World Cup Yellows #3 – Matt Elliot – 1998 France

Matt Elliot is the best defender Oxford ever had, arriving from Scunthorpe in 1992 he formed a formidable partnership with Phil Gilchrist which, with Les Robinson and Mike Ford as full-backs makes one the the classic Oxford United back-fours.
Elliot was a giant, dominant in both boxes and not just a ‘knucklehead centre-back’, his goals against Swindon and Carlisle, a breathtaking long-range effort in 1996 showed what a class act he was. In that promotion campaign Oxford’s season was a tale of two halves. 17th at Christmas, in the final 17 games of the season we lost one – it was the only game Elliot didn’t play.
In the Championship we started to gain a foothold we’d lost years previously; Elliot was commanding at the back, Nigel Jemson scoring up front alongside Paul Moody. But, there was a goldrush in the Premier League and as soon as Elliot came to the attention of clubs in the division above his days at Oxford were numbered. We were drawn against Watford in the FA Cup in 1997, Elliot wasn’t playing, and the writing was on the wall. He’d scored a remarkable 21 goals in 148 appearances.
Elliot moved to Leicester City who were flying high in the Premier League for £1.6 million, a club record which stood for nearly 20 years until Kemar Roofe moved to Leeds in 2016. Elliot’s fee would be the equivalent of over £11m today. There, he established himself as one of the best defenders in the country. In 1999 he appeared in the League Cup Final against Spurs, losing 0-1. A year later, against Tranmere, he scored both goals in a 2-1 victory and captained the side to lift the trophy.
Born in Wandsworth, Elliot had been a late starter – he was 29 when he left us – although one of the best defenders in the league, Leicester were unfashionable and the England national side already had Tony Adams, Gareth Southgate, Sol Campbell, Martin Keown and Rio Ferdinand ahead of him. In 1997, 10 months after leaving us, Elliot made his debut for Scotland in a friendly international against France.
Everything in Elliot’s career seemed to happen a year or two too late. He was selected for the 1998 Scotland World Cup squad in France. It was an ageing squad, but Craig Brown stuck with trusted 30-somethings Colin Calderwood and Colin Hendry for the opener against reigning champions Brazil. An obstinate Scottish display saw them lose 1-2 with only a Tommy Boyd own goal separating the sides.
Six days later, Scotland scraped a draw against Norway, and a week later they bowed out 0-3 against Morocco with David Weir partnering Hendry. Elliot didn’t get a sniff of the action.
Elliot then played in half of Scotland’s 2000 Euro qualifiers, scoring his only international goal against the Faroe Islands, before being ever-present through their 2002 failed World Cup qualifying tournament. Despite picking up 15 points, Scotland finished third behind Belgium and Croatia. 
Elliot finished off with 18 caps, his last being the final qualifier against Latvia. Berti Vogts took over as manager and that was the end of his Scotland career.
Had the ’98 World Cup happened a year later or Elliot been born a year earlier, he probably would have played in France, in the end, he watched from the sidelines. A disappointment in an otherwise triumphant career.

World Cup Yellows #2 – Alan Hodgkinson 1958 – Sweden, 1962 – Chile

After our 2010 play-off win, the camera panned up to the Royal Box at Wembley, three men were seen hugging. The Sky commentator spotted Jim Smith, didn’t recognise Kelvin Thomas and was contractually forbidden from mentioning ITV’s Jim Rosenthal.

The sense of relief and triumph from three men at the heart of Oxford United was palpable; with the players celebrating on the pitch there was a visceral sense of the bond across the club and the sheer bloody hard work both on and off the pitch that got us to that point. One man who was missing from the scene was goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson.

Hodgkinson played a funny role at the club, at times it seemed like they were getting a grant to allow him to come to training, or that Jim Smith was doing a favour for his wife who just wanted him out of the house.

He was part of the wallpaper at home games, at half-time he would trot out to gently kick the ball into the hands of the substitute keeper like a lads and dads trip down the park. After a couple of minutes, they’d usually stop to watch the half-times scroll through the scoreboard. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t miss them, but you’d get the sense that something wasn’t right.

But there was depth to Hodgkinson, who was sprung from the Old Boy Network, a mafia-like operation of which the Godfathers were the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson. We are often led to believe that players become stars through talent alone, but in truth, they are the product of a surprisingly small pool of greybeards with the ability and experience to create great players. Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, when this network needed goalkeepers, they turned to Hodgkinson.

