Midweek fixture: 2010 play-off winners – where are they now?

Ryan Clarke

A goalkeeper who saved his team more times than any other player is ironically most well known for dropping the ball into his own net with the score at 2-0. Clarke went on to play more than 200 times for the club before moving to Northampton Town. His career stalled a bit and he failed to make a single appearance, later admitting to depression. After a brief spell at Wimbledon he moved to Eastleigh and Torquay and is currently at Bath City.

Damian Batt

A full-back with pace and a prodigious engine, Batt played on for three more years before briefly claiming a move to Vancouver Whitecaps. It came to nothing and he announced his retirement allowing him to focus on his business Alexander Du’Bel. He made a brief return at Eastleigh and then Dagenham and Redbridge before fully retiring in 2015. In 2017, the Telegraph raised a series of concerns about his dubious claims to be raising money for charity.

Mark Creighton

The Beast who kick started the season with a last minute winner over York was a wall of a central defender. Almost as soon as the following season started Creighton was loaned out to Wrexham, before moving to Kidderminster Harriers permanently. After two years he retired due to injury and set up his tattoo business Raw Ink Studios.

Jake Wright

Signed midway through the season to replace Luke Foster, Wright evolved into a formidable centre-back and leader. Wright steered the club through the League 2 years and into the Appleton era where he captained the team to promotion in 2016. He signed for Sheffield United, rejoining Chris Wilder during that summer and promptly won promotion with them to The Championship.

Anthony Tonkin

A sanguine full-back signed in the January before the play-off final. Tonkin drifted out of the team after promotion, but had a moment in the sun against Swindon Town. In 2012 he moved to Aldershot Town before moving onto Frome Town. A business graduate, he had a sideline as a property developer during his playing days. He became a Financial Advisor on retiring before becoming a Quantity Surveyor.

Dannie Bulman

Bulman was signed at the start of the promotion season after leaving Crawley Town. He had already played over 350 games for Wycombe, Stevenage and Crawley. Bulman was quickly moved on back to Crawley following promotion; Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake. After that he moves to Wimbledon where he was the Football League’s oldest player in 2018. Currently back at Crawley.

Adam Chapman

Signed from Sheffield United, Chapman took over from the injured Adam Murray as the creative force in midfield. Immediately before the final it was announced that Chapman was set to stand trial for killing someone in car accident. He was convicted and spent a year away in a young offenders institute. He returned and played spasmodically before moving on, at one playing a game against Wycombe with a burnt his nipple from baby milk. He now plays for Sheffield FC.

Simon Clist

An invaluable water-carrier in the middle of midfield. Clist became our unlikely first goalscorer on our return to the Football League. In 2012 Clist moved to Hereford on loan and then permanently. The trail runs cold at this point, although he reappeared as guest of honour at the club in 2018.

Jack Midson

A player with a deft touch and great poise; Midson was another player who undeservedly was moved out of the club by Chris Wilder following promotion. He eventually settled with Wimbledon, taking them back to the Football League and having the honour of scoring against the Dons’ nemesis MK Dons. Following a number of moves he became assistant manager at Concord Rangers. He’s also a director of M&M Sports Coaching with his team mate Sammy Moore. Recently appointed manager at Hemel Hempstead Town.

James Constable

A bona fide club legend. Constable scored over 100 goals and just one short of the club’s goalscoring record left for Eastleigh. After four years he moved to Poole Town one loan, recently announcing his semi-retirement and became a patron of Oxford United in the Community. Left Eastleigh permanently in May 2019.

Matt Green

A peculiar career which started at Cardiff, he had a brief loan spell at Oxford before controversially moving to Torquay. He came back in 2010 and became part of a formidable three pronged attack. Another player who was moved on a little too quickly, in 2013 he scored a bucketload at Mansfield earning him a move to The Championship and Birmingham City. Injury stalled his career and he moved back to Mansfield before moving to Lincoln and Salford.

Subs:

Billy Turley

A character and a dying breed, Turley lost his place to Ryan Clarke at the beginning of the season. He was released immediately after the final before spending some time at Brackley Town.

Kevin Sandwith

An early Chris Wilder Signing, he lost his place to Anthony Tonkin at Christmas. Released after the final he went to Mansfield before drifting around the non-league and disappearing.

Alfie Potter

Potter came on to score the iconic third goal at Wembley. He played on until 2015 enjoying moments in the sun such as a winner over Swindon and a leading part in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth. Joined Chris Wilder at Northampton in 2015 before moving to Mansfield and Billericay Town.

Rhys Day

Day came on with three minutes to go and won the header which set up the breakaway for the third goal. Another player who played briefly for Mansfield before popping up at Hyde. Currently an Operations Manager in Manchester.

Sam Deering

A diminutive forward who set up Alfie Potter for the third goal. Deering drifted in and out of the team until 2011 before moving to Barnet. Enjoyed an FA Cup giant killing with Whitehawk before ending up at Billericay.

Manager: Chris Wilder

Battled on with the club until everyone forgot what a remarkable job he had done. Left acrimoniously in 2014 for Northampton who were, at the time, bottom of League 2. He saved them by beating us on the last game of the season. He followed it up by winning the title while we came second. Shortly after, he moved to Sheffield United where he won promotion to the Championship and then, in 2019, The Premier League.

Yellows 3 York City 1

Two thoughts occupied my mind in the run up to the play-off final. 30,000+ fans, an unerring sense of self-belief; nothing could stop us now. And yet, there was always the idea that 30,000+ fans and an unerring sense of self-belief; we’re definitely going to screw this up.

There was no point of reference, no way of framing a trip to Wembley. It’s not like the Milk Cup Final in 1986 can give you an indication of how we might perform. Incapable of calculating a response, I was engulfed by a sense of calm. Even Sunday morning was punctuated with attending to a 3-month-old baby with a cold and a trip to Tesco to buy supplies. The game, the second biggest in our history, remained an incidental right up until I set off for the station.

I embraced the Wembley experience; the mobilisation of the yellow army, the immense swathes of colour in the stands, the noise. As I entered the bowl of the stadium, a lump came to my throat. Just making this stage and bringing these people together was a fabulous achievement. I applauded ostentatiously every crunching tackle, every catch, every passing sequence.

We cut through them with ease. Matt Green’s half-volley slamming into the top corner, James Constable’s belligerence in creating shooting space for number two. This was like ’86 after all; Wembley suited us just fine, it was a stage on which we flourished.

Then Ryan Clarke dropped the ball into his net and I could feel myself regressing, slouching into my seat. The minutes ticked by, Rankine fired wide when he should have scored. I sat and chewed my fingernails off. The game drifted past the hour mark, past 70 minutes, towards 80 minutes. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, I wanted to go home, it’s a feeling I’d had before. We were going to concede, last minute for sure, this was going to extra time. We were going to lose.

As I sat, convincing myself that we were throwing it away again, I tried to work out what I was worrying about. If we did screw it up, I wasn’t worried for me. I’ll be back next season regardless. I’ve long given up on the central narrative; our story is a film where you stop caring about the central character because of the interminable and pointless plot twists.

Then it dawned on me, I was worried about Chris Wilder and the players. I’m not naïve enough to think that the players are Oxford fans. But I want their time at the club to mean something to them. I want it to change their careers, or at least leave them with a memory that would stay with them forever.

A defeat would have destroyed an epic season and with it would go the label that Wilder and his team had screwed it up just like all the others before them. They would have been no more than bit-part players in a pointless and turgid story of failure.

They just don’t deserve to be dragged into our sorry-arsed tale. You can see it in Wilder’s face, how proud he is, how hard he works, how utterly terrified he is of being seen as a failure. He’s the kind of person who is suspicious of praise; until he’s achieved something he won’t believe how good he is. He’s defined by his success, destroyed by failure.

