Tuesday, January 20, 2015
It was 2-2 at the time and, fleetingly, I wanted us to concede. Or at least I was curious to see what would happen if we did. I’m not one of those who wants to see us lose in order for the manager to be fired, despite what people seem to think, but there was a moment where I wanted to do a laboratory test, away from the real world, which would establish how the club might respond.
And then we did concede; we’d lost two leads, at home, playing a team playing with 10 men for an hour, it could barely have been worse. Had we won, we could have debated whether the 10 men was a factor, had we drawn, we could have debated how difficult it is to play against 10 men, had we lost against 11 men, we could have debated the relative merits of our opponents. But this was beyond debate, we'd lost. Badly.
So, how do the club handle it? Will we get the relentless positive parping from Eales and Ashton? The steely look in the eye and the challenge to ‘judge us on our actions’. How do they defend it? Outwardly they will support Appleton, the media seem to think he's as safe as houses. This might have been a transitional year, but they surely can't have planned it like this.
There can only be two scenarios where this might not matter; the first is if they don’t care, the second is if they have unstinting belief in The Philosophy.
Let's deal with the first bit; the land deal thesis – the idea that their investment in the club is simply a cover for some massive land deal; either at the Kassam or at Water Eaton; an opportunity to capitalise on the city’s housing crisis, for example.
While its feasible, I don’t believe that this is their sole focus. I’m fairly certain that it’s part of a wider investment plan but every owner from Robert Maxwell onwards has recognised how important stadium ownership is to the club’s future. But they're trying way too hard off the pitch for them to be coldly killing the club off a la Kassam (although I don't think even he planned that initially).
So, what about The Philosophy. Do they have the money to invest unquestionably in The Philosophy, the Plan A and the DNA and all that gubbins? There's not a lot of evidence that they have a bottomless pit of cash; after all they're not investing heavily at the moment? People talk about signing players in the transfer window, but they ignore that we signed four before it even opened, and they're not exactly looking like world beaters.
So, there has to be some limits; a point at which the situation becomes intolerable. I can’t believe they are looking at this and thinking it’s OK, because if they don't improve things soon, it's going to get a whole lot worse.
The thing is, it's not the fans they need to worry about, it’s the customers. We, the fans, will turn up pretty much whatever gets served up, customers - the casuals who only turn up if they’re going to be entertained - will make the difference. We may detest them, but they are the difference between a crowd of 4,000 and a crowd of 9,000, plus they pay more per head. They are much more discerning and selective than us. Turn them off and the club is really in trouble and for Ashton and Eales, things will get much, much more expensive. Even if they give up on the team, they've still got to pay the rent, at least Kassam could give up and not fear that.
How do they, with any credibility, defend their credibility when The Philosophy, which they've talked about with such confidence, disintegrates on first contact with the outside world? Do they smile it out or take action? If they're teetering now, Saturday's game against Exeter could be decisive.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
It was surely of no surprise to anyone that Michael Appleton has told Alfie Potter that he has, to use Appleton's own mangled analogy, ‘reached his shelf-life’.
Potter’s departure, which we must assume to be fairly imminent, brings the number of players left at the club from the promotion winning team of 2010 to just two – Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke.
Potter was part of the Wilder/Thomas aggressive signing policy in the summer of 2009. On loan from Peterborough, his reputation had been built, in part, through his performance for Havant and Waterlooville where, improbably, they took the lead twice against Liverpool at Anfield in the FA Cup.
He was brought into a squad of big names, big personalities and big bodies – Creighton, Constable, Midson, Green, Bulman.
Despite being slight, fast and tricky, the antithesis of someone like Creighton, he fitted right in, he'd bounce off robust challenges and react to nothing. He played with the arrogance of a team that was going to get promoted; something that shifted the club overnight from one that was a perpetual victim, to one that was simply going to knock over anyone who got in their way.
But, at the same time Potter was young and small; he looks like a little boy; even the name - Alfie Potter - the boy (wing) wizard. In 2010, just before the start of the first season back in League 2, it was reported that he had been arrested in connection with a nightclub stabbing. It turned out that there had been an incident in a club that he was in, and he was the innocent victim of an 'arrest everyone, ask questions later' policing policy.
