Monday, 29 July 2013

Twin Goals for Oxford this Season

“Failure to win promotion this season will be a disaster.”

We've all heard that phrase, or some form of equivalent, before. Inevitably it gets an airing at some stage every season and yet, after several seasons of failing to win promotion the club is still standing and, most importantly, still able to raise a competitive side in League Two. But by forcing ourselves to believe that every season is a potentially pivotal one in the history of the club are we piling unnecessary pressure on ourselves? It seems this kind of attitude remains something of a hangover from the Conference days, when the future of the club really was at stake - but is it any more? If the club remains at this level for too long with little sign of being promoted then, yes, its potential to grow will be stunted, but this is a gradual process over a number of years, not dependent on the result of one season.

Which is all a rather roundabout way of saying that the season ahead is important (as they all are) but not necessarily a pivotal one as far as the club's future is concerned. Promotion is again expected, and rightly so, but if we fail to achieve it the club will still be here next year. However, for one person in particular this season really is pivotal. If it turns out to be similar to the last one it seems difficult to believe that Chris Wilder will still be in the hotseat and preparing for another shot at promotion in 2014-15.

For a large section of the Oxford support, patience with Wilder dried up at some point during the last campaign. It was indeed a dreary, morale-sapping season with very few highlights and it's unsurprising that some of the supporters got a little tetchy. This summer's transfer dealings have certainly restored the faith among quite a few of those fans, but make no mistake that patience is most definitely not a virtue the United 'faithful' possess in droves at the moment and a poor start to the season could result in the atmosphere around the ground becoming poisonous very early into the season. The 'Wilder out campaign' has been noticeably quiet during the summer months, but it won't take much for those rumblings to stir once again. Fortunately, Ian Lenagan seems like a steady type and unless the club is in danger of relegation it seems likely that he will allow Wilder to see the season out no matter how loud the protests.

But there can certainly be no mistaking Wilder's intentions this year. He doesn't simply want to cling to his job for another year and see the season out; he knows that this season really is pivotal for his career and has gone about assembling a side that he believes will be lifting the League Two trophy at the end of the season. For all the noises last year about challenging for promotion, I suspect he knew very early on that it wouldn't happen and that for many of those players (most of whom had been signed on two-year deals the previous summer) it was simply a case of seeing out the remainder of their contract. That's given Wilder plenty of time to think about how he's going to build his side and to correct some of the problems that have dogged recent cohorts.

Gone are the injury-prone stars who missed much of last season. Gone are the mercurial wing-backs and forward three of previous Wilder sides. Gone is the 4-3-3 formation which often looked nice, but failed to deliver in the hustle and bustle of League Two. The buzzword for this year's vintage is 'robust'; unlike in previous years, this time we've made it a priority that new signings are physically capable of surviving the campaign, with a more stringent medical weeding out those potential recruits who would be likely to spend more time on the treatment table than the pitch.

Wilder has also built this side to fit into the more standard 4-4-2 formation favoured during the latter half of last season. Some might think that an unimaginative system but it proved last season to be more effective and with Wilder experimenting with 4-3-3/4-5-1 at times during pre-season as well, the side should hopefully be more tactically flexible this season than in previous years. With Alfie Potter and Sean Rigg on the wings (with Callum O'Dowda another realistic option if he continues his good form) the name of the game this season is getting the ball into the channels and then into the mixer for Kitson, Smalley, Beano et al to finish.

The side is packed with quality at either end of the pitch, with the marquee signings of Dave Kitson and Johnny Mullins meaning that we undoubtedly have among the most impressive defensive and attacking units in the league. Question marks remain, however, over our midfield and players like Asa Hall, Danny Rose and Jonathan Meades all have a point to prove this season for a variety of reasons. Should they fail to step up, we could be left with the same problems we've faced in recent seasons. You can have the best attackers in the world, but if they get no service we will again struggle to score goals. Likewise, even the most solid of back fours will leak goals if it's not protected adequately.

One other stated change in approach is the decision to recruit promising young hopefuls who have been discarded by other clubs' academies to fill out the development squad. With Josh Shama (Reading), Kenzer Lee (West Ham) and Matt Bevans (Watford) joining the recent youth team graduates – and with Josh Ruffels (Coventry) and Ryan Williams (Fulham) also looking likely to sign – the makeup of the squad this season is markedly different to what we're used to seeing. The majority of the budget is concentrated on a relatively small pool of first team players, with a large group of young and inexperienced players ready to step up and provide cover if needed.

This should reduce the need for so many loanees this term, which should avoid the problem of having to repeatedly stretch the budget to pay for them, but the result is that it is imperative that we don't suffer a similar injury crisis to recent seasons. The 5-1 demolition job at Oxford City demonstrated that, no matter how talented this crop of youngsters may be, we can't afford to carry more than one or two of them at a time in senior football.

That result may have set a few alarm bells ringing, but actually shouldn't have been such a surprise when viewed sensibly. City are a highly disciplined side with a good number of experienced former pros in their ranks and look strong this year (they destroyed Didcot Town the weekend before we played them and held a strong Wycombe side to a draw just days after). For many of these young players, this was the first time they had really played together in a proper match and they were to a certain extent thrown in at the deep end.

We should gain a better understanding as the season draws on which of those players will be able to step up to League Two, but there are some positive signs already that some could become future stars. Of course the priority for these players this season is progression, not a starring role. The real responsibility for the first team falls squarely on the shoulders of Messrs Kitson, Mullins et al, but that should distract from the fact that there is definitely a dual aim this season; immediate promotion for the first team, while producing the next generation of Oxford players with the new development squad. Not an easy balancing act to get right, but at this stage, with the season stretched ahead of us, the signs are good that we just might achieve both of those aims.

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