Friday, August 03, 2018

Season preview 2018/2019

If there was anything to sum up our close-season it was this year’s kit launch. Last season we did that thing where we wore the new shirt on the last day of the previous season, it all seemed very professional and forward thinking. Even in less organised times, there was usually a time and place for such things – such as the family fun day.

This season the announcement dribbled out, apparently when the media team had a spare five minutes to knock up a gif to show it off. Most of the details had leaked out already – it would be made by Puma sponsored by Singha and with a new badge. When it finally arrived it looked good, although unlike recent seasons, it felt a like an off-the-peg template.

Then, someone pointed out that the trim looked decidedly black rather than blue. Those who had seen it strenuously assured everyone the trim was blue whilst simultaneously failing to produce a single photo to prove that fact. The Oxford shirt had become like that dress whose colours looked different to different people.

The gentle rumble of slightly missing the point typified the summer; the weather and World Cup were a distraction and it didn’t help that senior and U23 signings appeared to be treated similarly when announced. Rather than a slick rebuilding of the squad, everything felt effective, but slightly muddled and distracted.

In recent seasons there has been a distinct trend in who we signed - Michael Appleton's template was young, talented under-23s from the Premier League, Pep Clotet signed a procession of exotic foreigners. Even Chris Wilder’s players were a type – dogged, professional, effective.

This year, Karl Robinson's DNA has been less easy to define. To the surprise of nobody we lost Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson. To the surprise of everyone, Simon Eastwood signed a new contract. Luke Garbutt, Marcus Browne and Samir Carruthers are Appleton-style signings, Gavin Whyte and Cameron Norman - plucked from relative obscurity – are a brief stint playing for Malmo from being Clotet-esque. Experienced pros like Tony McMahon and Jamie Mackie are almost template Chris Wilder signings. Carutthers and Ricky Holmes actually are Chris Wilder signings.

In squad-building terms, perhaps the watchword should be ‘balance’. Even during the Appleton years, we sometimes lacked experience, Wilder’s signings were never going to command big fees. So having a bit of everything is welcome.

As fans wondered whether England would be bringing ‘home’ a trophy designed by an Italian for a tournament invented by the French and run by the Swiss we headed to Ireland for our annual tour. Unlike previous years, which were major PR coups, this year’s tour was more about preparing the players than revving the fans up. It was sort of like the past, while at the same time, not quite like the past.

So, how prepared are we? It’s hard to say, results seem to have gone well and we have no injuries. The signings of Sam Smith and Ricky Holmes represent a strong summer. Karl Robinson knows what he’s doing and he seems to have been allowed to prepare the squad in the was that he believes is right.

Behind the scenes, you get a sense the club is still trying to find its feet under the new owners – the new training ground is on its way, we’ve lined up a significant sponsor, but communications, as illustrated by the kit launch still seem disjointed, which is typically due to poor decision making rather than poor communications. It’s hard to say whether the players we’ve signed were on Robinson’s A-list, although he seemed to hint that approvals and money were, perhaps, not quite as available as he’d like. Although, perhaps all managers are like that.

How will we do? Despite their many problems (whilst also accepting they may not have hit rock bottom) it’s difficult to rule out Sunderland as challenging for promotion. Of the other teams relegated, neither Barnsley nor Burton seem likely to be more or less of a threat than the teams they replaced. Of the teams who came up; Accrington and Wycombe will probably be happy to stay up, Luton will share similar ambitions to us and, given all their problems, Coventry will probably be pleased to stay where they are. In simple terms, the new teams appear slightly weaker than those they replaced.

Of the remaining teams, all could finish anywhere in the table – Shrewsbury may continue where they left off last year, but could also get relegated, Plymouth, Southend, Bristol Rovers all fall into that bracket. Wimbledon are, perhaps, the only team who you feel are more likely to struggle than go up.

