Oxford United, a Championship club for the first time this century and ambitious to go further

You could say it was third time lucky for Oxford United in the League One play-offs but, in the end, fortune had little to do with it.

In a convincing performance spearheaded by winger Josh Murphy, Des Buckingham’s side secured their place in the second tier for the first time this century via a 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers at Wembley.

Three years ago, Oxford suffered semi-final defeat at the hands of Blackpool. The season before that, in a play-off final without fans, Wycombe Wanderers won the prize of promotion with a 2-1 win over Karl Robinson’s side.

But victory this time means Oxford can call themselves a Championship team for the first time since 1998-99.

At the helm, they have a boyhood fan and former academy player who travelled the globe in his coaching career before returning home as manager in November. In central midfield they have Cameron Brannagan — a player who has had chances to leave the club but vowed to stay to get them promoted after they saved his eyesight following a rare condition that affected his vision in 2020. And in attack, they had the lightning-quick threat of Murphy, who capitalised on his moment in the spotlight by scoring both goals.

As yellow mist from flares filled the air, the 29-year-old was creative with and without the ball and is a player reborn under Buckingham, with 10 goals and three assists since the managerial switch at the Kassam Stadium. And he could have scored more than his brace given the chances his team-mates created.

“We’ve got such togetherness,” said Murphy. “Everyone’s dug in. I want to play in these big moments and my brother (Newcastle winger Jacob Murphy) keeps saying to me that it’s my time to shine and I think I’ve done that today.”

In only Oxford’s second EFL play-off final, it was fitting that a player who is a reflection of Buckingham’s coaching ability shone so brightly. The 39-year-old manager has the romantic backstory of growing up opposite the United training ground, starting out as a goalkeeper in the club’s youth set up and working through the coaching ranks at a young age before this latest chapter of managerial brilliance. Stints in New Zealand with the national team’s youth sides and Wellington Phoenix, as well as in India with Mumbai City, prepared Buckingham to be Oxford’s left-field appointment following the departure of Liam Manning 15 league games into the season.

Des Buckingham and his Oxford United players celebrate at Wembley (Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

Given the way Oxford started under the now-Bristol City boss, sitting second when he left, this side being promotion-worthy should not be a surprise. But the fact they could bounce back from losing their head coach and then navigate a tricky start of two wins in the first seven games under Buckingham is testament to their resilience. Among those early wobbles was a 5-0 thrashing by Bolton, Oxford’s heaviest defeat all season, although there was little sign of that impacting things at Wembley.

“You won’t believe me but I’ve never watched that 5-0 back and I never want to see it ever again,” Buckingham said. “That was the one thing that kept coming up in the lead-up to this game and I understand why. They’re the days you’re tested and that was a big test. There were a couple of dark days after that and you go to some bad places at times. But you have to stick true to yourself and when you have the support of the chairman and the CEO in the way I do, there was never that worry.

“The past six months have been a whirlwind. I spent nine years overseas so it was about not just taking a job in the EFL. You’re trying to prove you can do it at this level. Firstly to the players, then the fans and thirdly to everyone else who says you have no experience at this level of football. So you get tested all the time.”

Bolton were off the pace, much to the frustration of manager Ian Evatt, and it looked one game too many for the side that finished third in the table. Murphy’s deflected first goal and his finish after rounding goalkeeper Nathan Baxter for the second were one of a batch of chances for the victors as Bolton failed to register a shot on target. While Evatt reflects on where their game went wrong, Oxford can bask in the feeling of everything coming together at the right time after a run of one defeat in 10 games leading into the final.

Though Murphy was the star of the show, Brannagan has been central to Oxford’s successes this season, while academy product Tyler Goodrham has also been a standout player. If the 20-year-old midfielder represents United’s future, Buckingham hopes doing “everything we can” will ensure Murphy remains part of that long after his current deal expires this summer. Brannagan, under contract until 2025, takes the next step in an emotional personal journey at the club he has called home for five years.

Last season’s finish of 19th seems a distant memory now and Oxford’s trajectory from the National League to the Championship means they have not been relegated since 2006, when they dropped out of the Football League. Chris Wilder, the manager who led them back to the EFL, sent Buckingham a good luck message before the game.

“You’re here for a period of time and my job is to try to move this club forward so when I leave someone else picks it up and takes it further,” he said. “That’s been the case, whether it’s Chris Wilder taking us back into the Football League or all those fortunate enough to sit in the position that I’m in who have allowed us to go on to this level of football. I’ll keep trying to take it forward and hopefully I’ll leave it in a better place than I found it.

“The last time I was here I watched James Constable, Matt Green and Alfie Potter score the goals that brought us back into the Football League in 2010 as a fan. So to experience what I just have as the manager of the football club is very special.”

Though it has been a slower rise than the nearest comparable club in Luton Town, Oxford have big ambitions and plans for a new stadium by the summer of 2026 are progressing, alongside on-field development. This week, a new legally binding agreement between the club and the local council for lease of the land at the Triangle near Kidlington in the north of the city was the next step in securing the move to a planned 16,000 seater, £100million ($127m) stadium.

Once the celebrations die down, the next challenge for an exciting young manager is putting together a squad ready to take on the Championship. That bigger project was always the draw.

“The vision of the club when I came back was that they wanted to be a Championship club,” Buckingham said. “It wasn’t just about being in the Championship, it’s about being a sustainable Championship club, so we are ready for that. There is a bit of work now that we need to do to make sure that when that season starts we are as ready as we can be but the foundations are there, the backing is there and the vision of the club and myself — regardless of whether it has come a bit sooner than we first thought — means we’ll do what we can to push that through.

“I’ll go to sleep tonight very content, very happy and when I wake up tomorrow I’ll hope it wasn’t a dream.”

(Top photo: Jacques Feeney/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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