Wednesday, 21 May 2014

He'll Never Play for Swindon Town

He Scored Two at The County Ground,
James Constable, Oxford's Number 9.

What a very odd, melancholy couple of months it really has been.

The uninspiring, and yet explosively diarrhoea-esque start to the Gary Waddock era, shoe-horned in-between the departure of the only manager to achieve a promotion since the days of Denis Smith's Jimmy hat and the greatest servant the club has had on the pitch this century.

James Constable's position in the pantheon of Oxford United folklore was secured two years ago, not even for his two goals at the County Ground, but for his unwillingness to take a golden pay check at the wrong end of the A420. In the face of pressure from the hierarchy at OUFC and his manager - so the rumours would have us believe.

This man didn't want to goose-step around the magic roundabout. He wanted to stay at Oxford United. And given his quite public breakdown during his BBC Radio Oxford interview this evening, that was because he simply loved the club and its fans.

And hey, didn't we all love him too? Sure he wasn't perfect. His first touch at times was lamentable, he sometimes seemed to need 3-4 good chances a game to score one, he needed the right player alongside him to hold the ball up… we all know the clich├ęs, trotted out endlessly by all the football tacticians in the stands each game.

But he was that rare thing - a player that 99% of the crowd (there's always a few contrarians, right?) adored, and for one main reason; his work-rate. He never gave up on any lost ball, ran right up to the final whistle and wore his heart on his sleeve. Oh, and he was also top scorer most seasons. That helped too.

And whatever any official records say, he is also the club's all-time leading goal-scorer in competitive matches, with 109 goals. I'm not accepting the ridiculous wiping of his hat-trick against Chester, purely because 3 months later they folded and their records were expunged for that season. Fair enough, his goals don't count in comparison to that season's other goal-scorers, just as the points we gained didn't count. But why don't the goals count as far as OUFC records are concerned? James Constable scored a hat trick in what at the time was a competitive fixture. Re-instate those fucking goals, statisticians - I demand it.

So he probably would have gone down as an Oxford legend in most people's eyes anyway, regardless of the approach from Il Duce del Wiltshire and his flat rejection thereof. That was just the icing on the cake, really.

So whatever happened to him after that, he was always going to get an overwhelming outpouring of love from the majority of Oxford United fans when he did eventually move on.

And what grates today is not whether or not it was the right decision to allow him to go and not fight to keep him here, nor even whether he deserved a better offer than he got. It's the fact that it seems to have been handled so abjectly by the club, at the end of a season plagued by a succession of PR disasters which basically seem to have emanated from a lack of communication, and perhaps (although this is purely conjecture on my part) a lack of action from the top.

For James Constable's six-years at the club to have ended with him being interviewed in tears today on the radio is just such a sad, sad way for his time with us to end.

In fairness, I don't know what more the club could have done today though. It isn't really the done thing to start an official mourning period purely because a beloved player has moved on, and the "we wish him well" schtick that came from the official site is probably as much as can have been expected.

But what fantastically disastrous timing to have the season ticket renewal forms hit people's mats on the same day the club's record top-scorer departs the club in a flood of tears.

I drove home today listening to Constable choking back the emotion as Ross Heaton prodded his open sores in search of the emotional soundbite we all sub-consciously wanted to hear. When it inevitably came from a man who clearly loved the ruddy shit out of Oxford United, I'm not ashamed to say I had to pull over the car as I was in floods of tears myself. Here was a man who was forced to leave the club to secure a future for his family, but who had wanted to retire an Oxford United man. Just such a sad way for his time here to end, and the full stop on the end of a terrible waste of a season.

So to get home and find a season ticket renewal application on my door mat did strike me as woefully bad timing all round!

I've already stated that I have personally become a little disenfranchised by the club and the home match-day experience in the past few years. Hearing Beano on the radio today has made me feel slightly further away from renewing a season ticket this season, I'm sad to report. And the stupid thing is, I genuinely don't think him going is necessarily the wrong thing for the club in the long run.

But it does feel like an era that OUFC was slowly transitioning out of has come to a very definite close now. The era of Kelvin Thomas' magnificently slick PR machine, backed by an extremely neglected engine that apparently drank money. But this was also the era of Wilder, of Wembley, of promotion from the Conference and widespread optimism. The era of James Constable - Oxford's Number 9.

Where Oxford United go from here in the new Waddock and Lenagan era is anyone's guess. I hope I can get over my current apathy to come along for the ride.