Wingers’ Week Part 4 – The resurrection of the winger

Darren Patterson didn’t enjoy a great deal of success on the pitch, he was stymied by a precarious financial situation and burdened by having the man he replaced sitting on his shoulder watching every move.

He could, however, spot a player; it’s easy to forget that he brought in James Constable for one. Sam Deering was another that he nurtured into first team action. Deering like Courtney ‘shit shit shit’ Pitt, he was ‘from Chelsea’, which always sounds impressive (like Danny Rose, Manchester United reserve team captain) but is a bit like hiring a 17 year-old gardener as chief executive of a small software company on the basis that he once pruned the borders at Microsoft HQ.

But, Deering, like Pitt could have been, became totemic in the club’s revival. As a winger, he already had our interest, he was small and could beat a player, and that’s all we wanted. When Chris Wilder arrived he announced Deering as our best player (he’d just broken his leg in Wilder’s first game at Salisbury). Where were times when he couldn’t reach the penalty box with his corners. We even forgave him for a racist post on Facebook, that’s how desperate for something to love we were. 

‘Suntan’ Lewis Haldane was another of Patterson’s signings in 2008. Like all good wingers he was frustrating but punctuated this with moments of thrilling. Not least a strike against Cambridge that was as clean as you’d hope to see. The club couldn’t quite make a permanent move stick, and Craig Nelthorpe, brought in by Wilder to help ignite a remarkable turnaround, couldn’t stop fighting with people. We ended the 2008/9 season with a renewed hope, but still no winger to get behind.

Alfie Potter came in during that summer. He’d already gained popularity when on loan at Havant and Waterlooville where he scored in a remarkable cup tie at Anfield. With his recent injury, it would be tempting, but slightly overstating it to say that he was pivotal in our promotion season. He certainly played an important role along with Deering, in stretching tiring defenders or offering new angles when things got stagnant. But then, like now, he frustrates with his lack of finishing and occasional dribbles into nowhere. That said, he offers something that no other players does. And while he does that, Oxford fans will have infinite patience to allow him to develop.

It seems fitting that in the last minute of the play-off final, what would become the last minute of a decade in the doldrums, that it was Deering and Potter, the two most traditional wingers at the club, breaking out from a melee to exchange passes for more than half the length of the pitch, like children playing in the park, before Potter slotted home. If anyone ever doubted the importance of wingers in Oxford’s history, that moment alone, nearly 30 years on from George Lawrence, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas, proved that this club, its fortunes and wing play are a key part of its history and spirit.

Wingers’ Week Part 3 – The collapse of a dynasty

With Beauchamp, Allen and Powell all coming through around the same time, it was easy to think that we had a right to continue to produce this calibre of player. And this calibre of winger, in particular. But, we were changing. The Kassam Era’s nuclear winter had brought a new coldness to the club. Football was changing too. Players were getting fitter and wingers were replaced by more versatile wing-backs who could attack and defend for 90 minutes. Also, managers were more paranoid about losing, so their teams were getting more compact, with a packed midfield and a single striker. The luxury of the winger, with his notoriously patchy involvement in the game, was being phased out.

But, as Joey Beauchamp’s career wound down, it seemed that there was yet another waiting to take to the stage. Chris Hackett had the rawness of Chris Allen, but he was playing in a team in steep decline. Fans continued hold him in high regard, in hope that he might emerge as the next in line to the throne. Occasionally, he’d show something of what he had, but usually only as a substitute and, only then, when he was linking up with Dean Whitehead or Jamie Brooks. New Year 2006 came and Firoz Kassam committed suicide on behalf of the club when he sold Lee Bradbury to Southend, Craig Davies to Verona and Hackett to Hearts. This stripped us of our attacking talent, even a faltering one, and our crumbling edifice finally collapsed.

