Oxford United and Swindon Town share an intense rivalry that is equal in intensity to many of the traditional rivalries higher up the footballing ladder. Despite both clubs having been around for a long while, the first competitive game between them was as late as 1965. Since then the two clubs have met 50 times in the league, with Swindon currently holding a far superior record over their rivals, having won 24 games to Oxford’s 14. Since 2000, there have only been seven meetings between the clubs due to the respective decline of the two clubs throughout the 2000s.
As is well known, Oxford United suffered a spell in non-league football between 2006 and 2010, during which time Swindon flitted between Leagues One and Two without pulling up many trees. It wasn’t until a year after Oxford rejoined the Football League in 2010 that the first derby between the clubs for many years was finally played, following Swindon’s relegation from League One under Paul Hart. Despite Swindon ending the season winning the League Two title at a canter under the stewardship of Paolo Di Canio, Oxford did the double over the team from the West Country for the first time in their history. Swindon’s did, however, gain promotion, therefore putting a premature end to league derby games between the two sides.
Luckily for the fans, if not the police, two of the following three seasons saw the two clubs drawn together in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Di Canio was again unable to inspire his side to a win against the Us, and nor was Mark Cooper’s Swindon side.
It has been something of an enjoyable fixture for Oxford fans, who very much hold the local bragging rights. Their club has now gone five games unbeaten against the Robins. Swindon fans can look forward to the opportunity to set the record straight, however, as Oxford finally won promotion from League One in 2015-16, meaning that the derby will finally be revived in the league this season.
Swindon have won two, drawn two and lost one so far in the league, leaving them mid table. Their one loss this season, a 1-3 drubbing away at Chesterfield, was a concerning affair, but since then the club has bounced back to beat a strong Port Vale side and came from behind twice against Peterborough to earn a respectable draw. Both were encouraging results after Swindon left preparations late, making the majority of their new signings on the day before the season began. The signings of Michael Doughty and Lloyd Jones have shown that they are good additions and if the new strikers in the side can find their shooting boots Swindon could be a dangerous prospect at the Kassam Stadium.
Oxford, have won two, drawn one and lost three, and sit just three places and one point behind their rivals, although Swindon do have a game in hand after their game against Bristol Rovers was rained off. Oxford initially struggled, with defeats to Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town causing anxiety before an upturn in form after two wins in their next three games suggested that the side has begun to adapt to League One levels. The club brought in a number of new players over the summer which may have affected their early season form as they bedded into their new team.
Swindon’s fans will be desperate to win this game. For one thing, they have suffered enough against their bitterest rivals in recent years and will be itching to set the record straight. Additionally though, it would be nice to get the win in order to bring some cheer to a fanbase that has been hit with needless controversies by their club’s ownership in recent weeks, involving the decision to charge non-season ticket holders full price to watch the rearranged fixture with Bristol Rovers. This matter has divided certain sections of Swindon’s fans, and a win over their local rivals would do wonders to restore some positivity amongst the ranks. For Oxford, another win would propel them further up the table and away from danger, but more importantly it would extend their recent dominance in this fixture to six games and the bragging rights would be well deserved.
Will Leeds United’s chase for this 23-year-old be a success for Garry Monk?
In recent weeks, speculation has risen that Kemar Roofe could be on his way out of Oxford United after having a great season in League Two in 2015/16. This form has seen interest from Leeds United manager Garry Monk, who; according to The Yorkshire evening post, is looking to bolster his strike force ahead of the new season. His goals during the most recent campaign helped Oxford United gain automatic promotion from League Two, where he scored 18 goals in 40 games and a further eight in cup matches.
Roofe had originally been at West Bromich Albion, before a loan move to Oxford in 2014/15 saw him permanently sign for the club at the start of the 2015/16 term. During this season at Oxford, Roofe has impressed with his performances throughout, especially in the FA cup tie with Swansea where he scored to help knock out the Premier League outfit. His performances had even caught the eye of the league as he picked up the League Two player of the year award.
Leeds United have recently released striker Mirco Antenucci and with Souleymane Doukara looking likely to also move on, Leeds United’s attacking line is looking scarce. The addition of Roofe would be welcomed by the fans as he would bring width, pace, goals and assist, something which Leeds fans have been shouting out for.
Roofe would be a typical Garry Monk signing, with his attributes suited to the way the former Swansea manager likes his teams to play football – attacking, fast paced with high energy.
Nonetheless, Monk could be in for some competition for the players signature as other Football League teams are also interested in the young Oxford striker. Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United and even Hull City are rumoured to be looking at the highly rated 23-year-old and with Oxford placing a £2 million price tag on Roofe, it could be an interesting chase for his signature.