In some ways, it was most startling that Alfie Potter was in a nightclub at all; was he old enough? In essence, his struggle was always about breaking out from being the youngster with potential into a being a senior and respected professional.
That would have required him to remodel his game; players like Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard and, perhaps, the best parallel; Ryan Giggs, found that they had to change their games once their natural youthful talents were dismantled by injury and age.
Both affected Potter, but that's not because he was unlucky, just because he was a professional footballer. It's difficult, without the benefit of an army of crack sports scientists, to know quite what he was supposed to do about it.
So Potter was on a hiding to nothing; wingers thrill and frustrate with equal measure, they don't always beat their man or get the cross in. When it works, it works brilliantly, but frequently it doesn't. Even Joey Beauchamp used to drive fans mad with his inconsistency, and most will agree that Beauchamp was one of our best ever.
This season, a bloke behind me can't help himself everytime the ball goes near Potter; 'Ah, here we go again' he'd say in a state of constant dismay before Potter got a chance to do anything. If he lost the ball trying to go past someone or was tackled, it was further proof that he was inept. It's unfair, because every winger is inconsistent. It's just that, once the tide is against you, it's difficult, probably impossible, to turn it back. The writing has been on the wall for a while.
Like Chris Wilder, Potter seems to have been labelled some kind of failure at Oxford, which is sad and wrong. It might be that his time has come, but that's not to say that he hasn't been a success. Take THAT goal. A goal usually ignites a feeling of relief, that you're going in the right direction, but it's an incomplete feeling; a feeling that we need to get another goal, or defend. Even a last minute goal frequently gives the feeling that it offers a platform for the next game or the rest of the season.
Potter's goal at Wembley was a rare and precious thing; the feeling of completeness, a sense of achievement. Football offers so few moments like that; in my near 40 years of supporting Oxford there was the Jeremy Charles' third goal in 1986, the fourth goal against Peterborough in 1996, and Potter's goal in 2010.
Not only that; he pretty much gave us that feeling twice...
Wednesday, December 31, 2014
It’s much the same with the Eales/Ashton/Appleton revolution; most want it to exist; better football, new stadium, a whole bright future; but for the first time on Boxing Day, it did appear that even the most devout converts were beginning to doubt its existence.
The display itself was gutless. A true demonstration of just how far behind the standard we’ve fallen in the division. Shrewsbury were stronger, faster and more efficient with the ball and far better in every department imaginable. We trudged around trying to pass it on a boggy pitch increasingly tiny triangles; if Shrewsbury weren’t out-muscling us, they were simply waiting for a mistake to happen. When they got the ball, they moved it quickly and looked a continual threat. When they chose to shut us down, they did. It was much the same against Wycombe. It was much the same against Burton.
Post-match, Appleton tied himself up in knots. He was, he said, ‘man enough’ to admit we were beaten by a better team, as if this was a positive. It certainly paints him as an intelligent, reflective, objective individual; all of which are good qualities to have. But it ignores the fact that it’s ultimately his job to ensure we aren’t swept aside by better teams in the manner that we were. No matter that a team is better resourced, we should expect to compete with every team that comes to the Kassam rather than passively wait to see what turns up. He reinforced his normal stance that he wouldn’t be stepping back or ranting and raving at the players; a point he regularly makes. He appeared to take a swipe at the club; pointing out that we’ve not been higher than League 2 for over a decade and that it’s not as if they’re playing in front of big crowds. It’s something that both David Kemp and Chris Wilder did in the past when they were under pressure. He failed, as he increasingly does, to explain what he was trying to do; If they were simply a better team, what was the plan to neutralise that?
Then Ryan Clarke came on to try and explain things from the players’ perspective. Players rarely say anything of genuine interest; it’s not really in their professional interest to do so. To criticise your employer in the media is career limiting, so we shouldn’t expect a player to come out and blame tactics or lack of investment or whatever. However, Clarke seemed to struggle to contain his frustration. He followed the party line; he praised being treated like an adult by the management and the commitment to playing ‘proper’ football. He also claimed he had nothing to do beyond the two goals, although this ignored at least one shot coming off the crossbar and one cleared off the line. He just seemed to want the interview to end before he said something he shouldn’t.
