from upon high. Basham hung around for years, scored lots of goals, not one of which anyone can remember.

Towards the end of the 2001/2 season, a gangling lummox appeared on the touchline. That man was Jefferson Louis. Louis was a peculiar chap, occasionally in trouble with the law, loved by fans not least for his goal in the FA Cup win over Swindon, famous for showing off his naked backside to the nation on finding out we were going to Arsenal. He was unpredictable, which meant he was hated for what he was loved for. At one point Ian Atkins substituted him after about 20 minutes for simply not trying.

Eventually he headed off on the most mind-boggling tour of the lower and non-leagues. According to Wikipedia, Oxford were his third team, in the next seven years he played for TWENTY-FOUR more clubs. We last saw him being ineffectual for Rushden during our play-off semi-final win.

Julian Alsop was much more Ian Atkins’ kind of guy. For the period he was at the club, a true barometer for its psyche. When Atkins was in situ, Alsop was a dependable lump for defenders to launch balls at. One of my abiding memories was his miraculous last minute winning goal against Leyton Orient on Boxing Day in 2003. A man without pace, touch or finesse, out sprinted the Orient back-four before executing a sublime dink over the keeper. It was the impossible goal.

When Graham Rix arrived, discipline around the club collapsed and Alsop The Barometer was fired for ramming a banana up the arse of a youth teamer. Oh yes.

Jamie Brooks’ story is the story of the Kassam. He had the ability to go all the way, but there was something dark lurking preventing it all, a curse that struck at a key moment. And for that, and his talent, Jamie Brooks is the first striker in the Kassam All-Star XI.

Kassam All Star XI – Midfield part 2

The Conference era opened with the signing of Eddie Hutchinson a player that always seemed to need another chance. He looked big and strong, he looked able, but when you expected him to be big, strong and able, he didn’t quite pull it off. So you gave him another chance to see whether he could do it. And he invariably didn’t.

Hutchinson’s ultimate claim to fame was to be the player who, despite being with the club for 3 years, in his final season was unregistered while playing for us. That cost us 5 points, and conceivably a place in back in the League a year before we actually did it.

Another member of the new crew was Carl Pettefer, a tenacious gerbil signed from Southend. With Chris Hargreaves dictating tempo and Andy Burgess offering creativity, for a moment it looked like, for the first time, we had a balanced and productive midfield.

Like all good things, this came to an end. Like all good Oxford things, it came to an end nanoseconds after it started. Burgess was fleetingly brilliant while the pitches and weather were fine, thereafter he plodded on in the hope that he would regain his early season form. Hutchinson ran around slightly behind the play. Pettefer had an excellent first season, but faded with injury.

It’s difficult to know what went wrong with Chris Hargreaves, perhaps it was the shambles around him. As the season progressed his challenges became more lunging and late. The last we saw of him was kicking over a water bottle as Exeter won the play-off penalty shoot out. It was the cleanest strike he’d had in months. He left at the end of the 2006/7 season, where he did a Ricketts and got promoted with Torquay.

As the money ran out, players like the ‘budget busting’ Michael Standing and Phil Trainer came in. Trainer had his moments, but had the unenviable habit of getting slower as he got fitter. Joe Burnell arrived with the promise of much needed bite and leadership. But despite creating the acorn that sprouted an oak, he offered little.

Darren Patterson’s reign was also notable because of the raft of loanees he brought. This including the peculiarly coloured Lewis Haldane, a strong, orange, winger who frustrated and dazzled (in more ways than one) in the way lower league wingers always do.

Chris Wilder adopting a midfield consisting of Haldane, Trainer and Adam Murray; who could pass a ball with some style, but like Hargreaves before him, was often left chasing shadows as a result of the ineptitude around him.

By the end of the season, we had a new look; Simon Clist and Adam Chapman came in alongside The Fighting Dwarf – Craig Nelthorpe. Nelthorpe was released at the end of 2008/9 to be replaced by Dannie Bulman. Clist offered unspectacular reassurance which you don’t see when it’s there, but miss when it’s not. Bulman was the magic piece of the puzzle and the Kassam years were blessed with its first and only seminal midfield.

Bulman, Clist and Murray were the perfect mix of aggression, control and creativity. When Murray was sidelined with injury, and following a crisis of confidence, Chapman joined the battle and re-pointed the trajectory of our season to promotion. Promising, following his arrival from Sheffield United, Chapman had been surprisingly subdued throughout the season but found form at just the right moment. Days before Wembley it was announced had been charged with death by reckless driving; which explained everything. With a year’s chokey hanging over his head, he put in a match winning performance at Wembley which took us up.

