Midweek fixture: Absolute State of Oxford United 2021 – part 1 – who are you?

So, here we are again, another season creeps ever closer. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so detached from the hullabaloo. Perhaps it’s the heat, the Euros or the pandemic. Maybe it’s the sneaking suspicion that this season won’t bring us back to the good old days, as some are hoping, but something in between those times and where we were last season.

Still, as usual, for the third year, I ran the Oxblogger Absolute State of Oxford United survey, an attempt to set some expectations and benchmarks for the season. My own detachment maybe be mirrored across other fans, if the response rate is anything to go by; less than half who took the survey last year responded this. Perhaps that was because of the distraction of the Euros – this is at the first survey done during a major tournament, or maybe it’s that people are simply bored of the survey.

Whether the lower response makes the results any more or less relevant is another question – from previous experience, the trends that you see from the first bout of responses, pretty much hold true regardless of the eventual turnout. So the 150 or so people who responded have probably given the views of the 300 that completed the survey in the past.

We start with the end of the survey; who are you? Why? Well, this is slow data, stuff which won’t change dramatically from one year to the next, so the results, in a sense are more a bedrock for the rest of the survey and, perhaps, not the most interesting bit. That comes in the next couple of weeks.

The most significant result for me in that section is result that produces the most boring graph; 100% of respondents were white. Now, this is Twitter, not real life and I know that not all Oxford fans are white, but maybe it illustrates that we’re failing to reach a reasonable chunk of our potential fanbase. You might write this off as wokey nonsense, and not believe that a diverse range of views will tend to produce better outcomes than everyone who thinks and acts the same. Maybe you’re not aware of the impact that a lack of diversity in the gene pool has had on our friends up the A420. The reality is that we have diverse owners and players, but not fans, which is a shame. Greater cohesion in relatively benign things like following a football club will have benefits more widely, I’m sure hardcore Brexiteers and Remainers have cheered together over the last five years despite their obvious differences. Why can’t this be true with mixing people with different cultural backgrounds? This isn’t something to ignore. On a purely practical level, we’re missing out on ticket sales and maybe even future players.

The gender split remains pretty static, 92% were male compared to 93% in 2019 when the survey first came out. We continue to get older; we had less responses in all age groups aged 35 and under, a massive 14% drop amongst 16-25 year olds, which may be a Euros effect, or perhaps I need to get myself on Tiktok. At the other end of the spectrum, there were nearly twice as many people aged over 56 than in 2019.

We appear to be getting more loyal; 47% said they go to more than 21 home games a year, up from 37% two years ago. Of course, none of us have been to 21 games in the last year and it might be that the perception of loyalty has grown given how we’ve all been stuck in front of our laptops all season. The number of away games people are getting to is gently falling – although two thirds of people get to 1-10 away games a season – pretty static since 2019 – the number not able to get to any away games has grown from 11% to 16% in the last two years. Again, who knows what the lockdown has done to our perceptions?

If you want to feel old, then as with last year, we have one fan who claims to have started watching us in the 2020s. That’s one person for whom Rob Duffy is a historical character, like Anne Boleyn or Jesus. Unsurprisingly, nearly half our fans started supporting during the 1980s and 1990s with another 21% from the 21st Century. Put another way, 2 in 10 Oxford fans never went to The Manor.

One of the most surprising statistics for me is that more than a third of our fans live more than 50 miles from the stadium. What’s more, there seems to be a gradual drift from the city and therefore the club. Simple things like house prices may be a factor, but it feels like a bit of a long term ticking timebomb. Either we work harder to recruit fans locally – those figures have crept up very slightly – or we have to invest in the club’s broad geographical spread to help ensure loyalty and connection is maintained when the visceral pleasures of attending a game are so far away.

So what conclusions can we draw? In truth, not many, these are trends to keep an eye on, in the micro-world of Oxblogger we’re getting older, we’re moving slightly further away and we’re less diverse, though success appears to be making us more loyal. Although the changes in the numbers are still small, overall, this isn’t healthy and if it is a reflection of the broader fanbase, then these aren’t figures to ignore.

Next week, we’ll reflect on the season just gone, how are you rating the squad, management and directors? Who are you favourite players? And what was your favourite moment of the season?

Midweek fixture – League 1 Kitwatch 2021/22

It wouldn’t be the summer without a slew of new kits. So, once again, I bring you the League 1 kit watch, every new shirt announcement from the third tier.

Accrington Stanley

I’ve not seen it confirmed, but looks like Accrington are sticking with the same kits they had last year.

Bolton Wanderers

Bolton clearly trying to channel the Oxford United promotion squad in 1996 with their new away kit.

Burton Albion

You have to admire Burton’s dedication to the relegated by March look.

