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.

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?

World Cup Yellows #7 – Mark Wright – Italy 1990

Mark Wright holds a special place in my family’s folklore. During his league debut as a gangling teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.

Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.

Wright was certainly different to what we’d seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player. Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they’d been rejected from the Vietnam War. However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells.

My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he’d be no good at that level. He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under-21s Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captains – Peter Shilton and Mick Mills – to their squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.

For Oxford, the Wright/Cassells move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.

Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable and ended up playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season.

Fulfilling my dad’s prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson’s preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back. He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.

Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy. Off the field, however, things were apparently rather different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright’s arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being an elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it – if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it.

I don’t know how true that is, but there were echoes of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.

In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England’s Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England’s campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper. The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management – not least in the education of Jose Mourinho and in a roundabout way, Pep Guardiola, introduce a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.

Perhaps the change was made simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product. The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic, while David Platt would be able to join the attack. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight 0-0 game.

In the final group game, a must-win against Eygpt – Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. Butcher was an iconic figure in English football, so this was a massive move. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gascoigne cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.

With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gascoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time. England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows? Into the 119th minute and Gascoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. It was awkwardly central and too far out for a shot. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, he hooked it across the face of ‘keeper Michel Preud’Homme’s goal and into the net.

With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I’d just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties – football followed by raving into the early hours. It wasn’t just the football losers like me that followed the game, the non-believers and the girls were also interested. A golden time.

The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the Indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.

Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then… catastrophe.

Afterwards we sat in an empty pub in silence, like we’d been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. I ride my bike past the pub we sat in quite often and although it has been done up, has stunning views across the county, it still feels slightly desolate.

The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright’s performances, alongside Des Walker’s provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright’s playing as a sweeper provided Gascoigne with the freedom to release his genius on the world stage. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again.

With Gascoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultimately the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back being used as a sweeper.

Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting ‘You fucking beauty’ in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.

Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96, but before becoming part of that famous summer he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.

After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, Kick Racism Out of Football day. Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.

Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he’ll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is quite sad.

World Cup All-Stars #6 – Mark Wright

Mark Wright holds a special place in my family folklore. During his league debut as a gangly teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.

Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.

Wright was certainly different to what we’d seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player, which was unusual in Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they’d been rejected from the Vietnam War.

However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells. My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he’d be no good at that level.

He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under 21 Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captain’s Peter Shilton and Mick Mills to a squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.

For Oxford, the move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.

Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season. Fulfilling my dad’s prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson’s preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back.

He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but he failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.

Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy.

Off the field, however, things were different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright’s arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being a elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it – if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it. I don’t know how true that is, but there were echos of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.

In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England’s Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England’s campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound, change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper.

The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management – not least in the schooling of Jose Mourinho. What Robson did was introduced a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.

Perhaps the change was made to simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman and Rikjard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product.

The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight game.

In the final group game, Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gasgoine cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.

With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gasgoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time.

England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows?

Into the 119th minute and Gasgoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, hooked it across the face of ‘keeper Michel Preud’Homme’s goal and into the net.

With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I’d just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties – football followed by raving into the early hours. A golden time.

The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.

Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then… catastrophe. We sat in an empty pub in utter silence, like we’d been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. 

The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright’s performances, alongside Des Walker’s provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright’s playing as a sweeper provided Gasgoigne with the freedom to release his genius. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again. With Gasgoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultiamtely the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back.

Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting ‘You fucking beauty’ in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.
Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96 when he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.
After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, race awareness day. 
Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.
Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he’ll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is really quite sad.