If Garry Monk manages to pull off the signing of Kemar Roofe, it will ultimately be a gamble on the player, as he is unproven at a higher level of football. Still, according to Michael Duberry, former ex-Leeds player, it is a gamble worth taking. Duberry said to The Yorkshire evening post:
“You know about his goals, his pace and his creativity but he’s also got massive amounts of confidence. That would give him an edge in the Championship because he’d go to that level thinking he could make it and cope there.”.
Many players have come to Leeds United with high capabilities and talent but then failed to deliver under the immense pressure of playing for a big club with such history and vocal fan base. Monk will have to get bids in early though as Oxford manager Michael Appleton has stated:
“If something is going to happen we want it to happen as early as possible.”
So there might be a situation further down the road where we come to a crossroads where it is a case of ‘whoever we’ve got in the building stays’.”
Appleton is clearly keen to get a deal sorted sooner rather than later so it allows time for players to be replaced. One thing is for certain is that wherever Kemar Roofe ends up, he will bring an exciting confidence to the team and hopefully make the step up in leagues to follow in the footsteps of various lower league players making it. Leeds United will just be hoping it is their club that lures this young talented player to their team and hoping he bring with him the same form he has had at Oxford for the last two seasons.
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How have Oxford United risen to prominence?
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.
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Why the League Two title race could go down to the wire?
Plymouth Argyle, Northampton Town, Oxford United and Portsmouth. If you picked any of these names out of a hat in an office sweepstake, you wouldn’t be left disappointed no matter who you had chosen.
That shows just how close and just how competitive the League Two season has been so far as we approach the halfway point. The race to become champions is as close as can be remembered in previous years, and has all the marks of going right down to the wire come May.
Plymouth Argyle are the side in control at the turn of the New Year, sitting three points above of Northampton Town (by virtue of playing a game more), with Oxford United filling the last of the automatic promotion places a further point back. Portsmouth, leading the chasing pack, are four points further adrift. But it’s Plymouth’s charge to the top of the league that has been as surprising and unexpected as it has been impressive; since their demise from the Championship six years ago, the Pilgrims haven’t finished above seventh in the League Two table, twice avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth.
Yet Plymouth’s form in the first half of the season hasn’t shown any signs of this past haunting them, as a Reuben Reid inspired side have dominated the league. If it wasn’t for a late November loss of form which saw them take only two points from a possible twelve, it would be hard to see anybody catching them. However, their ability to lose form in such a manner does cast questions over their title credentials; as the campaign enters its most poignant few months, another dip in results like this and they could find themselves free-falling down the table and facing a battle for the other automatic promotion places instead.
A huge game in the race for the title comes next week when Argyle face second place Northampton Town, arguably the league’s form team coming into January. The cliché of a relegation six-pointer is used frequently in football, but this game carries the same connotations; a Plymouth win and they stretch their lead over the rest of the title contenders, a Cobblers’ win and they will be level pegging with the leaders with the luxury of a game in hand.
As alluded to, Northampton’s run of nine victories in their last eleven league matches leaves them as possibly one of the most feared sides to play against at present. Chris Wilder’s men’s rise to the top is even more remarkable considering the off-field issues that the club have faced since September, and the team seems to be playing with such confidence at the moment. You only have to look at their second round FA Cup tie against non-league Northwich Victoria to see this, where three goals in the last five minutes of the game saw them overturn a two-goal deficit.
Wilder’s old side, Oxford United, are perhaps the slight underdogs out of the four, but their level of consistency in results this year leaves it hard to count them out. With star-man Kemar Roofe seemingly starting to pick up a bit of form after his stoppage time goal against Notts County, and League Two’s perennial goal scorer Danny Hylton partnering him upfront, there’s no doubt that they have the firepower to keep them in and around the top four come the end of the season. Time will tell though whether Oxford can surmount their push for the title as the season goes on, with vital games against both Northampton and Portsmouth to come over January.
Portsmouth, albeit slightly further back than the top three, came into the campaign as pre-season favourites and it would be foolish to count them out just yet. Their recent victory over Northampton, which ended the Cobblers’ unbeaten run, showed that they can easily compete with the best of the teams in the league, and their ability on the counter attack would be a problem for the best defences in League Two. Yet it’s still even too early to count out those sides chasing the top four, such as Accrington Stanley who are, to coin a phrase, hot on their heels. As the season begins to enter the final few months, they could start to pose a serious threat if one of the current top four has a dip in form.
Although Stanley may be ten points adrift of Plymouth at the top of the table, the recent storms across the country have meant that a handful of their games have fallen foul to the weather; and as a result, Stanley have three games in hand which, if victorious in them, could catapult them to within touching distance of top spot.
The latter stages of a League Two season, aside from the Christmas period, are known for being the most testing. With over 20 games left in the league, a congested fixture list becomes a problem for every club due to midweek league matches, and because of this squad rotation and depth will almost inevitably determine the outcome of the title. Forget the Premier League for a second, as we could be set for one of the closest and most dramatic title races for a long time.
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