Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Northampton's Loss is Oxford's Gain

This won't be popular among a certain (small but very vocal) section of our fanbase, but I'm going to praise Chris Wilder. With the recent run of poor results he's come in for a lot of criticism, and though some of it was justified, some amounted to little more than a vindictive personal attack on the man. Wilder is rightly criticised for what appears to be a scattergun approach to signings, and while some of the big name signings from the summer have so far been disappointing, in the interest of balance we should remember that some of Wilder's unheralded signings have proven to be unexpected stars.

Perhaps the best example of this during Wilder's tenure is Liam Davis. Davis was a late addition to the squad, signed after most of our summer spending had been completed (therefore missing out on our summer signings profile feature), having impressed in trial matches against Birmingham and Everton. However, with Tony Capaldi a new signing at left back, and with Tonkin and Kinniburgh still on the books, the signing did raise a few eyebrows and expectations were modest.

So it has been a pleasant surprise to see Liam Davis hit the ground running in his Oxford United career, establishing himself as first choice at left back with some impressive performances. His addition on the left hand side has provided us with natural balance and a left-sided counterpart to Damian Batt. With Batt and Davis getting forward from their respective positions as wing-backs we now have an attacking threat on both sides. This is the area in which Davis has most impressed, as one of the few players in our side brave or good enough to run at opposing defenders and with the ability to deliver a decent final ball. Davis' spectacular run and inch-perfect cross for Hall's goal at Hereford and his sensational strike away at Barnet were two of the finest moments of attacking play we've seen this season and demonstrate how important Davis has been in this respect.

However, the impressive form of Liam Davis should not be such a surprise when we examine the circumstances by which he came to find himself a free agent in the summer. Davis joined Northampton from Coventry, initially as a winger, but was moved to left back by then-manager Ian Sampson. As a member of the terrible Northampton side that almost got relegated last season, it must have been very difficult for any player to rise above that low standard and show their talent. Davis was, however, able to attract the attention of League One clubs Sheffield Wednesday and Colchester United with his performances in the first half of last season, so to find himself without a club with the new season fact approaching in July seems like quite a turnaround in fortune.

The word from Northampton fans is that Davis blew hot and cold in his time with the Cobblers. As Northampton slumped into that suicidal run of form following Gary Johnson's appointment as manager, it is perhaps not surprising that Davis – still a young player at 24 – lost his confidence and his form. It didn't help that Johnson clearly had no idea where to play him, moving him back into midfield and even playing him out at right back on occasion.

Many Oxford fans have wondered why Northampton chose to release Davis but they did actually offer him a new contract at the end of the 10/11 season. However, it is rumoured to have been on reduced terms and so Davis decided to take his chances elsewhere. In any case, Northampton's decision not to revise their offer suggests that Johnson's plan was always to assemble a completely new squad for this season. But Davis was never properly replaced at left back and one can't help but feel that the Cobblers would have been better served by identifying him as one of the more talented players in their squad and building around him. Instead he has come to Oxford and shone.

With Northampton being the next visitors to the Kassam this weekend Davis will be hoping to show his old club what they're missing. However, there is no guarantee that he will even be playing on Saturday. Davis missed last weekend's trip to Morecambe due to suspension after being red-carded against Cheltenham and his replacement, Anthony Tonkin (returning to the side after a long injury lay-off), put in an impressive performance to earn a place in the League Two Team of the Week. And with Davis apparently struggling with an injury which left him unable to train before recent matches, he may just have to wait to show his former employers that Northampton's loss is Oxford's gain.


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