Oxford City

Ben Dudzinski’s first season as an Oxford City player has been one to enjoy, even if the final outcome of what was shaping up to be a highly promising National League South campaign was taken out of their hands. During his time so far with the Hoops, the goalkeeper has been part of the run to the FA Trophy quarter-final, as well as the second round proper of the FA Cup. The latter saw David Oldfield’s side take League One Shrewsbury Town to extra-time; in better circumstances for the world, that would have meant a replay back at Marsh Lane, cheered on by a bumper crowd.

There is no shortage of reasons to look ahead with optimism, however, for club and player alike. The 25-year-old ex-Havant & Waterlooville stopper feels ideally placed to push on again with real vigour in 2021/22. Plus, where else would he get to be part of a changing room with such a daring soundtrack?! All to be revealed…

 

Firstly Ben, have you preferred it or missed it this season not having opposition fans behind your goal?!

That’s a good question. I’d say overall, I’ve definitely missed fans being in the ground; I’ve not missed all of the abuse! Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes there’s a good bit of banter. Definitely missed the atmosphere at the games and the noise that comes when one team scores. When there’s a massive roar, those are the ones that you want to be a part of. It’s a shame because we had quite a good season up until it got stopped. It would have been great to give our fans some joy at the games.

From what you’ve been able to sample this season, what have your impressions of Oxford City as a club overall been?

Overall, it’s been absolutely fantastic. As most teams in the Conference South are, it is part-time, but they’re really doing everything they can with that set-up. The staff when we go to train, there’s a real professional atmosphere and it’s obviously helped us to cultivate a good environment, and to be successful in the games. The manager’s been great, goalie coach has been great, assistant coaches, the whole team. It’s been a really good atmosphere to be a part of. A very professional set-up that I think has shown on the pitch as well.

Mentioning the manager (David Oldfield), I remember him from the later years of his playing career! But what kind of manager/coach would you describe him as?

I’d say a big thing is as much as he’s a good man-manager, he’s also a great coach, so I feel like he’s not only trying to set us up to win games of football. He has his own philosophy on how he wants to do that, and regardless of results, which have been good, I think nearly every player in the side will have improved as a result of his coaching. Ross (Jenkins) and Andy (Ballard) as well, the assistants, we’re not just trying to win games, we’re also developing individually and as a team.

The cup runs this season have included you going to Shrewsbury and Notts County. Being at those grounds, does that maybe give you even more of a taste for wanting to go up the divisions? You’ve been at a higher level before of course.

Yeah, certainly. Those are the games you want to be involved in, those are the grounds you want to be at on a regular basis. The Notts County and the Shrewsbury game, and the Northampton game at home, were all games that would have been great with fans there. It certainly gives you that taste, and maybe it’s that little reminder, just touching sights again with where you want to get to, and for me, where you’re trying to progress beyond as well. I don’t want to put any kind of cap on my ambitions, there’s no ceiling for me, I just want to keep trying to improve and be the best goalkeeper that I can be. It’s nice playing in those stadiums but also the standard in the Conference South this year has been really good. We’ve been involved in lots of games with tons of quality, and it’s been challenging, but good.

The name’s a bit of a giveaway but you’ve mentioned in the past that you’re half-Polish. Is that on your mum or dad’s side of the family?

That’s on my dad’s side.

So did he grow up there or over here? Did you learn any Polish growing up?

There was a short phase where I attempted to learn some Polish, but it’s near impossible, I’d describe it as! My dad speaks it. My granny arrived in England as a refugee in World War II, when she was ten, and then obviously my dad was born in England. Despite only having those ten years in Poland, being Polish was a massive part of her identity, and is still a big part of our identity as a family now. So I do wish I could speak Polish, but I can’t say I’m going to be learning it any time soon, just due to the difficult nature of it!

You’re a Chelsea fan as well, whereabouts have you grown up?

