Midweek fixture: Oxford United micro-stories

A pivotal moment on the London Road

At 3.45 on the 29th December 1979, my life is about to change forever. Oxford United were playing Hull City, it was half-time and my dad and I were on the London Road on one our occasional trips to The Manor. It was bitterly cold and the scorching hot Scotch Broth my Granny made before we headed off to the ground was long gone. I loved football and couldn’t get enough of it, but the score was 0-0, it was so terrible, even I knew it.

My dad, knowing that I was cold, asked whether I wanted to go home. I suspect this wasn’t much to do with my welfare, more that he didn’t want to be with a whining 7 year old. I pondered; the terrace was empty; the crowd was small and most had dipped behind the stand to stock up on Bovril and chips. I thought about his offer – go home and get warm; or stay and, well, stay?

I don’t know how long I thought about it, but I eventually concluded we would stay. It was uncharacteristically resolute of me. Oxford came out in the second half kicking down the slope towards the London Road. We roared to a 3-0 win, our performance in the second half was as good as the first half was bad. I’d made the right decision. Going to football was making the right decision, as was staying to the very end and not giving up on your team. My lingering memory is of the pride of sticking with it more than any of the goals. Going to football, not just watching it on TV, was my path.   

Richard’s dad

Richard’s dad was brilliant. He was big in sweets. Well, his job involved getting boxes of chocolates, which he stored in their larder. If my dad couldn’t take me to games, I’d go with Richard and his dad where he’d produce chocolate from various pockets in his coat like Willy Wonka. We’d flit around him like baby birds waiting to be fed. My dad once got his hands on a ZX81 computer and spent all night programming it to print a picture of Mickey Mouse. The printer broke down halfway through due to a bug in the programme. Working with sweets was the best.

We were resolutely Osler Road at the time, but Richard and I would occasionally venture to the wall on the corner with the London Road so we could pat Garry Barnett on the back when he took a corner. It was a sort of training ground for the London Road and for soft boys like us, it was a rough place to be. Occasionally we’d get a prime spot stood on the wall leaning against an advertising board, but mostly we’d end up being faced down by some kids from Barton or Blackbird Leys and would be chased away back to the safety of our dads. The next day we’d report back at school about being at the match and dealing with the ruffians. Nobody really believed us, but were probably quite impressed we were allowed to stay up after 9.30pm.

Nottingham Forest, 1996

It’s 1996, it’s the FA Cup and we’ve drawn Nottingham Forest. The game was postponed and then re-arranged. I fell out with a friend who claims he’s didn’t want to come after I got him a ticket. I’m irritated because of the money, but I don’t want to go alone. In the end, he feels guilty enough to come.

We get there and mill around under the stand; we’re chatting with a steward. Rather naively, my friend asks whether it’ll be a full house. He mouths ‘no’ while observing the Oxford fans suspiciously. He’s not wrong, it’s a cold night, but it’s almost as if someone forgot to tell the people of Nottingham that a game is on.

Forest are in the Premier League and have Brian Roy in their ranks. It’s like he floats, he drops his shoulder and sends the whole away end the wrong way. We’re not playing badly at all, but they’re a class above. It’s no surprise when they take the lead. It looks like we’re heading out, but nobody can be disappointed by the display. Into the last minute and we get a corner. Bobby Ford sweeps another elegant cross into the far post, Stuart Massey fearlessly crashes through a bank of players connects with the ball and grabs the equaliser. In an involuntary spasm, I leave my seat and run down the steps towards him, I’m engulfed by fans, players, stewards and policemen. A briefly make eye contact with Massey who screams in my face. I can’t stop myself, at that moment I’ve truly lost my mind.

Mickey Lewis tells a story

It’s 2004 and I’m at my sister’s wedding. Mickey Lewis is married to one of her old school friends. My mum and dad went to Lewis’ wedding, the bar was full of the great and the good of 1990s Oxford. Dave Penney was the best man. Lewis’ in-laws love him; his father-in-law came round to our house once and told a story about how when they go out to pick up a curry, Mickey would have a pint in the local pub and a bag of chips from the chippy while he waited for his takeaway. For cosseted local folk, this is an adventure beyond boundaries. 

