Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1
You’ll often hear people talking about us having aspirations to reach the Championship. It’s where we belong, what we deserve. Looking objectively, most teams feel that their rightful level is slightly above that which they’re likely to achieve. Tottenham have aspirations of winning the Champions League, Nottingham Forest of being a Premier League club, Eastleigh of making the Football League. As an outsider to those clubs, most people will argue that they might want to bring it down a peg or two.
Typically in order to break out of your natural position, something extraordinary has to happen – for example, Salford’s investment by the Peter Lim or Manchester City’s takeover by Sheik Mansour. For most clubs, this will never happen, and so, in the main, your normal level is one below where you’d like to be.
Where you believe our natural level is may be defined by your age. If you’re an Oxford fan in your forties, for example, you’ll have seen us in the Championship and can envisage us being back there. Maybe if you’re in your 20s, your formative experiences have been of the Conference and League 2, and League 1 might represent us punching at a level above our natural weight.
But, if you want to benchmark our progress, then look to teams like Bristol Rovers. In the last 30 years we’ve been in the same division 18 times, and only two divisions apart on five occasions. Rovers represent a kind of parallel us, if we perform better than them, then we’re ahead of ‘normal’ us, perform worse then we’re behind where we should be. Like the football equivalent of a tracker mortgage.
So, the win on Saturday was another tick in the box of progress. We are outperforming our norm, not conclusively so, but as a one-off test. The result has us back among teams who genuinely might aspire to be in the Championship next season. The next three games, against Charlton, Rotherham and Fleetwood should go a long way to confirm whether we’re slightly ahead of the norm, or genuinely pushing up to where we feel we deserve to be.
Oxford United 1 Charlton 1
When the news came through that Craig Shakespeare had been sacked by Leicester, I searched my soul for a reaction to the news that Michael Appleton’s job was suddenly under threat. The thing was I couldn’t find anything.
It’s not that I don’t feel sympathy for him, he’s found himself, once again, at the helm of a listless ship, one which has had three managers in three seasons, each has delivered a miracle of sorts (Nigel Pearson avoiding relegation, Claudio Ranieri winning the title and Craig Shakespeare taking them to the Champions League quarter final). Each has been sacked within months by unforgiving owners. You can’t not feel some sympathy for Appleton’s predicament given his experiences at Portsmouth, Blackburn and Blackpool.
And if I was forced to watch only one season for the rest of my life, it would be our promotion season in 2015/16. Chances are we will never experience the likes again. We should be eternally grateful for that and for Michael Appleton dragging us out of the dark ages.
But, could Michael Appleton sustain what he did at Oxford for much longer than he did? Finding players for a pittance and selling them on for millions, while still building the club and moving it forward? Last year did feel like we were reaching the peak of our potential, that had we been promoted to the Championship, that it would have been a step too far and that we were performing on the edges of what we could hope to achieve.
In truth, I doubt it we could have kept going in this way. Initially, I felt his departure was a significant blow, but while it was sad to see him go and bring to a close a particularly exciting era, now I’m not as sure. With hindsight, maybe Oxford didn’t need Appleton as much as Appleton needed Oxford.
Under Pep Clotet we’re beginning to look more robust, more at home against those we aspire to finish above. Charlton, like Bradford, looked a very good team and we comfortably competed with them. But, not only do we now have a settled team and clear options coming from the bench, there is more depth in the squad. Under Michael Appleton we relied heavily on youthful exuberance and talent, now we have John Mousinho, James Henry, Wes Thomas, Simon Eastwood and others; all have the experience to manage and think through games in a way we haven’t been able to previously.
We also have a steel that we haven’t seen before. Last season, and earlier this, we were being bullied out of games, but Tuesday was intense, blood and thunder with not an inch given, and yet we competed and beyond that, we thrived.
It is possible to want two competing things simultaneously; I would love to relive the Appleton era and by extension I hope that he does well, but I think we’ve moved on and, if we haven’t reached it yet, we are moving into a better place under the new management.