If he was frustrated, then it would stand to reason. Clarke has played in successful Oxford sides and now finds himself defending a team that barely resembles that of the past in terms of quality, character or results. He may be telling the truth about being treated like an adult; but does that mean that everyone is acting like an adult? Jamie Cook describes Chris Wilder ‘a good coach but a terrible man’, but maybe that’s what is needed sometimes - somebody has to take a bunch of fit, healthy alpha males and tell them what to do and how to work together. Is Appleton almost giving the players too much leeway to express themselves, because when they do, they become disjointed and ineffectual.
How much longer will the players believe the philosophy, whatever that turns out to be, when it’s not producing results? At one point against Shrewsbury, Tareiq Holmes-Dennis broke free down the left flank. He was fouled and lay prone on the floor in the mud. But what was significant was that he would have looked up around him to see five Shrewsbury players, surrounding him ready to put a challenge in or at least shepherd him into a neutral position. Being dominated like that must become demoralising, not getting results even more so.
The Plymouth result was welcomed, of course, but papered over the cracks. It will be some time yet before we find out whether the result resembles a turning point or whether it was simply a chink in the prevailing direction of travel that was evident against Shrewsbury. We benefited from an early sending off and another James Roberts special. There’s something melancholic about Roberts’ emergence as, possibly, the biggest talent to come out of the club since Jamie Brooks. On one hand, it’s great to see him thriving but you also suspect that if he continues to do so then he’s unlikely to score more than 20 goals for us before being picked up by a bigger club. We should enjoy him while he lasts.
As 2014 concludes we’ve conceded about 10 places in the league for this new philosophy, we’ve taken a point less at home compared to the same point last year, we’ve scored the same number of goals and conceded 2 more. We’ve won the same and lost one more. Our away form, of course, doesn’t compare. The statistics suggest we’re going backwards, Christmas has proved a microcosm of the season, patchy and unconvincing punctuated by flickers of a new future. Outwardly Ashton and Eales remain committed to Appleton, but they can’t completely ignore our league position. If he was under threat, then Plymouth will have bought him some more time. January’s form - with a number of games against teams around us - will be more telling.
Friday, December 19, 2014
There seems almost no consensus about whether we’re doing well, badly or otherwise. To some we’re doing The Right Things, building a new DNA within the club. The bigger picture is that these will come good given time.
Alternatively, we’re out of both cups and sit 17th in the league. We’re only 10 points from the play-offs, but we’re only 6 points from relegation.
There is no agreed benchmark about where we should be, and for that reason there is no real consensus about whether we are above or below where we should be. Fighting for promotion? Consolidating in preparation for some glorious future? Avoiding relegation? What’s the goal?
The jury is very much out on almost everything. Appleton’s style is more aesthetically pleasing than Wilder’s, but I don’t buy that this is the best football we’ve seen in years as some claim. Even under Wilder the promotion season was full of attacking flair with the three up front scoring a hatful of goals. Wilder eventually got stuck in a perfect storm of limited funds and the need to be more savvy to avoid being picked off by cleverer opponents. When he ran out of money trying to buy goals and creativity, he invested his limited funds in organisation and defensiveness. It wasn’t always thus.
The question of aesthetics seems to tax everyone, but I think it’s overrated. Nobody was complaining when we were top of the league under Ian Atkins, scoring goals and winning games is fun regardless of how many touches were taken getting the ball into the net. One of my all time favourite goals at the Kassam was by Julian Allsop in the last minute against Leyton Orient on Boxing Day. It was a long ball which Allsop lunged his ugly form at, getting the finest of touches on the ball he guided it past the keeper. We won and remained top. That was a happy day, the performance was awful. It’s only when the style stops working that it really looks cumbersome. A bit like Paul Moody - when he was scoring, we all loved him, when he wasn’t he looked like he’d taken root.
