Goalkeepers. The craziest of players. The eccentrics in the dressing room. Suffering the isolation of standing there all alone while the outfield players go out and strut their stuff further up the field. Stealing the glory. While for a goalkeeper, one single and painful mistake could lead to immediate and long-lasting ridicule.
Who on earth would stand there and allow people to shoot footballs at their face or body from point blank range, and still think that’s a good idea? Often within touching distance of opposing fans baying for blood? Insanity.
Michael Oakes was slightly different, however.
Calm, composed, controlled.
One of many to have had a foot – or hand – in both camps of Wolves and Aston Villa who meet in this weekend’s big Midlands derby, Oakes wasn’t your archetypal jack-in-the-box goalkeeper.
Unlike for example a John Burridge, another ex-Wolf and Villan, who very much hailed from the more madcap end of the goalkeeper litmus test.
If Burridge was somewhat unconventional, then Oakes, one of his successors between the sticks at both Villa Park and Molineux, was uncomplicated. He was the zen to Burridge’s zany. And it served him well. Very well.
He amassed a total of 298 career appearances of which 72 came in the Premier League and the remainder, bar one during a loan spell with Scarborough, in the Championship.
A generally high level of performance and consistency epitomised Oakes’s career, fired by an inner steel and determination and, if not as outwardly outlandish as others, a sharp and dry sense of humour.
And above all else? A deep sense of pride at having represented both the claret and blue and gold and black fraternities of the West Midlands.
“I consider myself really fortunate to have played for both Wolves and Villa as I did,” reports the 48-year-old.
“I had really good times at both and it’s great to see the two up there in the top half of the Premier League.
“They have both suffered with relegations in recent history but are now back up there and the fans can enjoy the rivalry and the local derbies.
“I think it’s good for Midlands football to have them both thriving and trying to get one over on each other and hopefully battling away high up in the table.”
Villa were perennially high up in the table when Oakes emerged through the ranks at B6 in the mid-Nineties, going on to chalk up 61 appearances.
His father Alan, a midfielder, remains Manchester City’s record appearance maker and won a string of honours to boot, but the prospect of Oakes junior following in his footsteps was never a formality.
His sporting talent was more varied, cricket and golf as well as football, but the impressive hand-eye co-ordination eventually saw him settle between the sticks, initially as a schoolboy at Villa before being taken on official youth terms under the guidance of Dave Richardson and Richard Money.
Oakes made his first team debut at the age of 20 in the second leg of a League Cup tie at Wigan, keeping a clean sheet in a 3-0 win, and his Premier League bow would follow, two years later, at Sheffield Wednesday.
That one ended in defeat, but he stayed in for his first sustained run in the side during which Villa posted some excellent results.
Learning his goalkeeping trade from Nigel Spink and then Mark Bosnich, and being around the club at the same time as Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Gareth Southgate, Andy Townsend, Dean Saunders and Dwight Yorke, couldn’t fail but help Oakes to progress.
“There was an abundance of talent and experience at Villa which is why, more often than not, they were at the top end of the table,” says Oakes.
“When you are working with players like that, it can only be a benefit, you learn so much and pick up good habits.
“I’d like to think I did o-k when I went in, and again when I played later in the season, and we finished high up and qualified for Europe as Villa did most years at that time.
“Even if I wasn’t starting, I got to be on the bench, and that included the League Cup final win over Leeds in ’96 and the two legs of the semi-final when we beat a really good Arsenal team.
“Villa provided such a great experience for me, with the size of the club, the team-mates I was working with, the fixtures I got to enjoy, including playing in Europe.”
Eventually though, the arrival of Liverpool and England custodian David James at Villa Park was a sign to Oakes that, moving into the peak of his career, his best chance of regular football lay elsewhere.
He was impressed with James, who performed impressively at Villa, and so it was that he decided to make the short move across the Midlands and drop down a division to join Wolves for a fee of £500,000.
“Wolves is another club with a big stature, and at the time were desperate to get into the Premier League,” he recalls.
“It was also a chance to go and take on the challenge of becoming a first team regular, which I needed at that stage of my career.
“In many ways it was a no-brainer of a decision to try and push myself forward.”
The good ship Wolves often rides the wave between glorious euphoria and catastrophic turbulence – sometimes at the same time – and Oakes’ spell with the club was certainly no exception.
His memory of the people, and the games, is as sharp as his instincts, recalling his first season in 1999/2000 after coming in and taking on the challenge of replacing Wolves’ popular and most-used goalkeeper in Mike Stowell.