The Clist/Bulman/Murray/Chapman midfield lasted less than a year. Murray left for Luton, Chapman was doing his time, Clist suffered a series of niggly injuries. To the surprise of everyone, Dannie Bulman was shipped out to Crawley. He got too involved in games, said Chris Wilder, although there were times when we could have done with a bit of that during the League campaign.

From the settled trio of the promotion campaign to the tossing and turning of the first League season. Asa Hall and Simon Heslop came in from Luton, but neither could hit the consistency needed to sustain a whole season in the middle. Josh Payne suffered similarly. Paul McLaren was eventually brought in to offer experience and proved a valuable asset to the squad by anchoring a midfield full of youthful nervous energy. Although the 2010/11 midfield model saw lots of good quality attacking football, there was still a missing ingredient to take us into the play-offs and beyond.

Only Dean Whitehead made the Kassam Years All-Star XI from our first period of League football at the stadium, it seems fitting that the other two members of the squad are drawn from the seminal promotion midfield. Dannie Bulman and Simon Clist, welcome both.

Kassam All Star XI – Midfield part 1

Oxford United didn’t have a midfield for the first three years of life at the Kassam. Under Mark Wright they used to melt into the gaps in between the defenders effectively creating a flat back 8. Under Ian Atkins they were bypassed completely. In fact, no player touched the ball in the centre circle apart from kicking-off between 2001 and 2004.

Across the midfield, as was the way with the move to the Kassam, we started the first season with a new look. Matt Murphy was left behind in the rubble of the Manor, Joey Beauchamp gazed on like a child sitting on the mound behind the open west end of the ground on match day.

Paul Tait made it across the divide to the Kassam, but his most memorable moment was years before showing off a shirt bearing the legend ‘Shit on the Villa’ when scoring for Birmingham at Wembley. He was joined by Dave Savage, a player who survived deep into the Atkins revolution. Savage was afflicted by the “Kassam Spiral”; hated in his first season, loved in his second.

Waiting in the wings was the pock marked junior Dean Whitehead. He and Chris Hackett would occasionally make cameos under Wright and Atkins, but calls to play him regularly were often resisted. By the time Whitehead was a regular, he was dynamic, creative and a much more complete footballer than the club had produced for years. The nuturing seemed to instill in Whitehead a work ethic that has served him well in a career that has taken in Sunderland and Stoke.

For all that Atkins did that was good with Whitehead, his pragmatic football philosophy did not breed a great dynasty in midfield maestros. Bobby Ford returned, but had his spirit truly broken by the long ball game. James Hunt joined but his role was primarily to stand in the middle of the pitch shouting ‘Great punt Crozzer, now get something on it Alsop” as he watched another ball sour over his head.

You’d think that Graham Rix, one of the country’s most respected young coaches (and convicted sex offender) would have put passing football at the heart of his gameplan. Oddly, despite everything he claimed to be, he seemed completely incapable of selecting a midfielder with any degree of competence. Derek Townsley came and went, Rob Wolleaston came, had great hair, looked OK and then went. At least Paul Wanless returned and gave a half decent account of himself.

Rix’s reign removed the last chock of sanity keeping the United juggernaught from sliding down the hill to its death. We simply descended into a form of mania. Ramon Diaz introduced to the midfield the likes of Diaz (junior), Raponi, Cominelli and Karam – they had an average height of 5ft 4 and spent most of their time shivering with their sleeves pulled over their hands. They might have been a boy band in a reality TV show doing whacky challenges. Had they not kept turning up to games, Diaz would surely have been accused of using his position to smuggle illegal immigrants to the country. They were barely footballers, let alone League 2 footballers.

Uncharacteristically, Brian Talbot introduced some normality to the midfield. In particular, his signing of Chris Hargreaves, which offered a degree of maturity and level headedness that couldn’t be fostered throughout the rest of the side.

Later Andy Burgess joined, a man with a fantastically overstated ego. For most of the time he sloped around waiting for the world to offer him a living. For a few weeks at the beginning of the Conference era, he turned into Zinedine Zidane. There was fleeting talk of a transfer to Leeds. At which point he seemed unwilling to allow his talents to be displayed on the pitch – a protest, one assumes. A few years later he returned to the Kassam with Rushden, he preceding the game with trash talk the very best heavyweight boxers would be proud of. He was clearly motivated to teach us a lesson. He subsequently put in a performance of spectacular ineptitude and disinterest.