There’s ‘the DNA’, of course, Ashton mentions it again in his latest newsletter. But, if the DNA is judged by the effectiveness of signings, then you would have to argue that it’s been no better than patchy to date. Morris and Jakubiak looked out of their depth, Hoskins and Howard look like spent forces, Riley and Collins have both worked, while Holmes-Dennis and Barnett look the best of the lot. But, neither will be at the club in coming months.
Nothing has yet stuck. The reality is that the spine of the first team is still Wilderian - Clarke, Wright, Mullins and Whing. With Whing in the team we take, on average, nearly a point a game more than when he’s not. He’s played in less games than he’s missed, but we’ve still taken more points in total when he’s played. Whing, you suspect, is not the DNA that Appleton envisages for the club, but he’s one Jenga block he’s too scared to pull from the tower.
There is the flurry of signings from last month - Burns, Campbell, Dunkley and Hobarn. A sign of things to come? Ashton refers to them in the context of this fabled DNA, yet between them they’ve played just once. Are they the result of a sophisticated scouting network charged with alchemy? Or the signing of non-league no-hopers that might conjure up a gem or two. Certainly Radio Oxford seem to accept that approach; Jerome Sale is fairly open in admitting that some of those signings won’t work, and that, apparently, is OK as long as some do. For Hobarn and Dundalk read Twigg and Airdrie, for Campbell and Jarrow Roofing, read Ben Abbey and Crawley (not moneybags Crawley, the original, decidedly crap version). Today's signings are viewed to be the product of scouting geniuses, in the past they might have been viewed as penny pinching. They haven’t played, so we still just don’t know.
When Ashton et al stormed into the club in the summer there were two questions that needed to be answered. Questions that have faced the club for decades. Questions that have acted like brick walls to all previous owners. The first is what is the plan to buy the stadium, or any stadium? That remains the key block to revenue generation which by definition is the key block to future success. The second is how much is being invested in players? Better players deliver better results which drives attendances. For all the guff about passion and commitment and DNA, about how special the club is and how deserving the fans are, if you don’t get the player issue or the stadium issue sorted; or even better, both, then the rest is largely meaningless.
Neither question is easy and the answers are in no way cheap. But these are the key.
Nobody is suggesting that we were going to win the FA Cup, but unless something unexpected happens in the league, then it was the last opportunity to take a memory from this season. Perhaps that's not important; but the glorious failure of West Brom was a long time ago and will seem even further away come season ticket renewal time. That's why you need season highlights, to inspire people into thinking there's something worth getting involved in; to get them to renew season tickets.
Ashton has promised some exciting announcements in the future; perhaps it will be like the share issue they suggested at the start of the season? Perhaps it will be another ticket deal. Imaginative price promotions are certainly welcome, anything that gives the club the excuse to go back to the disinterested has got to help. But it’s not the whole solution, the only thing that will bring fans back is tangible and sustainable success on the pitch. And that means having a clear explicit strategy, until that’s in place, we’re all guessing whether we’re on the right track or not.
Wednesday, December 03, 2014
Those who have had the temerity not to hide their intelligence - for example, Graham Le Saux or Pat Nevin, both well spoken Guardian readers, were, in their time labelled as being, amongst other things, gay (and by inference, therefore, bad).
And yet, almost all professional footballers at all levels demonstrate a religious commitment to their profession, a focus that requires significant intelligence to execute successfully. Frequently, these players aren’t able to commit to a formal education, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. David Beckham, considered to be an effete king of the morons, has not sustained a global brand for approaching 20 years without a professional commitment that would, with the right education, be an asset in almost any line of work.
Matt Murphy was frequently labelled as being intelligent because before turning professional because he once worked in a bank. Ceri Evans has a bona fide doctorate from Oxford University. Evans uses his ‘forensic psychiatry and ‘sports psychology’ background to now run what appears to be a generic management training company. His profile on that site claims that he played in the English top division. Rage Online begs to differ suggesting that his debut was in 1989 after we’d been relegated. It’s probably just some copywriter getting confused about the various re-brandings the divisions have gone through over the years, but perhaps its an example of Evans’ psychological approach to imagining where you wanted to be in life rather than where were.
