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.

Is Ryan Clarke Oxford’s greatest goalkeeper?

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.