At my sister’s wedding Lewis is at the bar for most of the night holding court with a number of Oxford and Derby fans. He breaks free just once as the opening bars of Baggy Trousers comes on the disco. He gently pushes me aside as he enters the fray so that he can put in a solid 3.34 seconds of skanking. 

As the evening’s celebrations draw to a close and the numbers dwindle, I’m one of a handful of stragglers left in the hotel bar. Mickey’s gravelly voice is getting worse with every passing story. One of our number is a Wycombe Wanderers fan, so I prime Mickey with a mention of our 1996 win over Wanderers at Adams Park. Suddenly, Mickey’s animated; ‘We SPANKED them, didn’t we?’ he says, ‘SPANKED THEM’. His voice echoes across the empty bar. Suddenly he’s on his feet, he grabs his chair and starts to hump it, a metaphor for the beating we gave them that day. His volume increases to the point where he wakes the wife of one of our number who comes out and puts a stop to the party – with Mickey mid-hump – dragging her husband to bed. 

Midweek fixture: The secrets of Oxford United squad numbers

Now, this blog isn’t afraid to tackle the tough issues; Brexit, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, but I’m sure we can all agree, there are few more contentious issues in world football than squad numbers.

The announcement of squad numbers is part of any pre-season ritual. The allocation is often analysed to get an insight into who’s in favour and who isn’t. The graduation from a ho hum number 24, to the number seven is the sign that someone is coming of age. This year, there was a lot of focus on Mark Sykes’ graduation from 18 to number 10 and anyone who was paying attention will have realised that the initial announcement didn’t include an allocation for the number 11 shirt, a sure-fire sign something was going down, which turned out to be Sam Winnall.

But numerology around squad numbers is more art than science; there’s likely to be both more and less in the meaning behind squad number selection than we’d like to believe. Players may insist on a number because they perceive it to be lucky, others will take whatever is given to them.  

There’s no doubt that numbers become storied; laughably Birmingham City retired Jude Bellingham’s number 22 shirt last season after he signed for Borussia Dortmund, a mark of his indelible impact on the club in, um, less than a season. The Newcastle number 9 and Manchester United number 7 both carry a certain weight. Recently, Alan Shearer was on the radio talking about how Callum Wilson had phoned him about playing for Newcastle and the possibility of taking the number 9 shirt in the process. In the end he’s chosen not to, partly, perhaps, because that number at Newcastle puts you into a rich bloodline.

It’s easy to disappear down an internet wormhole when there’s nothing on TV, some people seek out hideous and monstrous things, me not so much. So, when I stumbled across the Football Squads website, I found myself poring over the history of Oxford United’s squad numbers. 

Allocated numbers have only been around since 1999 in the Football League. Before that teams would play in numbers 1 to 11, typically conforming to a designated position on the pitch. Squad numbers were reserved for international tournaments; presumably because of the practicalities of players retaining the same shirt during their weeks away. There was something very exotic about players in a number 16 or 18 shirt, now it’s barely worth a second mention. 

At the turn of the millennium that changed with players being given unique numbers for domestic campaigns. It was a nod to American sports, where numbers have become icons – not least the number 23 of Michael Jordan. The new system also offers a marketing opportunity, where you could sell the same shirt to the same person over and over, assuming they wanted more than one players’ name on their back. In the celebrity age, it became possible to sell the shirt of a player, even if you don’t care for the club. David Beckham’s value was often measured in the number of shirts he could sell for any club he signed for. This, incidentally, is a myth; players never justify their fees economically in shirt sales.

In reality, it’s not that unusual for numbers to be shared throughout a season. There are numerous occasions at Oxford where three players have turned out in the same number. In 2011/12 four players wore the number 31 – Lewis Guy, Andy Haworth, Conor Ripley and Emiliano Martinez. It surely goes without saying that none made a significant impact on the club.

Some players clearly have preferred numbers – for some reason Eddie Cavanagh was allocated the number 53 in 2014/15, by far the biggest number ever registered, ahead of Will Hoskins who chose to take the number 44, the nearest player to Hoskins that year was John Campbell at 37. Cavanagh’s number is even way ahead of the next biggest number – 47 worn by Kyran Lofthouse in 2018.