Before the game against Wimbledon last week, Nathan Cooper described Chey Dunkley as a ‘fellow academic’ to Michael Appleton. According to Appleton’s dormant LinkedIn profile he has a UEFA Pro and A Licence, and HNC in Sports Science and an A1 NVQ Assessors Award, whatever that is. Dunkley is studying at Loughborough University, which would imply some kind of sports related study given their background. This doesn’t, in true terms, make them 'academics', it just makes them more formally educated than is typical. In most walks of life that wouldn’t seem unusual; it seems odd that a multi-billion pound industry sees so little value in traditional education that it is considered remarkable when a player or manager has undertaken some kind of formalised education. I suppose we all want our footballers to be all-action heroes not bookish, nerds.
The purpose of any education is to instill a sense of reflection, to overcome the emotional and irrational with rational and logical thought. You rarely bring what you learn at university wholly into the workplace, but the approach to learning that you, um, learn is essential.
Certainly Appleton comes across as highly rational to the point of being impassive. This should make him a good coach because he's more likely to take an objective view on players, teams and tactics. This is somewhat different to the stereotypical nut-job manager. There was one story of Chris Wilder that Chris Carruthers' career at Oxford was effectively over when he took the last dessert during a club lunch. No idea whether that's true, but I can believe that it's happened at some football club somewhere at some point.
This considered approach presents Appleton as a thoroughly nice bloke, approachable and easy to talk to. A marked difference from the sometimes crotchety Wilder. I've heard it said that people tend to consider people they like to be more competent. So, if you like Appleton, then you're probably more likely to think he's doing a good job.
It's self perpetuating; the club is much more media friendly than it used to be; Nick Harris was effusive on Saturday about the club going in the right direction despite, by more objective measures such as results and league position, it's not.
The recent flurry of signings could be viewed as a signal of the new regime's way of working - more effective, smarter scouting unearthing talent others are unable to find. But, similar signings have been made in the past - managers under Firoz Kassam were forced to dig into the lower Scottish leagues and non-league (Ben Abbey, Neil McGowan for example) for their 'talent'. This wasn't looked on as good scouting, it was considered a money pinching exercise at the time. Time will tell whether Jarrow Roofing and Dundalk were squirreling away talent that will propel us up the league or whether the players involved are just happy to take a reasonable wage.
It seems that Appleton has been able to buy himself time through his more rational, friendlier approach to his work. Perhaps it is not what a manager does that makes him acceptable to the fans, more it is how he does it.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Wimbledon were in the process of doing something remarkable, though I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. To be honest, I never wholly bought the romanticism of what they eventually achieved; there was very little panache in their approach and we were living out our own glory days, which was much more important and interesting.
Still, nowadays Oxford v Wimbledon does leave me feeling somewhat nostalgic for a glorious past, even if Saturday's game proved that the reality of the 'now' can be a bucket of cold sick over the sepia world of 'then'.
That photo, and both teams’ remarkable rise through the divisions happened when I was about 12 or 13. I’d been going regularly to the Manor for a few years before that, the magic pretty much happened as soon as I started going, no wonder it hooked me in.
My daughter, M, is 8. That's about the age I started going to the Manor on a regular basis. She loves football and has been to a couple of Oxford games. She says she supports Oxford, but there hasn't been a lot to entrance her in the way it did for me. When I was around her age, my dad and I queued for tickets for games against Manchester United and Arsenal, we eventually saw us at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury and Wembley. That isn't happening for M, and even if we did find ourselves drawn against a big boy in the cup, we can safely say we'd be annihilated.
M has Oxford shirts, she's shown an interest in Crystal Palace, because a boy in her class is a fan. She has periodically flitted between all the big teams; Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, depending on who is on TV at the time.
