World Cup of: Oxford United Goalkeepers

Runners and riders

So, the tournament format is simple; four groups of four players. People vote for their favourites via a Twitter poll. The top two qualify for the knock-out stages – head-to-heads in the quarter-final, semi-final and final, until you have a winner.

Choosing sixteen goalkeepers is pretty easy; I could have gone back to the 60s – Jim Barron was mentioned in despatches – but it seemed pointless. Plus, I couldn’t tell one decent keeper from yore from another. There was also the temptation of including players who were one-offs; there’s Elliot Jackson, who was in goal when we played Chelsea in 1999, or Mike Salmon who conceded seven against Birmingham in his one and only game.

No, in the end the choice was reasonably straight forward. A regularly starting keeper often stays for three or four years, meaning over a 30 year period the sixteen selected themselves.

Group A

Group A was a mixed bag; first up was Steve Hardwick, something of a forgotten man during our heyday. Hardwick was our first choice keeper during both title seasons between 1983 and 1985. He lost his place to Alan Judge when we got to the top flight meaning he missed the Milk Cup.

He was up against a clear contender in Ryan Clarke. Clarke, a legendary keeper in our promotion back from the Conference was in the sweet spot a first choice keeper with a notable success, that most people will remember him.

Andre Arendse was third; the South African international keeper was brought in at the start of the 2000 season. Despite having played in The Word Cup, Arendse was never likely to last long in such company.

And finally, Billy Turley; a classic terrace favourite; a bit of a clown and a decent, if erratic, keeper. Against him, though, was the fact he was between the sticks when we were relegated to the Conference in 2006. All said and done; most people will look back fondly.

Inevitably, Clarke took the honours with 77% of the vote with Billy Turley edging out Steve Hardwick for second.

Group B

There was no more one-sided group than Group B. Current glovesman, Simon Eastwood, was first out of the hat at which point it was all about who might finish second.

Chris Tardif, mostly an understudy to Billy Turley, was next with Ken ‘The Tree’ Veysey. Veysey played between 1990 and 1992. He was also in goal for Dorchester when we inflicted out 9-1 record win in 1995. There’s always one player who your not sure about including; Veysey was the man this time.

Finally, well regarded Andy Woodman completed the group. Woodman was Ian Atkins’ go-to man in 2002 and was part of an effective, if not particularly pretty, defensive unit which threatened, briefly, to get us promoted.

Inevitably, Simon Eastwood took the crown with no less than 90% of the vote; Andy Woodman joined him in the quarter-finals with 5%, inevitably the lowest qualifier.

Group C

It all kicked off in Group C. Benji Buchel, the Liechtensteiner who kept goal for a majority of our 2016 promotion season was the obvious choice to many. Let’s face it, Twitter is a young-ish crowd, anyone who helps recall such vivid memories is always going to do well.

But, the hipsters were having none of it. The three other contenders had their own qualities; like Krautrock or ambient house, if only the kids would spend time getting to know it, they would learn to look beyond the immediate.

Paul Reece was second up; Reece, like many Oxford goalkeepers, had a good rapport with the fans. Many London Roaders will remember him with fondness. He also had one thing up his sleeve; he was the man who put in, perhaps, the greatest goalkeeping display of any goalkeeper in our history. On live TV; the 1-0 win over Derby County.

Then, there was Pal ‘porn star’ Lundin, who alongside Arendse, kept goal at the turn of the millennium. And finally, there was Richard Knight one of our greatest goalkeepers in our worst ever team. Knight conceded over 100 goals in 2001, but still put in displays that earned him player of the season. He was so shellshocked by the experience, he never really recovered.

In the end Buchel’s early surge took it with 42% of the vote. Paul Reece devotees ensured a narrow second with 25%.

Group D

And finally, Group D. This was headed up by Alan Judge, the mullet haired goalkeeper in our Milk Cup win and a player whose appearances spread no less than 19 years due to a goalkeeping crisis in 2004 .

Second, was Sam Slocombe, who shared duties with Benji Bucheli in 2016. Slocombe never really lived up to expectations, and was always likely to struggle in such hot company.

Third was Roy Burton, the oldest contender in the competition. Burton was known for his enormous shorts falling down as he kicked the ball downfield with his bum crack regularly on show. They were different times.

And finally, there was God, Phil Whitehead. A giant of the 1996 promotion winning team, and surely a contender for the ultimate title.

In the end, Whitehead took the group with 44% of the vote, a tough battle saw Roy Burton edge out Alan Judge for second.

Quarter-finals

With the wheat and chaff separated, it was down to business. The first quarter-final saw Ryan Clarke up against Roy Burton. Clearly Clarke had currency on his side, taking 71% of the vote, but Burton, a genuine legend who wore the ‘keeper’s shirt for 11 years and whose last game was 37 years ago took a decent chunk of the vote.

Second up was the increasingly dominant Simon Eastwood against Billy Turley. Turley’s crowd pleasing banter was no match for Eastwood’s understated consistency, showing that ability was always going to outgun personality. Eastwood scorched away with 93% of the vote.

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul Reece’s gallant run to the quarter-finals came to an end at the hands of Andy Woodman. Again, Woodman probably benefitted from being slightly more recent than Reece, but Reece was the ‘keeper most people actively supported.

Finally, Benji Buchel was up against Phil Whitehead. Two promotion goalies; twenty years apart. But, Buchel was never the most convincing between the sticks and Whitehead was, well, God collecting 79% of the vote.

Semi-finals

There’s a point in every tournament when the immovable object meets the irresistible force. The semi-finals threw up the holy trinity of modern Oxford ‘keeping – Eastwood, Clarke and Whitehead, with Woodman bringing up the rear. They couldn’t all win.