Sam Long’s squad number journey has curiosities hidden within – he spent two seasons in the number 30 shirt before spending four at 22. In 2018/19 he switched to 23 for a season before taking up the number 12 shirt. There’s clearly kudos in having one of the shirts from 1-11, but it’s hard to know why he hopped around so much. Perhaps, after a history of injury problems he felt like he could do with a change, though equally, it might be that he’s just happy to take whatever was available.

Holding onto the shirt is no mean feat; two players have been registered to their number for six consecutive seasons – James Constable took the number 9 shirt between 2008-2014 while Jake Wright made the number six his own between 2010-2016. Of the current squad, Simon Eastwood is currently on the longest run, this season will be his fifth in the number 1 shirt while James Henry has made the number 17 his own for four seasons. With his contract extension he should make the exclusive six season club.

For perhaps obvious reasons, the number 13 shirt wasn’t worn for ten years between 2003-2013. Three times it was taken up by foreign goalkeepers – Pal Lundin, Hubert Busby and Benji Buchel (for two seasons), presumably their cultural backgrounds meant they didn’t have the sense of foreboding about the number. Maybe there’s an interesting signal that the ancient hex of the number 13 is on the wane; Jack Stevens and Scott Shearer have been comfortable with the number 13 in recent seasons.

Unsurprisingly, the number one shirt is the most stable of them all, that’s never been swapped mid-season and only worn by eight players since 1999. The number two shirt is similar, but beware, in the last seven seasons only Christian Ribierio has managed to wear it for a whole campaign. Cameron Norman, Chris Cadden and George Baldock have had the shirt, but failed to make it to the end of the season. Sean Clare had better watch his back, or perhaps we should watch his back.

Some of the swaps feel highly symbolic – Mark Creighton was registered to the number 5 shirt in 2010/11, the season after promotion back from the Conference, in his place came Djoumin Sangare, which suggests a major misstep from Chris Wilder. In 2014/15 Joe Skarz took over the number three from Tom Newey; a true changing of the guard into the Appleton era.

Is there a cursed shirt? You’d do well to avoid number 24; in 21 seasons it’s been worn by thirty-one players including Alan Judge in 2003 who played as an emergency stand-in aged 44 and fabled one-game wonder Doudou in 2005. 

Does Oxford have a famous shirt? James Constable’s number nine is shared with Steve Anthrobus, Rob Duffy and Sam Smith, as well as Steve Basham and Matty Taylor. The number 6 of Jake Wright was worn by Matt Elliot and Mark Creighton but also Dave Woozley and Ian McGuckin. Was Joey Beauchamp’s number 11 enhanced by Mark Rawle and Lewis Haldane? What about the number 4 – a shirt worn by Kemar Roofe, Rob Dickie and John Lundstram, but also Peter Fear and Richard Brindley. Maybe the classic Oxford number is eight? John Aldridge, Liam Sercombe, Ryan Ledson and currently Cameron Brannagan have all carried that number.

None are as storied as the Manchester United number 7 or Newcastle number 9, but there’s a tale to tell in every one. In the coming months I’ll tell the story of different numbers and how they passed from legends to no-hopers and back again as the club’s fortunes ebbed and flowed.

Midweek fixture: 6 steps to surviving a pandemic as an Oxford fan

The government has paused its programme to return fans to stadiums pretty much wiping out the prospect of going to a game in October, and let’s face it, for some time beyond that. There are all sorts of implications for this, not least financial. But, in addition, it’s clearly a blow to the mental and social wellbeing of the club and those within it. Fans, players, owners and managers alike have been skittled by the news. While I can’t claim to have all this figured out, here are some ideas for dealing with the next few months as an Oxford fan.

