24 April ~ During a mid-Sunday afternoon in 1998 a large group wandered into the pub that was the base for our local league team. They looked menacing, if only by dint of their number and obvious physical fitness. They were vaguely familiar but no one could identify them until the unmistakeable figure of Dean Windass strode in, amicably greeting all present. By jingo, it must be Oxford United! The players were staying in a hotel near the pub for a few days in preparation for a game against Huddersfield Town.
They didn’t set about endearing themselves to the locals, demanding haughtily that the golf replace the football playing on the old television in the corner. I don’t think anyone doubts which sport is the favourite of most footballers. I temporarily averted this mini-crisis by swiftly but discreetly dropping the nearby remote control into my pocket.
The Oxford players accumulated in a conspiratorial clique but Windass extricated himself from his team-mates and as day segued into night and regaled members of our team with anecdotes from his dual careers of football and drinking. While we were fascinated to receive an account of his three-in-one sending-off for Aberdeen the previous season, we were more interested in comparing notes about creative places to relieve oneself after industrial-level drinking bouts.
I remember a WSC survey that asked readers if they felt they would like footballers if they knew them. I responded with an unequivocal no, but Windass was the very antithesis of what most fans suspect. He was genuinely interested in our Sunday morning team, announcing that he wanted a move to a Yorkshire club and that he would manage us if his new club was anywhere within a 60-mile radius.
He insisted on buying pints for us and would not let anyone return the favour. As the rest of the Oxford team became more agitated in their search for the remote control, Dean was immersed with enquiries about who were the best footballers and drinkers in our team. We often hear that certain players would play for the love of the game had they not become professionals and here was a living, breathing example.
I left the pub at around 9pm, bursting to tell people the sizzling details of my new best mate’s night out in Hull city centre a few years earlier. When my girlfriend arrived to pick me up, Dean and goalkeeper Phil Whitehead cadged a lift to their hotel, all of 400 yards away. As I bade Deano – as I was now calling him – an emotional farewell, with Whitehead rather unnecessarily accusing me of ogling the barmaid, I remember making a mental note to follow Windass’s career with meticulous zeal.
I didn't need to check the index of his 2008 autobiography Deano: From Gipsyville to the Premiership to know his afternoon in the Spring Grove would not even be a footnote in his life. But as an avid football fan, it certainly restored my faith in the professional game.
Windass’s profile has risen exponentially in recent years and most football fans will have recognised his superb touch on the ball and ability to lead the line, not to mention some great moments of Sky punditry. On behalf of great drinking buddies everywhere, let’s hope he overcomes his recently documented problems soon. Daniel Burkinshaw