If there’s one thing that characterised Michael Appleton’s time at Oxford United, it was that it was never, in any way, normal. His arrival in the summer of 2014 felt like he was the henchman in a hostile takeover. Talk of new owners had dominated that summer in the same way that it has this, and there was little surprise when it was announced that the club was in new hands. What was a surprise was the aggressive change that Darry Eales, Mark Ashton and the newly appointed coach Michael Appleton wanted to make. Particularly when there was a rival bid from the more palatable Stewart Donald on the table.
The signs weren’t good; Ashton had built a terrible reputation while CEO at Watford and Appleton was synonymous with chaos. Eales was generally quiet, but he was an outsider and a money man, and that often brings suspicions. Appleton’s management CV read: Portsmouth, Blackburn, Blackpool, three clubs that had been suicidally mismanaged. To find himself in that situation once was unfortunate, but three times was suspicious. Was he simply the stooge who specialised in being the footballing face of an organised crime syndicate?
With his sleeve tattoos, arms like tree trunks and piercing icy glare, he didn’t look like a football manager. He was neither a gnarly weather beaten obsessive like Sam Allardyce or Chris Wilder, nor the metrosexual cosmopolitan like Pep Guardiola or Paul Tidsdale. In short, it was difficult to see how Appleton planned to run a football club while perfecting his chiselled physique. Unless he was planning to take his pay packet, pump iron and let the club crumble to dust.
There was depth, however, Appleton was studying for a Masters degree and had learned his trade under Roy Hodgson at West Brom. He had been labelled one of the most promising coaches in the country, but we’ve had promising coaches before.
At first it looked like a heist, Gary Waddock mercilessly thrown out the window, Mark Ashton playing benevolent dictator with his vacuous PR and the stony faced Appleton glaring at anyone who might question him. There was no doubt Appleton was single-minded, he’d previously won £1m compensation for a career-ending injury, but his steadfast demeanor bordered on arrogant, particularly as he struggled to back up his claims that he was doing things the right way with evidence.
If the takeover was chaotic, the following season was more so. There was very little to suggest that Appleton was implementing anything competent, let alone special. Dave Kitson, whose paths had crossed at Portsmouth, retired almost instantly. The first four games of the season resulted in four defeats and Appleton went on to play 44 players. Nearly half played less than 10 games, some barely lasted 90 minutes before being moved on.
There were belligerent claims that they were trying to implement a new DNA and that there was no Plan B. But Plan A wasn’t working; whatever it was he was trying to do, it couldn’t be done on a potato patch pitch with a constant merry-go-round of players. The only thing that wasn’t churning was the management. At one point Oxford were the lowest placed club in the Football League not to have changed manager that season and fans struggled to know why the trapdoor wasn’t opening. Was the pits the 3-2 home defeat to 10 man Southend after leading twice or the 0-2 defeat to the apparently doomed Hartlepool? Maybe the 1-5 TV defeat to Cambridge? The performances of Danny Hylton, ironically Gary Waddock’s only signing, was the one thing that kept the lynch mobs at bay.
Few would have given Appleton the time to sort through the mess, but slowly came moments of stability; Alex MacDonald and Joe Skarz signed, then a young midlander from his old club West Brom; Kemar Roofe. Appleton had hit paydirt, he’d steadied the ship and managed to secure a Championship level game-changer for League 2 strugglers. After a quiet start, we headed to promotion-seeking Wycombe where Roofe grabbed a brace in a searing performance that set us on our way to an unbeaten end of season run. Winning the final three games, against all odds, we finished only a handful of points behind our previous season’s total.
The club careered into summer full of optimism, the new owners found their groove, new credit card style season tickets were introduced, season ticket incentives, social media was a whirl, a deferential celebratory new kit marking 30 years since the Milk Cup (with the away kit celebrating 20 years of our last league promotion) was launched. On the field, Liam Sercombe was signed, George Baldock, John Lundstram, and, against all odds, Kemar Roofe was brought in permanently. Then the club announced a pre-season trip to Austria.
Oxford fans’ suppressed anxiety about their club was released amidst the positivity, Appleton was given a new lease of life; his team, his way. But, at the same time, a large chunk of the club was being given back to the fans. The stands became a theatre of colour and noise and the players responded. The Austrian adventure, with a forgettable 0-0 draw with Weiner Neustadt, galvanised fans and club in a way that had been absent for decades.
The new season got off to a moderate start with a draw against Crawley. A 4-0 win over Championship Brentford and recovering from 0-2 against Luton to draw in injury time fired up the engines. Appleton had found his DNA. He was never a strong tactician and would often get undone by more wiley managers such as his nemesis Chris Wilder or Phil Brown. But if he couldn’t out-think other teams, Appleton would simply outplay them. It meant that every game was a game to be won, there was no squad rotation or prioritisation. No smart tactical nuance to his selections. There was the demolition of Swindon in the JPT, the destruction of Stevenage away, a gritty takedown of Notts County on New Year’s Day. We scored three or more away from home on seven occasions and were the highest goalscorers in the country.