His debut, a 1-0 defeat on a mud-splattered Prenton Park pitch of a Tranmere side fuelled by the long Exocet-style throws of Dave Challinor, was followed however by a memorable Molineux Friday night for his home debut, a 4-1 victory against Manchester City.
Oakes can also recall with clarity the pivotal night in Wolves’ play-off push that season. The night it finally came unstuck, thanks to a controversial 2-1 defeat at Bolton.
He doesn’t mention referee Kevin Lynch – the Wolves faithful will remember, however – but the fact that the Molineux men took a lead which was overhauled in the second half and that it was the other Wanderers who made it to the play-offs.
There are recollections too of a disappointing start to the following campaign, which led to the departure of Colin Lee, but then – across Dave Jones’ three full seasons at the Wolves helm – riding the complete rollercoaster of emotions and fortunes, both individually and as a team.
2001/02: Oakes, an ever-present, keeps 16 clean sheets. For two-thirds of the season, Wolves are magnificent. But then, agonisingly, 20 years ago to right about now, an end-of-season dip allowed a red-hot West Bromwich Albion to power through for automatic promotion, while Wolves lost to Norwich in the play-offs.
2002/03: Oakes starts the season well, as do Wolves. But injury opens the door to a young prospect by the name of Matt Murray, who is exceptional and stays in the team all the way through to a glorious play-off final win, for which Oakes is on the bench.
2003/04: Wolves in the Premier League. For the first time. Backed by a level of investment which is to prove drastically insufficient, Wolves struggle. Murray is injured and plays only one game, Oakes returns and yet, after the best mini-spell of the season, victory over Manchester United and a point against Liverpool, loses his place to returning signing Paul Jones.
Quite a trilogy! And never a dull moment.
Oakes pauses. “That season 20 years ago…it still haunts me,” he says.
“We did so much to get up, winning seven games on the trot at one stage and playing some brilliant stuff.
“Then there was a little spell where we drew at Forest in midweek, drew at Blues, and then lost to Grimsby when Kevin Muscat sent off.
“We struggled after we lost momentum in that last seven or eight games and at the same time, Albion won seven out of the last eight to pip us.
“They hadn’t been above us until a couple of games were left and obviously to miss out, and then lose in the play-offs, was a huge disappointment.
“For me, the team, the fans, it was devastating, but fortunately we managed to get up the season after.
“It was a good reaction after such a crushing disappointment, but we had some big characters in that dressing room who were mentally strong.
“Strangely I don’t think we were as good that promotion- winning season as the one before, we got a lot fewer points and weren’t as comfortable in getting into the play-offs, although often when you sneak in with some momentum it works in your favour.
“The rest is history, with that incredible day of the play-off final against Sheffield United which was so straightforward in the end, sealing what was a great achievement that season.”
With the injury, and seeing Murray come in and do so well, Oakes’ role took on a different slant. He was now the experienced training partner and purveyor of good habits. The team ethic was strong, and, so too, the much-famed goalkeepers’ union.
“I had a great relationship with Matt when we played and still do now, we have always got on well,” says Oakes.
“I always tried to help him when he was playing and vice versa, and it was great that he went in and was so successful.
“That was what was needed, competition for places, it’s always needed, and although I had to suffer personal disappointment that is part and parcel of football and the team is the most important thing.
“I played a part in that season at the start, and in the building process from the season before, and for all of us in the squad it was fantastic to be promoted and gave us great memories.
“But then going into the Premier League, we never really gave ourselves a chance.
“For whatever reason there wasn’t enough investment in the team and so it was always going to be a difficult season.
“You see teams come up these days and spend millions and millions and still they struggle, and even if the figures were different in our day, it was always going to be a huge ask.
“And we started dreadfully, didn’t we?
“I remember we’d had a bad pre-season, then got hammered at Blackburn on the opening day when Matty played, and then Charlton at home when I came in.
“We then went to Old Trafford and only lost 1-0 to United and gradually we got better, getting a first win against Manchester City and then later that win against United in the return.
“But it was such a poor start that our backs were against the wall from a month in, and even though we learned and improved, we had given ourselves too much to do.
“You need some very deep pockets to compete even in the bottom half of the Premier League, and we didn’t strengthen enough, which was such a shame when so much work had gone in to achieving promotion.”
Oakes would then be first choice under Glenn Hoddle for a season-and-a-half, increasing his appearance figure to 220, the seventh highest in history for a Wolves’ goalkeeper.
He would later move on, re-uniting with manager Jones when signing for Cardiff, and would actually play against Wolves, reviving fond memories of enjoyable times at Molineux.
“I had a great time at Wolves, to be part of the club progressing, to make over 200 appearances at such a big club and a fantastic club was very special,” says Oakes.
“And it’s great to see them doing so well now, and probably learning from mistakes which have been made over the years.
“Even since my time they went up again but then came down and went through the divisions having some difficult times.
“But those seem to have disappeared now, and I really enjoyed being back at Molineux for the Leicester game last month.
“I took a pal with me who is a Manchester United fan who had never been to the stadium before, and he said the atmosphere was something else.
“It is great to see where the club is now, in such a good place, and long may it continue.”
For Oakes, life is also continuing in a good place.
At the moment, that isn’t being directly involved in football – fatherly school run and dance class chauffeuring duties and the odd game of golf are keeping him busy enough – but he maintains an open mind on what lies ahead in the future.
He has enjoyed three separate spells as goalkeeping coach with Wrexham, with a stint at Walsall also in there as well, latterly forging an excellent working relationship alongside a manager in Dean Keates.
With Wrexham having been taken over by Hollywood acting stars Ryan Reynolds and Ron McElhenny, Keates departed the club last summer, perhaps not a huge surprise, and Oakes has been happy to keep his options open since.
“I have really enjoyed coaching and moved around with Dean to both Wrexham and Walsall but I am just taking some time out at the moment,” he explains.
“I think Dean leaving was always going to happen with the changes there but he did a fantastic job at Wrexham with everything that was going on and how he managed the club.
“Wrexham are another big club and it’s great to see them doing so well this season – they are a club that needs to be back in the Football League and hopefully they will get there.
“Dean is both a colleague and a good friend and, if he goes back in somewhere I would certainly consider it, but I wouldn’t say I am actively looking for anything at the present time.
“In the meantime, I will carry on ferrying the kids about, doing the school run, taking them to dancing and whatever else, and fitting in the odd game of golf somewhere in between!”
Oakes will always have the memories of turning out for two Midlands big-hitters, and of savouring experiences not just on the pitch but immersing himself in the fabric of two footballing institutions off the pitch as well.
Sometimes the essence and ethos of a club is not just the football but what goes on behind the scenes, the characters and personalities, the pride in working for their hometown club accompanied by a fierce and defiant loyalty.
When returning recently for that game with Leicester, Oakes’s mind wandered to thoughts of two just such Molineux devotees who are sadly no longer with us – former press officer and programme editor John ‘Fozzie’ Hendley and club historian Graham Hughes.
“Fozzie and Hughsie were always such great fun back in my time at the club, and they are the sort of people that make a football club special,” says Oakes.
“Those background staff who you get to meet and who can teach you about the club and who you know are always right behind you, wanting the team to succeed.
“That is what makes a club what it is, just as much as the players, the so-called superstars, those people like Fozzie and Hughsie who are Wolves through and through.
“When I was back for the Leicester game the other week, from the people I spoke to I also saw just how committed they all are to the club, and that is what you need.”
Exactly so. And talking of teamwork and camaraderie, it would be remiss not to finish without a mention of the famous carpool which was in operation during Oakes’s time at Wolves.
Oakes, Denis Irwin, Paul Butler and Mark Kennedy were known in some circles as the ‘Manchester Mafia’, not because of any links to the criminal underworld or penchant for gratuitous violence, just because they travelled into training, from Manchester, in the same car. Simple as that!
“There were some big characters in that car,” Oakes recalls.
“We could all moan – that’s for sure!
“What did we talk about? A bit of everything really, plenty of football talk, other stuff, and yes, a fair bit of moaning!
“We were certainly all driven to get Wolves promoted and ended up playing a lot of games for the club and they were good times.
“I was lucky enough to meet a lot of great characters in football, and still speak to a lot of them even now.”
There were certainly plenty of great characters involved in that Wolves team of two decades ago, which finally achieved the Holy Grail of promotion to the Premier League after suffering such heartbreak the season before.
Four of those characters were in that one car, heading down the M6, bright and breezy, every morning! Or should that be moaning?
And the goalkeeper in that quartet? The crazy one, the eccentric? Oakes was probably the most calm and level-headed of the lot!