The decay started some time before that though, it was impossible to not have reservations when Graham Rix was appointed in 2004. He’d been placed on the sex offender register five years earlier, for having sex with a 15 year old girl who was the daughter of a family friend. With this in his background, he was never realistically going to survive for long. In addition, he carried a label of being one of the best coaches in the country despite a track record of abject failure in his only management role at Portsmouth. It was the classic Kassam problem of recruiting CVs not people. Rix wasn’t going to survive at a club which had expectations beyond all measure and failure deep in its DNA.
However, he brought with him a philosophy which tried to turn Ian Atkins’ direct and pragmatic game on its head. He wanted to play the football that his text books said was ‘right’. He introduced a passing game instantly, I still have the hair raising memory of Andy Crosby and Matt Bound passing the ball along their own 6 yard box in Rix’s first game against Doncaster. 

On the wing that day was Courtney Pitt, a signing Rix made ‘from Chelsea’ (although he actually came from Portsmouth). Pitt’s 9 games for the club wouldn’t normally be worthy of a mention in any Oxford story. However, the newly proclaimed philosophy and the introduction of a winger to illustrate its intent, he ignited a brief flicker of hope. 

Pitt once had a cameo appearance in a documentary about football agents. Sky Andrew was seen trying to negotiate a deal for him, while he walked with a gangster limp and drove a brand new Audi TT. It was the ultimate image of the vacuous professional, presented as something exciting and aspirational. Pitt’s performance was disinterested and ineffectual, to me, he, perhaps more than perhaps any other player, illustrated and confirmed the terminal decline the club was in. The club died in 2006, but the spirit of the winger died with Courtney Pitt two years earlier.

The spiral of decline continued all the way to the Conference. Oxford were gripped with football’s New Seriousness. Wingers were out, combative midfielders were in. There was virtually no evidence of any wingers during Jim Smith’s era. When his plan A didn’t stopped working in 2007, there was no plan B. He could have done with a couple of wingers to get us out of the sludge.

Wingers’ Week Part 2 – The winged trinity

By 1988 the club was beginning a period of Division 2 stagnation, dog days in comparison to today and at any other club it might have been considered a halcyon time. The thing was, what had gone before was so wonderful it meant that life in the 2nd tier was decidedly mundane. Despite this, the winger production line was about to shift into overdrive.

Joey Beauchamp had been a ball boy at Wembley in 1986 and eventually made his first-team debut three years later. All great clubs should have a homegrown legend. It wasn’t quite a one club career, but his dalliances with West Ham and Swindon proved only that money wasn’t as important as happiness. 

People brand Beauchamp as a lightweight and a mummy’s boy. He was notoriously quiet in the dressing room, but was mentally strong enough to know what he wanted. When the club was in financial difficulties, he was linked with moves to Nottingham Forest and Southampton but turned them both down. He got to the Kassam, providing a lineage from the peak of the Glory Years to the new era of the club, but was soon unceremoniously dumped by Firoz Kassam for being expensive, injured and ageing. A reasonable business decision, but one that indicated the callous and cold hearted Kassam-era within which the club suffered. Beauchamp left after 13 years, and was involved in almost all the good things that happened in that period – Tranmere, Blackpool, Swindon

On the other wing, for the early part of Beauchamp’s reign, was the gangling form of Chris Allen. Nowhere near as refined as Beauchamp, it’s fair to say that Allen was a little, well, raw. The joke was that he only knew when to stop running when he saw the Unipart advertising boards at the end of the pitch. His emergence suggested that Oxford were a natural breeding ground for wingers. 

In 1996, when we were hunting for promotion, Allen’s head was turned by a move to Nottingham Forest. He didn’t see the season out, moving to the City Ground and scoring his only goal for Forest in a Premier League game against Liverpool. He stayed at Forest for 3 years, playing just 25 games. At 27, his career capitulated and he played just 21 more league games. Interestingly, although Beauchamp’s career was more fulfilled, Allen’s involvement in football has been more sustained. Perhaps it was a sobering lessons of missing his opportunity, he now coaches the youth team.

Amidst these two homegrown talents was Stuart Massey. For all Beauchamp and Allen’s empathy, pace and youthful talent, I think Massey was absolutely pivotal to the 1996 promotion season. Beauchamp or Allen played instinctively, with Paul Moody providing a target up front, the temptation was to get the ball to him quickly. Massey, however, refused to be rushed. It gave us the patience to create a quality, not quantity, of chances. This was key to us to building up a momentum that became the great promotion onslaught of 96.