Accept where you are 

When Chris Wilder criticised Oxford fans for romanticising the Milk Cup win in 1986 some thirty years earlier, he was slated by all who heard him. He was also right. We were a Conference team, our standards had slipped and the sooner we understood that, the sooner we’d sort the problem out. Epidemics are not unusual, nor pandemics; they’ve been less widespread – as with MERS, or more deadly as with Spanish flu, but they’re really quite common and most generations will have to deal with one. The faster you accept it and take action, the quicker it’s over. You can fight the reality by looking for data to prove what you want – that this is some kind of trivial seasonal flu or a government conspiracy. You can find research that proves masks are useless or damaging. But, this where we are, at nature’s behest until science comes to our rescue. A story as old as time. As an Oxford fan it means the prospect of empty stadiums and streaming services for months to come, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it will be, but it is like it is today. A friend of mine once taught me a trick about cycling up a steep hill – there is a point where you drop to your lowest gear and the bike can’t help anymore, for a while it’s going to be painful, but not forever. Accept it, then get pedalling.

Don’t beat yourself up about missing football

Football is often trivialised because of its omnipresence; the money, commercialism, the endless analysis and discussion. We are frequently reminded of times when football is ‘put into perspective’ as though it has got above its station. There are people dying and you’re sad about missing football? That’s gauche and distateful. But, football clubs are social institutions affecting thousands of people which are centuries old. Oxford United as an institution that has lived through Spanish Flu, two World Wars and countless local, national and global crises. It gives people purpose and structure, its resilience gives them hope. These are institutions that suffer glory and tragedy, riches and poverty, they ebb and flow and pulsate and they still survive. You’re part of that success, like generations of people before you. It’s fine to be proud of it and to miss it and to want to protect it. The reason it keeps going is because it means something; it is possible to simultaneously be concerned about people dying and the absence of football and to be no less a person because of it.  

Acknowledge what you have

The world is full of self-help books, a majority of them encourage you to ditch your past and create an often unattainable future. You change everything, transform your eating, ditch your bad habits and get increasingly miserable, so you take a break and all the things you were trying to rid yourself of come creeping back. You’re missing football, you’re missing the game, the routine, the little joys. You’re casting back to those memories, you cast forward to a time when it’s all over. And you want it to happen soon. But how are you now? Alive? Safe? Warm? Build from there. The club and social network that springs from it still exists. You still have the experiences that the club has given you – Nathan Holland’s last minute equaliser against Newcastle, Ryan Ledson slamming home at Charlton – indulge in that. If your mind wanders and your regrets and hopes and anxieties eat away, then stop and check. Are you OK now?

Find the next step

If there’s one overriding criticism I have of Boris Johnson it’s his endless hyperbole. Every financial pledge is ONE HUNDRED MILLION POUNDS, every initiative will be world beating, everything will be fixed by Christmas, if not next Tuesday. Not only does that simply serve to constantly disappoint, it fails to deal with the next step which is, in fact, the most important. You might want to be in the East Stand screaming yourself horse with your friends, or travelling 165 miles for a drab goalless draw on a Tuesday night, but that’s not the next step. The next step might be to indulge an hour or six in Oxford United’s kit history, listen to a podcast, watch the goals from the 95/96 season on YouTube, you might even re-read old posts from this blog. If it brings you joy, that’s your next step. If you can afford it, buy a match pass for a game, or a new shirt, or an old shirt, or some other old tat, or just listen to the commentary on Saturday on the radio. Keep taking the next step, then, one day someone will announce a test event, and you might get to go to that, then an increase in capacity and then, step by step towards something we call normality. And, my goodness, imagine what that’ll feel like. But, for now, just focus on taking the next step.

Act collectively

You see it all the time, the old blaming the young, the young blaming the old, the left blaming the right, the right blaming the left, even the healthy dismissing the sick as cannon fodder. Blame is often placed on a faceless, nameless, probably non-existent ‘other’ – they’re not using their common sense, they’re not waking up to the tyranny. So, rather than blaming other people or acting on your personal instincts, stick with the yellow army. Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, limiting contact with others. Like you would turn up to a game for kick-off, sing in unison, contribute personally to a collective success. Do it for other fans and for the benefit of the club; because the club is made up of the young and old, the right and left, the sick and healthy. Do it for the people who retell stories of Joey Beauchamp, Jim Smith and Ron Atkinson, do it for the people who fill the stands with flags and banners to make the best atmosphere in the country. Do it for the joke on the train going to an away game which makes you laugh even though you know it shouldn’t. Do it for the old couple who find themselves at the bottom of a bundle from a last minute goal at Portsmouth. If you can’t bring yourself to do it for the people you blame; do it for the club.

