If there was anything to sum up our close-season it was this year’s kit launch. Last season we did that thing where we wore the new shirt on the last day of the previous season, it all seemed very professional and forward thinking. Even in less organised times, there was usually a time and place for such things – such as the family fun day.
This season the announcement dribbled out, apparently when the media team had a spare five minutes to knock up a gif to show it off. Most of the details had leaked out already – it would be made by Puma sponsored by Singha and with a new badge. When it finally arrived it looked good, although unlike recent seasons, it felt a like an off-the-peg template.
Then, someone pointed out that the trim looked decidedly black rather than blue. Those who had seen it strenuously assured everyone the trim was blue whilst simultaneously failing to produce a single photo to prove that fact. The Oxford shirt had become like that dress whose colours looked different to different people.
The gentle rumble of slightly missing the point typified the summer; the weather and World Cup were a distraction and it didn’t help that senior and U23 signings appeared to be treated similarly when announced. Rather than a slick rebuilding of the squad, everything felt effective, but slightly muddled and distracted.
In recent seasons there has been a distinct trend in who we signed – Michael Appleton’s template was young, talented under-23s from the Premier League, Pep Clotet signed a procession of exotic foreigners. Even Chris Wilder’s players were a type – dogged, professional, effective.
This year, Karl Robinson’s DNA has been less easy to define. To the surprise of nobody we lost Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson. To the surprise of everyone, Simon Eastwood signed a new contract. Luke Garbutt, Marcus Browne and Samir Carruthers are Appleton-style signings, Gavin Whyte and Cameron Norman – plucked from relative obscurity – are a brief stint playing for Malmo from being Clotet-esque. Experienced pros like Tony McMahon and Jamie Mackie are almost template Chris Wilder signings. Carutthers and Ricky Holmes actually are Chris Wilder signings.
In squad-building terms, perhaps the watchword should be ‘balance’. Even during the Appleton years, we sometimes lacked experience, Wilder’s signings were never going to command big fees. So having a bit of everything is welcome.
As fans wondered whether England would be bringing ‘home’ a trophy designed by an Italian for a tournament invented by the French and run by the Swiss we headed to Ireland for our annual tour. Unlike previous years, which were major PR coups, this year’s tour was more about preparing the players than revving the fans up. It was sort of like the past, while at the same time, not quite like the past.
So, how prepared are we? It’s hard to say, results seem to have gone well and we have no injuries. The signings of Sam Smith and Ricky Holmes represent a strong summer. Karl Robinson knows what he’s doing and he seems to have been allowed to prepare the squad in the was that he believes is right.
Behind the scenes, you get a sense the club is still trying to find its feet under the new owners – the new training ground is on its way, we’ve lined up a significant sponsor, but communications, as illustrated by the kit launch still seem disjointed, which is typically due to poor decision making rather than poor communications. It’s hard to say whether the players we’ve signed were on Robinson’s A-list, although he seemed to hint that approvals and money were, perhaps, not quite as available as he’d like. Although, perhaps all managers are like that.
How will we do? Despite their many problems (whilst also accepting they may not have hit rock bottom) it’s difficult to rule out Sunderland as challenging for promotion. Of the other teams relegated, neither Barnsley nor Burton seem likely to be more or less of a threat than the teams they replaced. Of the teams who came up; Accrington and Wycombe will probably be happy to stay up, Luton will share similar ambitions to us and, given all their problems, Coventry will probably be pleased to stay where they are. In simple terms, the new teams appear slightly weaker than those they replaced.
Of the remaining teams, all could finish anywhere in the table – Shrewsbury may continue where they left off last year, but could also get relegated, Plymouth, Southend, Bristol Rovers all fall into that bracket. Wimbledon are, perhaps, the only team who you feel are more likely to struggle than go up.
So, ultimately we sit in a significant bunch of teams equally capable of pushing for the play-offs or getting it horribly wrong and being dragged into relegation. Karl Robinson’s experience, our (hopefully) financial security and a solid set of new signings should all play to our advantage. In our first season in League 1 it felt like we were in an elephants’ graveyard of big clubs who had fallen on hard times. Though it was never supposed to be, last year was a transition. This year feels like we’re part of League 1 – able to compete as equals. If we’ve ditched any feeling of insecurity, and we’re prepared and able to compete, we’ve got a very good chance of making the play-offs.