The wrap – Oxford United 0 Bristol Rovers 2

Whether you see it as another set of excuses or simply telling things as they are, Karl Robinson was open about the problems we currently face before Saturday’s defeat to Bristol Rovers

For weeks, we’ve been playing pretty much the same starting eleven which has held things together and put in a decent run in the process. But there’s been no release, no opportunity to freshen things up, if a player from outside that starting eleven comes in, we look weaker. It stands to reason that eventually someone will get injured or lose form and suddenly we look vulnerable.

I have a theory about why Bristol Rovers hold a hex over us at The Kassam, which I spoke about last season. Off the back of the defeat to Southend on Boxing Day, it was always going to be a tall order to get something from the game, particularly given the situation we find ourselves in.

Perhaps Robinson’s use of Slavi Spasov as a second-half substitute was a message to the owner of just how threadbare we are rather than a genuine attempt to retrieve something from the game. The fact he was too young to wear a sponsor on his shirt should tell you something about the options we have.

Before the game Robinson announced that Tony McMahon and Sam Smith would be leaving in January. McMahon has some personal issues which have hampered his ability to settle, which is fair enough. Smith is a slightly different issue.

Lots of people have criticised Smith, but I think the issue is more strategic. He hardly had any league experience before arriving from Reading, so expecting him to suddenly lead the line in a senior team was always asking a lot. 

Lots of people criticise the use of loans to bolster the squad, but they are an opportunity to bring in players that we couldn’t otherwise afford. However, strategically, we’ve got to decide the profile of loanee that will work for us. They need league experience and will have been loaned out previously. Presumably there are young players who simply join a club on loan and light things up, but not often. Kemar Roofe wasn’t much older than Smith when he joined us, but he’d been on loan at three other league clubs before he came to us. Rovers’ goalscorer Alex Jakubiak was with us in Michael Appleton’s first season, he’s had five loan spells since and looked a far better player for it.

We should also only expect them to stay for half a season, even if they’ve signed for the whole year. Jack Payne and George Baldock both left early and there was nothing we could do. We need to assume they won’t make the whole season and be ready to bring in a replacement if needed.

Talking of which, I can see Marcus Browne leaving. I’m not enough of a body language expert to know if he has stopped trying or whether he’s injured or tired, but it makes sense for West Ham to accelerate his development by sending him out to a bigger club for the rest of the season if one can be found.

Along with Browne, it won’t take big bucks to see Curtis Nelson leave. He’s really got no reason to stick around and plug away in a League 1 relegation fight when he should be playing in the Championship. A few hundred thousand and a decent sell-on clause should be good enough.

Jordan Graham may plug the gap left by Browne, Nelson will be harder to replace even with Charlie Raglan and John Mousinho available. All told, without movement, we look set to get weaker before we get stronger. We need to put some depth into the squad, or we could be in for a particular uncomfortable ride.

The wrap – Doncaster Rovers 2 Oxford United 2

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.