Know it will get better

If there’s one thing that being an Oxford fan tells you it’s that you have to always believe that things will improve. I’ve sat in the Kassam car park staring through my windscreen at the those trudging through the turnstiles wondering why I bother. I’ve seen hundreds of games of football and, frequently, I’ve walked out of the ground having seen them lost. I know that I’ll be back the following week, looking forward to a win. Then imperceptibly, it does start to get better, a win becomes two, two become five, form becomes promotion. Then before you know it you find yourself in a full stadium watching Chris Maguire breaking from a corner sliding the ball to Kemar Roofe to chip home for a famous cup win, or Sam Deering and Alfie Potter exchanging passes on the way to redemptive glory at Wembley, or you catch yourself, eyes bulging, ashen faced, unburdened of your money, work and family stresses, gulping for air as a primordial guttural scream, the likes of which you could never muster voluntarily, cascades from your gaping mouth as down below Toni Martinez knee slides towards you and thousands of others who are hundreds of miles from home, pursued by his team mates in a moment of unified ecstasy. That’s the memory, that’s the moment. From Stafford and Merthyr to Swansea and Middlesborough. Remember, it will always get better.

Midweek fixture: Absolute State of Oxford United Survey 2020 – Part 3 – The predictions

Having established who you are, and how you’re feeling, with days until the new season (proper), it’s time to look at the results of the Absolute State of Oxford United and the season ahead of us. How will we do? Where will we finish? What will happen?

The big question is where in the league will we finish? 23% think we’ll get automatic promotion with another 49% seeing us in the play-offs. Most votes went for second, but there was another peak around 6th.

There’s a lot of competition in the division, Wigan are your favourites – although a proportion of those votes came before the full horrors of their administration really became clear. Portsmouth were the next most popular choice followed by Peterborough.

The relegation vote was somewhat skewed by the existence of a certain team from Wiltshire. 76 of you saw them finishing bottom, but there’s not a whole lot of objectivity in that. Others expected to struggle are Rochdale and Wimbledon. 

Putting the two together – one vote for a championship prediction, minus one for a relegation; Wigan and Portsmouth are set to to be promoted with Peterborough, Hull, Ipswich Town and Sunderland making the play-offs. The relegation places will go to Swindon, Rochdale, AFC Wimbledon and Crewe, as a result we will finish 8th.

What this seems to show is that while there’s a lot of confidence in our own ability, the real question is how good are we compared to others. What may give us some hope is looking at the teams above us; in addition to Wigan, Portsmouth, Hull, Sunderland and Charlton are all carrying significant baggage with them. While it’s unlikely they’ll all blow, we can probably expect a few to falter.

1Wigan Athletic60
2Portsmouth51
3Peterborough46
4Hull City34
5Ipswich Town31
6Sunderland25
7Charlton Athletic24
8Oxford United17
9Fleetwood Town4
10Blackpool3
11Bristol Rovers0
12Doncaster Rovers-1
12Lincoln City-1
14Plymouth Argyle-2
14Shrewsbury Town-2
16Burton Albion-4
17Gillingham-5
18MK Dons-20
19Accrington-21
20Northampton Town-23
21Crewe Alexandra-26
22AFC Wimbledon-53
23Rochdale-57
24Swindon-76

Success in both cup competitions last year has driven a renewed sense of optimism. In the FA Cup 49% think we’ll make the 4th Round with another 44% in the 5th round. Last year the expectation was that we’d make the 3rd Round.

In the League Cup – remembering that the vote came in before the win over Wimbledon – 33% expected us to make the 3rd Round, which is a step on from last year, when nearly half (48%) thought we’d make the second round. 1% think we’ll make it all the way to Wembley; you’ve got to admire the optimism.   