Not only has he galvanised a team with a similar work ethic, he’s turned the club around. For all the bullshit, we were a big lumbering dinosaur heading to the grave, gorging on a high fat diet of self-importance. The travesty that Wilder and his players were not going to get rewarded for dragging the beast back from the brink was nagging away in my head.

It’s possible that Wilder has no idea of what he’s achieved. Promotion? Yes. Recognition? Yes. The guarantee of a decent management career? Maybe. But above all he’s justified everything we’ve been through. Bankruptcy, food parcels, stadium delays, Peter Fear, Nigel Jemson, Steve Anthrobus, Firoz Kassam, Mark Wright, Graham Rix, Brian Talbot, Leyton Orient, throwing away two titles, five point deductions, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pounds of wasted money. From this shitbag of awfulness and mockery he’s made us happy people.

Suddenly from our decade-long nuclear winter of despair appeared two elfin sprites exchanging passes like children having a kick around in the park. Just them and 30,000 proud parents watching on. Our Alfie and our Sam. Was there anyone else in the stadium? Was there anyone else in the world?

OK, so promotion out of the Conference is like being let out of jail only to find that you’ve been put on the sex offenders’ register, but for me and you, and Chris Wilder and his team, tasting the clean air of freedom is everything.

Yellows 2 Rushden 0


I needed to go again. I’d been before kick-off, but a pint and a pre-match coffee had gone right through me. It was that very same feeling I’d had against Exeter in 2007. This was nerves; not those excited butterfly nerves, just the deadening all-preoccupying feeling of needing a wee. This is the big-game feeling, we were 16 minutes in and it was all I could think about.

Hundreds of pounds of investment boiled down to bladder control. This was what buying the football product was all about. I could do that with 8 litres of Evian, a full tank of petrol and a drive up the M1.

The feeling subsided as it became clear that the occasion hadn’t got the better of us. Far from being leggy and anxious; desperately grinding and jamming gears, we were controlled and calm. We were showing up Rushden as a very ordinary collection of players who had been marshalled by a decent manager. Jefferson Louis, not a smart player at the best of times, was having no impact. We’d been undone twice at home by fine forward play – Iseyden Christie bullying Mark Creighton and Steve Basham showing his class – this wasn’t one of those occasions.

This was no epic struggle, like Swindon in 2002, it was the smooth execution of a well made plan. A clean movement through the gears; controlling, probing, creating chances, goals and then back to control again. If the initial wave of chances – through Green, Midson and Constable – didn’t produce goals, then the Diamonds defence were suitably beaten to allow Potter and Deering to come on and change the dynamic. We’ve been doing it this way all season.

It’s been, what, 14 years – the game against Peterborough – since we did that. Fourteen years since we’d had a good performance in a must-win game. Other games, even some of the great victories, have been characterised by their teeth grinding intensity. Where the needing of a wee simply won’t go away.

It was no fluke. On top of Kelvin Thomas’ business acumen and strategy lies sports science, on this lies tactics and shape and discipline, on this technique. It’s a series of measured, scientific, professional decisions designed to win games of football. It can take 14 years of trial and error to perfect.

Our lives are lived in straight lines distilled as much as possible into a series of binary decisions. The way our entire country is ruled is based on who we say yes to and who we say no to. As an extension, football is a business over which a science is overlaid. And we are totally compliant. We wait to buy tickets in straight lines, we queue for drinks in straight lines, we even go to games and sit in straight lines.

Games aren’t won by people who tumble over each other like delirious morons. And that’s the service right there. The players invest hours doing things you and I wouldn’t do if you paid us double what they’re on. They eat well, exercise for hours every day, potentially sacrifice the long-term stability of their families just to put the ball in the net and send us nutty. No other service offers that kind of return on your investment.

It’s not over, of course, but Wembley is different. No less important, but different. People outside the club are interested in your trip to Wembley. Some of the bastards will actually go to the game. The beauty of this win was that it was for you and me, for people who have stuck with it for all these years while the rest of the world continued their lives regardless and disinterested. My lasting memory of Monday was of the chaos in the Oxford Mail Stand as Matt Green’s goal rolled in. ‘What was it like?; people might ask. ‘Fucking amazing’ I’d say. But that doesn’t even describe the half of it and nothing I can do or say, no photograph or YouTube clip can come close to recreating it. That’s the sheer fucking poetry of the thing.

