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.

Ten moments that defined the Conference era

1. Matt Day’s piledriver against St Albans
Relegation was a blip. Our return to the league was simple, all we had to do was beat everyone and go up as champions by Christmas. On a barmy September night, it was St Albans’ turn to go all the way down in Oxford-town. It was an enjoyable romp as we led and they equalised. A minute later Matt Day weaved his way through their defence and, 30 yards out put his laces through the ball, slamming it past the keeper and into the net. Afterwards I heard a defeated Saints fan telling someone how great it had been. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters.

2. A minute of madness at Wycombe
Unbeaten, we marched on Wycombe in the Cup. This was the moment when the naysayers would be silenced. At first it worked well; we matched them toe-to-toe. They scored but we equalised. For a minute we were back in the big time and we filled Adams Park with songs of victory. Whilst backslapping and telling each other stories of the bad old days, Wycombe popped down our end, scored, and put us back on the naughty step.

3. Sheer joy of Dagenham
The title had gone, but this was about bragging rights, which, in the street tough world of the Conference counted for so much more. The arrival of champions elect Dagenham was the perfect opportunity to show what marauding brawlers we’d become. We all turned up in heady expectation but despite good early pressure, we conceded early. Then Jim Smith introduced Yemi Odubade, he trotted on and ripped a hole in the time/space continuum with his fat arse. What we saw through the seam was a world where football was fun. Yemi scored one, then lobbed in another from forty yards. There were smiles and no teeth grinding. For 10 minutes it was magical.

4. Rob Duffy’s back pass against Exeter
We limped into the play-offs with the blind faith that we had destiny on our side. This was confirmed when we took a lead into the home leg of the semi-final. We weren’t playing well, but conspired to go two-up. The edifice began to crumble and we conceded twice forcing the game into extra time. Suddenly Rob Duffy broke clear and was bearing down on goal. In a moment of clarity he chose to release us all from the whole sorry façade. Rather than pop the ball in the net and send us to Wembley, he said ‘fuck it, I can’t let this go on’ and rolled the ball into the keepers’ hands.

5. Gnohere hands it to Aldershot
With Dagenham gone; the indefatigable logic was that the 2007/8 title was ours. If there was ever proof, our indifferent form through August and September confirmed that this title was going to be won with a thrilling post-Christmas sprint. If you said it enough, you believed it. Aldershot were the nerdy cousin you haven’t seen for years turning up to a family party looking like an FHM cover girl. Their fans were louder, their flags cooler. But despite this, it was OK, we were Oxford – champions elect. We took them on as equals until the 15th minute, when the big lump of a defender Arthur Gnohere inexplicably batted a cross away with his hand. And that was that. The season was over. In September.

6. Joe Burnell’s reducer versus Cambridge
We drifted into our third season, looking increasingly clueless. The season opened with away and home defeats. Following a win against Eastbourne, we drew two home games and lost another. High-flying Cambridge arrived on a warm September night with home form looking like used toilet paper. Seconds in, Joe Burnell took one for the team with a booking off a crunching tackle. This set the tone for a storming 3-1 win. We lost one more game at home all season. It took a better man than Burnell to turn this acorn into an oak, but this is where it all started.

7. Adam Chapman’s curler at Burton
By this point we were rampaging in a balls out, machete weilding banzai attack on the play-offs. One limb had been ripped off by the Conference’s disciplinary panel but we continued, maddened by the injustice and possessed by unfettered belief. The run had been thrilling, but it was all about to end, because we had to conform to the convention of letting the champions seal their title at in front of their own fans. Albion were hosting their promotion party when our gang turned up, drank all the beer, punched the arrogant jock, snogged his girlfriend, bent in a 20 yard free kick from Adam Chapman and drove off on our Harley Davison chopper.

8. Luton and the true carrier of hope
Don’t tell the morale majority, but the best games are ones that should be all-ticket, but aren’t. Luton was chaotic; people couldn’t park and the North Stand was a war zone. The crowd tipped over the 10,000 mark. The story, however, was already written; our deadliest Conference rivals were in town and our form was good. Surely this was set up for perfect failure. But Jamie Cook, the neo-Beauchamp and a time traveller from the good times, was back in the fold. Receiving the ball on the right, he feinted before guiding it into the bottom left hand corner. ‘Probably the best goal I’ve ever seen’ said the bloke next to me.

9. Injury time in parallel universes
In one paradigm, at Crawley, we look certain to forego our position at the top of the league with a defeat. In seven minutes we equalise, throw away the opportunity for victory and then reclaim it deep into injury time. In the other, at Luton, we lead and look certain to plunge a dagger into the hearts of one of our title rivals. First we throw two points away, then the third. We meet triumph and disaster, and treat the two impostors the same. It made us men, my son.