I’ve grown up in south-west London, kind of near where AFC Wimbledon are based. Obviously they’ve moved to their new ground now, but if AFC were playing and they scored, I’d be able to hear it when they were at Kingsmeadow. So just around the corner from Kingsmeadow, New Malden specifically. My dad has always been a Chelsea fan, so that’s how I came to support them.

With both football and studying, you spent some time in the North East. Whereabouts were you living and how did you take to the whole experience up there?

It was a great experience. I had three years of uni first, where I was living in Durham, so initially in student accommodation and then houses with other students. Before I went to uni, I was weighing up what would be the best thing in terms of not only football but the context of all of my life. I decided to go down the university route, and I probably achieved more in football than I anticipated. During my time at university, I trained with Newcastle for a bit, their Under-18s and 23s, then started training with Hartlepool, which is how I came to sign there. That’s when I moved to Hartlepool, so in the Marina is where I was living. It was a good year. It had its challenges, but I definitely enjoyed it, and that’s the level I want to get back to, and progress beyond as well. I think it enabled me to learn quite a lot in a short space of time, so when hopefully I make a return to the full-time game, that will stand me in good stead.

In your football so far, which time stands out as the most complete/happiest?

I’d probably look at two periods, one being my time at Havant. Obviously it was very disappointing to get relegated that season, but the group that I was a part of was an amazing group, and I feel very lucky to have been there. I was very fortunate as well the season before, when they got promoted on the last day, to be part of that; I wasn’t playing but just to be there and experience it from the bench, even that was a privilege, and to get to know some of the boys there. Then staying part-time and playing in the Conference Prem, the highest I’d ever played at that point was Ryman level, so to play 30 games in the Conference, where I felt like I did well, was a big moment for me and I look back at that with pride.

 

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A post shared by Ben Dudzinski (@bendudzinski)

Then I’d also look at this season with Oxford City. I’ve been at other teams like Lowestoft, where I felt like I did well, but we were at the other end of the table, so it’s nice to be putting in good individual performances and then the team working hard to get good results as well. This season has been very enjoyable.

Has there been a most difficult/most challenging time overall?

I think whenever you’re playing football there’s challenges. Like at Lowestoft, I was still living in south-west London, where I am now, so I was travelling minimum of three hours to games and training, but I knew why I was doing that. It was kind of all part of the plan and it paid dividends. Hartlepool, like I said before, it had its challenges, especially towards the back-end of the season, just trying to make the most out of training. I did have a loan spell (at Darlington) early doors but I was mainly involved in the Under-23s, and just trying to get the most out of my time there was a challenge, but I think a valuable one as well.

Is there anything about goalkeeper analysis on TV etc. that annoys you? Or is there anything that you just wished teammates could understand more about goalkeeping?

I’ll start with teammates. I’d say most teammates are pretty good. Obviously they’re not going to understand the position quite the same, but I think most of the teammates I’ve played with, rather than thinking they know what should have been done, lots of them will have an open conversation with me. ‘Could this maybe have happened?’ or ‘why did this happen?’, realising that they don’t have quite the same understanding. When you get that from a teammate, that probably makes it easier on a goalkeeper as well, in the same way that as much as I like to communicate with my defenders, I’m not going to pretend to know their position inside out. If I think they could have done something better, I like to phrase it in a way that they can educate me about the demands of their position and why they did a certain thing. I’ve got great knowledge on goalkeeping but that’s not going to be as good as a centre-back or a full-back.

In terms of punditry, there was a good one today (in Burnley v Newcastle United). There was a cross into the box and the goalkeeper makes an unbelievable point-blank save, and then the penalty incident occurs on the rebound. Then about five minutes of discussion about this moment, and there’s literally not one mention of the save that was initially made to stop a goal! So punditry on TV can be frustrating at times but I do think it’s slowly getting better.

How much of your time currently gets spent on coaching?