Cambridge United

Good. god. A proper tale of three shirts at Cambridge United – the third, white, shirt is a cracker with the Hummel chevrons, the second kit is a reasonable effort with the diagonal pinstripe on the away shirt, but what the heck happened with the nine-designs-in-one effort on the home shirt?

Charlton Athletic

Hummel shirts always have a bit of a head start with the use of the chevron. Mind you, Charlton’s home shirt goes a long way to cocking it up. Those dark bits on the shirt give it a nasty shine feel. The away shirt, however, is top draw.

Cheltenham Town

Cheltenham are sticking with the same home shirt as last season, the away kit is instantly forgettable; the white third kit is very nice.

Crewe Alexandra

These graphical designs are a growing feature of shirts these days; even if does look like a physical manifestation of an anxiety attack. The away kit is from League 1 central designs.

Doncaster Rovers

If in doubt, reverse out. Doncaster have mucked around with their normal red and white hoops to come up with this smasher. The blue away shirt is pretty solid too. The combo is one of the best in the division.

Fleetwood Town

Fleetwood are sticking with last year’s home shirt, the combination with the away shirt is a bit like Fleetwood; instantly forgettable.

Gillingham

Ipswich Town

This year’s Ipswich Adidas number is adorned by the logo of super fan Ed Sheeran, other than that, it’s basically every Ipswich shirt for the last thirty years. Good work on the away shirt.

Lincoln City

Last year Lincoln City were the dark horses in the division, this year will be a different proposition so they’re trying to throw a smokescreen over the issue by looking like a park team.

MK Dons

Morecambe

I’m a bit of a sucker for a sash and a decent sponsor’s font; so I this is a good effort from Morecambe even if the away shirt looks a bit of an after-thought.

Oxford United

Plymouth Argyle

League 1 teams love Puma, they offer an almost endless selection of colours and designs, and yet every single one seems to be the same.

Portsmouth

Pompey sublimating the sleeves of their new home shirt; Nike really showing how billions of pounds design expertise can take shirts to new levels of mediocrity.

Rotherham United

Pinstripe is a big trend this season, Rotherham’s new shirt is masterful in its simplicity. Once again, the away kit is a pretty generic effort. The subtle bra straps offer a nice feminine touch, though.

Sheffield Wednesday

Shrewsbury Town

Sunderland

Wigan Athletic

Wimbledon

Wycombe Wanderers

Midweek fixture – Yellows in the Euros

It may have taken 28 years for Oxford United to make any impression on the European Championships, but when it came, it was explosive; pivoting around a single game, and a single goal, on the 12th June 1988 in Stuttgart.

Before we get to that, some context; Charles Hughes was the FA’s technical director during the 1980s and an acolyte of Wing Commander turned accountant turned football theoretician Charles Reep. Reep observed that most goals resulted from moves of less than four passes and therefore argued that teams should focus on creating what he called POMOs – Positions Of Maximum Opportunity – via what we now know as the long ball or route one.

Hughes was such a robust advocate of direct football he enshrined it in the FA official coaching manual in 1980 and it became a template for a generation of managers including Dave Basset at Wimbledon, Graham Taylor at Watford and Jack Charlton for the Republic of Ireland.

The idea of POMO is flawed; there’s no advantage of playing the long ball; all possession in those days tended to consist of less than four passes, it’s just how football was played. Teams were more potent when they retained possession just they didn’t do it very often. The idea stuck and even today, you’ll hear English football fans channelling Charles Reep by yelling at teams to get the ball in the mixer and stop mucking about.

When Jack Charlton became Republic of Ireland’s manager in 1985 he set about transforming the nation’s hopes based on two principles; a full-hearted commitment to Hughes’ philosophy and the leveraging of the opportunities provided by the Irish diaspora.

The Irish are among the most dispersed in the world, forced by poverty and persecution to find a better life elsewhere. To retain its identity, the Irish government had a liberal interpretation of nationhood. By law, if you had Irish relatives going back three generations, you could apply for citizenship. This helped circumnavigate FIFA’s ‘grandparent’ rule, where players were eligible to play for only their parents or grandparents’ home country. If Charlton could persuade eligible players to apply for Irish nationality, his catchment for talent would grow exponentially.

While some headed to the Americas, and others to Gaelic speaking Scotland, many Irish migrants simply crossed the Irish Sea to settle in Liverpool. One of those was John Aldridge’s great grandmother, Mary Mills, from Athlone.

Two things prevented Aldridge from being the greatest domestic goalscorer of his generation; Gary Lineker and Ian Rush. Lineker was immovable for England, while Rush was the leading striker in club football. Aldridge scored an avalanche of goals for Oxford, but opportunities to go further, particularly internationally, were limited.

Jack Charlton seized his chance, giving Aldridge his international debut in March 1986 against Wales. Prolific wherever he played, Aldridge didn’t quite fit into the long-ball system; his reputation built on poaching goals from six yards out. It took two and a half years and 20 games to score the first of his 19 international goals.