Hopes for the season

In terms of hopes for the season, there were some common themes. Whatever happens in next season’s derby fixtures, it’s clear that this represents only the fifth most important thing in fans’ eyes.

Promotion

The biggest theme was the hope that we’d gain promotion. Last year’s run to the play-off final has clearly whetted the appetite and there’s a wrong to be righted. Going one better than last season is the one thing, above all others, that fans want to see. 

Stadium

Everyone’s favourite hope surrounded the resolution of the stadium situation. There’s a mixed view as to whether a new stadium or buying the Kassam offers the best opportunities, but getting it sorted one way or the other remains the eternal dream for many fans.

General progress

More generally, people want to see progress. There is a clear contentedness about the progress the club has made in the last 18 months, and more of the same, regardless of whether that results in promotion or not, is a hope many want to see.

A return to normality

Perhaps more profoundly; there was a desire to return to some kind of normality. Getting back to games is a priority, with a tacit recognition that this is likely to be in a limited way initially. The return to normality wasn’t just focussed on our own situation, there’s a real hope that the financial damage to clubs around us isn’t too deep and that the economic effects of the pandemic don’t cut too deep. 

Nine in a row

And of course, it probably goes without saying that another derby double is still high on the agenda of hopes for the forthcoming year. While there is the expected bravado and confidence that clocking up wins number eight and nine is inevitable, many do recognise that the run is probably closer to ending than starting, but six more points would still be nice, wouldn’t it?

Predictions

Asking about predictions often gets similar answers to asking about hopes. Also, collating the predictions of more than 300 people means that you get a prediction for every possible scenario – the infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters theory. None-the-less, these were the themes:

Fans

There are mixed views about when we’ll get to see a game in real life, October is the earliest prediction with the latest being February. One predictor is not expecting to see a game live all season. Even if there is a return, the prediction is that crowds won’t top 4000 all year. As for away games, many don’t expect to be on the road until after Christmas, or not at all. Quite a few are predicting that the season will be interrupted again.

Players

Some predictions already seem out of date; Matty Taylor has signed as predicted by some and not others, he just now just needs to fulfil the prophecy of 20-30 goals. Liam Kelly did sign as expected (although many predicted on a permanent deal). Plenty is expected of Dan Agyei with one person predicting 15-20 goals while Rob Atkinson is also predicted to emerge as a key talent. 

Those predicting that Cameron Brannagan would be sold were off the mark, though its still conceivable he’ll go in January as some think. A few people are expecting the return of Marcus Browne either on loan or permanently, and probably in January.

Most people predicted that Rob Dickie would be sold, though the expected price was £3-4m, which appears off the mark. For the record, he didn’t end up in the Premiership, specifically not with Southampton.

Another player mentioned in dispatches was Simon Eastwood, one person is expecting him to be ousted as our first choice keeper, while another thinks he’ll move back north before the season is out. We’ll see.

Off the field

There is a general prediction of financial chaos across the divisions, but there’s a mixed view as to what that’ll mean for us. Some think there will be another winding up order, while others are looking forward to a cash injection into the club. 

Of all the management predictions, Karl Robinson leaving was the most predominant. With a four year contract signed, that seems increasingly unlikely, though if a Championship club comes knocking – as some have predicted – it may still be a different story.

Stadium

Naturally, the biggest off-the-field issue is the stadium and once again, everyone is predicting everything. We will buy the stadium, build a fourth stand, build a new stadium or nothing will happen at all. Someone is clearly right, the question is, who?

Matches

Obviously, most predictions around specific games focussed on the two Swindon games; while many are confident of a good result, there is a large minority expecting us to falter. Someone predicted there would be a 1-1 draw with Sunderland while another predicted yet another cup game against Manchester City. 

In the league more generally, most are predicting a rollercoaster season of ups and downs. One thinks the final game of the season will feature 10 teams with a chance of the play-offs, while dark horses such as Lincoln, Gillingham or Bristol Rovers are predicted to upset the apple cart. Most are expecting a tight tussle, one person predicted that at Christmas, the top 10 will be separated by just 2 points. At the other end, one person is expecting relegation to be determined completely by points deductions.