With progress on all fronts we were rewarded with a third round FA Cup tie with Swansea. On a bright, fresh wintery Sunday, Appleton had the opportunity to test his philosophy against one of the biggest clubs in the country. Containment wasn’t an option, trying to stop them play didn’t compute; so we simply attacked. The result was spectacular and Appleton was plastered all over the national press wanting to know how he’d transformed this bumbling club into one that played like (and beat) the Premier League elite. His reputation was restored.
The season ploughed on, four days after Swansea, we beat Millwall away in the 1st leg of the JPT semi-final all but guaranteeing a trip to Wembley. It was a good week. Despite the intensity and distractions, we were picking up points in the league too. Wembley was a giddy joy, we took the lead and looked good for the win, but Barnsley stormed back. Defeat was, well, no great loss. This was already one of the greatest seasons in Oxford’s history.
Despite holding a top three place all season, promotion was still on a knife-edge; a win at Carlisle – another landmark victory in a season of landmark victories – set up a must-win final game against Wycombe. After a nervy start, Chey Dunkley – an archetypal Appleton product – headed a goal to relieve the pressure and we stormed into League 1. Oxford had been re-born in a style many envied.
Appleton’s great strength was his ability to find players limited by their surroundings and release them to do what they did best. He constructed a compact but high quality squad mined from Premier League youth teams and the Scottish Premier League. Nearly everyone he came into contact with thrived, Chris Maguire and Danny Hylton, both perennial misfits elsewhere suddenly became integral to the squad, Premier League prospects got games, in front of crowds, and their stock grew exponentially in the process.
Kemar Roofe was sold to Leeds for £4m, Callum O’Dowda to Bristol City for £1.5m. Appleton could show people like Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson, Marvin Johnson and Curtis Nelson that Oxford was a hotbed, somewhere they could develop and fulfill their potential.
Acclimatising to League 1 with a reconstructed squad took time. There was another memorable win over Swindon and a giant-killing in the League Cup against Birmingham. By Christmas things were ticking over nicely. An FA Cup win over Newcastle proved that Swansea was no fluke, a second win over Swindon at the County Ground cemented our position as the dominant force in that particularly abusive relationship.
The season was one of consolidation, but it didn’t stop us putting the frighteners up Middlesborough at the Riverside, playing 63 games or progressing again in the unloved EFL Trophy. Suddenly there was another Wembley appearance to attend to.
If cracks did start to appear, and if they did, they were hairline, then it was in the defeat to Coventry. It’s a game we should have won, but it was a joyless, flat performance, ignited only by Liam Sercombe, who showed enough fire to bring us back into the game. Days later Sercombe was effectively suspended for ‘disciplinary’ reasons, the first time the squad appeared to have fractured.
Appleton’s end came in the same way as it began, in a suspiciously quiet close season punctuated by rumours of takeovers. Darryl Eales faces the dilemma of ploughing more money into his project to get to the Championship, or selling up and letting someone else take it on. Appleton’s reputation and ambition further challenged Eales’ capacity to do this alone. You suspect that Eales enjoys the challenge, but Appleton can’t afford to hang around.
Leicester, though, is a curious choice. It might be that Appleton is more comfortable being part of a corporate structure – he spoke at the end of the season about how jaded he was. But, he won’t be implementing ‘his way’ in the way he was allowed to at Oxford and it’s unlikely he’ll have the luxury of time. The money being offered makes it a reasonable and compelling case, but nobody knows what Leicester is anymore – pushing for Europe? Avoiding relegation? Craig Shakespeare may have got them out of a mess last season, but can he meet the needs of recent Premier League Champions in the longer term? It’s possible that Shakepeare’s success was that he just that he wasn’t the pernickety Claudio Ranieri. Now he’s got to develop a squad of players who have already achieved more than they’d ever expected to achieve and take them on. But where to? Some of the older players are heading for the dumper already, the younger players may be looking for new, bigger, clubs. A few dodgy results next season and Shakespeare will be under pressure, and so will Michael Appleton.
The challenge for us, now, is to sustain the club’s DNA. Darryl Eales is a football ‘fan’ rather than a football ‘man’. Can he unearth a coach who will take over Appleton’s legacy and drive the club on? You have to trust that he can, but it’ll be different, that’s for sure.
How will Appleton be viewed by history? In my lifetime, four managers have won promotion for the club; Jim Smith, Denis Smith, Chris Wilder and Michael Appleton. Only Appleton took us to Wembley twice and perhaps only Jim Smith matched the treasure trove of memories from the cups. In totality, the 2015/16 season was, perhaps, the best I have seen in 40 years watching the club.
Appleton’s legacy will not only be those memories, but the thousands of young fans that he’s inspired to follow the club, and the others who have returned after years away. On that basis, the echo of his impact can last generations. It’s difficult to put him above Jim Smith, and older fans will point to the transformative contribution of Arthur Turner, but in the history of the club, Michael Appleton is right up there among the greatest managers we have ever seen.