There is a very strange feeling around Oxford United this pre-season, a kind of cautious optimism. A feeling that, this time, we genuinely do have a pretty strong squad, a squad that should challenge for promotion out of League 2Twoor even a first League Title since 1985. It’s a natural feeling for football fans to feel that it is their time of year, but at Oxford things are a little different. We are a very pessimistic bunch, and are not going to let a little thing like confidence make us believe our season isn’t going to go down one of the following painfully familiar routes:
Route 1: The team start well, very well, but fall away after Christmas and struggle to make the play-offs or miss out completely
Route 2: Start badly, get the odd win here and there, float around mid-table to relegation zone until about February/March before going on a fantastic run just to make missing out on the play-offs more frustrating.
Route 3: Start slowly, get slower, end very badly.
It hasn’t always been this way, when we were relegated to Division Three at the end of a catastrophic 2000-2001 season (the last at the Manor Ground, Oxford won a grand total of seven games and were bottom of Division Two all season) it was almost sure thing that we would come straight back up after one, maybe two seasons, the thought that the team would struggle and end up being relegated to the conference was unthinkable. Being one of the biggest supported teams in the division certainly puts pressure on the players and Oxford quickly became the Newcastle United of League Two. After struggling in 01-02, we got off to a flying start to the 2002-03 Season and were top of the League in December, but grumbles still came from sections of the fans that the team weren’t ‘winning convincingly enough’ before the team fell away and eventually finished eighth.
These are fans that remember clearly playing in the top two divisions and winning a major trophy (The League Cup in 1986) but that was over twenty years ago, a lot has changed in English football since then. The advent of the Premier League, huge corporate-sponsored stadia, unimaginable amounts of money being offered as wages to attract the biggest names in world football and Oxford have failed to keep up. Massive debt delayed the building of the new stadium at the end of the 1990’s as United dropped down the leagues. Firoz Kassam came in and took on the debt and finished the building of the stadium that he still owns to this day despite not being part of the club.
Relegation to the Conference in 2006 was devastating but was by no means a disaster. It was humbling for the fans and made us realise where the club stood.
Off the field relegation meant the club was forced into making important changes, sometimes taking a step back is the best way to see where it is you need to go. We are now owned by a consortium Woodstock Partners and run by Chairman Kelvin Thomas, a man with proper business sense who sees the importance of investment in the first team. He was responsible for bringing Manager Chris Wilder. Wilder led Oxford back into the football league and is entering his third pre-season, providing a much needed consistency after eight managerial changes is four years.
On the field the team has evolved slowly under Wilder. With the support from Thomas he has been able to bring in a lot of players, quickly moving them on if they don’t work out, constantly looking to bring in the best personnel for what he hopes to achieve. A lot of the team that helped with promotion were let go this summer, including Jack Midson and Sam Deering, to make way for new players that will hopefully fire us back into League One. Top Scorer and Fan favourite James Constable (nicknamed Beano for his uncanny resemblance to Plug from the Backstreet kids) seems to be staying put for his fourth season at the club, despite rumours circulating on twitter recently that he was being shopped around.
These rumours may have just come out of the news that the captains armband was being taken away from Constable in favour of a defender Jake Wright. Wilder preferring to have a leader at the back, facing the play, which certainly makes sense. Constable will still be one of many leaders on the field. He spent the off season in Kenya along with thirty volunteers, coaching and teaching orphaned and underprivileged children.
Wilder was quick out of the gate in the off season, managing to attract highly sought-after players to the club with good experience at higher levels of the football league. Striker Deane Smalley signed from Oldham spent last season on loan at Chesterfield and provided 12 goals as they ran away with the League Two title. Smalley will be added to what will likely be a three man strike force with Constable and Tom Craddock who scored 32 goals between them last year. John-Paul Pittman will also be added to that mix. The American impressed, scoring against us in a 2-2 draw with Wycombe Wanderers last season. He is quick but I am not very impressed with his scoring record, I think he will provide a spark from the bench while the other three will start most matches.
My favourite signing so far is Scottish midfielder Peter Levin, a former Glasgow Rangers trainee. He has played over one hundred games for Milton Keynes Dons and helped them rise from League Two into the League 1 playoff race.
Former Plymouth Argyle and Cardiff City left back Toni Capaldi has signed after a difficult season at Morecombe. As recently as 2008 Capaldi was part of the Cardiff City team that reached the FA Cup Final. On the other flank Andy Whing has come in from Leyton Orient to provide some competition for Damian Batt. Whing is another experienced player who started his career at Coventry making over one hundred appearances. He was very popular in his time at Brighton before going on loan and eventually signing for Orient. It will be very interesting to see where he fits in this season.
The most high profile signing of the off season is former Chelsea and Leeds United defender Michael Duberry. Although he has played Champions League football and was once worth £4.5 million, he is reaching the twilight of a very long career and may be missing a yard or two. He will however provide more experience and is a prolific tweeter, which should be fun and insightful as the season goes on.
Wilder hinted at more signings ahead of Oxfords pre season trip to Boston, a trip that shows the kinds of strides Oxford are making off the pitch and will hopefully soon be making on it. But naturally us Oxford fans don’t like to let ourselves get too excited. The rest of the country can put us at fourth favourites to win promotion, but we will be firmly keeping our feet on the ground, instead focusing all our excitement on one game. The first League meeting with arch rivals Swindon Town since 2001, (when they completed an embarrassing double over us, earning points that would eventually keep them from joining us in the relegation to Division Three) and we only have until August 21st to wait for the first of what I’m sure will be two evenly matched and competitive derby games.
The bookies out and out favourites for the title are super rich Blue Square Premier Champions Crawley Town, who were labelled ‘the Manchester City of non-League’ last season. A team so hated that fans of other League Two clubs have been quoted as saying ‘I’d rather Oxford United win the league’. Oxford and Swindon are amongst the favourites with Bristol Rovers who were relegated from League One with Swindon. I’m sure Shrewsbury, Rotherham, Gillingham, Port Vale and new boys AFC Wimbledon will be involved as well.
At this stage League Two is impossible to predict, but Oxford have put themselves in a fantastic position to do well.
Written by Dave Harrison, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger