Oxford United’s squad is becoming more like Game of Thrones with every passing week. For those who don’t watch it, Game of Thrones is a fantasy drama of mind boggling scale, good guys and bad guys get killed with similar frequency, good guys become bad guys, bad guys become good guys, and good guys and bad guys gang up to kill other good guys and bad guys. It is hard to keep up with what everyone is doing and who you’re supposed to like and hate. Sometimes you have to step back and take stock.
In simple terms, our squad is made up of two houses; Wilderians and Appletonians, with Danny Hylton being part of neither. Or both, perhaps? It would be easy to assume Michael Appleton is simply dismantling the House of Wilder to replace it with the House of Appleton. It certainly seemed like it might be that way when he arrived. Gary Waddock was thrown out the door and Eales and Ashton stepped into Ian Lenagan’s shoes while he was practically still wearing them. Revolution, it seemed, was inevitable.
But, this transfer window, the first in which we’ve seen the House of Appleton in full battle mode has been baffling. Wilderians have gone, but so to have Appletonians, Appletonians have arrived to replace other Appletonians, some Appletonians didn’t even appear to be Appletonians in the first place. So, where the hell are we?
Well, as of training this morning, the raw stats say that we signed six (including Jamie Ashdown this morning) and lost or let go nine. So, in pure numeric terms, we have a squad with three less players than we had at the start.
Starting at the back, Ashdown seems an odd signing, unless there’s something we don’t know about Ryan Clarke’s fitness. Clarke’s form hasn’t been quite what it’s been in the past, but he’s hardly a risk. Max Crocombe is an able replacement on the rare occasions he’s needed. Is Ashdown going to replace Clarke? Or sit on the bench vacated by Crocombe? If it’s the former, it would seem an unnecessary shuffle, if it’s the latter, what’s the point of that?
At the back, we’ve got a bewildering merry-go-round to deal with. Michael Raynes has gone, although it’s difficult to know what he did wrong. He wasn’t Bobby Moore, but he was a willing squad player and solid enough at the back when needed. In his place is Chey Dunkley, who was shakiness personified against Southend. In terms of net gain, at best it’s a zero, perhaps a little worse.
Right, full-backs. Hunt and Newey’s days were probably numbered even under Chris Wilder. They were originally brought in to shore things up after the marauding of Liam Davis and Damien Batt gave one too many heart palpitations. They were pragmatic and dependable, but hardly thrilling. You got the impression they were managing their fitness and effort, not being in the first flushes of youth. Holmes-Dennis and Riley seemed to indicate a loosening of the full-back roles, an introduction of youthful exuberance and attacking flare, part of the New Philosophy. But then… well, we seemed to lose them, which was a bit complacent. Are Skarz and Brindley better? Different? Almost impossible to tell in the short term, but on paper they seem more robust than what we’ve had in the past. I’m sticking my neck out and saying this is an improvement.
Into midfield; Junior Brown was an early Appleton signing who sparkled like a damp firework before disappearing from view. It seems a long time since he was even on the radar, so it’s difficult to know whether we’ve lost anything through his departure. That said, we certainly haven’t replaced him or improved that area in the window.
Up front, Campbell fell victim to shambolic contract negotiations, it seems. He was always a long shot and I for one am not that concerned about his departure. Burns had a fine debut, but like so many before him, his form quickly fizzled to nothing. Potter’s departure wasn’t really a surprise as sad as it was to see him go. I suspect Wilder or Waddock would have come to a similar conclusion eventually. I couldn’t say that Burns was an effective replacement for Potter, both had patchy form. McDonald may be a better and more permanent solution. On the face of it, he does seem a good acquisition . That leaves Hoban, who was brought in, I assume, as a banker in the absence of the club securing a deal for Tyrone Barnett, which turned into the most over-blown non-event we’ve had in years. Hoban, like Campbell, was a risk and we can’t say he’s been a risk worth taking; not yet, at least.
So, we’re weakened in numbers, and probably fractionally ahead in terms of quality per head. We should be able to stay up, though I, for one, don’t think that’s ever been as big a concern as others have suggested. We’re vulnerable, however, because injuries and loss of form could make things very uncomfortable. Particularly as some players will be starting to think about where they will be playing next season, when that disengagement starts, who knows where we might end up?
Above all, a lot of energy has been wasted in deals that never came off, deals that came off but didn’t stick and deals for players that were barely better than what they replaced. All told, a slight gain but a shambolic way to do business.