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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Michael Appleton’s time in charge at Oxford will be remembered as nothing but glorious. It didn’t start that way though. He lost his first four league games in front of an increasingly suspicious home crowd, flirted with relegation and chugged along to finish 13th in his first season. During that time he played no less than 42 different players, performing what he now calls ‘major surgery’ on the squad as the season progressed. Have you ever wondered what happened to them all?
Once so much the future of the club (yes, another one) Chris Wilder named him on the bench of a Conference game just so ensure we could maximise any transfer fees we might get for him. Made a total of seven appearances before being released. Now at Oxford City.
An old mate of Michael Appleton’s from Portsmouth and former FA Cup winner. Ashdown came in late in the season to replace Ryan Clarke. Made a decent fist of it as we started to turn the corner. Now retired.
Gorgeous George was brought in with the help of Dave Jones from Sky Sports from MK Dons. Signed for another year on loan in 2015, but only lasted until January when one Karl Robinson dragged him back to help out with their relegation fight from the Championship. Bought by Sheffield United in 2017 by Chris Wilder.
For a short while Barnett was the answer to all our problems. The big strong target man that Michael Appleton had been looking for. At the end of his loan period, despite efforts to sign him permanently, he moved to Shrewsbury. Now at Cheltenham.
Sometimes there are players who play for minutes before disappearing, and for some reason you remember them when everyone else forgets. Richard Brindley is one of those players for me. Made 3 appearances on loan from Scunthorpe, now plays for Bromley.
Part of an original batch of signings at the start of the Appleton era. Showed precious little, lasted eleven games, including a half decent performance against West Brom in the league cup before being shipped out to Mansfield. Moved to Shrewsbury and was part of the team that nearly won promotion in 2018. Moved to Coventry City at the end of that season. Great hair.
A little glimmer of hope when signed from Bristol City showing plenty of pace down the flank. Lasted nine games before heading back to his parent club. After a series of loan moves, he eventually settled with Fleetwood.
Perhaps the weirdest of all the signings that season. Rumoured to have joined from Jarrow Roofing, it was announced that he’d gone on loan to Torquay before anyone had confirmed he had signed. Lasted three games before heading back north. Now at Whitby Town.
A club legend in the twilight of his Oxford career. Appleton stuck with him for most of the season before passing the gloves to Jamie Ashdown. Clarke joined Northampton Town the following year, but despite winning promotion, didn’t play a single game. He joined Wimbledon and Eastleigh before settling with Torquay and then Bath City.
One of the inherited players having been signed in 2014. Saw his contract out and left at the end of the season in 2016. Headed out to India for while before returning to play for Halifax and Leyton Orient. Eventually ended up coaching at Bradford and was somewhat thrown under a bus when he became head coach briefly in 2018
Perpetual understudy to Ryan Clarke, Crocombe was a New Zealand international whose highlight at Oxford was keeping goal in a heroic League Cup defeat to West Brom at the start of Appleton’s reign. Moved to Carlisle after being released, then ended up at noveau riche Salford in the National League.
Came from Kidderminster but spent much of his early career on the bench. He described himself on his Twitter account as the club mascot. Eventually overhauled Johnny Mullins for a first team spot, did a Cruyff turn at Wembley, scored a goal that clinched promotion, played his part in everything we did that was good for two years before going on to play for Wigan in the Championship.
A player with legs like out of control fire hoses. Seemed to specialise in finding new and interesting ways of not connecting with crosses or misreading through-balls. Went back to Chesterfield where he joined Blackpool.
Most famous for being the ball boy who got in an altercation with a Swindon player during the 2012 derby win. Played just 1 game before moving to Norway. Retired due to injury in 2017 aged just 21 and became a personal trainer.
A battering ram of a striker who came from Dundalk with a decent goalscoring reputation. Never really got going at Oxford, although scored a critical equaliser in a draw at Luton in the promotion season. Went to Mansfield before heading back to Dundalk where he’s started banging in the goals again. Very much found his level.
