It is not very often we come up against a team we have a really good record against, is it? But here we are, unbeaten for the best part of 25 years against Oxford United, despite Karl Robinson trying to get us done for…winning at football.
A win at the weekend will really make things interesting as we close in on the end of the season, as it’ll push the U’s right out of the picture, at least for a week or so, and it’ll help us cement out place amongst fellow footballing elites like…Plymouth and MK Dons, providing Rotherham get their act together again.
So to alleviate some of the tension of this depressingly high stakes game, let’s take a look back at some of those heroes to have played their football in two of the top university cities in the country.
Midfielder, captain extraordinaire, head that belonged on Durham Cathedral door, it’s mid-noughties favourite bargain buy, Dean Whitehead. Deano came through the ranks at Oxford, making his debut way back in 1999, before notching up 122 league appearances in yellow, including a boatload for former Sunderland boss Denis Smith along the way. A few tumultuous seasons in his early days eventually settled and by his final year at the Kassam, Whitehead found himself often captaining the side before ultimately winning the club’s Player of the Season award in 2004.
Whitehead’s tough tackling and decent passing range may have been popular with the Oxford fans, but probably less so was his decision to not sign a new deal, and leave on a free transfer when Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland came calling in June 2004. Unfortunately, thanks to some loser rule which only Sunderland seemed to fall for at the time, we were forced to pay £150k to Oxford via tribunal, but that would turn out to be a bargain, as Whitehead embarked on a five-year stay on Wearside, again, finding himself as captain of the club.
Whitehead was pivotal to the Championship winning campaigns for both McCarthy and Roy Keane (forgetting that he was also very much part of the 05-06 relegation debacle), and under Keane, looked undroppable even in the Premier League, Deano was as steady as they come. Nothing spectacular, but tidy and reliable across the park. It came as something of a surprise when the club ultimately let the midfielder go in 2009, although the £4m fee Stoke offered showed just how much of a bargain buy he’d been for us – 185 league games, 13 league goals, 2 Championship titles, lovely stuff.
Whitehead spent 4 years at Stoke during their period of signing anyone who’d also played for Sunderland (see also, Danny Collins, Liam Lawrence and the ghost of Len Shackleton), making 132 appearances of Tony Pulis’ all conquering band of monsters. As Deano’s career wound down, he moved back to the North East with Middlesbrough in 2013 for a two year stint, before heading off to Huddersfield Town, where he was part of their fairytale Wembley play off win to get into the Premier League. Incredibly, as he’d been around for what felt like eons, Whitehead only retired in 2018, at the age of 36, and has spent time coaching the likes of Huddersfield and Shrewsbury before more recently joining Port Vale.
Time to go back a little further, with former FA Cup hero, Johny Byrne. The striker joined Sunderland way back in 1991 from Brighton, having already had productive spells with York, QPR and, rather exotically, Le Havre in France. A casual look at Byrne’s league stats for Sunderland aren’t particularly exciting, with 8 goals in 33 games, but it’s in the cup where things get interesting for the Irishman, as he has the lovely pub trivia distinction of having scored in every round of the 1992 FA Cup as we got to the final, only to then lose out 2-0 to Liverpool.
Byrne left Wearside after only a year, heading back down south for an unsuccessful spell with Millwall, as well as a brief loan back with Brighton, before signing for Oxford in 1993. His time at the Manor Ground saw an upturn in form for Byrne, where he hit an impressive 18 goals in 55 games across two years, which ultimately won him a move back to Brighton for the third and final time in 1995, where he eventually ended his professional career a year later.
All in all, Byrne’s record reads a pleasing 555 league games, 152 league goals, with his best spells coming for York, QPR, Le Havre, Brighton (accumulatively…) and Oxford, along with 23 games for the Irish national side. But he’ll forever have a place in the hearts of Sunderland fans of a certain vintage for being the man to get us to the cup final, even if we fell at the last hurdle.
How could we get through this article without mentioning a man who may not have played for Sunderland, but certainly left his mark on the club. With 63 games and 17 goals for Oxford from 87-90, this man retired all the way back in 1992, embarking on a coaching career which saw him take up management roles at Stevenage Borough, Eastleigh (hmm), Whitehawk and…Eastleigh. He is the man who single handed saved Sunderland AFC from extinction (apparently), successfully stopped us from spending too much money on Will Grigg and definitely didn’t have a hand in the hiring of a few Eastleigh cronies. It is of course, the man we all owe a pint to, lovely Richard Hill. Thanks Richard!