The phrase ’emotional roller coaster’ is one of the most over-used clichés in our sport, but it is one that best describes Oxford United’s 2011/12 season. We’ve seen some wonderful highs this year and some pretty awful lows.
The biggest high was arguably doing the double against bitter-rivals Swindon Town. James Constable was heavily involved in both games. He scored both goals in the 2-1 win at The County Ground making Oxford the only team to win at the Wiltshire club this season. The goals were made even sweeter due to Swindon Manager Paolo Di Canio’s comments pre-game where he labelled Constable a “Swindon fan,” so when the reverse fixture came around, tensions were high. And clearly too high for Constable as he got sent off after ten minutes for an alleged elbow.
A man down with 80 minutes left against the league leaders, you wouldn’t have blamed Oxford for losing. Despite the ten men, Oxford managed to steal the lead in the 16th minute when Asa Hall bundled the ball in from a Lee Holmes free-kick. Then two minutes later it was Lee Holmes with an assist again, this time for Oli Johnson to slide in. 2-0 up with ten men! There was utter delirium in the stands. I ended up five rows down from where I started. The remaining 72 minutes were the best defensive performance I have ever witnessed. Andy Whing, Anthony Tonkin and Michael Duberry. All lions. Every shot was charged down. Every pass was intercepted. Every tackle was made. When the final whistle finally went, you could have mistaken it for a third goal. Despite only four shots to Swindon’s twenty and ten men to Swindon’s eleven, Oxford managed to come out of the game with the three points.
Another moment this season will be remembered for again took place at the Kassam Stadium – arguably the greatest goal Peter Leven has ever scored, arguably the greatest goal ever seen at the stadium. It was Oxford vs Port Vale and the score was 1-1 with 25 minutes to go. Port Vale had just equalised through Mark Richards and Port Vale were cranking up the pressure on the Oxford goal. But up stepped Leven. It was all the Scot’s work, as he intercepted a pass from a Vale midfielder, before lobbing it over the keeper from just inside the opposition half. When the ball hit the net there was utter pandemonium around me, but as the realisation of what Leven had just done crept in, people began to look around quietly with mouths open and with incredulity in their expressions. The best goal I have ever witnessed live at a football match in my 18 years on this planet.
Another real positive has been the turnaround in fortunes of Andy Whing. He was subjected to the boo boys as early as 13th August due to being scapegoated after the 1-1 draw at home to Bradford City. The boo-boys grew louder after another 1-1 home draw, this time against 10-man Aldershot Town. Whing had always been selected as a right back at his former clubs, but manager Chris Wilder saw he was getting caught for pace and deployed him to sit in front of the back four as a defensive anchor man.
It was a masterstroke from Wilder as Whing’s performance and confidence improved. Soon he was putting in man-of-the-match performances, most notably against Macclesfield at home where he was imperious in the midfield making a number of excellent tackles. Amazingly, the same supporters who were booing him at the start of the season were now singing ‘all we want is a team of Andy Whings!’ The comeback was complete as he was given the Andrew Knapton Supporter’s Player of the Year award as voted by the Oxford United supporters.
But along with the highs, we’ve had some lows. Dropping out of the play-offs despite being sat in the top seven since August was a bitter pill to take for many Oxford supporters. The way the season seemed to finish at the end of March for many of our players was odd. We did not win a single game from our last seven and picked up only two points in the process. Some supporters blamed a lack of fitness, while others blamed the influx of loan players. I believe it’s a combination of both. A damning statistic was that 16 different attackers were used this season. Wilder must learn from his mistakes next season and not on loanees, but players under contract.
Another low was the number 10 signed from Oldham in the summer, Deane Smalley. Oxford had to pay compensation to Oldham as he was under the age of 24 and it was thought to be in the region for £50,000. The forward had an excellent season on loan to League Two Champions Chesterfield in the 2010/11 season scoring 12 goals in 28 games, but this season was nowhere near to what was expected.
Two goals in 26 appearances in all competitions was what Smalley managed. Perhaps too much was expected of 23-year old Deane, he was expected to challenge James Constable in the club scoring charts, despite having a one in ten goals to appearances record at Oldham. After all, his natural position is not centre forward, it is on the right wing. In January, he was loaned out to Bradford City with similar success – 13 appearances, 0 goals. Many Oxford supporters want the club to sell him this summer, but Wilder has kept faith in his future at the club going into next season saying “The boy wants to come back, we’ve kept in contact with him and he knows he’s not done himself justice.” Let’s hope that Smalley can show the same quality he did for Chesterfield in 2010/11.
Oxford under-achieved this season – 9th place is not good enough. But he has progressed in terms of league position every season he has been in charge of this football club without fail. Although if progression into the play-off positions is not achieved next season, it may well turn out to be Wilder’s final one in charge of Oxford United.
Written by Youcef El Barhdadi, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger
Youcef tweets at @yelbarhdadi