Football: Robinson's culture shock

Oxford's captain leads out the down-at-heel tomorrow against the fat cats of the Premiership
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WHEN Oxford United last met Chelsea in the FA Cup, almost five years ago to the day, Glenn Hoddle's emerging side left the Manor Ground victorious. But only just. "I got injured and came off after only 15 minutes," recalls Les Robinson, Oxford's longest-serving player and present captain. "We went 1-0 up but eventually lost 2-1, and Mike Ford missed a penalty." Chelsea actually reached the final that May, only to lose 4-0 to an Eric Cantona-inspired Manchester United.

Since then, the clubs have enjoyed contrasting fortunes. While Chelsea have accumulated trophies - including the FA Cup, the Coca-Cola, the European Cup-Winners' Cup and the Super Cup - Oxford have mainly amassed debts. Armed with their legion of foreign stars, the Blues will descend on Oxford for tomorrow night's fourth-round FA Cup tie not only as clear favourites, but also a much changed team from the one the U's came close to beating in 1994.

There are just four players left from that Chelsea squad, and only Dennis Wise is still a regular in the team. "Yeah, and they were English, now everyone is foreign," remarks Robinson. "The transformation is amazing; their team is unrecognisable. But that's the way it goes. And if you've got the money, fair enough." Oxford's progress has been in sharp contrast, though Robinson insists: "It is different for us at this level. We are not bringing in foreigners left, right and centre, paying pounds 10m and giving them thirty to forty grand a week. For what we have got here, the ground, the small crowd, to still be in the First Division is a real achievement."

Personnels aside, the teams' very different preparations to the Cup tie serve to emphasise the gulf between the two. While some of the Chelsea players were topping up their tans in Tenerife and Franck Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly were playing in a friendly for France against Morocco in Marseilles, Oxford's squad were indulging in more homely activities: golf on Tuesday, a day with the family on Wednesday, a trip to the races at Ascot on Friday, and plenty of hard training besides. "We have enjoyed ourselves just as much as them. It's been a good week. There's a great team spirit here." And it is that team spirit, Robinson believes, which has kept Oxford going on and off the pitch. "We have the ability. With a bit of self-belief, and a bit of the rub of the green, we can finish in mid-table again."

The spirit may be good in the Oxford camp then, but nobody is under any illusions that the match against Chelsea will resolve the club's serious financial problems [they are rumoured to be pounds 13.5m in debt and own a half- finished, and now abandoned, stadium]. "We were naturally happy to draw Chelsea," says the U's captain, "though an away tie would have been even better financially. Realistically, though, the only chance we have of beating them is to play them here, on our patch." As to the suggestion that Oxford will be aiming for the draw to earn a replay at Stamford Bridge, Robinson is adamant: "I can assure you that, as footballers, we want to win. We don't care about the money. Out on the pitch, money does not come in to it. Anyway, if we beat Chelsea, we might get Manchester United or Liverpool away in the next round, and make even more money."

Tomorrow, when Robinson comes face to face with his Chelsea counterpart, Leboeuf, he may see a bit of himself in the millionaire Frenchman. Both are journeymen of a kind who have risen through the ranks. The 31-year- old Robinson, who supported Leeds as a child, started his career at Mansfield, then moved to Stockport and Doncaster, before joining Oxford nine years ago for the then notable fee of pounds 200,000. "I've been a lower- division player all my career but I've enjoyed it."

Leboeuf, for his part, played for unfashionable Toulon and Laval, before moving to Strasbourg, where he started making a name for himself. It is since his pounds 2.5m move to London in 1996, however, that he has established himself as one of the most cultured and honoured defenders in the modern game.

During the match itself, the two will uncover further similarities, such as the fact that they both play in the libero position: "I was a right- back for a good seven years," says Robinson, "but these days I play as sweeper, though obviously not in Leboeuf's class."

Tomorrow night apart, their career paths vary greatly. While the Chelsea defender was alongside Laurent Blanc, at the heart of the French defence for the World Cup final, Robinson was watching the game at a friend's house on television. "I actually had tickets, but we were due for training the next day and I wasn't sure if I could get back on time. So I gave them away."

Irrespective of medals, caps and salaries then, Robinson insists that the pleasures and sensations are the same at all levels. "That's why everyone wants to be a footballer."

Oxford are now managed by Malcolm Shotton, the man who captained them to their 1986 Milk Cup triumph. The loss of Joey Beauchamp through suspension is an obvious blow, though with the experienced ex-Aberdeen player, Dean Windass, up front, and the fast-improving pair of Paul Powell and Phil Whelan at the back, the U's may feel they can cause an upset: "I don't know," insists Robinson. "But our Cup final is on Monday night. Playing Chelsea out here is going to be as good as playing somebody else at Wembley."

And just for good measure, there is an extra incentive for the man who has featured in 373 League and cup games for the club. "I've played at every League ground bar five [Old Trafford, Anfield, Goodison, Underhill Stadium and Villa Park], so every win means another chance." At least that is one proud record Leboeuf won't achieve.

THE DIFFERENT WORLDS OF LEBOEUF AND LES ROBINSON

Age: 31 Height: 6ft

Weight: 12 stone

Position: Sweeper

Honours: FA Cup 97; League Cup 98; Cup-Winners' Cup 98; World Cup 98

Status: Married Children: Two

Accommodation: Palatial home in fashionable Richmond

Car: Porsche

Favourite food: Oysters and frogs' legs

Favourite film: Con Air

Favourite band: Supertramp

Last transfer fee: pounds 2.5m in 1996

League and Cup appearances: 85 Goals: 16

International caps: 16 International goals: 0

Did you know? Leboeuf had never won a trophy until he came to England.

Age: 31 Height: 5ft 9in

Weight: 12 stone

Position: Sweeper

Honours: None

Status: Married Children: Two

Accommodation: Rented family house in Oxford suburbs

Car: Rover

Favourite food: "You can't beat Italian"

Favourite film: Silence of the Lambs

Favourite band: The Verve

Last transfer fee: pounds 200,000 in 1990

League and Cup appearances: 373 Goals: 11

International caps: 0 International goals: 0

Did you know? Les doesn't score very often. "So when I do they tend to be 25-yard scorchers," he says.

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