WONDERS OF THE PYRAMID: How boss Des Buckingham’s ‘reverse mullet’ has taken Oxford to the brink of the Championship – with Wembley next on his bucket list

  • Oxford beat Peterborough to set up a Wembley play-off final date with Bolton
  • David Moyes at West Ham is a football success story – Listen to the It’s All Kicking Off! podcast 

His career path reads more like a bucket list of travel destinations: Oxford United, Wellington Phoenix, Stoke City, New Zealand, Melbourne City, Mumbai City. (Apologies, Potteries locals, your patch is the odd one out here).

But now Des Buckingham is back at his beloved Oxford, and the next item on his bucket list will soon be ticked off: Wembley. After a nail-biting second leg against Peterborough at London Road, the U’s are within 90 minutes of Championship football for the first time this century.

The 39-year-old’s coaching odyssey, largely in youth football, has been a sprawling one but Buckingham has proven himself to be a shrewd operator wherever he has gone. And the full-circle journey is a romantic one, given Buckingham is a boyhood Oxford fan.

He had rejected offers to return to England when managing in Mumbai, but couldn’t turn down the opportunity to pick up with Oxford, the club where he first went to a game, with his late grandmother as a kid.

No surprises, then, that emotions ran high in Peterborough on Wednesday as Oxford were forced to dig deep and hold on to a tense 1-1 draw on the night in their play-off semi-final, with their hard work already done in a 1-0 win at the Kassam Stadium.

Oxford boss Des Buckingham has taken the club to the brink of the second tier

Buckingham's men earned a 1-1 draw with Peterborough to set up a Wembley date with Bolton

Buckingham’s men earned a 1-1 draw with Peterborough to set up a Wembley date with Bolton

Take a look at that ground, with only three stands and plonked a significant distance from the city centre, to see how much the U’s are punching above their weight in a division full of clubs with more storied histories.

Oxford’s story is one that has been eye-catching all season. After avoiding relegation by just two points in 2022-23, they came out of the blocks flying under boss Liam Manning and won nine of their first 11 games this term. But Manning was soon headhunted by Championship Bristol City.

For Oxford, it was suddenly a bumpy road ahead to achieve a top-six finish and they dropped points in six of Buckingham’s first 10 games. Was the early-season form just a flash in the pan under Manning?

Buckingham’s teething problems soon turned into a minor crisis as they won just two of 12 matches in a dismal run from January to March, the nadir being a 5-0 thrashing by Bolton, who they will play at Wembley on Saturday week for a shot at the second tier.

Yet soon it all started to click. After that Bolton defeat, they won four and drew one of the next five — by an aggregate of 16-1. A month after losing 5-0 to a play-off rival, they thrashed another 5-0 in despatching Peterborough.

It gave them a psychological edge when the teams met in the play-offs. Though Oxford have been praised for their attacking prowess, this two-legged victory was a masterclass in defending.

The Not The Top 20 podcast recently described Buckingham’s style as a ‘reverse mullet’: business at the back, party at the front. It was spot on — they look incredibly steely in defence but have never lacked for goals, either. With 13 strikes and 11 assists, Cameron Brannagan is the star man. The Liverpool academy graduate has been one of the EFL’s best midfielders.

Another success story is Josh Murphy, twin brother of Newcastle winger Jacob, who was dubbed the ‘best player in League One’ by former boss Karl Robinson but later struggled for form. He has rediscovered his best level under Buckingham, though.

Murphy puts his success in the last few months down to becoming a father, an experience which the 29-year-old describes as ‘life-changing’. After a stellar season, life-changing might be the best way to describe Oxford’s achievement if they can win promotion at Wembley.


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Crewe would have to pull off a huge shock to come back from a two-goal first-leg deficit against Grant McCann’s exciting Donny side, who have won 11 of their last 12 games.

Gateshead v Solihull: FA Trophy final, Saturday 4.15pm, Wembley

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MK Dons (0) v Crawley (3): League Two play-off, 2nd leg, Saturday, 7.45pm

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Norwich v Leeds: Championship play-off, 1st leg, Sunday at noon

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West Brom v Southampton: Championship play-off, 1st leg, Sunday 2.15pm

Carlos Corberan is one of my shouts for manager of the year. He hasn’t had the credit he deserves for navigating off-the-pitch turmoil to take the Baggies into the play-offs.

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