10. Potter, Deering, Potter
Potter to Deering, Deering to Potter, Potter shoots. Era over.

News round-up: loan stars

I was going to open this post by making out that I was slapping myself in the face trying to resist the temptation of being optimistic about the coming season. Luckily the Brackley result poured the necessary cold water on that.

Friendlies are horrible; if they’re meaningless then why do all teams play them? Fitness is one obvious reason; which is why Matt Day should expect to play a lot this summer. How do you manage to be a professional footballer and put on (as rumoured) a stone in weight during the close season? Especially shortly after being publicly told that he was on his way out of the club if he didn’t change his attitude. How stupid is Matt Day? Or is this why we love him so?

The other reason for friendlies is an opportunity to walk through some patterns of play – which is why James Constable’s winning goal against Oxford City is encouraging. At least he and the ball were in the right place at the right time to score.

Most of the week was taken up with the flurry of signings 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 although none of them are actually ours. I’m not sure of the ins and outs of the loan system. It seems we pay the salary and get a decent player – but we don’t get to keep them. I’m not comfortable with this idea because it seems to dilute the club’s identity (e.g. its best players aren’t really its players at all). On the other hand, I’ve never professed to being totally au fait with modern football and – like people using lower-case text message language in work emails – perhaps it’s the way things are done nowadays. It is, I suppose, a short term investment in a long term future.

Certainly Lewis Haldane and James Constable seem to have the backing from the fans of their parent clubs, which is a good sign. Jamie Guy, on the other hand, appears to be yet another ‘bad-boy’ (Robinson, Jeannin, Zebrowski). Although if he turns out to be a John Durnin, then who cares? Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers once said of the Italians “As long as the manager wins the title it doesn’t matter if he’s caught sniffing cocaine out of the arsehole of a whore” which is kind of how I feel about Guy. One of the benefits of the loan system is that if he does make us successful, its because we’re a great club – if not, he’s from Colchester.

I wonder whether the signing of Jake Cole suggest that cracks in Billy Turley have started to show. Certainly Turley had is eccentric moments last season, although in the main he was excellent. The length of Cole’s signing suggests that Turley’s injury may be worse than originally perceived. Although goalkeepers are able to play into their forties, you have to question whether an injury that keeps him out for a total of five months throughout the summer and first two months of the new season may actually signal the beginning of the end.

News round-up: Ledgister unregistered, Day’s break

More close season shadow boxing this week as Joel Ledgister bade his inevitable farewell and Matt Day prolonged his curious Oxford career by signing a new contract.

With Ledgister, Darren Patterson officially said it was nothing personal; though if the recent quote that his attitude stinks is true, Ledgister might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

You’ve got to have talent to get paid to play football at any level. Those who really succeed understand the need to work at their game, play the politics of the club and staying on the side of the manager. You’ve got to be some player to act like a tit and survive.

Ledgister would do well to look at Matt Day’s career. Speed, intelligence and creative ball-play are not on Day’s CV. But he does have the ability to work within a squad. Last season he lost his way – let’s face it, he probably needs to have someone to tell him which shoes go on which feet – but having Darren Patterson reminding him to invest in what he’s good is at the heart of his revival.

News round-up – Six to go

So Patto’s unleashed a can of whoopass on the squad. It’s a risk, of that there’s no doubt, he’s effectively conceded the season and now may not be a good time to unsettle the squad. The timing is odd, coming just 2 weeks before the end of the transfer window so there’s every chance some of these will still be with the club come February; Patterson may end up relying on some of them as the season progresses. He’s made a clear statement to Merry and Smith that he’s his own man and he’s showing a lot of faith in the players he’s brought in; neither of which have had time to settle.

The move is apparently driven as much by finances as by ability. Focus has been put on areas which are clearly over-resourced – the middle of midfield (Pettefer, Hutchinson) and defence (Corcoran and Day).

Both Pettefer and Hutchinson have shown what they can do, but never more than in bits and pieces. Hutchinson has a habit of looking good just before falling to injury. Pettefer’s work rate hides a deficiency in ability. Day’s fitness and work rate has slowly eroded and he’s a shadow of the goofy goal showboater of early last season. Duffy is an enigma, but his work rate is more than exposed by McCallister’s arrival. These four were characterised by the fact they all need the help of others in order to perform.

Corcoran might feel himself unlucky. His performances have been solid and he’s young. He’s been more reliable than the retained Danny Rose and fitter than the expensive Chris Willmott. These two, plus Yemi, Trainer, Ledgister will be breathing easier as all could have a strong case for the boot. Robinson has only avoided the list because he’s crocked.

The biggest surprise of all is probably Alex Jeannin. Whilst hardly a roaring success, he is the only naturally left sided player, he’s just had a contract extension and he can deliver a cross or two. One can only think (hope) that Patterson has a replacement lined up.