The end of last season saw an Oxford far from united, despite yet another victory against the A420’s in the cup, a ‘Wilder Out’ campaign was growing. Fans were angry, yet another season had fallen short of a promotion push and the club appeared to be doing nothing as the problems piled up.
Measures to prevent another injury crisis had failed miserably. The idea of allowing the players to train with Wigan Warriors fitness experts sounded good, but it would have helped if the players themselves had been made of something other than biscuits. Injuries and inconsistency wore everyone down; arguments between players, fans and manager seemed frequent and attendances fell sharply. On top of that, rumours circulated that co-tenants London Welsh were bidding to buy the stadium out from under our feet. Premiership rugby had chewed up a once prized playing surface and there was growing unease at the lack of reassurances from the football club.
Long before the end of the season, we knew that the Chairman’s expectations in the league and the budget had not been met. Many fans predicted that the Yellows would be owner-less, manager-less and possibly home-less by September. Then Wilder was given a new contract…for one year. That just about did it for some; many refused to go to any more matches, believing that all hope was lost. Wilder would eventually get us relegated, the club would go bust after signing one too many loan players and Kassam would turn the stadium into a runway for his massive jet or something.
Nothing like the power of positive thinking?
They had a point though, there’s no getting away from the fact that Wilder has one more chance to give the fans something to shout about. He certainly looks as though he knows it, getting rid of his biscuit-based players through a 12 man clear-out. Transfer business has certainly been interesting and has gives the U’s fans much needed hope in the right areas. Improvements to the defence: David Hunt, Tom Newey, Jonny Mullins and Jon Meades all arrive with good pedigrees. Mullins’s signature in particular will please, as he enjoyed a great loan spell from Rotherham before returning to captain them to promotion in the same season.
Attacking options have improved too. The headline signing of 6 ft 3” striker Dave Kitson should hold up the ball more easily, defending from the front to maintain sustained periods of attack, that were desperately missing last season. Although 33, many are expecting him to convert a few more chances in League Two than the 11 he managed in League One last year. Fan’s favourite James Constable, who needs 14 goals to become the all-time top scorer for the club, is likely to enjoy playing off Kitson’s supply and Dean Smalley, who has had an excellent pre-season, has already benefitted from the number 8’s creativity. It should make a welcome change from last season as even relegated Barnet scored more at home than Oxford. The main concern is with the centre of midfield, the only survivor from last season being the tenacious Scott Davies. Wilder let Danny Rose and Asa Hall leave the club in previous years and whilst re-signing them (Hall on loan) is by no means a tragedy, the question as to how much faith Mr Wilder really has in these two players is still a worthy one.
He will need total belief in senior and junior players to remain beyond this season. Chairman Ian Lenegan, like most of us, recognises that developing youth is the most sustainable way of running a team and has invested accordingly. He sees Wilder as a “young manager who is about to reach his potential” and his belief in the promise of youth certainly extends to the playing squad. Wilder will nurture a development squad, some of whom are already making the step into the first team. Wingers Alfie Potter and Sean Rigg will have Callum O’Dowda, Josh Sharma and recent Fulham loan signing Ryan Williams pushing them for places. Pre-season gave opportunities to the young players and we began to see greater levels of tactical experimentation as a result of the chairman’s influence. A more flexible 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 setup seems to be preferred to the old 4-3-3 with attacking full backs. Anyone who watched our 3-0 defeat at Port Vale on the Sky cameras knows exactly how exposed that tactic sometimes left us!
Lessons have been learned and there is a real sense that the club is coming back stronger. Supporter groups have joined forces to improve relations with the club through the ‘United We Stand’ scheme. Improving ticket deals for fans, setting fundraising targets for January transfers, improving the match day experiences and raising money for Oxford United legend Dave Langan, have shown signs of success already. The supporters group OxVox won the right to force our landlord to publicise the developments of any stadium sale, a huge plus point for the future of the club. Oxford have many projects but we have rarely seen this many key initiatives working together to nurture the fan base.
We are hardly the sleeping giants that Bradford were or that Portsmouth are this season; but after selling out our allocation at Fratton Park on Saturday and coming from behind to win 1-4, I suspect that everyone might have just woken up to the new Oxford United.
Written by Ben Lawson, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger
Ben tweets at @lawson_ben