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.

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.

Yellows 1 Woking 0

I think we’re all agreed that it’s good to get back to winning ways after the Tamworth shock so let’s instead talk about Fozziegate.

For all Chris Wilder’s ‘ecky thump northern dourness he likes to create a drama like a drag queen with a broken heal. On the face of it, there was absolutely no reason to disrupt the best defensive unit in the league. We have been the best team by a country mile, and the defence has been the best of that team.

On the other hand, Wilder isn’t the first to take a dislike to Foster; both Jim Smith and Darren Patterson dropped him during their reign. What’s more, when there were rumours of Coventry being interested in him a few years ago, nothing came forth. In fact, as good as Foster has been, he’s consistently failed to generate any league club interest at all. Something’s not right there.

When Smith and Patterson got the hump with him, it was early in the season and it seemed that his fortnight in Magaluf had taken an extended toll. Eventually he got in his groove and proved to be one of the best and most consistent players at the club.

And it’s not as if Foster’s performances this season haven’t been first class. But, when push comes to shove, he was ultimately responsible for us drawing and eventually being knocked out by Barrow. And was one of those at fault for the equaliser against Salisbury.

In addition, one of the big problems with the 2006 collapse was the lack of a Plan B. Perhaps Wilder saw that Foster and Creighton were vulnerable when put under pressure. If that got out, the second half of the season could prove very uncomfortable. Perhaps the reconstruction of the back-four is just about changing the dynamic of the team.

What’s more, the squad does have to keep evolving, and for the first time in several years, the squad has reached a point where even the best players must be scrutinised. The likes of Rhodes and Kelly have gone; but there isn’t a name in the first team squad that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if they were let go. It’s still a big call though.

Few can deny that Mr Wilder deserves our trust. He’s paid to make decisions, and it’s his job that’s on the line if he gets them wrong. Let’s face it; if it were down to our collective wisdom, then we’d be Ebbsfleet, and that’s a fate worse than death.

Yellows 0-1 Weymouth, 6-3 Eastbourne, 0-2 Wrexham

In isolation, the defeat to Wrexham was predictable and shouldn’t, in itself, be a cause for worry. There is likely to be a renewed vigour surrounding them at the start of the season – that curious phenomenon of any relegated team – and, well, we’ve never really excelled at the Racecourse Ground.

What was less predictable is that we would fail to pick up points against Weymouth or Barrow. This has left us in an odd position. Statistically, we should be worrying – this is relegation form and we’ve been playing relative lightweights. More considered analysis would suggest that this can’t last.

Having not seen a single kick of this season, I’m probably not in a position of great authority to judge, but objectively it would appear that there is a serious problem in defence. Especially given that the only points we’ve got have come from the 6-3 bizzare-athon against Eastbourne.

The bellowing form of Billy Turley, who I still suspect is not that far from tipping over the metaphorical hill, is perhaps more influential in marshalling the defence than it would sometimes appear. He always seems to me to be an irritant – but that’s probably because I would want to punch someone at work who yelled at me constantly for 90 minutes.

Patterson’s observation about Luke Foster appears well made too. Jim Smith was hardly backwards in his criticism of Foster this time last year. He appears to summer badly and perhaps it’s his attitude rather than ability, that needs keeping in check.

Fear not, I join the relegation battle on Monday against Woking which is surely set to be a humdinger, if past encounters are to be considered.