The news coming in today is that Oxford have agreed a fee with hated enemies Swindon Town for the talismanic James Constable, thus confirming our worst fears. Though no move has been finalised at the time of writing, the reports have left Oxford fans angry and betrayed by both the player, who had been considered a legend in these parts, and the club. The very notion of James Constable playing his football at Swindon is wrong for Oxford United and James Constable.
Of course, us fans who think about the club emotionally are always going to be against such a move, but if good money has indeed been offered it's plain to see why the club feel it would make sense from a hard-headed business standpoint. Having already cleared Deane Smalley off the books for the rest of the season with his loan to Bradford, a large sum for Constable would give us funds to potentially bring in several players to strengthen our promotion bid.
However, this is football, and you can't simply remove the emotional aspect when making a decision such as this. For the last few years this club has at last be on the up, and fans have revelled in the positive atmosphere around the place. All the goodwill that Kelvin Thomas and Chris Wilder have worked so hard to build would be destroyed in one fell swoop.
Big players such as Luke Foster and Dannie Bulman have been sold before, and although some supporters have questioned these decisions it was trusted that our management knew what they were doing and that we would be better off for it. Not so in this case. This isn't simply a case of selling an important player; Constable is our talisman, a figurehead that fans have been able to rally around for the three and a half seasons he has been at this club. To sell such a figure midway through the season is to remove a vitally important totem for the fanbase. Furthermore, this isn't simply selling him to any club, we're selling him to THEM. It goes without saying that to see James Constable in a Swindon shirt would break the hearts of many of our fans.
This wouldn't simply be a PR disaster, this would be a PR apocalypse.
The move is also likely to have ramifications on the field as well as off it. Constable is our top scorer this season and has been every year he's been at the club, and it is not easy to simply replace such an important player. I also don't have confidence that Wilder, with his terrible record of signing strikers, would be able to find a suitable replacement. The scoring record of the other strikers still at the club this season is terrible, with star signing Deane Smalley sat on a paltry total of two before being shipped out on loan to Bradford for the rest of the season, Craddock netting just once since his return, the mercurial Pittman with two and Potter with just the one. To lose such an important player at this stage of the season could derail any hopes we have of maintaining a promotion push. It would also place an unfair degree of pressure on any player brought in to replace him, with an instant demand for goals and an expectation that any replacement would be able to replicate the harrying and running of Constable.
Of course, the decision may not rest entirely with the club. If Constable has indeed had his head turned by the bloated contract on offer at Swindon – and the rumours would seem to suggest that this is the case, with reports that he has missed the last two days of training and the measly fee of £170k being speculated – then the club has been left with the unenviable decision to either take the money and run, or to force an unhappy player to stay put and risk demoralising the team. Of course, it's poor practice to unsettle a player in such a way, but we can't kid ourselves that Di Canio and Co are above such unscrupulous behaviour.
The move would also be a bad one for Constable. He has proven himself here and is almost guaranteed a starting place every match in a team with promotion ambitions, playing in front of fans who adore him. At Swindon, he would have to compete for a place with up to seven (SEVEN!) other strikers, have to win over a group of fans who expressly don't want him there, as well as deal with constant abuse from Oxford fans who used to worship him. It is very rare that any player attains 'legendary' status with a club's fans while he is still playing, and even rarer still for that status to be revoked once achieved, but this would undoubtedly be the case should he defect to Swindon.
Our hated rivals have an apparently gigantic pot of cash to throw at promotion, and are prepared to sink to the bottom of it to get what they want. Using their vast – but not earned – financial resources, they appear to be identifying any player that happens to be performing well in this league and then attempting to unsettle them with big-money offers, thus driving the price down when they do choose to approach the club – as was the case with their signing of Luke Rooney from Gillingham earlier this week.
Some people in their retirement choose to collect stamps. It seems that Paolo Di Canio has taken instead to collecting footballers. The tactic of buying players just so that they cannot play for the club's league rivals is not seen very often outside the Premier League, but that appears to be what is happening up the road in Swindon. The number of players to have played/signed for Swindon in few months since Di Canio took charge must be enough to populate a small country by now, and the inevitable consequence of this is that some very good players are forced to rot in their reserve team.
Perhaps having a vast squad to choose from is a positive thing for Swindon, but not necessarily for the players that are consigned to the scrapheap. There will always be a lot of pressure on any player who signs for big money, but signing from your new club's biggest rivals, with fans on both sides of the divide queueing up to pile on the abuse, is an altogether different kind of pressure. Forever marked as a Judas in the eyes of your former club and never truly accepted by your new supporters, the move across the divide can be a truly isolating one. Constable would do well to heed the words of Joey Beauchamp, who knows about such matters first-hand: “If he goes his name will be mud, just like mine was. If he plays for Swindon, all the goals he scored for Oxford will be forgotten forever”.
There is a lot of speculation surrounding this deal. Some say that the club management wanted rid of Constable, while others say that Constable wanted out of the club. I don't suspect the truth behind this farce will emerge any time soon, but whatever the case, at least one of the parties involved is making a huge mistake.