So, ultimately we sit in a significant bunch of teams equally capable of pushing for the play-offs or getting it horribly wrong and being dragged into relegation. Karl Robinson’s experience, our (hopefully) financial security and a solid set of new signings should all play to our advantage. In our first season in League 1 it felt like we were in an elephants’ graveyard of big clubs who had fallen on hard times. Though it was never supposed to be, last year was a transition. This year feels like we’re part of League 1 – able to compete as equals. If we’ve ditched any feeling of insecurity, and we’re prepared and able to compete, we’ve got a very good chance of making the play-offs.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

World Cup Yellows #10 - Ramon Diaz - Spain - 1982

June 1982 was one of the greatest months of my life. I remember the 16th June with acute clarity. That day, I got home from school, turned on the TV and in front of me was not Grange Hill, it was Live. International. World Cup. Football.

I must have known it was happening, I remember England qualifying in a nervy 1-0 win over Hungary with a goal from Paul Mariner. The tournament had started a few days earlier, but I still had a euphoric feeling of finding the tournament on my TV. Perhaps it was because it was a school day, which made it more special. This was a novelty. Live football on TV was restricted to the FA and European Cup Finals and the odd home international. Suddenly there was an orgy of it, afternoon after afternoon, night after night.

What’s more, it was exotic and exciting; from another planet. Brazil’s opening game against the USSR still lives with me today. Weirdly, it was before that fateful England game, although I remember it being after.

Anyway, I went to school the next day and everyone was blasting the ball from miles out and wearing their socks rolled down to their ankles trying to be Socrates and Eder. It was a fine year for shorts too. Tiny shiny shorts. Perhaps the tiniest shorts of them all belonged to Diego Maradona.

Maradona’s World Cup career seemed to follow the same trajectory as a 12-year cocaine binge. In 1986 there was the euphoria of being the greatest player on the planet, 1990 he was a paranoid little shit and by 1994 a cheating, grovelling loser.

In 1982 he was a wild man, like Animal from The Muppets. A great mop of hair, thighs like tree trunks – a ‘little squat man’ as Byron Butler gloriously labelled him when he set off on his magical mazy run against England in Mexico.

As a precocious teenager, he was raw. In the second group stage in Spain he exacted a mugging on Brazil’s Batista and got sent off, the exit of a prodigal son. At the time, we were at war with Argentina over the Falklands and I thought wars were cool. They, the world champions, were abject in comparison to the graceful Brazilians and I hated them. In five games, they won two and lost three.

Argentina’s goalscorer in the Brazil game was Ramon Diaz, a striker who conspired only to appear in the Argentinean defeats. Diaz was a decent player; by 1982 the 22-year-old had played 24 games and scored 10 goals.

At this point his international career was unceremoniously snubbed out. He spent nine more years playing top-flight football in Italy and France, but couldn’t get a game for his country. Rumour goes that Mr Maradona’s increasing influence in Argentine football was behind this mysterious omission.

It was quite some time before Diaz found similar levels of madness to indulge in. In the intervening years he carved out a reputation as one of the most successful South American managers of his generation. And, in by natural ascent, in 2004 he became manager of those architects of misery - Oxford United.

By this point Firoz Kassam had lost all sense of perspective in running the club. He just didn’t get football; he couldn’t buy success, he couldn’t buy popularity. So, he did what every Championship Manager aficionado does when he’s bored of his project – he abandoned all sense of logic and made nonsensical signings.

Diaz was one. It was murky and ludicrous. Diaz was surrounded by an army of backroom staff, fixers and henchmen. The deal seems to have been done in a restaurant in Monaco and appeared to involve buying the club and stadium. Or maybe not. Diaz brought along a horde of little South American wingers – ‘nippy shits’ as the bloke behind me once described them - who sulked their way from Lincoln to Rochdale.

Initially we politely talked of what an impact on the team he’d had. Results-wise, he was no more than average. Inevitably it all fell apart as Kassam banished Diaz and his extended crew from the ground. What followed was the farcical storming of the stadium during the final game of the season against Chester, another glorious episode in the club’s history.

