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In the summer of 1996 Oxford United signed striker Nigel Jemson. The U’s had just been promoted back in to Division 1 following two seasons in the division below. I was 11 years old and it was an exciting time for all concerned as Oxford had one of the most talented squads in their history. Phil Whitehead was a goalkeeper that could be depended on no matter what and in front of him was man mountain Matt Elliott, Captain Mike Ford, long serving right-back Les Robinson, solid centre back Phil Gilchrist and a young 19 year old hot head, named Darren Purse. A wealth of talent, three of which would go on to have solid Premier League careers!
Up top Oxford already had club legend Joey Beauchamp and battering ram striker Paul Moody, both well supported by a tricky Bobby Ford. Jemson’s arrival was like the icing on the cake signalling the club’s intent to try and compete in Division 1 and he was an instant hit!
Born in Hutton, Lancashire, Nigel Jemson started his footballing career at home town club Preston North End under manager John McGrath and would make 32 appearances for the club, scoring 8 times as North End won promotion. His promise attracted the attention of Manchester United and Nottingham Forest and it was Brian Clough who got the deal done in the summer of 1988.
His time at Forest is probably the most famous chapter in his 12 club career and he certainly made a name for himself. Jemson scored in the 1990 League Cup Quarter Final 3-2 win over Spurs and then grabbed the winner in the Final against Oldham Athletic. He even got a call up to the England U21 set up but injuries scuppered his progress.
His relationship with Brian Clough is often described as strained due to the hot headed manager famously punching the young striker in the stomach but Jemson only has positive memoires of his former manager.
“I loved every minute from first to last,” he said. “It is a myth that I never got on with the boss. People think that because he once punched me that he did not like me! But most of what he said was just banter. It was his way of keeping a cheeky 20-year-old in check”
Clough himself described Jemson as the only player in footballer with a bigger head than him and it was this arrogant stance that often led to fans disliking the player and occasionally even some of his own team mates.
Jemson’s Forest career came to an end when they signed Teddy Sheringham from Millwall and he was sold to Sheffield Wednesday for £800,000 in 1991.
Despite leaving Forest Jemson later recalled:
“The best part of my career was spent at The City Ground’ he admits “Apart from the joy of scoring at Wembley that day, it was at the end where all the Forest fans were and that made it even more special!”
His time at Sheffield Wednesday never yielded the success many expected partly due to Jemson being out through injury after being involved in a nasty car accident and partly due to the form of Mark Bright and David Hurst. A move to Notts County didn’t really work out and he was sent out on loan to a number of clubs including Watford, Coventry and Rotherham.
His Wembley success continued though as he scored both Millers goals in the 1996 Auto-windscreen Shield final that saw Rotherham beat Shrewsbury 2-1 but it was in the summer of 1996 that a fee of just £60,000 brought him to The Manor Ground and Oxford United, under the management of Denis Smith.
He went on to have the most prolific season of his career and his debut away at Q.P.R. was a sign of things to come. Although Oxford lost the game 2-1 to the side that had just been relegated from the Premier League the U’s did take a shock lead when debutant, Jemson, scored with a fine right footed finish.
He also grabbed one on his home debut against Norwich in the League Cup three days later. It was the start of a season that took my breath away as Oxford competed well and often outplayed some of the best clubs in the division. Jemson’s partnership with tricky winger Joey Beauchamp was causing Division 1 defences all sorts of problems but Premier League sides were also struggling to cope against the Yellows.
Jemson was faced with the perfect tie in the League Cup against his old side Sheffield Wednesday, who were top of the Premier League when the tie was announced! Oxford drew 1-1 at Hillsborough and then took them back to a packed Manor on a Tuesday night and as fate would have it, it was Nigel that bagged the only goal and the winner with just five minutes left!
Behind the scenes the club was struggling financially as they were unable to carry on funding the new stadium that stood half built out in Minchery Farm, a spectre that would affect the clubs future in a way that many could not even begin to perceive at the time.
Back on the pitch Jemson was having the season of his career! By Christmas 1996 he had already netted 17 in all competitions including one of my favourites. It was at The Dell in the League Cup replay. Oxford were facing a strong Southampton side that contained the likes of Eyal Berkovic, Egil Ostenstad and ex-Oxford favourite Jim Magilton. The Saints had taken the lead but as half time approached Jemson flicked a header beautifully past Dave Beasant to draw it level. It was a masterful goal and for me personally, going to school with a number of Saints fans, it was pure joy. We went on to lose the match 3-2 but it was an excellent performance.
Jemson was not so prolific in the second half of the season and Oxford’s form dipped badly as Matt Elliott left for Leicester City in January for £1.6m but he still finished the season with 23 goals in all competitions!
He scored 10 times in 1997/98 season before being sold to Bury for a derisory £100,000 in February 1998. I was furious, I knew the club were in desperate need of money but as a proven goal scorer I was sure that a bigger club would have been willing to pay more. His time at Bury was disappointing, only managing to score once in 29 appearances before being loaned out to Ayr United of all places! Whilst in Scotland he did bag five goals in 12 appearances at Somerset Park before re-joining Oxford for a less successful spell during a time when Oxford were in freefall.
He joined Shrewsbury Town in the summer of 2000 and went on to score 15 goals in all competitions during his first season with the club as Shrewsbury finished 15th in Division 3. The next season saw Jemson come up against Oxford at the new shiny Kassam Stadium replete all the mod cons including a gaping hole where the fourth side should be. It was the ex-Oxford man that grabbed the winner in the 67th minute to pile on yet more grief for an Oxford side that were dropping like a stone.
He finished the 2001-02 season with 11 goals as the Shrews finished 9th just one point outside the playoffs, again Jemson returned to the Kassam to face his old side Oxford. I watched the game with my uncle and he was unaware that Jemson had previously played for the club and was struggling to understand why he was getting such a lot of grief from the home fans. I remember he turned to me and asked “why is their striker winking and winding up the home fans? Is there something I don’t know?”
His final season was bitter sweet as Shrewsbury had a torrid time in the League, finishing bottom and being relegated in to the Conference but it will be widely remembered both by football fans everywhere and Shrewsbury fans for their giant killing FA Cup display against Everton. Managed by ex-Everton captain Kevin Ratcliffe, Shrewsbury upset the odds by beating David Moyes Premier League side 2-1 thanks to two goals from Nigel Jemson. His first was an excellent free kick and his second, with just two minutes left, was a brilliant near post header to send the Shrews fans into delirium.
It was a fitting swan song for a player who perhaps never truly reached his early potential but to me will always be that arrogant, lazy but quite brilliant striker who graced the Manor Ground turf during that all too short season and a half between 1996 and 1998! Jemmo, Jemmo, Jemmo!
words James Richards