As a football club with a tendency to start the season in title-winning form only to suffer a catastrophic capitulation in the later stages (think 94/95, 03/04, 06/07, 09/10), it seems we are traditionally better prepared than most clubs at the start of the season – it's only later on that problems appear! However, this year I feel we may have made some mistakes which could later come back to haunt us.
Firstly, while I am far from any kind of expert on fitness training, I would question whether our players are going to be in the best position to start the season at peak fitness. Players were greeted to their first day of preseason training with a gruelling fitness test with each player's endurance being measured by being made to run until complete exhaustion. Further to this is the preseason tour to the United States; a tour which has seen the United players train daily in temperatures of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as play three matches in the space of five days – again in blistering heat. Having undergone such a rigorous preseason schedule it seems likely that players will be exhausted before the season has even begun and this makes players vulnerable to injury.
In fact, the injury list could prove to be a concern before the season has even started. New signing Peter Leven spent the end of last season sidelined with a broken foot and he has already indicated that he will not be fit to play before the home friendly with MK Dons, possibly creating a question mark over whether he will be fit to participate at all during preseason or even to start the season proper. Tom Craddock has so far missed all three preseason matches Oxford have played so far through injury. Yesterday's match against Mass United appeared to present further cause for concern, as Deane Smalley was taken off injured and Simon Clist was also treated for cramp.
The second cause for concern is from a commercial standpoint (ie the home friendlies). For the three matches against MK Dons, Birmingham City and an Everton XI fans are being charged the relatively high price of £12 and, unlike in previous years, the club is offering no discount package to fans who buy tickets for all three matches. This is compounded by the fact that all three matches are to be played in the space of one week which, as well as having the potential to tire the players out further, could also prove to be a step too far for supporters who would have to pay out £36 in one week (£42 if paid on the day) to see non-competitive football. The result is that many supporters will likely pick and choose which of the friendlies they attend and the attendance may suffer as a result.
Finally is the fact that we have arranged to play a friendly against the Milton Keynes Dons. I don't simply mean to use this as an opportunity to heap opprobrium on MK Dons, but instead to suggest that a friendly against them sends out the wrong message to our fans and also the football community at large. The decision to play League 1 opposition is, in my opinion, a good one and is the ideal standard of opposition to provide a useful test in our preparations for the coming season. Admittedly our choice of local League 1 opposition to fill this role is limited, but to choose to play MK Dons (unlike in a league or cup situation where we would have no choice), and presumably to pay them, is an action of support for an entity that many supporters still feel passionately opposed to. Since Kelvin Thomas took over as chairman of the club, he seems to have made communication with the supporters a main priority (a good example would be his impromptu Tweeting during the Mass United friendly), but to a football franchise such as MK Dons 'supporters' do not even exist, let alone engage in any meaningful dialogue with 'their' club's owners, they are merely consumers of the MK Dons product. This is the very opposite of the transparent, community-focussed approach to leadership that Kelvin Thomas has so far brought to Oxford United and to be seen to support a franchise sends out the wrong kind of message about the type of football club Oxford are trying to be. Finally, a move such as this threatens the hard-won goodwill of the fans, some of whom may feel insulted not only that we have chosen to play the MK Dons, but also at the price they are expected to pay to watch an unglamorous preseason friendly against a side that is unlikely to offer football of a much higher standard than we will be seeing during the season anyway.
I don't mean to put a dampener on the positivity surrounding the club ahead of what will hopefully be an exciting season, simply expressing a few concerns. I would be disappointed if any of these factors hurt our start to the new season, but as all Oxford fans know, the fortunes of the club during preseason do not often reflect the team's performance once the real football gets underway!