He hadn’t found the net by the time Ireland qualified for Euro 88 in Germany. By this point, Aldridge had moved from Oxford to Liverpool, replacing Rush who had been sold to Juventus. Ireland’s presence was assumed to add some colour to the tournament with their fearsome reputation for drink and an endless appetite for the craic. Ireland were what England could have been if they weren’t so angry and uptight about everything, it’s not surprising Charles Hughes’ ideas gained traction, the English dreary and pragmatic, lacking in romance.

Ireland qualified having scored just ten goals in eight games and thanks to a late Scotland goal against Bulgaria. Nobody considered them to be a threat. England, off the back of a good World Cup in 1986, fancied their chances to go all the way. The two countries were drawn together in Group B and faced each other in their opening game on the third day of the tournament.

Charlton was up against the country he’d won the World Cup with twenty-two years earlier, but somehow seemed more Irish than English. England seemed uncomfortable and on edge, partly because of the constant threat of hooliganism, but also because of the expectation that hung over them. Charlton had an air of chaotic bonhomie and the Irish loved him for it. In a frenzied atmosphere, the Irish entered the fray, backed by thousands of fans, with Aldridge leading the line.

The early moments were a testament to Charles Hughes’ vision; the flow of the game punctuated by petty fouls and aerial duels. After six minutes, a long Kevin Moran free-kick was launched down the left, deep into England territory.

Another former Oxford player, Southampton’s Mark Wright was partnering Tony Adams after Terry Butcher had been ruled out with a broken leg. Wright had played 10 games for Oxford before being transferred to The Dell in a deal which brought Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence to The Manor. Within two years he’d made his England debut.

Wright was drawn out to firefight down the flank. Apparently spooked by the Irish threat, he clattered his right-back Gary Stevens allowing the ball to run loose to Tony Galvin. Galvin weakly hooked the ball across the penalty area but Wright’s ill-discipline caused panic in the English defence, pulling it out of position, forcing left-back Kenny Sansom into the middle to fill the hole he’d left behind but leaving the back post wide open.

The ball was awkward, bouncing waist high, Sansom lashed at it, sending it high into the air; Aldridge, playing target man, beat Tony Adams in the air nodding it onto the back post where Ray Houghton was arriving at speed.

Houghton may never have been an Irish legend he was if it wasn’t for John Aldridge. Charlton’s focus had been on the striker when he watched him score twice in Oxford’s Milk Cup semi-final first leg draw against Aston Villa. Afterwards, Aldridge introduced Charlton to Houghton joking that his teammate was more Irish than he was.

Houghton, a Glaswegian who’d signed for Oxford the previous summer, had a fractious relationship with the Scottish national team when it became clear that, despite a breakthrough season at The Manor and a goal in the Milk Cup Final, he was unlikely to be considered for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Much to Charlton’s delight, Houghton’s father was from Donegal and therefore eligible for the Republic. Moving quickly, Charlton gave him his debut against Wales alongside Aldridge three weeks later.

Back in 1988, as the ball from Aldridge dropped, Houghton – now also a Liverpool player – burst into the box with his characteristic scuttle. He’d spotted Peter Shilton just off his line and off-centre to the goal, he realised if he could get some elevation on his header, he’d be able to get it over the keeper and into the net. Shilton, playing his 99th game for England, watched helplessly as it sailed over his head for 1-0. The celebrations were wild, it was the defining moment in a defining Irish win. The two ex-Oxford players, with a little help from a third, had ignited a golden age for the Republic on a world stage, one Irish fan said it defined the country for the first time since Irish partition nearly 70 years earlier.

Nestled away on the Irish bench in Stuttgart was Le Havre striker Johnny Byrne. If Aldridge and Houghton were in the right place at the right time, the reverse could be said for Byrne. He’d made his Republic of Ireland debut a few months before Jack Charlton became manager. A mercurial ball playing forward, he didn’t really fit Charlton’s model. Aldridge, Frank Stapleton, Tony Cascarino and Niall Quinn were all ahead of him in the pecking order, Byrne was very much plan B, or perhaps C or D, watching all three games from the sidelines. Things would pick up for him five years later as he spent a memorable couple of years partnering Paul Moody at The Manor.

The defeat was the start of a dismal tournament for England; after losing to the Republic they were humiliated 3-0 by the Netherlands. Wright was rested for the dead rubber against the Soviet Union, which ended in a 3-1 defeat. For Ireland, with Aldridge and Houghton ever-present, a draw with the Soviet Union put them on the verge of qualification, but a late 1-0 defeat, and freak goal, to the Netherlands ended the adventure, if not the wanderlust for more.