Other

In other news, we’ll have a red away kit – not yet, but apparently there’s a third shirt in the offing – and Jerome Sale will win commentator of the year, though presumably that’s only if he avoids swearing on air in frustration, as one has foreseen.

And that’s it; all the collective wisdom of Oxford United fans laid bare. All that’s left to do is to let the season commence and see what happens. Good luck everyone.

Midweek fixture: Absolute State of Oxford United results (part 2) – The ratings

Following last week’s revelation from the Absolute State of Oxford United 2020 survey that not much has changed in the profile respondents, when it comes to how they feel, it’s a different story.

The data looks over three surveys; last summer, a smaller mid-season edition and this summer; the change of fortunes on the pitch is clearly reflected in the sentiment off it.

There’s been a significant upswing in positivity following a season which got us to the edge of the Championship. At the end of the 2018/19 season we were coming into some form but had spent a good proportion of the year fighting relegation as well as winding up orders, as a result, the overall rating of the club was 6.7. Twelve months later and the mood has risen to 8.3. This is a slight drop from mid-season, by which point we were pushing into the automatic promotion spots and advancing in the cups.

Karl Robinson’s approval rating is even higher; last year he scored just 6.1, which has now lept up to 8.9. This is an improvement even on the 8.4 he achieved at Christmas. Robinson’s rating is one of the few areas which has seen growth with each survey.

The quality of the squad has also grown, but more moderately from 6.2 to 7.7, though it peaked at 8.3 mid-season. You would expect the directors of the club to lag behind the players and manager in terms of ratings; people will always want more from their owners, and so dragging their rating up another notch is likely to be much harder. But still, their rating grew from 4.9 to 7.6 a slight drop from 7.7 mid-season. 

This has more significance when you look at the rating as an index; the initial survey score becomes a baseline (with a standard rating of 100) then you can measure the relative rises and falls from that base. This helps remove some of the inbuilt biases in each category, perhaps a bit more sympathy towards players and that directors are always likely to rate lower than other areas. Using this method, the directors index score for the end of the season was – 154.9 representing the biggest growth of all areas. 

The result is a much stronger relationship between the fans and the club, now rated at 8.1 from 5.0 – an index score of 162.1. I look at this score as an amalgam of all the others, showing that we’re stronger than the sum of our parts with Karl Robinson proving the key driver.

Reflecting on the progress of the club, 63.8% of people think it’s considerably better than it was five years ago, a huge leap forward from just 18.1% last year. The pessimists have evaporated; last year nearly a third of respondents considered the situation worse than five years ago, including 7.8% thinking it was ‘considerably worse’. A year on and just 1% consider it slightly worse with none considerably worse.

Casting forward however, there seems to be a degree of caution. Last year 9.1% thought things might be worse in five years time, which has dropped to 4.1%. However those who think it will be considerably better grew modestly from 17.0% to just 17.6% – which could be a recognition that the club is reaching the limit of its real potential. To go further would require resolution to bigger, structural issues such as the stadium?

Cameron Brannagan was the fans’ favourite player and despite a moderate second half to the season, he grew his proportion of the vote from 18.4% to 19.3%. Last year Gavin Whyte romped home with 31.7% of the vote, his votes were shared around this year. Rob Dickie saw the biggest jump from 0.3% to 17.7%. The biggest loser was Simon Eastwood who last year picked up 11.9% of the vote, but scraped in 11th with 1% of the vote. 

In terms of most improved player, Mark Sykes picked up the most votes followed by Rob Dickie and Sam Long. Dan Agyei had a strong showing in 4th.

Reading through your nominations for moments of the season was a joy, every now and then someone would throw up a moment I’d long forgotten like the League Cup win over Sunderland, Matt Taylor’s equaliser against Manchester City or the 3-3 draw with Coventry. In the end there were three truly outstanding moments; the win over West Ham in September and Josh Ruffels’ last minute winner at Shrewsbury both showed strongly, but it was Nathan Holland’s last minute howitzer against Newcastle in the FA Cup which sneaked home in first.

