The sight of Ryan Clarke between the goalposts has become a familiar and reassuring one over recent years. His quiet, calm demeanour, assured performances and perennial presence in goal throughout his three seasons at the club have made Clarke our Mr Reliable. That is, of course, until now. In the latter stages of our roller-coaster Easter Monday clash with Torquay, Clarke appeared to be visibly carrying an injury and ended the game by parrying what appeared to be a routine save into his own net. Clarke's fitness was an issue of concern throughout the build-up to the Gillingham match, with our fears being confirmed on the morning of the match. Clarke was to miss his first league game for years.
His replacement, Wayne Brown, had not exactly covered himself in glory in his previous outing, getting sent off after just 14 minutes as United bowed out of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy to Southend. Any nagging anxieties were soon put to rest, however, once the match was under way. Brown put in an assured performance to keep a clean sheet, organising his defence well and launching several attacks through his pinpoint distribution. With some unofficial reports (ie rumours) suggesting that Clarke may miss the rest of the season, it seems that Brown will be the man between the sticks for the end of the season, so with that in mind here is a quick profile of our 'new' goalkeeper.
After short spells at Bristol City and Weston-Super-Mare, Brown's career began in earnest at Chester City, who he joined in 1996. He initially faced stiff competition for the keeper's jersey from Ronnie Sinclair and future-U Neil Cutler, but eventually established himself as first-choice in the 99-00 season in which Chester were relegated from the Football League after 69 years, winning the club's Away Supporters Player of the Year Award. Over the next few years Brown became a popular player at Chester (he was recently voted a member of Chester's 'Team of the Decade'), also earning seven England C caps, but a foot injury ruled him out of the latter part of Chester's 03-04 promotion season, though he did enjoy a testimonial in May '04 after making more than 200 appearances for the club. However, soon after his testimonial Brown fell out with Chester's notorious owner Stephen Vaughan and he was sent out on loan to Hereford United in May 2005.
At Hereford, Brown became first-choice goalkeeper in the best defence in the Conference, conceding just 33 goals in 42 games, winning promotion back to the Football League with a playoff final victory over Chris Wilder's Halifax Town. Brown continued as first-choice at Edgar Street after signing permanently for the Bulls, earning the nickname 'Superman' for his remarkable shotstopping ability. He won another promotion in 07-08 to League One, keeping 17 clean sheets along the way and earning a Player of the Year Award.
Brown rejected a new contract and League One football at Hereford to join Alan Knill's Bury in League Two that summer, missing out on automatic promotion by a single goal and falling to Shrewsbury in the playoffs. Brown was again a regular for the 09-10 season, but despite a good start to the season, a poor run of form late in the season scuppered their chances of promotion again.
Brown was not offered a new contract at the end of that season, and with all eyes focused on South Africa for the World Cup he made a surprise move to South African champions, Supersport United. However, he struggled to adjust to life in the southern hemisphere, from the climate to the footballing culture, and also found himself a victim of racism and xenophobia. With Supersport United failing spectacularly to defend their title and getting sucked into a relegation fight, many fans blamed their English goalkeeper, nicknaming him 'Calamity Brown'. His time in South Africa was clearly not wasted however, as he told the Hereford Times, “they've also taught me a different style of kicking with a very flat strike” – a technique which he has already put to good use during his time at Oxford. He left Supersport United at the end of the season and had talks to join a Serie B side in Italy, but clearly this never materialised, as he has found himself warming the bench (or not, as has often been the case) at Oxford.
Now, of course, Wayne Brown finds himself in the position of coming in from the cold to fill in for Ryan Clarke, possibly in the high-pressure environment of the playoffs. Which of his nicknames will he live up to: Superman or Calamity Brown?