Yet another bright young thing signed on loan from Charlton. Holmes-Dennis started with a man of the match performance against Tranmere, but in his subsequent 14 games ran out of steam. Headed back to Charlton before going to Huddersfield. Managed a handful of games before heading to Bristol Rovers.
Arrived from Brighton with a decent reputation but only managed four games before being released at the end of the season. Played for Exeter City, Hemel Hempstead and is now at Northcote City.
Signed on a short term contract after leaving Birmingham City, expected to be the player who would run the team. Only made seven appearances before disappearing off to Eastleigh. Last heard of at Whitehawk.
One of many youth team products who rotated through the first team. Made one first team substitution before having his contract cancelled so he could move to Norway. Returned to Hayes and Yeading, then Banbury.
When Michael Appleton talks about doing major surgery on the squad David Hunt frequently springs to mind (also see: Tom Newey). A tediously dependable full-back in a slowly decaying squad, he was eventually shipped out to Barnet and slipped into non-league with Margate and Wealdstone.
A strange bearded wizard, signed by Gary Waddock and adopted by Michael Appleton. Appleton described him as not very bright, but he carried him through the early months with an prodigious work ethic. Joined the glory train in 2016, winning promotion before joining Luton to everyone’s dismay that summer. I love Danny Hylton.
Goalkeeper who signed on loan from Sheffield United to cover Ryan Clarke’s injury. Played 10 games before returning to Yorkshire. Played a season at AFC Wimbledon on loan before being signed by Hull City.
A true survivor, despite crippling injuries and changes of management, Long is still with the club in 2019 despite only ever making very occasional appearances.
Adopted by Michael Appleton having been signed in 2013 by Chris Wilder. Crippled with injuries meant he was limited to just seven appearances before being released. Played nearly 100 games for Wimbledon, winning promotion to League 1 in 2016, but retired in 2018 following a persistent injury.
The first of many big strong target men Michael Appleton tried. Signed on loan from Norwich, the job of leading the line in a formative team was too much for the teenager. Scored in an early League Cup success over Bristol City, he returned to Norwich after seven games. Still at Norwich now and has had a range of loans, most significantly at Shrewsbury in 2017/18 when he nearly got promoted to the Championship.
A dependable leader and a rare beacon of consistency. Mullins partnered Jake Wright for a majority the season and a good chunk of the promotion season in 2015/16 before being slowly overhauled by Chey Dunkley. Ended the year on the bench, was released in 2016 where he signed for Luton Town. Won promotion in 2016/17 before slowly falling out of favour. Signed for Cheltenham in 2018.
An icon of Chris Wilder’s latter years at Oxford, a soul-destroyingly dependable full-back. Followed Wilder to Northampton Town making no more than a dozen appearances over two years. Retired due to injury and turned to coaching. Currently back with his first club Leeds as Under 16 coach.
One of many juniors rising through the club’s ranks at the time. Looked lightweight in 2014/15, but bulked up considerably the following season. A marginal rather than key player of the promotion squad, he was signed by Bristol City in 2016 and capped by the Republic of Ireland.
Lovable, jinky winger, Alfie Potter is the boy who never grew up. Signed by Chris Wilder, he seemed to have a knack of scoring memorable goals including the winner at Wembley in 2010, one in the opening game of the season against Portsmouth and a JPT winner over Swindon. Lost his way under Michael Appleton. Moved to Wimbledon, then Northampton Town back with Wilder. Now at Billericay Town. If you want to feel old; he’s thirty.
Signed from MK Dons, played one game and leaves a legacy of being one of those players fans reference when trying to make an ironic point. Chugged along with MK Dons until 2018 when he joined Bracknell Town.
Perpetual bridesmaid centre-back, but one who put his heart and soul into everything he did. A graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University and brother of England Cerebral Palsy Goalkeeper Jordan, Raynes left for Mansfield, had a good couple of years at Carlisle before moving to Crewe. Currently on loan at Hartlepool.
A full-back signed on loan from Bolton, played over 30 games before joining Bury just as we thought we’d found a decent player. Signed for Shrewsbury in 2016, one of a number of players who became important to their unlikely promotion push in 2018. Left for Plymouth in the summer of 2018.
