One thing you learn from doing the Absolute State of Oxford United survey – a survey which tries to assess performance against some kind of norm – is that there’s no such thing as a norm. Last year, I said it was difficult to judge the mood when you’re in the middle of a transfer window and all the volatility that brings, this year, for transfer window, read: pandemic. The degree to our mood towards the club can be separated out from our general mood is difficult to judge. Still, let’s give it a try.
Quite understandably, the mid-season survey suggests that the overall mood amongst fans has cooled since the summer. In September expectations were high, perhaps too high, but after a poor start and defeat to Swindon coupled with our enforced physical separation and general pandemic-related gloom, the fans’ overall rating has dropped notably. Despite this, we aren’t at our lowest ebb; that was back in the first survey at the start of the 2019/2020 season having spent a good proportion of the year fighting relegation. The rosey glow of last year’s success is dimmed, but not yet extinguished.
The squad ratings have fallen largely in line with the overall mood. The loss of Shandon Baptiste, Tarique Fosu and then Rob Dickie in the summer were all predictable, but you get a sense that those players haven’t been replaced. It doesn’t help that few fans have seen our new players in the flesh, so it’s much harder to build any kind of relationship with them.
Despite a lowering mood, Karl Robinson’s stock remains fairly high; his rating has outperformed his players by some way, which is quite some achievement. Given that a manager’s value comes from the extra he can add to the players’ natural ability, this looks like a particularly good result.
Amidst the gloom, one area that has held up is the performance of the directors and owners of the club. I’ve always assumed they’d be the last to gain praise when the club is doing well and the quickest to fall from favour. But, despite lowering expectations on the pitch, of it, the rating has barely dropped at all. The current situation has brought into sharp focus how important the owners are in keeping the club afloat and stable. The stability the owners have offered during this period of turbulence has been rewarded with a strong rating.
Although the lack of access to the club has tested many fans loyalty; the relationship remains a strong one. While it has dipped, it’s not fallen as much as the overall rating, suggesting, despite everything, the long-term prospects remain good.
I deliberately ask who the fans’ favourite player is, rather than who they think is best. It’s difficult to distinguish between the two, but it’s clear that fans do appreciate things beyond individual ability. The most notable change in the fans’ favourites is Sam Long who at the start of the season was ranked 9th and now tops the tree. Long has put in a string of impressive performances this season despite attempts to oust him from the first eleven, but his ascent is as much down to how resolute he is and how he represents the club on the pitch.
In terms of our aspirations for the season, our confidence has taken a knock. At the start of the season, the expectation was that the play-offs were a minimum requirement. The mid-season update has seen those ambitions recede to around 8th-10th. Despite this, based on previous surveys, for most fans this is our more natural level. Even at the start of the season when asked who would win the title, we were only 9th favourites despite fans expecting us to finish some way above that point. While expectations will fluctuate from one survey to another, our natural position appears to be just outside the play-offs.
Naturally, we know much more `about the form teams in the division, so when asked who’d win the title and who would finish bottom, there was much less spread across the teams. The most obvious shift is with Lincoln, who nobody saw them competing at the top of the table but are predicted to finish second behind Hull City, who were predicted to finish in the play-offs.
At the other end, Wigan – your pre-season favourites for the title – are now expected to finish 22nd and be relegated. We sit in amongst a bundle of clubs expected to finish in mid-table. In fact, there may be some secret hope for us in that there are so few standout clubs. If, and it is a big if, we can continue to string a decent run of form together it may be possible to break out of the pack and mount a challenge.
Overall, I don’t think there’s much to be concerned about; these are gloomy times, last season’s play-offs were an adrenaline shot which raised expectations a little too high. Sustaining that level of positivity was always likely to be a challenge, so a slight drop represents a return to normal, rather than straight up failure.