The first semi-final was the first true clash of the titans. Ryan Clarke went up against Simon Eastwood. The result was perhaps a surprise, nobody doubts Simon Eastwood’s ability or influence on the current team, but has his legend cemented into Oxford folklore in the same way that Ryan Clarke’s has? Or is it that Clarke is already ancient history and we’re just getting old? It was Eastwood’s biggest challenge yet, and though less emphatic than previous rounds; 67% of the vote was still pretty resounding.

Semi-final two was perhaps more predictable. Andy Woodman was a solid cog in a solid team, but he was never likely to match Phil Whitehead. Whitehead romped home with 80% of the vote.

Final

And so to the final. Simon Eastwood v Phil Whitehead. Eastwood had streaked through the early rounds taking over 90% of the vote before trouncing a clear favourite. But, arguably – up to the semi-finals – he’d had the easier run. Also, Whitehead’s career is behind him, so his mistakes and failings are long forgotten leaving a unblemished record.

The early voting saw Whitehead streaking into the lead, a sign, perhaps, that there were more nostalgic types idly flicking through Twitter. Eventually, though, Eastwood began to claw it back and by the half-way stage was polling around 2/3rds of the vote.

Although in the second half of the vote, Whitehead pulled it back to 38%, the gap was too great. Simon Eastwood had won the World Cup of #oufc Goalkeepers.

The verdict

The right result? That all depends on what you’re voting for. The best keeper? The most legendary? If you’re talking personalities, then Billy Turley and Andy Woodman would be strong contenders. On ability alone, Steve Hardwick and Paul Reece were both exciting to watch.

For me, I’ll always fondly remember Roy Burton because he was the ‘keeper when I started going to The Manor. I’ll never forget his bum crack poking out from his shorts, or how impressed I was that he could kick the ball to the half-way line. I remember very clearly, the day he started wearing gloves thinking that he’d done the goalkeeping equivalent of landing on the moon.

But, the Holy Trinity of modern Oxford goalkeeping is Phil Whitehead, Ryan Clarke and Simon Eastwood. It was appropriate they made the semi-finals. For me, though, Eastwood is the junior partner in the trio, and his lasting place in it will depend on what happens in the rest of his time at the club. He’s a great keeper, but he needs a moment, a promotion perhaps, to truly cement his place in our history.

Of the other two; Phil Whitehead has the benefit of history, and the 1996 promotion, on his side. He also played at a higher level than the others. I can also remember a save against Port Vale which was nothing short of miraculous. Clarke, I remember more abstractly, as generally critical to our success. Promotion to the Football League, I think, was more important than ’96, but Clarke’s ‘moment’ was dropping the ball into his goal in the play-off final. A cruel thing to be remembered for, there were so many other times when he saved us.

All told, I think, just about, Phil Whitehead is still probably the best ‘keeper I’ve seen, but it’s pretty close.

Kassam All Star XI – Goalkeeper

By the time he got to the Kassam Stadium, Richard Knight had the haunted look of a war veteran. Decorated as the Player of the Year in our last season at The Manor, he hid deep and lasting wounds of the 100+ goals he’d shipped in the process.

In The Grand Fantasy, he was set to dominate the ‘keepers slot in a resurgent Oxford. But the fantasy remained just that; the club didn’t resurge nor did Knight dominate. He lasted one game before being over taken by Ian McCaldon; a man whose most notable contribution was to blast the ball off the arse of an oncoming striker and into the net in a desperate 2-2 draw against York.

Ian Atkins’ arrival brought in the first contender for the Kassam’s All Star XI. Andy Woodman, was a knock-about, happy go lucky lower league journeyman but a man Atkins could trust. The defensive unit at that time was greater than the sum of its parts, but Woodman was a rock of experience on which Atkins could build his briefly successful squad.

Atkins’ acrimonious split from the club saw the arrival of Graham Rix. Rix’s key personality trait was to make utterly bizarre decisions from sleeping with an underage girl to making Paul Wanless play tippy-tappy football – which is perhaps more morally reprehensible. One of his first bizarre decisions was to replace Woodman with first Simon Cox, and then lovely-bloke Time and Relative Dimensions in Football: Chris Tardif.

Rix quickly left, but Tardif remained, he was also Ramon Diaz’s first choice ‘keeper. He was only overtaken when Brian Talbot, a man who spoke as though his tongue was sewn to the roof of his mouth, arrived. Amidst promises of double promotions and a trip to Wembley, Talbot did make one good decision, he brought in Billy Turley.

Turley came with a reputation; banned in 2004 for using cocaine, in typically understated football fan parlance he was branded a ‘crackhead’. All this was part of the Turley brand. Eccentric and brilliant at the same time, no more so than in the Orient and Exeter games; two of the most significant games ever played at the Kassam.

Turley was challenged by Tardif in the way a wasp challenges you for your ice cream. When Jim Smith arrived in late 2005/6, he brought in Andrea Guatelli, but Turley fought back. Nothing that successive managers could throw at him could bring him down. It was only when Chris Wilder brought in Ryan Clarke was Turley’s crown finally taken.

Clarke is a thoroughly modern ‘keeper, athletic and tall as a skyscraper. He’s been as important as James Constable in our resurgence over the last two years. Ironically his biggest mistake was on our biggest day at Wembley, but he also pulled off at least one world class save that day and countless others to get us there in the first place. It’s not easy staying in a Wilder squad, let alone the first team, so being ever-present during 2010/11 is testament to Clarke’s contribution.

But, in the Kassam All-Star XI, the keeper’s spot has to go to Turley. Even in the darkest years he performed, he was the only one who stuck around and actually ‘righted the wrong’. And, there were few more poetic and perfect moments at the Kassam Stadium than his last meaningful contribution to the club.