The list of players released has been, well, released. The anticipated bloodbath has happened with twelve of the sixteen out of contract players being shown the door.
There’s usually a feeling of cleansing when clubs announce the list of players they plan to release and keep at the end of season. Over a season, a squad becomes a ragtag of core players and makeweights, short term deals and those and very end or very start of their careers. Usually, it’s a case of plaining off the rough edges of the squad and then moving forward.
There’s often a great deal of anticipation as to who might stay and who might go, but more often than not, the actual list is somewhat of an anticlimax because anyone who kept half an eye on the club in recent months could get a pretty reasonable feel for who is out of favour and who is to be kept.
Less so this year, after all, it’s only a week since we found out who our manager is to be for the next 12 months. While the squad and season quietly fell apart amidst the increasing vitriol and turmoil of a year unfulfilled, it was largely impossible to gather precisely who might be kept, because it was impossible to gather who might be making that decision.
A lot of that was cleared up with Ian Lenagan’s statement on the re-appointment of Chris Wilder. The club was to refocus on long term growth, developing youth and selecting players up to the rigours a 50+ game season. One or two must have known at that point that their game was up.
Some were more obvious than others; Justin Richards was effectively brought in to cover James Constable’s absence after her was sent off against Wimbledon and Josh Parker always felt like the classic Wilder makeweight. Similarly Luke McCormick was always a short term solution, but with Ryan Clarke is on his way back and Max Crocombe quickly finding his feet and with Wayne Brown focussing on coaching, while always being available if needed, the goalkeeping position looks well covered.
Simon Heslop never really offered consistency throughout his time at Oxford, but let’s face it, few lower league players do, but his fall from grace this season has been quite spectacular. Harry Worley never seemed to do a lot wrong but clearly Chris Wilder didn’t like something about what he saw and he fell away under a pile of other centre-backs.
Tony Capaldi seemed to gently oscillate between injury and disinterest. Capaldi is what I call ‘soft footed’; often he looks lazy and uninvolved, nothing seems terribly dynamic about him. That said, I don’t believe any player is capable of being a professional footballer by being genuinely lazy and it is often that Capaldi’s tactical and spatial awareness gave him time to think about his next move. His injury record, however, hardly allowed him to tick the box marked robust.
Another soft footer was Tom Craddock, but while I think he was as good finisher and technically as good a player as anyone at the club, in the end he was brought in to score lots of goals. That, and his sullen attitude towards the end of this season was always going to play against him.
The decisions around Liam Davis and Jon-Paul Pittman were both marginal calls. Pittman seemed blighted by injury and Davis was a bit in and out during his second season (but then, who wasn’t?). However, when they did play, they, by-and-large performed. Both are approaching 27, which I think may be a key to the decision. 27 is the age at which players should be peaking. On that basis, you should expect Davis and Pitman to get better over the next two years, more than likely they will flatline or decline. A one year option on either player continues the strategy of short-termism that Lenagan is keen to get away from.
For me, the most surprising name on the list is Damian Batt, although his tweets after the game against Accrington seemed to portray a sense that he knew he wouldn’t get a new contract offer. Batt was fantastic in our promotion season combining pace down the flanks with excellent delivery. In his first season in the football league he continued that form, giving him a place on that year’s League 2 Team of the Year. The consequence was our general naivety at the back meant we shipped goals. Batt returned a more conservative player and that’s pretty much where he’s stayed ever since. Batt, like Davis and Pittman, is another who career will gently begin to decline in the next couple of years (he’s 29 in September). As he never let anyone down Wilder may have considered him for another year, but that wouldn’t be in line with the new direction the club is going onto.
And finally, our new marquee signings from 2 years; Michael Duberry and Peter Leven. Michael Duberry’s Oxford career followed a similar path to Phil Gilchrist when he came back to the club in 2006. On arrival, he looked fit and healthy, but it was evident that it was touch and go as to whether his body would survive the duration of his contract. I suspect one of the attractions of Oxford to Duberry was that it was a club in the south willing to give him a 2 year contract. Kelvin Thomas took a risk in signing him, and it worked for a while; Duberry shored up the defence and was a dominant presence throughout 2011/12, then the wheels fell off as it was always going to at some point. His season was riddled with injuries, some major some minor, put plenty of them and one after the other. Thomas might have punted to offer him another year, had he been in place, but Lenagan was never going to take that gamble.
When Lenagan said that players had been signed in recent years without medicals, the words Peter Leven seemed drift around in the air. When Leven signed people seemed stunned that he’d dropped down a division; in fact, some expecting him to go up to the Championship. While his talent is undeniable, something was clearly wrong; had the club broke the bank signing him or had taken a gamble that others were less willing to take by signing him despite underlying injury issues? Leven seemed to be the pinnacle of Kelvin Thomas’ indulgences, and when he was on form it was a masterstroke. His goal at Port Vale still plays in slow motion in my head, like I was in the presence of god. Sadly, injuries became a bigger and bigger issue, he didn’t seem like the kind of player who recovered well, showing ample talent for putting on weight, and last season he seemed almost wholly reduced to dead ball situations. In the Lenagan era, special-team players aren’t welcome.