Seven game ‘mini-season’ starts for Oxford

Oxford United are sixth in the League One table, occupying the final play off-spot

If you had told me seven months ago, on the eve of the new season that Oxford United would be in the mix for the final play-off spot in League One, I would have been satisfied, even pleasantly surprised.

But that is where they are as we enter the final month, the race to the finish line after the gruelling test of endurance that is an EFL campaign.

How Oxford have found themselves in this position with the twists and turns along the way was impossible to predict but I have gone back to this column – a week before opening day – to see how it stacks up.

Liam Manning, then the manager still felt new. He had guided Oxford to safety in the final weeks of the previous season and was all business and little emotion, I had said.

It was a business decision that would see him quit for Bristol City before autumn had turned to winter, he left with Oxford sitting pretty in second place in the table.

His style of play and even his style of management wasn’t universally popular but the fans liked the results. They also liked the summer recruitment of players like Ruben Rodridgues, Greg Leigh and James Beadle.

Rodrigues has suffered a dip in form, Leigh had a long spell out with injury and Beadle was recalled from his loan by Brighton and is now playing in the Championship at Sheffield Wednesday.

But those were not challenges for Manning. They were for Des Buckingham, his successor.

In July 2023 I said that Oxford were now acting like a top 30 club, though they weren’t one yet. Top 50 was the target I set for them. Right now they’re in 52nd place in the football pyramid.

They were decisive and proactive in their pursuit of Buckingham – the local lad made good with the City Football Group. The points per game stats since his appointment are well short of what would have been hoped for.

There is a live debate about whether Oxford were heading for trouble with or without Manning. We will never know.

I spoke about the need for the club to limit any feeling of disenfranchisement for the existing fanbase as its wealthy and ambitious owners pursued plans for higher level football in a new, modern and eco-friendly stadium.

I am not thrilled to have been right to predict some abrasion as the club tries to change its business model and control the brand.

Optimism at what is to come

Last summer I talked about fans being the foot soldiers in the battle for hearts and minds over the new stadium project. Today there is a planning application in with Cherwell District Council, who are inviting public comment before making a decision in June.

Oxford supporters, who have been burned before, have often said to me they don’t want to end up like Thames Valley neighbours Reading. Ironically, those running United are saying the same thing now.

A peace – albeit a slightly uneasy one – broke out at a recent fans forum when the two parties came together and realised that, though the route maps may sometimes differ, their desired outcomes are the same – a sustainable and successful football club. It’s good to talk.

And though the route map to success on the pitch this season may vary wildly from anyone’s predictions for Oxford United, the end goal is still there to shoot at.

The calendar is about to turn to April. The final four weeks and Oxford still have a chance. They are in the play-off places heading into the Easter weekend and there are 18 clubs in League One who would swap places with them.

There are three or four determined they WILL swap places with them. After a 13 day break, a seven game mini-season starts now, with the hope of a three match post-season to follow.

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