With Beauchamp, Allen and Massey at their peak in 1996, hiding shyly behind the scenes was yet another local winged wonder. Paul Powell, unlike his predecessors, was a spiky, feisty character. His pugnacious attitude suggested that he might have the steel to succeed where the others had failed. I thought he was more talented than Brock, Thomas, Allen and even Beauchamp. He completed the trinity of mid-90s Oxford-born wingers. It’s very rare that a player changes games on his own, Powell could do just that. Not only did he win balls and beat players, he scored too. None of the others were that complete. I thought he’d play for England. 

With the club teetering on the edge of collapse, Powell represented a beacon for our survival. If he stayed, he’d play to get us out of trouble, if he went, with the money madness ramping up in the Premier League, he’d pay for it. During a late season revival under Malcolm Shotton in 1998 Powell joined Simon Marsh in an England Under 21 squad which he eventually had to pull out of. His problem was fitness, much of it apparently self-inflicted. His career was already on the wane when he got a bad injury against Luton. Although he returned and had the honour of scoring the first goal at the Kassam, he was never the same again.

Wingers Week Part 1: The rise and fall of The Glory Years

Sometimes we do things without knowing why. Why are we loyal to friends? We just are. Why do people fight for their country? They just do. These are things we take for granted. They are embedded deep within our psyche. Some Oxford fans will be wondering why they are feeling so keenly the news that Alfie Potter will be out for the rest of the season. The answer is simple; the Oxford fans’ love of a winger is deep within their DNA.

Many clubs have built mythologies around particular shirt numbers or positions; Manchester United’s number 7, Newcastle’s number 9, Brazil’s number 10. Although we’ve never seemed to make much of it, Oxford fans just cannot get enough of a man marauding down the wing with a trick or two down his shorts.

‘Chicken’ George Lawrence arrived from Southampton with Trevor Hebberd in 1982. George was a homoerotic dream, his shorts were like underpants, his enormous thighs, greased up, were like beacons, particularly under The Manor’s floodlights. He was like a young Emile Heskey, those of you who only know the old Emile Heskey may not consider this a compliment. But George, like Emile, was quick, muscular and unpredictable.

When he first arrived at The Manor he outshone the more subtle Hebberd, who eventually established his legend in a man-of-the-match performance in the Milk Cup Final. In a sense, Lawrence’s unpredictability was his undoing. Initially it was a weapon that defenders couldn’t deal with, however, better players learnt to back off him a little and give him the space to make a mistake. He never made the top grade with Oxford, but was very much part of The Glory Years’ story.

Kevin Brock had much of what Lawrence lacked; guile, craft and a metronomic ability to get the ball in the box. When I first started watching Oxford I thought every club had a Brock, and an Andy Thomas – local players with bags of class and ability. I assumed that was how it worked. 

Brock will be most remembered for a back-pass which allowed Everton a League Cup equaliser triggering for them a period of sustained success which included the League title, FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. But, his ignominious legacy overshadows the fact he was was an England Under-21 that won the 1984 European Championships. Plus, of course, he wore the number 11 in the Milk Cup Final. He even played in the Premier League with Newcastle in 1994 having been signed by Jim Smith. I only mention this because it surprised me.

Brock followed Jim Smith to QPR in 1987. Suddenly Oxford were without a regular winger, Peter Rhodes-Brown picked up the baton briefly, but dropped it on his foot forcing him into another 6 months on the sidelines. Rosie’s last goal for the club was in a massive goal-burp 4-4 draw against Chelsea. After that he disappeared never to be seen again.

Following our inevitable relegation from Division 1, the deluded yellows started rebuilding for a second crack at The Glory Years. It was never going to be the same. One of the champagne signings designed to catapult us back into the big time was Paul Simpson. His arrival coincided with my Ambivalence Years, where a lack of money, transport and better things to do meant my visits to the Manor were relatively few. Simpson scored a goal every three games over three years and was, y’know, good.