Having been forced to play for 90 minutes with only ten men against the league leaders on Saturday, we could have forgiven the players for being a bit leggy for Tuesday's clash with Shrewsbury. With a makeshift squad flagging after Saturday's battle, to earn a point at the New Meadow should be viewed as an impressive result. That it felt like a defeat in the end belies the fact that a week ago we would have been delighted with four points from the last two matches. But after surrendering a two-goal lead in a game where we faded badly towards the end, it does provide us with an opportunity to discuss a problem that has dogged our season: fitness.
Oxford must have the busiest treatment table in the Football League. On Tuesday Chris Wilder had to name youngster Tyrone Marsh as a substitute in order to fill the bench, while captain Jake Wright was rushed back early from injury to start. With important players such as Wright, Leven, Potter, Davis, Craddock and Pittman, as well as many others, either sidelined or playing through injury, the team has been decimated. Though the problem has intensified in recent weeks, injuries have been a thorn in our side all season. While some are inevitable, and while bad luck is always a factor in any injury layoff, such a serious injury epidemic suggests that there is something more deep-seated behind the problem. Are our players fit enough and have they been provided with the right protection from injury?
Of course, simply having lots of injuries does not necessarily signify a fitness problem. While impact injuries such as Alfie Potter's broken ankle can't be helped, problems such as Jake Wright's back, Peter Leven's shoulder or Jon-Paul Pittman's hamstring may all have been prevented if our players had been given appropriate fitness regimes. It is not simply the frequency of injuries that is concerning, but the type of injury and the amount of time it has taken some of our players to recover.
The other way our fitness problems have manifested themselves is in our second-half performances. Tuesday was not the first time we have faded as the match has worn on, merely the continuation of a trend which has been apparent throughout the season. We've remarked on it before, but it's a stat that's worth mentioning again; if matches finished at half time we would be top of the league, but our second half performances would leave us in lowly 18th. This, more than anything else, shows that we are not as fit as our opponents, and coming into the final stretch of a long season, which may be extended further if we do reach the playoffs, now is the time that fitness will be most important.
Having said all this, it probably isn't fair to lay the blame squarely at the feet of strength and conditioning coach Dan Bond, who has only been in the role for a short time. Unfortunately, it seems that there has been a lot of uncertainty behind the scenes, with Andy Dubowski moving on earlier this season, having only spent a short amount of time at the club himself. Such upheaval and lack of stability cannot have helped so far this season, but it is vitally important that lots of hard work is invested into improving fitness levels. If fitness had been a bigger priority at the start of the season we might be top of the league now.