The doddery old guy on the pitch was a legendary ‘keeping coach, the first, in fact. The man who discovered Peter Schmiechel, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton and coached David Seaman.

He was in the 1958 World Cup squad in Sweden. It wasn’t a great tournament for England; three draws and a defeat saw them heading home before those other footballing giants Wales and Northern Ireland.

The tournament was significant in that it heralded the end of the era of Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and the emergence of the likes of Bobby Charlton (a non-playing substitute) and, above all, Pele. This was the generation that would herald George Best and all the rubbish that came with him. With the 60s just around the corner and the global cultural shift that came with TV, 1958 marked the end of the gentleman generation and the start of the football superstars.

So, how was Alan Hodgkinson’s World Cup? Well, not spectacular. The official FIFA record says he was in the squad, but other sources say that he and Maurice Setters didn’t even travel. It seems that nobody has ever thought to ask Mr Hodgkinson, although perhaps he couldn’t remember himself.

Four years later, in Chile, Hodgkinson had clawed his way up the ranking making it to second string ahead of Gordon Banks, behind Ron Sprigget. In it, England won through their group as runners’-up before being put to the sword by eventual winners Brazil. Again, Hodgkinson watched from the sidelines.

He had already played the last of his five England games by the time he went to Chile and although his club career with Sheffield United went on until 1971, he wasn’t considered for the 1966 squad.

He made a brief return to the World Cup in 1998 as Craig Brown brought him in to coach Scotland’s goalkeepers for the tournament in France. Over 40 years later, he came to Oxford where he coached current Oxford keeper Simon Eastwood in his first spell and transformed Ryan Clarke’s career, a pivotal player in our promotion back to the Football League.

“I worked at Man United and Rangers and in some big European finals but I can honestly say that play-off final at Wembley [in 2010] gave me as much pleasure and as much excitement as any other day in football.” he’s quoted as saying, and you believe him.

He died in 2015 aged 79, a genuine footballing revolutionary.

World Cup Yellows #1 – Steve Foster – Spain 1982

Steve Foster was a pretty remarkable player. Known for his trademark headband he played over a 100 games for four different clubs (five if you count his two stints with Brighton), for us, he played 112. In a nineteen year club career, he averaged 42 games a season, for an combative outfield player, that’s a pretty amazing feat.

Foster was iconic at nearly every club he played. Ask people of a certain age about Steve Foster and they’ll talk about the Luton legend who led them to the 1988 League Cup, or the Brighton legend who led them to the 1983 FA Cup final.

Foster wasn’t a legend at Oxford though; he joined in 1989, two years after we’d been relegated from Division 1. There was a dawning reality that our odyssey to the top of English football was over, perhaps forever so, in a sense, we were stuck in a middle-aged fug – lamenting our lost youth, dreading our dotage. But, like at every other club he played he captained the side by leading a mediocre team to achieve precious little under the leadership of the uninspiring Brian Horton. It was quite a weight to carry.

Foster’s international career was as fleeting as his club career was enduring. He managed just three games spread over a period of four months. He made his debut in the Home Internationals against Northern Ireland in 1982, this preceded a friendly against Holland. It was a surprise, then, when he found himself on the plane to Spain for the ’82 World Cup ahead of Russel Osman and Alvin Martin in an England squad which only featured three centre-backs. It was a time of renewed fervour as England were making their first appearance in the finals since 1970.

England’s first choice duo was Terry Butcher and Phil Thompson, a partnership that contributed two wins in England’s opening games over France and Czechoslovakia. Qualification for the second phase gave Ron Greenwood the opportunity to rest some players and Butcher stepped down to be replaced by Foster, who hadn’t even made the bench previously.

Foster contributed to a clean sheet in a 1-0 win against Kuwait with Trevor Francis scoring. It was the peak and the end of his international career at 24. His only other notable contribution was providing backing vocals to the squad’s 1982 World Cup song, the number 2 hit This Time.

Foster played for another 14 years in a stellar club career, we got him for a couple of years when he was on the way down and didn’t see anything like the best of him, but that doesn’t detract from the fact for 90 minutes, he played on the world’s greatest stage.