Oxford United Season Preview

oxfordThe Football Lab talks to Oxford United supporter Scott Walkinshaw, ahead of the new season. You can follow him on Twitter @oxtweeter, and have a read of his blog: Oxblogger. Here, he discusses the club’s off-field circumstances, the need for more creativity in midfield, and the unusually late appointment of a new manager, Michael Appleton.

Michael Appleton hadn’t been appointed head coach until very late in the summer. Could this put him at a disadvantage?

Undoubtedly, he’s come in with just a few weeks to go until the new season. You could argue that he’s been getting his excuses in early by suggesting that things will be different during the Christmas transfer window. But, by that point any ambitions for the season could be long gone.

The club is going through some changes, regarding ownership and a possible new ground. What are your thoughts on the state of things off the pitch?

Well, logic suggests that we’re a pawn in a big land deal. Oxford has a housing shortage; the Kassam Stadium site would be prime for development if you can relocate the club. I don’t think the club is under threat necessarily; but I don’t think we’re the priority either. However, on the other hand our backroom appointments – particularly Derek Fazackerly – have been quite impressive. So it’s possible that the new owners do want the best of both worlds.

Sean Long has already played 73 times for Sheffield United. With first team goalkeeper Ryan Clarke struggling with an injury, could he be an important loan signing?

Ryan Clarke was swept the board in last year’s end of season awards, Swhich would suggest that he saw plenty of action. Certainly we’re lacking creativity in midfield and firepower up front; a rock solid defence will be critical. We have a very good young keeper in Max Crocombe who is an able deputy. Long’s signing suggests to me that Appleton is not confident with what he has available.

You kept 15 clean sheets last season. How would you assess the defence?

Jake Wright and Johnny Mullins could be the best centre-back pairing in the division. They weren’t fit towards the end of last season and it showed. Michael Raynes is an able deputy in that department. Our full-backs are dull but effective with virtually no attacking flair. That might change with Jonathan Meades fit and Joe Riley signing from Bolton on loan.

Michael Collins has played in League One for Scunthorpe. Will he add some experience to the midfield?

We really need creativity more than experience. Last year we were a very tight unit, but cripplingly dull to watch; we really had nobody who could unlock defences. If we fell behind it was difficult to see where, apart from Ryan Williams, who has gone back to Fulham, the spark of creativity might come from.

You’ve tied young midfielder Josh Ruffels down to a long-term contract. Will he now play a more prominent role for the side?

At the start of last season, the owner Ian Lenagan stated that we were going to focus on developing young talent. The lack of close season signings, by accident or design, suggests that the young players – who all gave a good account of themselves – will be playing a bigger part. Ruffels was the pick of the bunch in terms of youngsters coming through last year.

Winger Sean Rigg has left for Wimbledon, after an unproductive season. Was it right to let him go?

I think so, Rigg flattered to deceive, he looked busy and threatening on the wing, but then would struggle to deliver the decisive pass or cross. He seemed to have lost his way at Oxford and needed to move on.

Danny Hylton joins, having scored 43 goals in 204 career appearances. On paper, he doesn’t seem the ideal replacement for James Constable…

Nor Deane Smalley. Or Dave Kitson. Hylton was the only close-season signing by former coach Gary Waddock who was given no money and appeared to be given little support by the owner who was clearly more focused on the takeover. Oxford fans wax lyrical about James Constable because of what he stood for and what he contributed to the club. But he wasn’t the goal machine that some think, certainly not in the last couple of years. That said, Hylton has a lot to do to convince people that he’s a genuine alternative.

With most bookmakers, Oxford are at around 5/1 for promotion. Where will you finish?

Some fans have predicted a relegation fight; it seems we’re set for a slow start with a lack of players being available but I don’t see us struggling. However, I wouldn’t expect us to improve on last season so top 10 would be considered pretty good. We may bother the play-offs if League 2 is as inept as it was last season.

TFL Verdict

With uncertainty upstairs, and a manager appointed late in the summer, there’s no sense of stability at Oxford. I predict a poor start, and a tough season ahead. 21st

(Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_United_F.C.)