Watching Oxford this season has got me thinking about how much I enjoyed school. Well… not ‘school’ at all actually, but ‘school trips’. The time when you left the classroom drudgery that you were so familiar with and got on the bus to go somewhere else for the day. Away days for Oxford have been infinitely better than home ones, not just results but performances too. We are 7th in the table with only 5 league defeats this season, except every single one of them has come at the Kassam Stadium.
A glance at the table tells you our defence has been exceptional, just 21 goals conceded in 25 matches, the best in League 2 (4th best in the whole football league if you include QPR, Burnley and Wolves, although they’ve played 26 so never mind!). Chris Wilder bolstered the defence with Mullins, Newey and Hunt and it certainly appears to be paying off. In my last article I pointed out that the long-serving Wilder had only been given a one year contract extension. He was tasked with mounting a promotion push after consecutive years of mid-table finishes, where his good sides have always fallen away in the New Year. Then something rather unexpected happened….Portsmouth showed an interest in Wilder.
Naturally most fans wanted him to stay to keep the good ship Oxford going strong. After all we were top of the league and wanted to preserve that for as long as possible. Others were frustrated by the continuation of defensive tactics from the former full back, wanting a change in favour of a more attacking style that might resurrect home attendances. The chairman gave Wilder permission to hold talks, as he only had a short time left on his current deal, and told the press he was ‘not concerned’ by Portsmouth’s approach. The whole issue was over quite quickly. Wilder was not appointed, explaining that he held talks because of his family and the team remained focussed, qualifying for the 3rd round of the FA cup. Strong displays from the youth players helped to cope with injury problems and appeared to add weight to the decision of trusting in a development squad rather than the transfer market. The chairman has also promised to hold talks with Wilder in the coming months.
Oxford fans indulged in a little optimism at this point; assuming that all would be well going into the Christmas period now the manager position was secure again. The team was winning and many were excited by a big marketing push from the club which sold a lot of tickets. An expectant crowd of around 10,000 turned out on Boxing Day to watch Oxford United return to the top of Sky Bet League 2, as they faced mid-table Plymouth Argyle….
Oxford managed 2 shots on target and 1 goal. A generous Plymouth side even put the ball into their own net (just to make a game of it) but Oxford seemed to be having none of it and refused to attack. Plymouth scored 3 second half goals.
Optimism prevailed though. We remained in 2nd place for the visit of 3rd placed Scunthorpe. Here was an immediate opportunity to return to winning ways. The team could galvanise and make amends for the poor display and maybe now they could show the people of Oxfordshire what this team was really made of….
Oxford managed 3 shots on target and no goals.
It is more than fair to say Scunthorpe should have had 3 or 4, but eventually won 2 nil. Our home crowd had seen enough after the Plymouth game and around 6,000 turned up. In the last home game Portsmouth failed to create any chances and Oxford created the obligatory 2 opportunities, a 0-0 draw and another blow to optimism at Oxford. How can a side be so good away and so poor at home? Is this the New Year slump that we’ve come to expect, or will we find ways to keep our form and have something to play for at the closing days of this season?
We’re unlikely to be signing any players to help answer those questions because our Chairman wants to put faith in youth, which is understandable. Jonathan Henly has joined on loan from Reading to provide goalkeeping cover and Nicky Wroe looks a decent acquisition from Preston, but he is providing loan cover for Asa Hall who was recalled by Shrewsbury. Clearly these are short term signings out of necessity rather than luxury. The latest league leaders, Scunthorpe, have brought in several players including McSheffrey and Madden and are likely to maintain their success with that kind of firepower. Meanwhile Oxford’s top scorer James Constable has scored 7 this season and, whilst goals from all over the pitch have contributed to a decent tally of 35, the main worry is that we will not score or win enough at home to finish in the top 3. Talk to the cynics who wanted Wilder out before Christmas, and they’ll say “we’ll get found out away from home eventually and finish 10th”, but I’ve still got more optimism!
This is a tight league and Oxford United are tough to beat. I can see why, after just 4 home wins this campaign, a lot of our supporters will be wondering how on earth the team are doing it! Keep up the away form and we will push the chasing pack all the way. Improve at home, convert some of those draws at least, and the promised land of a top 3 finish is a real possibility. We are frustratingly close to being a very good side in this division…
Written by Ben Lawson, We Are Going Up’s Oxford United blogger
Ben tweets at @lawson_ben