Monday, July 09, 2018

World Cup Yellow #9 - Ray Houghton - Italy, 1990, USA 1994

I’ve never been a big one for winners. Maybe it’s something to do with being a second child, or supporting perpetually under-achieving club, or being generally OK at everything but really good at nothing. I’ve always liked those who have, to some extent, flown under the radar, been successful from their graft rather than some perceived natural talent. I’ve always liked Ray Houghton.

In 1985 we had just been promoted to the 1st Division following back-to-back championship titles. As a 13-year-old, I assumed this would be our trajectory for the rest of time. Somewhere there is a video of me predicting that we’d finish 8th or 9th in our first season in the big time and that was just the start.

Eventually you learn that nothing stays stable for very long as architect of our success, Jim Smith left for QPR leaving Maurice Evans in charge of our first season. Jim Smith was always a better manager with a side-kick, and Evans had been at his side during the years of success. He knew the squad and its strengths and so set about the new season in the top division with only one significant new signing; Fulham midfielder Ray Houghton joining in the summer.

Houghton was a stocky busy midfielder, brilliantly under-stated, sitting in the shadow of players – despite his successes – who are still considered legends now. Houghton wrote himself into Oxford folklore scoring the second, and best, goal in our Milk Cup final win in 1986. He also gave a brilliantly unpolished post-match interview which made me like him even more.

John Aldridge was grabbing the headlines during that season and inevitably, big clubs came calling. In 1987, the biggest of them all, Liverpool, came and with £850,000, prized him from our grasp. A year later, it was Houghton’s consistency from midfield that came to the attention of the champions. Through endless graft, a quality he never lost, it was here he became one of the best midfielders of his generation.

In five years he won two League titles and two FA Cups; Liverpool’s final hurrah of domestic dominance before being consumed by Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. By that time Houghton was an established international with World Cup pedigree.

In 1986 Jackie Charlton was hatching a plan to turn the Republic of Ireland from also-rans to a footballing powerhouse. It was simple, bring in people with tangential Irish heritage. Charlton watched Oxford’s Milk Cup Semi-Final 1st leg draw against Aston Villa and in the bar afterwards approached John Aldridge to join his ramshackle band.

Aldridge recommended his team mate Houghton, who qualified via his Irish grandmother, so Charlton picked up 2 for 1. Born in Glasgow, Houghton had already fallen out with the Scottish FA and was never likely to turn out for his home nation. He agreed to sign up to Charlton's plan and made debut was against Wales, occupying the right side of a packed midfield.

Success was instant, his first international goal wrote his name into Irish footballing history as he headed the winner in the opening game of the 1988 European Championships against England.

Two years later, Houghton was Charlton’s first name on the teamsheet. He was selected for Italia '90 and made his World Cup bow against the same England team he’d helped destroy in Stuttgart.

In blustery conditions and with the threatening tension of hooliganism hanging heavy in the air, Gary Lineker bundled in the opener for England. Ireland equalised through Kevin Sheedy in what was a sterile 1-1 draw.

Ireland’s campaign continued against Egypt with another draw, before taking the lead against the Netherlands with an apocalyptic long ball goal to Niall Quinn. Having drawn all three games, Ireland qualified for the second round against Romania.

The Romanian game ended 0-0 and went to penalties. Houghton scored the second one, before David O’Leary stepped up and put Ireland through to the quarter-finals where they faced hosts Italy in Rome. Finally, Ireland succumbed to a Toto Schillachi goal. Ireland had scored 2 goals, won no games, but returned as heroes.

In what became an international career lasting 11 years and 73 games, Houghton established himself for club and country and was selected for the World Cup in the USA four years later.

Ireland opened their 1994 campaign where they’d left the tournament four years earlier; against Italy. Playing in the adapted Giants’ Stadium in New York in front of 75,000 fans, the tie was ladled with significance as New York had long been at the centre of a tussle between Irish and Italian immigrants.

Rationally, though, it was generally accepted that with an ageing squad and tough games against Mexico and Norway to come, the Irish wouldn’t make it out of their group. Houghton’s own powers were on the slide and his starting position was under threat from Jason McAteer.

