Talking Oxford United with… Mark Gardener

Mark Gardener
Mark Gardener… Manor many talents (yes, we know they play at the Kassam these days…)

Mark Gardener of Ride will this month be touring the UK as special guest of fellow legend and collaborator Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins (click here for a list of dates), so we caught up with him for a natter about his beloved Oxford United. First, though, check out this sublime taster of what happens when the respective talents of Messrs Gardener and Guthrie are combined…

How would you describe Oxford United’s season so far?

It started really well – we were top of the league for two or three weeks but it was just too early on. We seem to have been beset by injuries and we don’t have a big squad, so we then had a disastrous period where we dropped pretty low in the table. A lot of people started to question Chris Wilder and the whole setup but I think, at the end of the day, it’s difficult at this level of football when you lose some of your better players. It can leave you a bit screwed, and we were.

Slowly some of those players have been coming back and, as a result, the results have been improving. We had a great result against Bradford City just after they beat Aston Villa, which was probably a good time to play them, but then we had a dreadful result at Fleetwood Town. We’d just got on a roll before that, winning four in a row to put us two or three points off the playoffs. Even at that level, players take some time to get back to their peak after coming back from injury, and they need to all be peaking and be really fit to have that cutting edge and make the difference that wins games.

I think a lot of teams in League Two are quite evenly matched – they’ve all got some good players. Okay, Oxford’s probably got a little bit more financial weight behind it because the crowds are bigger, although I think Bradford is the best-supported club in the division. Oxford would now be around second, third or fourth because we’ve now got Plymouth Argyle in there and some other bigger clubs, but I’m pretty sure that Oxford aren’t doing a Swindon Town by getting themselves into financial problems. Not throwing money at it and getting the club in debt is probably a better way to go about things these days. Most clubs at this level have had to see sense in order to ensure survival, so a lot of them are now quite evenly matched.

The league’s very tight – Bristol Rovers looked like they were down but they brought in a new guy [John Ward] and now they’ve turned it around. Same with Barnet – they brought in Edgar Davids and now they’re doing well, so teams that looked like they could be the one to make the fatal drop into the Conference have really started to turn their results around and beat the teams higher up. We’re playing Burton Albion tomorrow night – I’ll be taking a break from studio work to watch the boys play! – and if we can win that then we’ll be two points off the playoffs again. [Postscript: they drew 1-1]

I think Gillingham and Port Vale are looking pretty clear at the top but 3rd place is still up for grabs. Oxford fans are getting excited that we could possibly grab it, but then there are another seven or eight teams all trying to do the same thing. We’ve just bought Lewis Montrose from Gillingham who’s supposed to be great, but apparently in the cold weather he went to run around the park a few times, fell over and did his leg in! He played a blinder for us against Bradford. These injuries are happening all the time – you start thinking, “What’s going on??” We’ve just lost our goalkeeper Ryan Clarke, who’s really good, so we’ve got our second ‘keeper Wayne Brown in at the moment and he’s been a little bit shaky. He was good last season, though, so hopefully he’ll pick up.

Apart from the injuries, we’re starting to turn results around and look like we can get into those playoff spaces again. League One is the right kind of league for Oxford, and if they can dip in and out of the Championship without going bust doing it then that would be good. That’s the right sort of area for Oxford, as far as I’m concerned. I like lower league football because it’s generally less predictable than the Premier League, although in a way the Premier League has got less predictable. It’s nice to see teams like Tottenham Hotspur and Everton up near the top. Aston Villa struggling shows that none of the so-called ‘big clubs’ are safe.

Lower league teams have been taking on Premier League teams and beating them recently, so the standard of lower league football must be getting better. I think it’s great that players like Suarez and Gerrard have to go to places like Oldham Athletic, run-down sorts of places, because that’s the real roots of where those big clubs came from before it all turned into a multi-million business. How can you relate to a club with the kind of backing that Manchester City and Chelsea have?

To me, Oxford is like an ‘indie’ club: it’s a bit dirty, and I still find life more interesting when it’s not so ‘glam’ and money-orientated. I thin that makes music uninteresting quite a lot of the time and in a way it can make football uninteresting. I hate the diving, the prima donna attitudes and the money the players are being paid at those bigger clubs. I think it’s crazy.

Do you have a message for Football Burp celebrity Twitter follower Michael Duberry?

Dubes – the positive vibes are working, my friend! Despite last Saturday when they leaked two or three bad goals, it’s great that Dubes is back from injury. Last season we leaked very few goals but weren’t scoring enough, whereas this season we’re scoring more but also conceding more, which was down to Duberry being out for the first half of the season. He makes everything a lot more solid in that back line when he’s there – it makes the players around him play better. It’s great to have you back, Dubes – positive vibes all the way, and keep up the good work!

Would you be able to name the first, best and worst games you ever went to?

I couldn’t tell you what my first game was because I’d have been 6 years old – my dad would have taken me, but it was so long ago that I can’t remember. The best has to be winning the playoff final against York City to get out of the Conference three or four seasons ago, because those were some dark times, and second best has to be beating Queens Park Rangers in the League Cup final in ’85.

The worst games would have to be losing to Hayes and Yeading in the Conference, with their fans doing the old “can we play you every week?”. It’s good to see Conference grounds but some of those away days were depressing.

Finally, if you had to select a five-a-side team out of all the Oxford players you’ve seen in your time as a fan, who would you pick?

Ryan Clarke, Dubes, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge and Dean Saunders.

Mark Gardener, thank you.

Mark Gardener will be touring the UK alongside Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins throughout February – click here for dates. For more information, please visit markgardener.com