Perpetually the answer to all club’s goalscoring problems for three years, Roberts scored a couple of top class goals in about 30 games. His brother was tragically killed in a car accident in 2017, Roberts’ career slowed and stalled following a series of loans. Left in 2018 for Hereford.
Arrived from West Browm almost undercover in a blizzard of loan signings, initially Roofe looked like he was just another lightweight destined to disappear. Then scored two in a win over Wycombe and couldn’t stop scoring. Signed permanently in 2015/16 scoring over 25 goals as we were promoted to League 1, scored against Swindon and Swansea in the FA Cup. Bought by Leeds United for over £4m in 2016. After a bit of a slow start, grew to become an integral part of Leeds’ push for promotion to the Premier League.
Originally joined as a teenager in our first season in the Conference from Manchester United. Enjoyed promotion to the Football League with Newport and Aldershot before returning to Oxford in 2013. Chalked up over 80 games, but never really enjoyed a consistent run in the team. Briefly followed Chris Wilder to Northampton before moving to Portsmouth. Played a marginal role in their promotion to League 1. Went to Swindon on loan in January 2019. Urgh.
Signed from Coventry City as part of a policy of solving the club’s financing problems by nurturing youth. Ruffels became one of the squads most dependable players, winning promotion with the squad in 2016 and playing at Wembley twice. Still with the club where he’s enjoying an extended period in the team at a full-back.
The best defender in the land was signed in 2015 from Rotherham. Became an integral part of the promotion winning back-four, heroically playing through injury to get us over the line in 2016. Slowly fell out of favour and left to join Bury, his previous club, in 2017. Dogged by injury, he’s yet to play a dozen games in the in the two years he’s been at the club.
Played a mostly forgettable six games towards the end of the season, his only goal being a critical winner against Carlisle which was a great stride towards safety. Enjoyed a productive two years at Blackpool where he won promotion from League 2, joined Rotherham in 2018.
A grizzled old pro signed by Chris Wilder, all we wanted was a team of Andy Whings. Injuries and age slowly crept up on him, and he announced his retirement to take up a coaching role with the club in 2015. Left the club in 2017 to coach Kidderminster Harriers. Last year joined Coventry City as an academy coach.
Surly, mercurial centre-back Jake Wright joined in 2010, won promotion to the Football League. Led the team through Chris Wilder’s reign and the chaos that followed. Was Michael Appleton’s captain during the 2015/16 promotion season, voted best player of the first 10 years of Oxblogger that year. Left for Sheffield United in what looked like a reshuffle that had gone wrong. Enjoyed promotion to the Championship before injury limited his game time with the Blades.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Every great team has a great spine; Whitehead, Elliot and Gilchrist, Smith and Grey, Moody. Judge, Shotton and Briggs, Houghton and Hebberd, Aldridge. You can add to that Clarke, Creighton and Wright, Bulman and Murray, Constable.
Every great team must, at some point, be dismantled. With the announcement of Ryan Clarke’s departure, the remains of the 2010 promotion team is down to one. It was inevitable, of course; one day Constable was always going to go, Potter was always going to go, even Rhys Day was going to go.
There’s something brutal about replacing an established keeper. In any other position, if someone gets signed then it’s, at worst, a battle for that position. When it’s a goalkeeper, particularly in the lower leagues, most clubs go with an established number one and a young back up. If you’re the established number one and another one gets signed, then the writing is emphatically on the wall.
And that’s particularly rough on a player as loved as Clarke. In reality, it’s fairly easy to be a much loved keeper. You do spend half of every game hanging out with the home fans, you’re bound to build some kind of relationship. Plus, I maintain that fans are generally clueless about what makes a good keeper, so basically if you catch a ball or two and dive a couple of times you’re quite a long way to becoming a legend.
But, Clarke stands out. In an ideal world, I was hoping he would never leave. Maybe I hoped he would become part of some gargantuan backroom staff, a stockpile of legends who could be found kicking balls at Max Crocombe and being distracted by the half-time scores every Saturday.
