I’ve found the opening months of the season to be brutal; the chaotic opening, that familiar feeling of despair as the club conspires, for what feels like the millionth time, to implode. It felt like a betrayal of everything that has happened over the last three or four years. From threatening to become the next Brighton, Swansea or Bournemouth to becoming yet another incarnation of the great farce we call Oxford United.
However, on the field we’ve recovered, though we’re yet to register an away win, we’ve been picking up critical points – including Saturday’s last gap draw against Doncaster. We still sit just above the relegation zone; underlying just how poor the start of the season was, but we should start easing to a safer position soon if results keep up.
But, I’m not excited by what’s happening. I’m bruised by it all. For years we seemed to have a club without a team, at the moment it seems we have a team without a club. The club’s new commercial director seems to recognise this; in his regular updates he outlines that he’s got to give fans more than a winning team. He’s got to give us something to believe in. I can’t put my finger on exactly what’s missing, I guess he spends more time thinking about it than me. It’s got to be authentic, more than just gimmicky themes.
Although things are changing, the unlikely thread that runs through Chris Wilder, Gary Waddock, Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and Karl Robinson is Josh Ruffels. Ruffels can’t be pigeonholed – it’s difficult to pinpoint his best position, his strengths and weaknesses, or what it is that has endured him over such a long period of time. He’s never been a ‘first on the team sheet’ kind of player, but his time at the club has stretched from Andy Whing and Deane Smalley to James Henry and Curtis Nelson. Few sing his name, but he’s one of only three Oxford United players to play at Wembley twice, a most understated history maker.
I can’t think of a player to compare him to. Matt Murphy? Certainly he’s a great survivor, not may players make it through five managers, but Murphy was criticised mercilessly during his extended time at the club. Maybe we were just spoilt by what had come before and Murphy, like Ruffels today, would have been quietly appreciated for what he did if he hadn’t had to follow the likes of Ray Houghton or Jim Magilton in the Oxford midfield.
Perhaps Ruffels is more comparable to the players of the 1970s and early 80s; players who would play for the club for years because Oxford was their home and the prospect of moving to a different club would mean uprooting everything. When Ruffels has retired and comes back to the club to be introduced at half-time, Peter Rhodes-Brown will probably reel off his stats to only be a smattering of applause as most will have never heard the name Ruffels. It’s a shame that often the more enduring and loyal characters are over-shadowed by the more impactful short-term players.
Maybe Ruffels reflects the times; an antihero getting on with doing what he does. Things are changing around him, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but he keeps plugging away; scoring the odd critical goal, picking up appearances, and generally getting the job done.