With the promotion back to League football in 2010, Oxford United have proved a stable; if uninspiring, outfit. Narrowly missing out on the play-off positions on a number of occasions, United have become League Two regulars. However, the appointment of Michael Appleton has sparked a fire for Oxford. They are sitting comfortably in the automatic promotion places, five points behind second-placed Plymouth with two games in hand. Oxford hit the headlines recently with their headline-grabbing scalp against Swansea in the FA Cup 3rd round (almost 50 places above them within English football). This however, was not an isolated, lucky victory but part of a much larger resurgence of the football club. Swansea may have made ten changes but their second-string team should have still been capable of seeing off a League Two side. Despite a spirited loss 3-0 loss to Blackburn, confidence in Oxfordshire is still high and United are pushing hard for promotion into League One.
Oxford’s push up the table did not necessarily begin on the pitch but instead through personnel changes at the club. The appointment of Appleton (former Manchester United Youth player and Preston North End midfielder) has worked wonders for the club’s fortunes. Appleton was deemed a gamble by some, with his reputation doubted somewhat, due to his appointments as manager of Portsmouth during the financial collapse and his leadership of Blackburn for a mere 67 days due to the Venky’s ownership. Any doubts surrounding the manager must surely now be dissipated. Appleton has tweaked his team to impose his attacking style, with quality players at his disposal. It is no surprise that the changes wrought have led to a 3rd round victory against Swansea, League Two success, and a terrific run in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. The vultures however, do now circle. Appleton has reportedly over the past couple of days turned down a return to Manchester United as part of the youth set-up. The Red Devils’ teams at this level are most certainly in need of overhaul, and the Oxford United manager is the one that has supposedly been earmarked for the role. It shows the impact that Appleton is having on the club when one of the largest teams in Europe; if we forget their league position over the past seasons, comes knocking.
What makes Appleton’s job even easier; and potentially Oxford’s rise to prominence even more prominent, is the role of the new Chairman; Darryl Eales. Eales and Appleton both believe and share the same vision that together they could lead Oxford up the leagues, even to the heady heights of the Championship. The arrival of both Eales and Appleton has breathed new life into the club. The new Chairman has led the potential purchase of the Kassam Stadium off the previous owner, allowed Appleton to utilise the transfer budget; one that has been swelled by the promise of the Chairman that 50% of the gate receipts from the cup game would be added to the budget, and attempting to negotiate with the council to move to a new purpose built training ground. Oxford’s approach seems most certainly a sustainable approach to success, rather than the modern football focus of throwing vast sums of money at the issue. The club’s structure, personnel, stadium (despite it being only three sided it still holds just over 12,000 – though a fourth side could be added with a rise up the leagues), youth facilities (category 3 aiming for category 2), and even the fact they are one of only a few League Two clubs with a full time analyst, head of Football Logistics and even a psychiatrist, demonstrate their steps towards modernity and professionalism.
The team itself is another element of a growing and more successful club. Appleton’s coaching means they are far from a long-ball outfit as expected by some lower league sides, but attempt to play with attacking flair and confidence. As well as off the pitch, they are also preparing for life further up the leagues on the pitch. Players are coming up through the youth ranks at a steady trickle with O’Dowda often seen as the evidence of a growing Oxford youth system (representing Republic of Ireland U-21), and the purchases of player such as Roofe; who scored a brace against a strong Swansea side, have been inspired choices. Appleton’s policy also focuses around bringing in players from the top leagues who may have failed to make the cut at their respective teams, but who would prove a welcome addition at lower league clubs. Lundstram from Everton, Roofe from West Brom, and now Ismail on loan from Wolves all fit into that category. Oxford United seem to be a side not too far from being able to compete effectively with squads from the league above them. Oxford’s slick play; hand in hand with outstanding performances on the pitch, suggest that they won’t be residing in the fourth tier for much longer.
Purchases in this most recent window of individuals such as Ismail can only further their push to secure a promotion place. After their involvement in the JPT has concluded, they can finally turn their sole attention to the league. The players and the club as a whole are developing and transforming and they seem to have somewhat outgrown the strictures of League Two. Their high energy and expansive game has caught the eye of many outside the boundary of Oxfordshire, and the rest of the season will remain an interesting watch.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Dan Westwell