Sadly no, all these things come to an end eventually. Clarke’s signing was, in itself, a brave one from Chris Wilder. Billy Turley was himself a capable and much loved keeper. Clarke was part of a very deliberate move to change the direction of the club. No longer would we dwell sentimentally on the past – Turley being one of a number of players who said they had unfinished business with the club and wanted to right a wrong. The reality was that they never did; they toiled away achieving less and less each season. They’d had their chance and it was time to move on.
Clarke, with Creighton and Luke Foster, and then Jake Wright, set out their stall as a dominant force in the Conference. Although he had a fine season, ironically, the lasting memory of his time in an Oxford shirt was him throwing the ball into his own net against York in the play-off final. He also saved us at least once during that game and many times before that, but I always wondered whether his moment of madness discouraged other teams from taking a closer look.
Whatever it was, it was to our advantage. Where others in the promotion team looked far less comfortable in League 2 than they had in the previous season, Clarke looked more than comfortable at that level and looked like he could play at least a level above.
Of course, his abilities were much more on show in League 2 and he saved us countless times, often breathtakingly. For three years, at least, he was consistently the best player in the team; adding penalty saving to his many talents. This was all pretty remarkable from a player who had been in a team relegated to the Conference North before coming to the Kassam. That turnaround was a credit to both Clarke himself and the mentoring he got from Alan Hodgkinson.
Soppy though it sounds, I was always reassured by Clarke’s presence, like I was when James Constable was around. During his periodic injuries, when we’d bring in a loanee who looked like Joe Hart and played like Joe Pasquale, it didn’t feel like our club, like when you buy a pair of shoes and for a while they feel like they’re wearing you. It was all wrong.
Last season, there was no doubt Clarke was a bit more flat-footed than he had been, although we conceded less goals than the year before, the second best since returning to the league in 2010. Injuries may have been a factor, and age, with Clarke clicking over to 33 in April, it was right to ask some tough questions as to whether he would re-discover his sparkle. Sam Slocombe’s arrival was the beginning of the end.
Clarke’s move to Northampton is, to some extent, obvious. If there’s something that characterises a Wilder player, it’s that they are good dependable pros, and Clarke is certainly one of those. The only surprise, I suppose, is that it’s taken Wilder this long to try to fish him out from his old club. Clarke wants to play; it’s easy to assume that he’ll spend a couple of years with the Cobblers and then be satisfied picking up contracts as a back up keeper before retiring. But not now, the indignity of seeing Clarke on the Oxford bench wasn’t going to do anyone any good.
So, where does Clark sit in the pantheon of Oxford United goalkeeping greats? It’s difficult to compare different ‘keepers playing at different levels at different times. Time will tell ultimately; legends often mature as time passes. Alan Judge may have been the keeper who played on our greatest day, but I was always more of a Steve Hardwick fan back then. I still, just about, think Phil Whitehead ranks as my favourite keeper of all time. But Clarke is not far behind.
Gary Waddock put on a brave face in front of the television cameras as we were annihilated by Southend on Monday night. Deep inside he must have been wondering what he’s inherited, and more importantly; where does he go next?
It’s pretty easy to get carried away by any defeat; especially one that’s been magnified through the medium of TV. It’s easy to think that the world spent all day thinking about the game and how it might pan out when in reality many will probably have been unaware it was even on.
However, it’s fair to say that if the Southend defeat confirmed anything at all, it’s that if we do get promoted this season, it is most likely be down to the collective incompetence of the division rather than the brilliance of our play.
So, while the season remains, astonishingly, all for the taking, it leaves you wondering what misery might be waiting for us in League 1 next season if we do make it.
A quick look at the current League 1 table suggests to me that the highest we might hope to finish should we get there is around 19th or 20th. Teams above that position just look too good for us to be able to trouble.
It seems pretty clear that changes will be needed regardless of where we are next season. With endless talk of ‘new eras’ under Gary Waddock (I think we’ll let history decide whether his reign might be considered an ‘era’), it may be time to think the unthinkable and shoot some of the sacred cows of the squad.