In recent months she seems to have has settled on Arsenal, I have a soft spot for Arsenal myself because I used to go to Highbury fairly often as a child. I'm reasonably happy to accept this growing affinity. But now Christmas is coming and I'm toying with the idea that, perhaps, I should cement it and get her a Arsenal shirt.
This would potentially undermine any loyalty she might have towards Oxford, of course. But, in every other area of life you want the best for your children, why insist she be burdened with misery and failure by trying to force them into something as ungiving as a lower-league football club.
Supporting two teams isn't necessarily new; my dad supported both Wolves and Oxford, I followed Ipswich in the early eighties while going to the Manor. The puritan in me wants M to support one team, her local team, in the way you're supposed to. But perhaps we should be a bit more like the French in their attitude to sex and marriage - you have a wife for the practicalities in life, and a mistress for fun. Are we expecting too much for our children to get everything they want from one club?
The alternative might be another shirt from Europe, but Real Madrid or Barcelona both seem so obvious; a bridge too far. I was in Rotterdam recently and looked into getting a Feyenoord shirt, but that seemed was a very expensive way of being counter-culture, and she wouldn't have appreciated the nuance of my decision. National shirts are an option, but I'm not English, at least not wholly. I have a strong sense of my Scottish-ness, probably because when I was growing up, Scotland were the dominant British team or at least on par with the English. Could I bear her in an England shirt, should I spare her the indignity of a Scottish one?
There are a lot of practical benefits of allowing her to become an Arsenal fan; they are on the TV quite a lot and win trophies (occasionally). My gnarled mind, riddled with the evil politics of modern football, cannot abide the thought of having a Chelsea or Manchester City fan in the family, Manchester United and Liverpool are more acceptable because their success is, at least, borne out of their success, Arsenal too. When she realises that Chelsea win everything, she may go back to them, so is it time now to bank what I’ve got and hope that as she grows up, a fondness for Oxford grows and overshadows the flighty glamour of the Premier League?
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
There's always a frisson on excitement that comes from an emergent talent like Roberts. There's the vicarious joy of watching someone doing what you always dreamed to do - play and score for your team. We also hope beyond hope that he might be the Chosen One who will propel us forward. A hope to cling to, a sign of a brighter future.
But, tread carefully, for he is not the first, and history tells us that rarely does the flame of hope grow beyond a fleeting flicker.
When I first started supporting Oxford, home grown players that went on to greater things were the norm; my dad predicted an international future for Mark Wright during his league debut against Bristol City. We already had Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas, both in the squad for Wembley in ’86 and both would eventually forge decent top flight careers. Brock, in particular, played at Under-21 level for England. Those two aside, the glory years were characterised by players that were bought in, than by those brought through. However, it there wasn't the perception that we were buying in success. Because it was more normal to have British players coming through your youth system, it wasn’t quite the political issue it is today.
Joey Beauchamp was a ballboy on the touchline at Wembley. There’s a very youthful picture of him in Roger Howland’s Oxford United Complete History wearing that horrible yellow and white striped shirt that became synonymous with the latter glory years… ones which were less than glorious. Beauchamp was almost the son of the Glory Years; being born out of those successes and sustaining them, despite a brief transgression with Swindon, right through to the Kassam Years (the Inglorious Years).
Beauchamp was a proper hometown hero; he supported the club, found that he couldn’t live without it. When he signed for West Ham, however, it seemed that we would forever be a team that grew and then sold our best talent. That didn’t seem a bad thing to me because we weren’t the kind of club who could or even should hold onto such talented players.
Alongside Beauchamp, and to reinforce the theory that there would forever be a conveyor belt of talent, was Chris Allen. Allen was a particularly raw, hardly the type, you’d think, to evolve into an excellent coach. Allen’s head was turned by Nottingham Forest. By the time he left, he’d fallen out of love with the club and we were happy to cash in. Like Beauchamp at West Ham, Allen didn’t last long in the shiny world of top flight football.
Behind them, however, was the player I thought was the most talented of them all. Paul Powell could take teams on all by himself. There were few more exciting sights than Powell cutting in from the left and chipping home in front of a delirious London Road. I thought he’d play for England, and he was periodically linked with moves away. Injury and attitude did for him before he had a chance, a shadow of his former dynamic self, he continued in the margins deep into the Kassam years before falling by the wayside.
