People will say differently, but Peterborough was never a critical game. Even with good form we’d have been happy with a point. With poor form it was really just one to get out the way before focusing on recovering with more winnable games in the upcoming weeks.
In the end it was one of ‘those’ games, last year, after two home defeats without scoring, we went to Gillingham and won with a Chey Dunkley goal. Chris Wilder had a habit of beating promotion chasers and league leaders away from home, usually in the middle of a bad run – in 2012/13, with one win in seven we beat Gillingham away (again) 1-0 and in 2010/11 off the back of five straight defeats, we beat the then leaders Chesterfield 2-1 away.
Breaking runs often comes from unusual places, perhaps its the lack of expectation. In this case, nobody could have predicted such a comprehensive win away against a team looking for promotion.
A lot of people will rightly look to Jack Payne’s contribution to all four goals, but for me, it’s the fact that the recovery was triggered by a Josh Ruffels goal that is worthy of note.
Ruffels’ career is curious; he’s not quite homegrown; a local, but not a club lifer, he was signed during a period of austerity by Chris Wilder; a fairly anonymous member of batch of local players that Ian Lenagan said would take us to the Championship.
It was a romantic, if fanciful idea, probably born from necessity. But while the young players at the club were being earmarked as a golden generation, it was always likely they’d be ditched for more experienced players at the sniff of trouble.
Ruffels is a contemporary of Matt Bevans and Tyrone Marsh, players that, often through rose tinted glasses, fans saw as the future of the club. Bevans is now at Oxford City, Marsh at Macclesfield. Ruffels was less lauded, but he survived the last days of Chris Wilder and into the Michael Appleton era.
Appleton’s first season churned countless players through the squad, so it was something of a surprise that when it did finally coalesce into something coherent, Ruffels was still there. Not because he was a poor player, but because he was never spectacular and Appleton seemed to have little time for dependables.
Into the promotion season, Ruffels was a late sub against Swindon in the JPT, but in the next 30 games he started once in a addition to a single substitute appearance. He re-appeared against Wimbledon at the end of February and only missed three games, two of which we lost. He played against Barnsley at Wembley, Carlisle away and in the promotion clincher against Wycombe. All season he featured in just two losing sides – against Barnsley in the JPT and Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup.
Then came the second Appleton revolution which even the likes of Jake Wright and Danny Hylton didn’t survive. It looked like he would be squeezed out by Sercombe, Ledson, Lundstram and Rothwell but he became one of just four players in Oxford’s history to play at Wembley twice.
Into this season and another revolution; a fourth manager, more midfielders – Payne, Pekalski, Xemi and Mowatt in addition to Rothwell and Ledson, but Ruffels is still there – the longest serving player at the club despite playing only 40% of the games he’s been available for.
Football is a mercenary business and clubs need players who carry something of the spirit of the fans onto the pitch. It’s rarely the de facto best player – previous incarnations have been people like Michael Raynes and Chey Dunkley. People whose effort stands out, who reflect what the fans want to see of their team. It provides some kind of reassurance that the fans’ faith in the team is in safe hands.
The role is difficult to define, but the fact Ruffels provides a steadying hand when things appear to be going wrong is critical. He may not be able to turn games on his own and its unlikely he’ll ever be subject to a six-figure bid from a bigger club, but he lets nobody down. After five goals in seven starts and missing only one of our last six wins people might need to start thinking of him being beyond simply a utility player.