I’m not suggesting that there should be a arbitrary cull, but those you might think of as permanent fixtures, shouldn’t be above scrutiny.
Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville
Call it the power of TV, but shots of Waddock hunched behind hoardings in the away dugout flanked by Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville looked like the three ‘see no evil’ wise-monkeys. Waddock, we shouldn’t judge (although many did), but his new face did make Lewis and Melville’s presence seem a little odd. Like trying to explain to a new girlfriend why your settee make a noise like a loud fart when you sit on it, it was almost as if Lewis and Melville were apologetically explaining to Waddock the failings of squad. It was like when you decorate a room in a house and all the other rooms suddenly look tired and in need of a refresh. Will Lewis and Melville add value to the new set up? It didn’t seem as though they learned much from Chris Wilder, which might suggest their key benefit was in carrying out instructions of the man in charge. Perhaps that’s a good thing, everyone needs able foot soldiers, but it would be nice to think we weren’t reliant wholly on Waddock for ideas and insight.
Constable is an interesting one, he’s approaching the goalscoring record and he’s a bona fide club legend. To get rid of him would be a massive risk to Waddock’s credibility. Despite his goalscoring record, he missed two excellent chances against Southend and scores only fitfully now he’s in League 2. Waddock may also view him as a relic of the past, and that moving him on would be symbolic of any change he might want to instigate. However, as is often the case, Constable was a rare positive with his work rate and commitment compensating for any failings in front of goal. My view is that Constable is worth keeping, but he needs pace and goalscoring ability to play off. I’ve no doubt he is willing to play any role, but his position as a key source of goals – and with it his right to a shirt – has to be under threat.
There were times last season when Jake Wright was almost Bobby Moore-like in his command of the defensive arts. He didn’t put a foot wrong all season. This season injuries have taken their toll along with the change of management. It’s easily forgotten but Jake Wright, along with Constable and Ryan Clarke were lolling around in reserves teams or the non-league before Chris Wilder turned them into exemplary professionals. Wright has looked much shakier this season, perhaps a consequence of playing alongside so many different players, but it may be that injuries are getting the better of him, or the discipline Wilder instilled in him is on the wane. Can we afford to find out whether he’ll shake off his current shakiness? Waddock may decide that Wright is, in fact, wrong.
Only Sky’s convention of awarding man of the match to someone from the winning team prevented Ryan Clarke from taking the accolade. Given that he also conceded 3, and he gave away an unnecessary penalty, that’s a damning indictment of those who were playing in front of him. Waddock cannot have failed to be impressed by Clarke’s performance; a minor bright spot in a bleak evening. Regardless of Max Crocombe’s potential, it would be hard to see why Clarke’s position would come under any threat.
Alfie Potter Oh Alfie, when do you become the complete product you’ve always threatened to be? Potter enjoys a lot of protection due to his goal at Wembley and his ever present ‘promise’, but there is a point when promise needs to be converted into something more productive. On a good pitch and given plenty of space, Potter will excel, but in the rutted envrions of Southend and the like he tends to bimble along around midfield without much end product. How much time do you give him? When should we expect him to put in a season (or even half a season) of game changing wing-play? It pains me massively to say it, but of all the sacred cows, Potter could easily be the first to go.
With the post-season hysterics starting to subside, clubs up and down the country are going through the cathartic process of shedding themselves of deadweights. This process of renewal – soon to be followed by a slew of new signings – encourages everyone to return in August with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
Reading some views of our squad, it’s a wonder that we have any players left at all. Some would have preferred a frenzied mass slaughter with no player spared the pyre. One of the few exceptions was Ryan Clarke, who gets the Oxblogger Player of the Year Award for the second year running. It is to our massive advantage that other clubs seem too dopey to look at Clarke. His presence, or not, has defined our season. With him in goal we were dependable and effective. Then, when injured he palmed the ball into his own net against Torquay which was a pivot in our and his season.