Us 1 Exeter 2 (aet, Exeter win 4-3 on penalties)

I was even nervous of the wind that gusted around the ground before the game. I wasn’t alone in lacking confidence; a weak rendition of ‘que sera sera’ by one gutsy fan before the game was greeted by an insistence that he hushed. Don’t tell anyone, but we don’t know how to win.

Despite these factors, I was sure we’d edge it; Exeter had to get a goal, allowing space at the back for Yemi to run into. Absorb the pressure, as we have all season, kill the game and hit them on the break. No play-off is ever won at a canter, but we were all set for a good night.

Tactically they got it just right and I don’t think we were ready. They put pressure on our back three, put lots of balls into the box at pace, bypassed our midfield and isolated Yemi. Sounds easy enough, but to do it for 90 minutes was impressive – in contrast we looked to be running on empty.

Rose and particularly Hargreaves struggled to get in the game, whilst Foster fought doggedly but alone to try and gain some control. Gilchrist and Quinn, who struggle for pace and control were tied up in knots by the constant pressure. Turley’s eccentricities got the better of him; like Gazza in the 1991 Cup Final, he was awash with mis-channelled energy. There’s no doubt he kept us in the game on a number of occasions but to maintain a constant feud with his back line seemed bizarre. At a point where he should have helping relieve some of the pressure by slowing the game down, he was stoking it up by barking at Matt Day. The finger pointing and bickering was constant. Maybe it’s the way he plays, but it didn’t work.

Then there was a moment of light – they made a flurry of substitutions and space began opening up at the back – it looked like they were panicking. That was the time to capitalise, but Duffy missed his sitter and the pattern of the game settled again.

At 2-1 I wanted to go home. I didn’t care about who won, I wasn’t particularly fearful of defeat, but even a victory would have been little more than a relief. This is why football is marketed to the neutral – because being a football fan is shit. It’s not edgy and exciting; extra time, penalties and see-saw fortunes are not entertaining. It’s like a dirty addiction – you think you love it, but when you experience it, you realise there’s nothing to love.

In the end you cannot go eight points clear at the top of the table, win the away leg of the play-off semi-final, go 2-0 in the tie, miss three sitters (Yemi and Zebroski in the first leg, Duffy in the second), lead in the penalty shoot-out and still not make it and say it was anything but your own fault.

Exeter 0 Us 1

Given our abject history against the Grecians – that was our first win in Exeter since 1981 – I would have taken a draw. It’s not over, but, despite missing a couple of sitters, we couldn’t have realistically hoped for more than we got.

The Conference talking heads rounded on us before the game – Terry Brown on the BBC website and loveable Nigel Clough on SKY both predicted an Exeter victory. We’re not part of the Conference gang and there seems to be a pathological propensity to take every opportunity to dismiss us.

It’s a particularly true cliché to say that form goes out the window at times like this. There’s ‘no better luck next time’ in cup football; attitude and raw ability come to the fore. Form has not always been with us this season, but pound for pound we’re still probably the best squad in the league. Shod of the trials of bread and butter league football, we’ve surely got to start favourites. To write us off was little short of spiteful.

We were excellent – Hargreaves, Foster and Rose battled throughout whilst the big Zebroski was a willing and working target up front. We started well, absorbed pressure early in the second half and hit them on the break late on. Though the clock ticked by at a snails pace, we rarely looked in any kind of trouble. Our fabled fitness, so often cited as key early in the season, lifted its sweaty head again. When they applied pressure, we simply absorbed it – we weren’t worn down.

Back to the Kassam, then, it seems difficult to foresee us losing it from here, especially on the evidence of our opponents tonight, but it’s also difficult to see Tuesday being a particularly comfortable night.