Me and a friend of mine, another goalkeeper in non-league actually, we just do like a small coaching evening once a week. We haven’t been doing it for a while, because of COVID, but I think we’re actually going to start again this week coming. I’m not an expert goalkeeper coach or anything like that, it’s more just enjoyable coaching for kids who want to improve, and trying to help them a bit. I think the main thing is trying to get them to enjoy goalkeeping, and then those that want to progress through the game, trying to challenge them and expose them to some of the experiences that they’re likely to face, whether it’s the first time they play in front of a crowd or the first time they make a mistake in a men’s competitive game. Trying to prepare them for stuff like that, going through those experiences, and with my friend, because obviously football can be pretty ruthless and challenging at times, and goalkeeping is one of the most unforgiving positions.

When you’re not playing, what other interests or ambitions do you have, or any other work that you’re currently doing?

I do work as a personal trainer. Obviously again, not been doing a lot of that recently! But I take quite a lot of time to do training inside the gym away from goalkeeping; I’m doing that to enhance my performance on the pitch but it’s something I take quite a lot of pride in and put a lot of focus into. I have a great trainer, James Ralph, who works with a lot of footballers at a great level. There are a lot of S&C coaches that I’ve worked with before and trainers that recognise the value that brings to football performance, but there are many areas in football that kind of neglect that side of things, so working with the likes of James has been really good for my game. Whilst that does relate to my football, I do find that a little bit of an outlet as well, and I find it enjoyable.

Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a new team, and if so, which song(s)?

Yeah, numerous times! The last couple of times, I did ‘Señorita’ by Justin Timberlake, which kind of sounds like I have some confidence with it or that I’ve got a bit, but that’s just not the case at all! I think the first time I sung that was away on pre-season with Hartlepool. I was rooming with another young lad who’d just signed and was going to have to sing as well, and I just remember looking up the lyrics a few days before and practicing the singing! I can’t say I’m a good singer.

Did you try and include the part where he’s getting the audience singing back to him?!

I did, a little bit, with limited success!

Who’s the team DJ at Oxford City? Have you ever done it anywhere?

I’ve not been DJ anywhere, I’m not too fussed about having that job, because there’s usually a couple of people who aren’t happy with it! At Oxford, Joe (Oastler) and Elliot (Benyon), they get on the tunes quite often, which sees a lot of Steps being played in the changing room! They’re avid Steps fans; I think they’re going to see them as well! Then also Nana (Owusu), he gets on the tunes sometimes as well. Joe and Elliot give him a bit of time, like 20 or 30 minutes; very different vibe to Steps but I also like it, maybe a bit more!

For standout characters you’ve been around in football, who are some examples who come to mind?

Speaking of Oxford City, Joe and Elliot are very lively characters, bring a lot of laughter to the dressing room and are great to be around. Harvey Bradbury as well; I think they’ve taken him under their wing this season. He’s a great guy to be around and it just makes it enjoyable to be in the changing room. I look back at Havant as well and there was a great group there. Even when we were facing the challenges of the Conference Prem, we stuck together and it was a great environment where I was lucky to be there with those guys. I’ve met lots of good characters at all the teams I’ve played for, so there’s probably a lot to mention.

Finally, with all you’ve learned in football at this point, what’s the biggest lesson overall, that you’re now looking to take with you into whatever is to come?

I’d probably say don’t ever cap whatever expectations and goals you set for yourself. Don’t limit them, I think you can achieve a lot more than you might anticipate. I guess when I was at a younger age, 19, 20, so on, I remember thinking ‘if I can play in the Ryman League and be a great goalkeeper in that league, I’ll be happy’. From that, it went to ‘can I now push myself to the next level?’ Obviously you need a bit of luck on your side to progress through the game, but you also need to work really hard, and if you do that, there’s no limit to what you can achieve. Obviously I’m 25 and I’m at Oxford City now, and I’m loving it there, but I don’t want to put any cap on where I might go to next, how far I can go. I’m just going to put as much work in as I can and hopefully things will fall into place.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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