Charlton opted for experience and discipline and Houghton was selected to start. In the 11th minute the ball ran loose 25 yards out, Houghton chased it like an eager puppy. Rather than lay it off to Steve Staunton, he wrapped his boot around the ball sending a looping shot over the head of Walter Zenga and into the net. Houghton’s momentum and delirious celebration saw him bouncing across the field, doing an ill-advised forward roll before being smothered by his team mates. Against all odds, the Irish held out and secured a famous 1-0 win and once again Houghton’s name appeared on the scoresheet.

The win was the highlight of what was otherwise a difficult tournament. The heat was sweltering and Jack Charlton slowly lost his focus first complaining about the sun and then playing up to the cultish notoriety that had built around him and his team. Even though they sneaked through after being out-performed by Mexico and Norway, they were eventually put out of their misery by the Dutch in Orlando.

Houghton nearly sneaked a third World Cup, falling at the last qualifying hurdle in his final appearance against Belgium in a play-off for the '98 final in France. By this time he was beginning to wind his career down with spells as Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, but not before winning another  League Cup in 1994.

Houghton's whole career was characterised by his under-stated manner and his over-whelming success. For club and country there is an edible mark made from his contribution, the product of his attitude and work rate. A true Oxford legend.

Friday, July 06, 2018

World Cup Yellows #8 - Ed McIlvenny - Brazil 1950

In many ways World Cups have become slick marketing machines with undertones of corruption and farce, but if you think modern day tournaments are ridiculous, they have nothing on the the 1950 edition in Brazil.

Granted, in 1950 everyone was still recovering from World War II and football was probably a secondary consideration. None-the-less the teams who ended up in the tournament were almost there by default of being the only ones willing or able to take part.

Even the tournament format was cack-handed; it contrived to avoid a showpiece final with the winners being decided in a final round robin mini-league. Thankfully, the last game of the tournament; in which Uruguay beat Brazil turned out to be a winner-takes-all affair and therefore a de-facto final, but still, it was a mess.

West Germany and Japan remained under nationwide house arrest following the war and were banned from competing while East Germany were too busy unpacking the boxes following their annexation. The Soviet Union led Hungary and Czechoslovakia out of qualification while Argentina, Ecuador and Peru refused to take part in South America for reasons largely unknown. Scotland were given the opportunity to participate, but refused because they’d come second in the Home Nations tournament, which doubled up as a qualifying group. Miserable sods.

Even after the draw, teams pulled out of the tournament, the French, citing logistics of traveling around a vast country and India blaming cost - although it was more likely due to a ban on barefoot players.

England, presumably buoyed by being crowned World War Champions in 1945, were making their debut in the World Cup having previously exiled themselves from FIFA over a dispute around the payment of amateurs. At the time, England generally made their assessments on situations based on things which were, and weren’t cricket. For a long time, the World Cup wasn’t cricket.

It was a shame, because it seems very likely that England would have won one of the earlier World Cups as the dominant force in world football. The squad was a who’s who of 1950s football; Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Jackie Milburn, Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright all featured while Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey would become better known as great managers. England had only lost 3 internationals at that point, and hopes were high.

Things started well enough with a 2-0 win over Chile; four days later they faced USA, a group of amateurs cobbled together for the tournament with only seven international matches under their belt and an aggregate score of 2-45.

Matthews, at 35, was rested in preparation for tougher tests later in the tournament but the team, including Finney, Mortensen and Wright. England were still 1/3 on favourites with the USA 500/1 no-hopes.

The American team was captained by Ed McIlvenny, who had been drafted in just before the tournament, making his debut in their 3-1 defeat to Spain. McIlvenny wasn’t even American, he was a Scot who lived with his sister. He was only eligible to play because he said he intended to take American citizenship, although he never did. McIlvenny was made captain simply because they were playing England and he was British, Walter Bahr skippered their other two group games.