And with that, we lost our league position. The first five years, in which we succeeded in doing nothing more than plummet into the Conference, only Dean Whitehead is really deserving of a place in the Kassam All Star XI.

Kassam All Star XI – Centre backs

Gareth Southgate has a lot to answer for. In 1996 he was heralded as representative of a new wave of centre back. No more Tony Adams or Terry Butcher with their noses splattered all over their faces. Southgate was the new intelligent ball-playing centre back who spoke nicely and slowly; he couldn’t be anything but a thinker.

But, I’m a traditionalist. I like my centre backs big, ugly and prepared to put their faces in other people’s boots. Mark Wright’s first move when he arrived at the Kassam was to replace a couple of lightweight Gareth Southgates: Jon Richardson and Darren Patterson with a couple of trusted war horses from his successful spell with Chester. Scott Guyett and Phil Bolland offered a proven combination that he could trust.

But Ian Atkins needed more, and I don’t just mean a third centre back. He brought in a genuine leader in Andy Crosby. In an ever-volatile situation at the Kassam, Crosby kept the players focussed on winning games. He was such a pro, he knew exactly when to step away from the madness and took up residence at Scunthorpe where he did a Ricketts and won a couple of promotions.

Crosby was accompanied by similarly gnarly old pros; Matt Bound and latterly Paul McCarthy. It wasn’t the most handsome of back lines, but it was effective. Jon Ashton was drafted in, offering a Phil Gilchrist to Crosby’s Matt Elliot. While Crosby was the epitome of consistency, Ashton’s form bobbed around in the sea of failure that was the Kassam.

Leo Roget was brought in by Graham Rix to play the Crosby role and nurture the back line. Roget was a notable victim of the ‘Kassam Spiral’ whereby his first season he looked awful, the second, when the rest of the team had descended below his limited abilities, he started to look like a pivotal figure.

In the desperate search for a stabilising influence Brian Talbot brought in Chris Willmott. Willmott was, for a period at least, a reassuring big chunk of British centre-back. The Willmott/Ashton/Roget combination – Talbot chose two from those three almost at random – looked like it should be good enough. But the season quickly turned from disappointment to alarm to crisis to disaster and we were relegated.

Standing around in midfield thinking ‘I could do better than that’ was Barry Quinn. It wasn’t until we reached the Conference that he drifted back into a back-five. At first he covered Willmott who was a long-term injury victim, but eventually the role became permanent. I maintain to this day that he was never a defender despite being a regular fixture until 2008.

Alongside Quinn was a true defender, Phil Gilchrist. Gilchrist was one of the best centre-backs the club has ever had, but by 2006 he was a bag of bones and muscle held together with sellotape. At the start of the season his experience carried him through, eventually, like so many other members of the squad, he was in bits. With Gilchrist and Quinn was Matt Day – perhaps the stupidest footballer in the history of the game. He had a kick like a mule and regularly blasted them in from 25 yards. For a period, we could forgive him. His ability to return for pre-season 4 stone overweight counted against him somewhat.

With one defender falling apart, another having no brain of any note and a third who wasn’t a defender at all (alongside Willmott who was in the treatment room) something had to be done. Luke Foster arrived, apparently, via a letter from his dad. Foster was quick, strong and reliable, but, if rumour is to be believed, his extra-curricular activities were getting the better of him and to the dismay of many, he was shipped out by Chris Wilder.

By that point, Foster’s partner in the back four was Mark Creighton. Before kick off he’d be seen bouncing 5-10 yards outside his own box seething in preparation for the battle ahead. Creighton was significant because he was the first signing of a bewildering close season in 2009. It was an aggressive move (Creighton was captain at Kidderminster) and a signal of intent from Chris Wilder. The momentum Creighton’s signing offered propelled the team to the top of the Conference and eventually back to the league.

Following Foster’s controversial departure, when the team were top with the best defensive record in the division, Jake Wright arrived. Wright’s performances, which improved from a very shaky debut, probably didn’t outstrip Foster’s, but he was a less disruptive influence off the field. Certainly, Wright’s leadership skills were evident when the pressure was on.

Once we returned to the League, a smarter more streetwise style was needed. Creighton’s brief, but significant, stay was over once Harry Worley came in to partner Wright. The partnership, though far from perfect, was more finessed than what had been in the Conference.

For the Kassam All-Star XI, I want two dependable obelisks in the middle. So, therefore, we have two icons of the back line. Andy Crosby and Mark Creighton. Just don’t ever expect them to catch Yemi Odubade in a foot race.