In came Wayne Brown, who I’d envisaged had spent most his time doing odd jobs around the stadium. He proved himself to be more than a worthy replacement. Just as we thought we’d got away with it he too got injured. Connor Ripley came in and looked shakey beyond belief. We completed the season with four keepers in five games. It was hardly the bedrock upon which to sustain an effective promotion chase. If people want to blame Chris Wilder for any failure; they might want to consider how good Ryan Clarke was up to the point he got injured and how much we missed him at the moment we needed him most.
The hand-ringing that surrounded our failure to reach the play-offs masks the fact that defensively this season has been a vast improvement on last. Last season we looked porous and niave. The introduction of Michael Duberry has transformed the back-four. His influence, assurance and experience made a critical difference. For a period he was neck and neck with Clarke in terms of player of the year, but he seemed to fade marginally as the season progressed. Phil Gilchrist was similarly dominant when he returned to the club in our first Conference year, but his performances fell away as a career of wear and tear took their toll. The only concern about Duberry, given his age, is that he could blow up spectacularly at any point next season.
Jake Wright is a great leader and clearly respected by his team mates, but he still gives me the heebie jeebies. He has been caught out many times over the last couple of years trying to be too clever; glancing back headers or playmaking from the back-four. I do wonder whether Harry Worley, whose brief appearances this season have shown him to be a more than able deputy, might feature more regularly next season.
With the introduction of Liam Davis our full-backs have looked more balanced. Davis is pacey and strong, although his crossing could be improved and he always seems to want to beat one too many players. On the other side, Damien Batt, fresh from being voted the best right-back in the division at the end of 2010/11, seemed a more subdued. Perhaps he was fulfilling his pledge to work on his defensive work, perhaps age is beginning to catch up on him a little. It’s a tricky balance because Batt is a potent force going forward; but it does leave us with a gap at the back when he does.
Wembley romantisists will be saddened by the inevitable departure of Anthony Tonkin. Oddly, Tonkin has looked more aggressive than in previous years, with his performance against Swindon being his standout display for Oxford. The emergence of Davis and the largely absent Capaldi did leave Tonkin with little future at the club.
The funny thing about goalkeepers is they usually need to leave in order to make an objective assessment as to their quality. Unlike strikers, whose legend (or not) is forged in the here and now, most goalkeepers are treated well by fans and it is only some years later that a more considered view can emerge.
For example, in the 10 years at the Kassam, it is perhaps only Ian McCaldon who was butchered by the Oxford faithful whilst actually guarding his goal. Despite being in the doldrums, others like Woodman, Tardif, Turley and now Clarke (plus the odds and sods of loanees and juniors) have all been treated well. Perhaps it’s because goalkeeping looks genuinely difficult. Most of us can kick a ball reasonably straight and true – we can at least make some vague connection with what outfield players do, but how many of us naturally throw ourselves full length to the floor? Goalkeeping contains counter-intuitive actions, maybe we admire that.
So, it’s not really possible to make a genuine assessment as to where Ryan Clarke sits in the ‘legendary goalkeeper’ firmament. But lets try. Let’s look at the three aforementioned Kassam regulars. Andy Woodman was part of a sturdy defensive unit that included Matt Robinson, Scott McNiven, Andy Crosby and Matt Bound. They didn’t concede many goals, but, with hindsight, the ball seemed to rarely get to Woodman, so whilst being a solid component of a larger unit, he was a largely unremarkable keeper.
Time And Relative Dimensions In Football – Chris Tardif was equally unremarkable, but for different reasons. Unlike Woodman, he was exposed by a more porous defence and so was able to show off his shot stopping skills, but he wasn’t a significant and reassuring presence and so loses out on that count. We admired him for his exploits, but looking back, he was probably just benefitting from being used as target practice.
Billy Turley was my Kassam All-star XI goalkeeper. There were times when he was magnificent, outshining those around him time and time again. He was also a narcissist and his charming eccentricities did have a habit of getting the better of him. This happened most notably against Orient in the last game of the 2005/6 season and Exeter in the play-off semi-final 2nd leg in 2007 – the two most important games he played in. As I say, it is relatively easy to paint yourself as a great keeper when you have plenty of shots being fired at you, it’s saving them at critical times that counts.