The game started as expected, England bombarded the Americans, hitting the post twice in the opening 25 minutes. In the 38th minute, Bahr got a shot away, with reports suggesting the move started with a McIlvenny throw-in. Bert Williams, the England keeper came to collect, but Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian also on a promise to become a US citizen, dived in to wrong foot the keeper and put the ball in the net. Astonishingly, the USA were leading.

As England withered in the heat and despite a couple of close calls, the Americans became increasingly comfortable and even had a goal bound shot cleared from the line five minutes from the end.

The Americans had pulled off the greatest shock of the age, and still one of the greatest shocks of all time. In England, papers reported the result initially as a 10-1 victory, assuming the 0-1 defeat wired back by the few journalists that had bothered to travel was a simple typo. But the general snootiness around the tournament meant that much of the coverage was overshadowed by a test match defeat by the West Indies.

In the US it was barely reported at all, only one reporter made the trip to Brazil and that was self-funded. With the Americans having little context with which to judge the result - presumably those who were aware just assumed it happened all the time.

It only came onto the US radar nearly forty years later when the America hosted the tournament, which inspired an academic Geoffrey Douglas to write The Game of Their Lives, the story of the win.

Which is all very nice, but what about the Oxford United connection? Well, McIlvenny aborted his plans for US citizenship when Matt Busby of all people offered him a contract at Manchester United. He lasted just two games before heading for the Waterford in the League of Ireland; four years later he headed back to England and to Headington United, where he spent just over a year and 39 games in Harry Thompson’s Southern League side. It was a moderate season in which Headington finished 9th.

It seems odd that the captain of the team who created the greatest upset in the history of the biggest sport in the world seems so unsung. Film coverage of the game is understandably scratchy with the ‘goal’ evidently contrived from bits of generic reportage footage. The Game of Their Lives book, which barely mentions McIlvenny, was turned into a film in 2005. In it McIlvenny is played by former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, and American, John Harkes - a role he was apparently uncomfortable taking due to the misrepresentation of his character. In the film, history is re-written with Baur (played by Wes Bentley) being made captain. McIlvenny seems destined to be put into the margins of football history. We should claim him as our own.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

World Cup Yellows #7 - Mark Wright - Italy 1990

Mark Wright holds a special place in my family's folklore. During his league debut as a gangling teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.

Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.

Wright was certainly different to what we'd seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player. Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they'd been rejected from the Vietnam War. However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells.

My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he'd be no good at that level. He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under-21s Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captains - Peter Shilton and Mick Mills - to their squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.

For Oxford, the Wright/Cassells move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.

Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable and ended up playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season.

Fulfilling my dad's prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson's preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back. He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.

Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy. Off the field, however, things were apparently rather different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright's arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being an elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it - if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it.

I don't know how true that is, but there were echoes of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.

In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England's Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England's campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper. The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management - not least in the education of Jose Mourinho and in a roundabout way, Pep Guardiola, introduce a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.

Perhaps the change was made simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product. The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic, while David Platt would be able to join the attack. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight 0-0 game.

In the final group game, a must-win against Eygpt - Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. Butcher was an iconic figure in English football, so this was a massive move. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gascoigne cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.

With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gascoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time. England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows? Into the 119th minute and Gascoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. It was awkwardly central and too far out for a shot. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, he hooked it across the face of 'keeper Michel Preud'Homme's goal and into the net.

With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I'd just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties - football followed by raving into the early hours. It wasn’t just the football losers like me that followed the game, the non-believers and the girls were also interested. A golden time.

The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the Indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.

Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then... catastrophe.

Afterwards we sat in an empty pub in silence, like we'd been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. I ride my bike past the pub we sat in quite often and although it has been done up, has stunning views across the county, it still feels slightly desolate.

The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright's performances, alongside Des Walker's provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright's playing as a sweeper provided Gascoigne with the freedom to release his genius on the world stage. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again.

With Gascoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultimately the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back being used as a sweeper.

Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting 'You fucking beauty' in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.

Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96, but before becoming part of that famous summer he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.

After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, Kick Racism Out of Football day. Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.

Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he'll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is quite sad.

Monday, July 02, 2018

World Cup Yellows #6 - Graham Rix - Spain 1982

Anyone watching football in the 1980s will remember how rare it was to see live games on TV. Not every Sunday was a Super Sunday so live games left an indelible mark on your memory. One of mine was the Cup Winners’ Cup final between Arsenal and Valencia in 1980.

In what was a dreary affair, memorable only because it was live and my parents let me watch it, the two teams slugged their way through normal time, extra time and onto penalties – the first time in European club history.

Arsenal were wearing a special shiny version of their yellow away kit which had numbers with an unusual blocky font. To my increasingly sleepy eyes, it was all very exotic. With the scores 0-0 and penalties carefully poised, a gangly winger with his socks rolled down to his ankles stepped up for Arsenal. He juggled the ball clumsily while the referee fussed, then rolled his kick harmlessly into the grateful arms of the Valencia keeper to give the Spaniards the win. That was the first time I remember seeing Graham Rix.

Incidentally, that game was also the only European cup final to feature two ex-Oxford managers – Brian Talbot was also in the team that night.

During the early eighties I went to Highbury a few times, so Rix became a bit of a recurring theme. For some reason I loved the number 11 shirt – John Robertson at Nottingham Forest, Clive Woods at Ipswich; this was the number Rix would wear at Arsenal.

Like many wingers, Rix’s international career was spasmodic, he made his debut for England in 1980 against Norway but only played in 17 games in the next four years, about a third of England's games played during that time.

In 1982 England qualified for their first World Cup in 12 years. Rix was selected for the squad, wearing number 16. He was somewhat lucky to be in the squad, let alone the team. Typically, manager Ron Greenwood would have played Trevor Brooking on the right, but he was injured and would only be fit for the latter stages.

Many preferred Tony Morley of Aston Villa as Brooking's replacement, fresh from winning the European Cup against Bayern Munich, but Greenwood opted for Rix. It was generally accepted that this was due to the influence of Greenwood’s deputy, and Rix’s former coach, Don Howe.

The opener was against France in Bilbao. England were wearing a fancy away kit which was red with blue and white lapels. England playing in the World Cup was exciting but I was used to watching highlights on TV when the action and goals came thick and fast. It’s possible that if the match had been boring, I might not have been gripped like I was.

Kicking off though, the ball bounced out for a throw on the right under the shadow of the stand. Steve Coppell took it quickly, Bryan Robson ghosted in at the far post and scored in the opening seconds – the fastest England goal in the World Cup. France scored in the 24th minute, but Robson grabbed his second just as it appeared England were faltering. A third from Paul Mariner made it a triumphant 3-1 win.

Rix would go on to play in wins over Czechoslovakia and Kuwait qualifying for a second group stage with West Germany and Spain. Injuries to Trevor Brooking and England captain Kevin Keegan meant they missed all the group games, but were thrown in against Spain to try and salvage things. It was too little too late and they bowed out.

Rix left Arsenal in 1988 and headed for France with Caen before he developed a coaching role with Chelsea just as the Premier League was dawning. Following the departure of Ian Atkins in 2003, Firoz Kassam thought he’d take the up-and-coming coach route and landed Rix as manager.

By this time, dark clouds were gathering over Rix’s name. In 1999 he’d been convicted of sex with a minor at the Chelsea team hotel. In the pre-Me-Too era, there was a narrative that Rix had been somehow tricked by the girl’s charms and he kept his reputation despite a period in jail. 

None-the-less, having sacked Mark Wright 3 years earlier - ostensibly for racial abuse of a referee - Kassam persevered with Rix as his latest solution to his endless managerial problems. Atkins had built a muscular, effective fighting unit, which had raced to the top of League 2 before falling away. On his departure, the side had started to stabilise and there was some hope that the play-offs were still possible.

