When the Referendum result was announced and the country descended into a turmoil, a friend of mine predicted that things would probably settle down once the new season started. It’s true, football isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most important of the least important things and its regularity provides a reassurance that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So we welcome back the new season this weekend with a slightly tighter hug than we might otherwise do. But, even on planet Oxford the summer has been both familiar and strange at the same time. Obviously there was the immediate but unfamiliar euphoria of promotion and the prospect of being in a higher division; this was quickly off-set by a slew of departures and, initially, few signings. And then there was a trip to Spain, a new kit and some premium friendlies. All the things you expect from a summer, but just, in some way, different.
Last year, the summer started at breakneck speed. The club announced that season tickets would be credit cards and we thought we’d been thrust into the future. Then we changed the pitch, jettisoned London Welsh and signed Kemar Roofe. And it just kept going, to Austria and Wembley and promotion and beyond.
Things haven’t felt quite as pioneering this year, the trip to Spain was like a new Stone Roses album, it had all the familiar elements, but it was less spontaneous and instinctive, a little bit too knowing. That’s OK, only good can come from a ‘club holiday’ in terms of PR and simply having a good time, but it will never quite be the same as the original.
An honourable mention should also go to OxVox’s One of our Own campaign. I’ve always wondered what the real purpose of a supporter’s trust is, they might represent the fans, but that only means something when someone is listening. Otherwise, it’s just a group of fans convincing each other that things would be better if the bar served proper real ale. To take on a campaign to provide season tickets for less-fortunate children and their carers is beyond admirable. If the trust’s roles is to retain the conceptual ‘heart’ of the club, then this is a perfect demonstration of what the club should stand for.
The club seemed to struggle last year with arranging the manufacture of their own kit, so this year’s early release feels like a step forward. Both home and away are excellent designs feels like a big step forward in every sense. Talking of big steps forward, here’s one tiny step back; with three days to go until the new season, we have no season tickets, hmm.
The signings were slow coming, but that ignores three things. The first is that all managers want to get their business done early (because the alternative is to get it done late) so that’s no measure of success, it also ignores that football goes on holiday in May and many contracts don’t run out until the end of June, the other thing is that fans have a tendency to compare our activity to the accumulated activity of every other club in the country, so it will always look like your less active than everyone else put together.
When the first signing did come, it was underwhelming. One commented that he hoped Simon Eastwood would be better second time around, which is pretty mean spirited given that he was a teenager and didn’t play a single game for us in his first spell. We were, and still are, overburdened with goalkeepers, none of which are fully The Solution,
After that the signings picked up in frequency and quality. Culminating, perhaps, with the signing of Curtis Davies, which caused Kemar Roofe levels of hysteria.
The departures were more gut-wrenching, they always are after a promotion. It seems so unfair to lose the very players who you were lauding a few weeks earlier. Johnny Mullins was released, which felt harsh but was understandable. Danny Hylton rejected a contract to go to Luton, not for the money, ahem. My guess is that his new offer was probably half-hearted. Both the Roofe and O’Dowda deals looked to favour us and the loss of Jake Wright was similarly surprising but understandable given how overloaded we became with central defenders.
The net result is a fundamentally different squad to the one we had in May, but at the same time, it feels like the core-DNA has been retained. The relationship between club and fans remains strong; the signings retain the core qualities of previous successes.
Should we read anything into friendlies? Where we were once a decent draw for non-league teams, we’re now a good run-out for the top teams. Playing the champions of England and Brighton, who were nearly promoted to the Premier League hardly represents a benchmark for League 1. That said, with so many new players, it seems likely that we may get off to a slower start this season.
What should we be expecting from the season? Last year promotion was a requirement, it was a new regime, but we’d waited too long for progress and we lost a year to complete turmoil. This year I’m more relaxed, look at the division and you’ll see a smattering very large teams which should occupy the promotion slots – Sheffield United, MK Dons, Bolton, Coventry, Millwall and so on. I would be happy if we were nestled in behind that group, either just in or out of the play-off slots.