There were others; Simon Weatherstone hit a hat-trick in a reserve game against Arsenal which had the London Road salivating. But Weatherstone, when he did get his chance, was limited in his impact and settled into becoming a effective, but unremarkable holding midfielder in the lower leagues. Simon Marsh showed enough form under Malcolm Shotton to be considered for selection at England Under 21 level. Sold to Birmingham, his career fizzled to nothing. Rob Folland enjoyed international recognition with Wales, but didn’t do much beyond a goal at the Madjeski against Reading. Chris Hackett had pace to burn but little sense of direction, a move to Hearts and then Millwall was little return for someone who apparently, and improbably, once attracted the interest of Manchester United and Nottingham Forest.
Of course, with the great dawning of the Kassam years came the latest in the long lineage of great hopes. Jamie Brooks’ debut was at the first game at the Kassam Stadium, and his was the first goal scored; a delicate lob in a 1-2 defeat. I don’t think I fully appreciated Brooks’ talent, I just seemed so obvious that the new era, which would surely herald a period of unbridled success, would have a locally sourced hero on the pitch and, with Mark Wright as manager, in the dugout.
Brooks lasted a season (Wright even less) and was about to go on trial at Arsenal when he was struck down by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which left him in intensive care. He never truly recovered, although he remained at the club until we were finally relegated from the Conference in 2006.
Brooks’ talents were prodigious, but it was two others who would work their way into the top flight. Dean Whitehead was fully forged by Ian Atkins, who resisted persistent calls to play Whitehead. When he did he matched talent with a prodigious appetite for work which saw him heading for Sunderland, and eventually the Premier League. Sam Ricketts took a more circuitous route. Never a spectacular player, he similarly never let anyone down when he played. Oxford let him go and he dropped out of the league to play for the, then ambitious Telford.
Telford imploded but he managed to get a contract with Swansea, just as they were starting to take off. A couple of smart moves to Hull and then Bolton, saw him playing Premier League football. Of all the supposed greats, it was Wright, Whitehead and Ricketts, arguably the least remarkable, that had the biggest and longest impact at the top of the game.
After Whitehead, Ricketts and Brooks, homegrown players seemed to play for mostly financial reasons. I remember those around me in the Oxford Mail stand talking enthusiastically about Alex Fisher, who scored on his debut, but ultimately needed a few more protein shakes to deal with the physicality of Conference football. Aaron Woodley was so highly rated that the usually cautious Chris Wilder fast tracked him into the first team to ensure that the club could get a fee from any sale to a bigger club. It never came.
During the Conference years, the strategy was never about developing players or anything long term, it was about securing the immediate return to the Football League and then, when that was achieved, out of League 2. Heroes were bought, not bred.
That is until last season, when financial constraints really began to hit once more. The club divested itself of the likes of Peter Leven and Michael Duberry and invested, instead, in a host of ‘Development Squad’ players, many of whom graduated into the first team and gave excellent accounts of themselves. Ian Lenagan’s new vision of a team of homegrown players seemed to be taking shape with Crocombe, Bevans, Marsh all giving good accounts for themselves, and Josh Ruffels and Callum O’Dowda, in particular, making legitimate claims to being first choice.
The pick of the lot, it seems, is Roberts. His goalscoring feats have been bubbling around the margins of the club for the last year or so. When he scored last week he tweeted that ‘it was just the start’; a typically alpha thing to say. Scott Davies crassly followed it up by saying that Roberts would soon be out of the club (and therefore onto greater things). The biggest question is whether he will do, a romantic might try to argue that Roberts is the latest line of great talents produced by the club. More cynical could argue, reasonably, that sustained and proper success have only been enjoyed by Wright, Rickets and Whitehead, of which only Whitehead's success was forged at Oxford. While we will all pray that Roberts does go on to greater things, perhaps even within Oxford, but as history tells us, when it comes to great white hopes, frequently the start is more often than not, swiftly followed by the finish.