Rix dropped goalkeeper Andy Woodman and brought in disinterested winger Courtney Pitt from his Chelsea days, insisting that players built for booting the ball as far as they could must play the ball on the ground. The results were instant – 5 defeats and 3 draws in 9 games, our play-off changes drifted away. He lasted 20 games into the new season – winning just five before being fired and replaced by another World Cup Yellow - Ramon Diaz.

Following a brief spell at Hearts, Rix largely disappeared only to reappear recently in a variety of troubling stories about racism and bullying at Chelsea in the late 90’s. Nice guy.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

World Cup Yellows #5 - David Connolly - Japan and Korea - 2002

A few weeks ago I watched a re-run of The Big Match, ITV's highlights show from the 1970s. Covering football then was an art form; there wasn't blanket coverage of every game, so schedulers would have to pick the games they thought would bring the most entertainment. It's one of the reasons great players seem greater than now, you don't see their rubbish games, just the iconic ones which happened to be captured on film.

The headline that particular week was Fulham v Charlton featuring George Best and Rodney Marsh in the second division. Both faded superstars, they treated the game as though it were a testimonial.

It's rare now that top players drift down the divisions once they are past their prime - the increasingly well trodden route is that once you're no longer good enough for one of the elite teams you either retire a rich man, take up punditry or go abroad for some insane last pay day.

In 2014, the Oxford juggernaut that had propelled us back into the Football League four years earlier was grinding to a halt. Ian Lenagan couldn't maintain the funding to get us out of the division and the lack of apparent progress was driving a rift between Chris Wilder and the fans. Even star striker, James Constable's goals were drying up and club was going nowhere.

To alleviate the problem, Wilder dipped into the loan market and plucked David Connolly from Portsmouth. Connolly was 37 and clearly running out of steam, but he scored on his debut and showed in fleeting moments of the class that had seen him play in the top flight and at the World Cup.

In 2002 he was a member of the Republic of Ireland's squad that played in Japan and Korea. He was 24 and playing for Wimbledon, so at his peak, but down the pecking order behind Robbie Keane and Niall Quinn.

Ireland had a problem, they'd built a reputation of being a ramshackle happy-go-lucky team bumbling from one triumphant failure to another. In 1990, they'd made the quarter-finals, in 1994 they'd beaten Italy, they'd just missed out on qualification in 1998, so in 2002 they were a new refreshed squad with an old-fashioned mind-set under Mick McCarthy, an ex-player from Jack Charlton's years.

Captain was Roy Keane, ultra competitive and ultra professional. He was used to success leading Manchester United. Things had moved on, the Premier League had brought in new definitions of professionalism and the squad included a few players of genuine international class. Along with Keane, Ireland boasted Robbie Keane and Gary Kelly from Leeds and Damien Duff of Blackburn.

Roy Keane couldn’t hack the lack of professionalism and flounced out of the tournament just before it started. Ireland, it seemed, were in disarray.

In what already looked like it would be a play-off for second place in the group, they started with a dogged 1-1 draw with Cameroon. Next came the ominous Germans who had destroyed Saudi Arabia 8-0 in their first game. Predictably, Germany led 1-0, but the Republic pulled themselves back into the game and in the last-minute Robbie Keane bundled in an equaliser. It was a point that saw the Irish finish second in their group.

Next up was Spain, not quite the all-conquering team they’d become, but still formidable. Again, Ireland conceded early, but slowly they clawed themselves back into it. Spain had a second goal ruled offside before Gary Kelly missed a penalty to bring Ireland level. With time ticking on, McCarthy brought on David Connolly to join the attack and salvage something from the game. In the 90th minute, Ireland were awarded a second penalty and Robbie Keane popped up to equalise and take the game into Extra-Time.

Extra-time was brutal with both teams coming close to breaking the deadlock. But with the game locked at 1-1, the tie was to be decided by penalties. Connolly stepped up for the third, fluffing the first of four consecutive kicks that were missed. Ireland were out.

Once again and Ireland were subject to a stereotypically heroic exit in which they won just one game. As much as Roy Keane wanted a new dawn of professionalism from his country, it was really just the same old Ireland.