Midfield lynchpin and winger ‘havoc’ – the Oxford lowdown

What’s the mood like in the Oxford camp?

We were at the training ground on Monday to speak to Ciaron Brown and Sam Long. It is very calm, very relaxed. The players had a couple of days off after the second leg against Peterborough. It is the old cliché of treating it like any other game. Obviously, they know what it means and that it is not just any other game, but it is all calm here.

How did the 5-0 defeat at Bolton in March affect the squad?

Before the 5-0 result, I think you would have said they would be challenging to get into the top six. That game made some people think, ‘Can they do it against the big teams?’ But in effect, it was actually the most important result of the season. It allowed the manager to say, ‘We have played how Liam Manning played and I have stuck with that system and those principles, now I need to stamp my own authority’.

He did exactly that, he changed it to the way he has been wanting to play since he arrived in November. It is now very much a team in his image and they had some really good results off the back of that Bolton game – two 4-0 wins and the 5-0 win against Peterborough. It was a huge turning point.

The Bolton News: Midfield lynchpin Cameron BrannaganMidfield lynchpin Cameron Brannagan (Image: PA)

How impressed were you with the display against Peterborough in the semi-final?

It probably wasn’t an ‘Oxford’ performance. The first leg was always going to be a bit cagey, a lot of these games are (we saw that in the Championship last weekend). United went in front through a well worked set piece and then maybe dropped into ‘defensive mode’ a little earlier than Des Buckingham would have liked. But in effect, Peterborough didn’t really carve out a big chance and they got through it.

The second leg was a different game because they took the lead. Cameron Brannagan got the penalty and then it was a 45-minute onslaught, but it was something we haven’t really seen from Oxford this season. It was backs-against-the-wall, gutsy and gritty. They had to do the other side of the game and maybe a bit of gamesmanship, which we have not seen too much of.

It was almost the perfect defensive display and the only couple of occasions where the ball got through, Jamie Cumming made some terrific saves. They didn’t necessarily play ‘the Des Buckingham way’ in the second half but when you get to this point, you have got to find a way to win.

How do you think they will approach the final?

That is the million-dollar question! They will have to show signs of what they did against Peterborough. There will be times when Bolton are on top and in the ascendancy, I think anyone would predict that. But they have shown they can defend their box well and that is a promising sign for them. Realistically, they will want to play their own stuff and I think they will try to make use of the Wembley pitch.

Ultimately, Oxford’s way is getting the ball out wide to Owen Dale and specifically Josh Murphy, and letting the two wingers run havoc really. Then with the supporting cast – Mark Harris through the middle and two Number 10s in midfield really – that is how the system works out. I think the Wembley pitch will be massive for both teams. For Bolton, the wing-backs are key with how high and wide they are. I see the game being won out wide, to be honest.

How important is Cameron Brannagan?

He is brilliant. It is a new role for him at the moment because he is used to playing with a midfield partner. For the past 18 months or so, that has been Marcus McGuane but the system that Des Buckingham wants to play means you have one number six, and that is Brannagan. He sits in front of the back four like a ‘quarterback’ and sends out those long diagonals, the ‘Hollywood’ passes. He can also play short and play to feet.

He is a bit more disciplined because he has to protect the back four a little bit, but I think the key thing is the full-backs are a little bit more conservative. It does allow Brannagan the opportunity to get forward as and when, and his penalty record is insane. It is also the corners, the free kicks, the leadership, passing range and his shooting from outside the box. He is Mr Oxford United!

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