Turley will forever be labelled an Oxford legend, and rightly so, but as time progresses, he will probably be known more in the Johnny ‘lager’ Durnin than Johnny ‘goals’ Aldridge sense. A character.
My frame of reference for The Manor goalkeepers stretches back as far as Roy Burton’s bumcrack. Burton was deeply loved and still is. Not surprising in that he kept goal for 11 years, from the Nothing Years right to the edge of the Glory Years. The memory of Burton, however was as much about his inability to hold up his shorts as it was his goalkeeping skills.
It is funny that we are uncompromising towards managers and other players, we consider football a ‘results business’ and if results don’t come we’re happy to diagnose instant redundancy. When it comes to goalkeepers, it seems we’re drawn more to their personalities; and specifically the ones that make us laugh.
The gap between Burton’s last game and Steve Hardwick’s first was a matter of weeks. I do remember the absolute shock of Paul Butcher taking up position in the green shirt (with blue shorts and yellow socks – just how it should be – none of this special outfit nonsense of today).
During the boom years, Hardwick never seemed to concede a goal and my addled brain remembers him leaping higher than the cross bar to tip the ball over on a regular basis. I thought he was brilliant, but I thought everyone in that team was brilliant.
Given Hardwick’s contribution to the Glory Days, it was surprising that Alan Judge seemed to take over once we reached the 1st Division. It’s difficult to know how good Judge was, though. After 2 years of attacking devil-may-care, when everything seemed to go right for us, we were suddenly placed on the back foot as England’s top strikers attacked a defence forged in the lower leagues. The Guardian recently described that defensive unit – as legendary as it is to us today – ‘a disgrace’. Conceding goals and scratching out points was a sobering experience and whilst Judge will always be our Milk Cup Final keeper, he’ll also be one which was in a team which was constantly in a battle to stay up.
After Judge came a more fuzzy period. Peter Hucker was around for much longer than I remember, but it was difficult to see games in that time and perhaps for me his 1982 FA Cup final appearance for QPR eclipses his time in an Oxford jersey. Ken Veysey’s stay was brief but well regarded, unlike Paul Kee.
Then suddenly, one evening in 1993 Phil Whitehead appeared between the sticks. Whitehead grew to become a contender for the greatest keeper we ever had. He saw us through promotion in 1996 and down the other side. His sale to West Brom propped us up for a period.
Like Clarke, he was playing behind a solid back-four but there were times when he pulled off the remarkable. I still remember this save against Port Vale in the League Cup as being utterly miraculous. The ball seemed to be sitting on the goalline with the striker ready to prod home, but from nowhere Whitehead appeared to parry it to safety. The thing I remember is that we were 2-0 up and cruising and yet Whitehead’s desire to get the block in was undiminished. That moment sticks in my brain to this day.
Post-Whitehead, there was another period of fuzzyness; Pal Lundin, Andre Arendse, Richard Knight, all had their moments in the sun with various levels of success. Knight, in particular, was a brilliant shot stopper, but we broke his spirit in the final season at the Manor as he conceded over 100 goals and still ended up player of the season.
So, is Ryan Clarke Oxford’s greatest ever goalkeeper? Given the nature of the opposition each keeper faced and the defences they stood behind, it’s a marginal call. For me, it’s between him and Phil Whitehead. However, on Tuesday, as Izzy Macleod stood over the ball ready to take the penalty, I had an unreasonable amount of confidence that he would save it. How often do you get to think that about a goalkeeper? He’s perhaps the only player from the Conference years who has shown no signs of needing to adjust in the Football League.
On the other hand, Whitehead took us up in 1996 and was playing at a higher level. Clarke, of course, has been part of one promotion team – and you could argue that the Conference is one of the hardest leagues to get out of. If he manages a second promotion come May, perhaps then we can make the claim that he’s the number 1 number 1.