So, as the new season approaches, there has been a surge in positivity. There are significant challenges in maintaining that momentum, including the endless challenge of getting better with each season and the physical and emotional distance between the club and fans. Next week, we’ll look at where you think we’ll be in 12 months time with all your predictions.

Midweek fixture: Absolute State of Oxford United survey 2020 – the results (part 1 – who are you?)

The results are in for this year’s Absolute State of Oxford United survey. Big thanks to the 313 people who took part, a solid 5% increase on last year. 

As with last year, the plan is to look at the results in blocks – in the next couple of weeks I’ll look at the ratings of the club and then predictions for next season. First though, it’s useful to get some context. So in part one, I’m looking at the profile of who responded.

The big question is whether the result is representative, difficult to say, it’s likely to be bias towards younger people given that most of the traffic to the survey comes from Twitter. That said, the demographics aren’t alien to what you might typically see on a normal match day.

Whereas in the coming weeks we’ll look at movements over a year. You wouldn’t expect the fan profile to shift dramatically, but it’s useful to keep tabs on these things. 7% of respondents were female, a rise of 1% on last year. This is good news, but though it’s not possible to say whether it’s a sustainable trend. This will only become clearer in 5-10 years time.

For the first time I asked about ethnicity. I wasn’t sure whether this was a good idea in the context of Black Lives Matter and all that. I could have predicted the result – 98% consider themselves white (including those claiming their ethnicity to be English, Irish and Jewish). In short, there are more black players in our current first team squad than in the 313 who responded to the survey. 

Diversity is not simply some kind of ‘woke’ crusade as it’s often cast. One day I’ll try to cover why a diverse fanbase leads to a more effective club, but let’s look at an even simpler reason to diversify. On average there are 130,000 vacant seats at home League games a season meaning which represents around £3 million pounds a year in ticket revenue. How do you fill those seats? We could keep trying to find white males – the core market – though many of the unconverted will already be invested in their chosen club. Alternatively we could mine for fans amongst the 350,000 women in the county, or the 60,000 non-white people. In simple economic terms, a wider engagement will lead to a healthier club. Understanding the barriers that prevent women and BAME people from attending games should produce financial benefits.

There’s a mixed picture when it comes to the age profile – there was a 2% increase in respondents for both under-16 and 16-25 years old suggesting that last year’s successes could be bringing in some much needed younger fans. However, there was also a 4% increase in those aged 56-65, implying there’s an ageing fanbase. All this is at the expense of the 36-54 age range; as the group most likely to introduce their children to the club, this isn’t could imply a problem further down the line.

If you want to feel old, then look at the statistics around when people felt they became an Oxford fan. There’s been a 7% increase in people who say they started following the club in 2010. Around a third of our fans will never have been to The Manor and there was one respondent who said they started following the club in the 2020s – there’s not many, but they walk amongst us.

42% of respondents attend more than 21 home games a season, a 5% increase, suggesting growing loyalty, presumably drawn in by the on-field success of last year. This is mostly at the expense of the casual fan who attends 1-10 games which has dropped 8%. This is a good sign, though casual fans are still important.

Half of respondents consider the East Stand their home with 28% the South Stand. This shows a bit of a migration with a 6% increase in East Stand mirrored in a 6% drop in the South Stand. Perhaps an impact of pricing differentiation? Those in the North Stand and those who move around stayed around the same.

The profile of our away following hasn’t changed at all with 67% making 1-10 away games and 4% more than 21. In both cases a shift of less than 1% from last year.  

Last year I was surprised to see that 35% of fans live more than 50 miles from the stadium, by far the biggest proportion. That’s dropped very slightly with a 3% increase in people living under 10 miles from the ground and 2% between 11-20 miles. It still represents something of a challenge. If you’ve got a couple of hours of driving to get to a home game, it wouldn’t take much to stop you from doing that. Local engagement seems to be a priority for the club.

This stuff is a slow burner, change is likely to come over long periods won’t necessarily be reflected in the data for years to come. As I see it, there are opportunities, not just to change for the sake of it, but to broaden our appeal and increase chances of future success. In reality, this is the context, it gives us a base to work with over the next couple of weeks. Next week will look at how you rate the club, manager, players and your favourite moments from last season.