Midweek Fixture: 2019/20 season preview

Maybe I’m getting older, but the summers seem to be shorter and shorter. Perhaps the season is getting longer and longer. Either way, the window in which club’s are supposed to refresh and renew seems to get smaller as time passes.

Last year, the World Cup truncated the summer into a few short hysterical weeks; signings seemed rushed, preparations lacking in preparation. We toured Ireland where friendlies were adjusted to accommodate England games, everything seemed to crash on top of each other.

There have been no such distractions this year, but the summer has been short and quiet. Signings have come slowly, but they seem solid, unlike the follies of Ricky Holmes or Sam Smith. There hasn’t been the panic, nor the hysteria, though the disquiet has ratcheted up with the news that Gavin Whyte is off to Cardiff (and then appeased by the signing of Ben Woodburn). Perhaps fans are settling to our status; too small to go up, too big to go down.

We can search for someone to blame, but we’re suffering the consequences of something out of our control – hyper-inflation in the Premier League. We’re a club with the turnover of a reasonably sized supermarket trying to retain players who interest clubs with huge cash resources. Whyte, Curtis Nelson, Marcus Browne and even Tsun Dai are all heading for clubs benefitting from Premier League cash.  

Promotion seasons like 2010 and 2016 were characterised by a relentless pursuit of signings throughout the summer. That hasn’t been the case this year, and if that’s an indication of intent; a promotion tilt is unlikely. 

Those spending sprees were partly about organisation – good scouting – but also money. A club that can release cash at a time when it’s scarcely available, is a club that is more likely to have a successful season – or so it seems.

It seems fairly obvious that the cash isn’t available, at least not enough to make signings quick and easy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the quickest way to do a deal is to overpay and the likes of Smith and Holmes should remind us of the impact of that mistake. 

Maybe the money doesn’t exist or is earmarked for other things. It’s possible that we have owners that are striking a balance between short term performance and long-term stability. Kassam starved the team of resource to fund his new stadium, Lenagan and Eales did the opposite (although admittedly there wasn’t a stadium to invest in). 

The Whyte situation has skewed the argument; we thought we’d keep him, and so losing has had a disproportionate impact on morale. But, looking at the squad, seven players that played more than 10 games last season have left including Smith and Holmes. Five (so far) have signed, with another couple coming back from injury. In terms of numbers, it’s not that different to the end of last year.

There are gaps, of course, it’s easy to pick a figure out of the sky as to the number of players we need and panic, but most obviously we lack a true striker (20 goals, 15 goals, whatever) and we still look thin at the back. We’re not robust enough to withstand the loss of senior players to long-term injury, but there remains a solid core, so we’re not quite as vulnerable as it might seem. Good seasons rely on luck, at the moment we would need more than our fair share. A couple more signings before the end of the month will help a lot.

The shape of the division has changed. Last year, there were one or two serious contenders and a raft of ‘others’. That was evident in our own performance, where we were able to sit at the bottom of the table throughout the year, and then, with a couple of wins suddenly find ourselves in mid-table.

This year, that top cabal has grown – Sunderland, Portsmouth and Ipswich look obvious contenders for promotion, Doncaster, Rotherham, Peterborough are well resourced and organised and should have enough to fight for the play-offs. The result will squeeze a team like us. At the bottom also, some of the positions appear to have been established – Bury are already 12 points in the hole and facing relegation or extinction, Bolton may follow. Who knows what will happen with Coventry? In addition, there’s a batch of teams – Wycombe, Rochdale, Wimbledon, perhaps Accrington who will eventually succumb to relegation due to a lack of resources and are probably on borrowed time. For football in general, this is not good, but for us and our prospects, it should act as the cushion we need.

What is left are teams like us – struggling to go up, with too much to go down. It’s probably a reflection of who were are, maybe who we’ve always been – a reasonable third-level club. 

Getting out of that trajectory is going to require effort and money, and perhaps that’s where the season’s focus lies. What Michael Appleton started to build was largely destroyed by Pep Clotet, Karl Robinson has wrestled to establish a platform – let’s not forget, this is only his third transfer window. Success next season might be about creating foundations.

But, while foundations are sensible, where are we going to get our kicks? In the league, perhaps we’ll be a disruptor, derailing a couple of promotion bids, sending a team down, that kind of thing. The odd last minute win, a couple of big away days. We should probably hope for a bit of a cup adventure to lighten the mood. Perhaps even a decent shot at the Checkatrade Trophy.

The immediate challenge will be establishing a decent start. Last year’s was a disaster and it took months to recover. The season is long, so a tricky start doesn’t mean catastrophe, but with Sunderland and Peterborough (twice) in the opening week, a poor start might tip the sense of acceptance into one of frustration. Karl Robinson doesn’t need that pressure again. 

Looking at the Absolute State of Oxford United Survey and what fans are looking for from the season; we want financial stability; no more winding up orders, greater ownership from the board and a reduction of influence from Firoz Kassam. There were a number of comments about removing Karl Robinson, some want Michael Appleton back although not many saw Robinson’s sacking as a goal. A squad with a decent striker is a must with the aim of achieving somewhere between consistency and promotion, last year’s rollercoaster is not needed. However, above all this were two aims for the season – to sort the stadium out and have a clear achievable plan for the future, and, reignite lost passion for the club amongst fans. Both of these things are the hardest to achieve, but, if anything can be done on those fronts, then the club will have had a successful season.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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