It is hard to believe that following John Lundstram’s move to Sheffield United this week that only three players remain from the 2015/16 promotion squad. Josh Ruffels, Sam Long and James Roberts played a total of 14 games between them during that glorious year, the rest have gone. If it feels like we’re losing players like sand through our fingers, you’d be right, it’s the equivalent of losing a player from that squad every two weeks for a year.
What does this tell us? Is it that Darryl Eales is impatient for success and the constant replacing of one player for a better one just a necessary part of the squad progressing. Or, are we simply falling apart due to a lack of ambition and an unwillingness invest properly? Have we promised the players something we can’t fulfil?
Lundstram was peak Michael Appleton; he was sprung from a overheated talent factory at Everton and persuaded to drop down the divisions, changing course to find his way in the game. Ultimately, for him it was a worthwhile detour.
Lundstram offered an array of passing that we’ve rarely, if ever seen before at Oxford. He lacked pace, so the ball did the work. Joining the party slightly late in 2015, once he was up to speed he showed an ability to link play from the centre of midfield giving freedom to his partner Liam Sercombe who filled his boots with 17 goals.
Last season he struggled initially, perhaps because of the added responsibility of having the captain’s armband, but also because he had to pick himself up from an intense promotion season and, as they say in these parts, go again.
The arrival of Ryan Ledson steadied the ship in midfield, he offered the platform and Lundstram became a more conservative attacking option, at least in terms of distributing the balls that Ledson won. It’s difficult to say that it was overwhelmingly successful, but it did seem that when Lundstram played well, so did we.
Lundstram is another product of the Eales business model – unearth talent, develop, then re-sell. It’s worked well, to the tune of something like £5m over the last year. That’s the equivalent of a year’s revenue for the club, something that many people forget. The great challenge for the club is to keep that conveyor belt moving, Marvin Johnson is surely next to go, then Ryan Ledson, but then who?
Pep Clotet’s big challenge is not replacing Lundstram, but keeping the machine going. We’re well served in midfield and so the truth is we don’t need another Lundstram-type to be successful next year. However, we are reliant on continually unearthing bankable young talent to keep the money rolling in.
Or are we? Looking at signings made this summer there may have been a move away from the previous policy – Williamson looks set to sign and is 33, James Henry is 28, Dwight Tiendalli is 31, only Xema is in the bracket of Kemar Roofe, Callum O’Dowda and Lundstram and we wait to see whether he can play in England, let alone be valuable enough to be sold on. Perhaps the focus is not to so much to develop players to sell on a continual basis, but to get an efficient squad together which achieves promotion and gains the financial benefits of the Championship.
A change of approach? Maybe; or maybe a diversification of risk. Yes, we want to develop talent, but we also need a stable squad we can build on. People love the idea of picking up raw talent and developing it on, but in the voracious world of football, you will typically lose talented players earlier than you’d like. It goes back some way, but Jim Smith certainly adopted the approach of bringing in players who were older, even slightly past their prime, but who would deliver for a short window before being moved on. It put the development of the squad more in the hands of the club and less in the hands of others with fat wallets.
Lundstram is part of a wonderful, if too brief moment in Oxford’s history, but he’s another pawn in the football economy, an asset to be sold at the best price. It’s not the sign of a lack of ambition, it’s just the way it has to be.