Peter Leven: The best player in League Two?
Here’s Andrew Cherrie on an Oxford United midfielder that really shouldn’t be playing in League Two at all.
Peter Leven scores from the half way line. Peter Leven scores immaculate right footed chips from eighteen yards that hang in the air for an eternity, dropping delicately over a hapless, flailing goalkeeper. Peter Leven executes outrageous flicked balls over the heads of destitute defenders that construct some of the best goals Oxford United fans have ever seen. Peter Leven does what he wants.
Imagine Scott Parker, freshly reeling from his Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year award, weighing up his options this summer just gone. Instrumental for his side throughout the preceding season, he has no shortage of potential suitors at his disposal with a multitude of higher level clubs showing interest. Seen as one of the greatest talents in a division flooded with gifted individuals, he makes the wise choice of joining Tottenham Hotspur; the world remains unshaken and Parker goes on to play a fairly unremarkable role in striking Spurs team awash with creative capability.
Now imagine Scott Parker, Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year, turns down the chance of playing at a higher level and instead joins a side a division below, raising eyebrows nationwide. An unlikely scenario, but one that has been mirrored further down the Football League with the case of Peter Leven.
When Leven’s contract with Milton Keynes expired in the summer of 2011, many observers of the lower leagues fully expected the Scotsman to make a switch to the upper echelons, with established Championship clubs such as Millwall showing extensive interest. Voted League One Sports Writers’ Player of the Year for the 2010/2011 season, Leven had dominated the midfield in a Milton Keynes side which had consistently challenged for promotion since his arrival in 2008, scoring over 20 goals from an advanced playmaker role. A left-sided central midfielder – that rarest of breeds – bounding with creative exuberance, the former Rangers trainee was widely regarded as one of the Football League’s most highly sought-after free agents as the 2011/12 season approached.
Fast forward to the initial days of what is, if the 2012 doom-mongers are to be believed, our very last year on this piece of rock of ours. Peter Leven is seemingly unfazed by the impending apocalypse, stroking the ball nonchalantly around Aldershot’s EBB Stadium as he picks up another two assists to add to his ever-expanding tally and a strikingly accurate low drive into the bottom corner to put Oxford United 3-0 up at half-time. A great strike, but not quite on par with the 50-yard lobs, delicate chips or screaming 30-yard free kicks to which he had treated Oxford fans in previous months.
Chris Wilder pulled off one of the most unlikely and impressive coups of the close season when recruiting Leven, snatching him from under the noses of far richer clubs. Despite having one of the largest followings in the division (and the one above), Oxford’s wage budget is still engulfed by lingering ghosts from the past and the club struggles to compete with more established outfits having spent five seasons in the non-league wilderness. Leven’s decision to descend into England’s basement division reflects the unyielding determination of a man with a point to prove, as well as indicating the return of Oxford’s status as an established, desirable football club with obstinate promotion credentials.
Alongside Michael Duberry, captain Jake Wright and the in-demand James Constable, Leven forms the spine of a side that so far this season have shown flashes of ingenuity amongst a frustrating inconsistency at home. Oxford lie nestled amongst the play-off contenders but, with added ruthlessness and a bit more brutality when protecting leads, could well be pushing for an automatic spot. Despite a momentous 2-1 win at Swindon Town in August, victories over promotion rivals Shrewsbury and Port Vale and impressively conceding not a single goal in the month of December, the U’s have struggled to find consistency, drawing disappointingly at home to the likes of Accrington, Aldershot and Hereford.
Expectations amongst the Oxford faithful were elevated after a first season of consolidation back in the Football League, with many becoming increasingly disillusioned with Wilder’s inability to kill off games and a back line prone to late lapses of concentration. Despite this, Oxford remain well within play-off contention, with the footballing acumen, ingenuity and aptitude of Peter Leven a defining factor in the U’s campaign; perhaps the only constant of an incoherent season so far.
A quick trawl of every football fan’s greatest resource, YouTube, reveals only the smallest speck of what Leven has done this season; his impeccable lob from 45 yards against Port Vale, featured alongside the likes of Messi and Ronaldo in countless goal of the week features, the sole, yet spectacular contribution.
Leven’s contribution to Oxford, however, stretches far beyond that goal. Despite missing most of pre-season with a wrist injury which resulted in him playing in a cast for the first few months, Leven has already made a dramatic impact, dictating the midfield during most games. With ten assists so far, he is also the league’s second most creative player. Leven’s assists are almost as staggering as his goals, and certainly as daring; a breathtaking flick over the head of a Barnet defender setting up Liam Davis to volley home back in September, a first-time volleyed cross at Aldershot and countless inch-perfect set pieces, including both assists at Swindon. Without a doubt the creative hub of United’s approach play, an Oxford midfield without Peter Leven is hardly a midfield at all.
Oxford fans showed their gratitude to Leven by starting the #thatpeterlevendoeswhathewants trend on Twitter, making it one of the top trends in the county and causing much excitement amongst local media. Leven himself has enjoyed the adulation: “One of my favourites was, ‘Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone but when he went to pick up his phone he had three missed calls from Peter Leven’”, he told the Oxford Mail.
Arguably League Two’s player of the season so far, if Leven carries his masterly form into the U’s promotion push, his dominion could spread far beyond the realm of Oxford’s social media enthusiasts; does the Championship beckon for the man who does what he wants?