13th April 1998, Loftus Road.
Malcolm Shotton had an immediate impact when arriving at the Manor Ground in January 1998. In the first 27 games of the season we were averaging a point a game and heading for relegation. In the next fifteen under Shotton we’d doubled that average and the point gained at QPR sealed our safety before we were mathematically out of the play-off picture.
Promotion was never a realistic prospect, so First Division security was a rare luxury. What’s more, we had a manager who could work miracles and a decent cohort of young local lads – Marsh, Powell, Cook, Beauchamp et al. And we were broke, imagine what we’d achieve with a bit of investment?
But, it was, in fact, the beginning of the end. The Shotton edifice crumbled amidst stories of pre-season punch-ups with Phil Gilchrist, we chaotically blew nearly a million on Dean Windass, Firoz Kassam appeared as if a humble saviour, we were relegated twice in three seasons, there was a bewildering number of false dawns. Eventually we slipped out of the football league altogether.
13 years on from that game at Loftus Road and for the first time we finish a season in which there was no expectation and yet still managed the satisfied glow of a job well done. Last year aside, every season since ’98 was one of either failed expectation or simple failure.
To go into the final game of the season against Shrewsbury with no pressure and a barmy sense of optimism is completely alien to a generation of Oxford fans. We were a bit ragged, a bit off the boil, but with the season’s objective achieved some time ago it is perfectly acceptable that the season’s finale went off half-cocked.
Is this the end of an era? Sort of. We are safely a Football League club once again; the play-off final may have been the moment of success, but this season has been one in which the success is consolidated. Next season, there’s an opportunity to move on. Based on this season, the play-offs would require just five more points than this season; given that we easily threw away five points and more throughout the season, it’s safe to say that a promotion push wouldn’t be an unrealistic expectation. Back to teeth grinding from August, then.