The Euros became a recurring nightmare for Mark Wright. In 1992, days before the tournament in Sweden, he aggravated his Achilles and dropped out of the squad. It came so late England weren’t allowed to replace him and he remained an official, if unavailable, squad member. Four years later, in Euro 96, Wright was set to be a surprise pick having worked his way back into contention after two years out of the squad. Two months before the tournament, he strained knee ligaments ruling him out again.

With Mark Wright missing Euro 92, it took until Euro 96 in England for an Oxford presence to re-emerge on the Euro stage. Ian Walker – who’d played three games on loan at The Manor six years earlier – was the perfect nineties footballer with his ‘curtains’ haircut, mock Tudor mansion and page 3 girlfriend. He also had an extraordinary International career that lasted eight years, two European Championships – he was picked again in 2004 – and just four games. In 1996 he played third fiddle to David Seaman and Tim Flowers, eight years later he’d been overtaken by David James and Paul Robinson. It goes without saying, Walker didn’t get a sniff of even the substitutes bench for either tournament.

Memories of Euro 96 are heavily skewed by England’s glorious failure. Elsewhere, the tournament was a bit ho hum; stadiums were half-full and there were few genuine stand out games. Scotland’s tournament was very typical – an encouraging draw with the Netherlands preceded a defeat to England. A win over Switzerland put them on the brink of qualification, but England conceded in a win over the dutch meaning Scotland were edged out on goals scored. On the bench throughout was Scot Gemmil, a disappointment no doubt that was extinguished when he moved to Oxford in 2006 as Jim Smith’s player-coach. He made one substitute appearance at Mansfield, an experience he found so overwhelmingly fantastic he immediately emigrated to New Zealand.

And that was it until this year’s tournament. Leeds United’s Tyler Roberts, who was on loan briefly at Oxford in 2016, is in the Wales squad. After the group games, Roberts – wearing the number nine – remains rooted to the bench. If he does make an appearance in the knock-out stages, he’ll be the first Oxford-related player to have stepped onto the pitch since the 1988 tournament 33 years ago. Given the wait, Charles Hughes may have blighted a generation of English football, but maybe we should be grateful for his flawed theories.

Midweek fixture: Season review 2020/21

It’ll soon be time for Oxblogger’s Absolute State of Oxford United Survey for 2021, but with the season complete and the spoils of war dished out, let’s look back at what you were predicting for us last year and how it turned out.

When asked where we’d finish 56% of you thought we’d end up higher than 6th, so even though we sneaked into the play-offs, most expected more. It’s a different picture when predicting the final table compared to others; in that you thought we’d finish 8th, showing how fierce the competition was. But this meant we were ahead of expectation in that respect.

Hull City were champions, but you had them down as 4th. You predicted that Wigan Athletic would be top, even though they finished 19th. To rectify that terrible prediction; you also said Swindon Town would be anchored to the bottom, but they over-performed to finish 23rd. In a hard fought battle of ineptitude, the wooden spoon went to Bristol Rovers, who you thought would finish 11th.

Charlton Athletic, in seventh, was the only team whose place you predicted accurately. Surprisingly, perhaps, Crewe Alexandra were the team that over-performed nine places ahead of their predicted 21st. Lincoln City’s 5th place was the next biggest, eight places higher than you’d predicted, with a similar performance from Accrington Stanley.

Biggest failures were Wigan, 19 places below where you said they’d finish, next was Bristol Rovers 13 places below their predicted finish.

Finishing positionPredictedDifference
Hull City14+3
Peterborough23+1
Blackpool310+7
Sunderland46+2
Lincoln City513+8
Oxford United68+2
Charlton Athletic770
Portsmouth82-6
Ipswich Town95-4
Gillingham1016+6
Accrington Stanley1119+8
Crewe Alexandra1221+9
MK Dons1317+4
Doncaster Rovers1412-2
Fleetwood Town159-6
Burton Albion16160
Shrewsbury Town1715-2
Plymouth Argyle1814-4
AFC Wimbledon1922+3
Wigan Athletic201-19
Rochdale2123+2
Northampton Town2220-2
Swindon Town2324+1
Bristol Rovers2411-13

Cup predictions were pretty grim; in 2019/20 we’d had good runs in both competitions and hopes were high for this season. 66% of you thought we’d go beyond the 2nd round of the League Cup and a whopping 97% thought we’d go beyond the 1st Round in the FA Cup. So, under-performances all round.

Hopes for the season

In terms of more general hopes for the season, the themes produced a mix bag.

Promotion

The biggest single hope was us achieving promotion, even though, as illustrated above, we were expected to finish outside the play-offs when considering the opposition. So, a failed objective, but perhaps it was an expectation bar that was too high. 

Stadium

The great perennial hope was around the resolution of the now 20 year old stadium situation – new stadium or buying the Kassam – you weren’t fussy. In reality, and understandably, this may have been the quietest year on record in that particular issue. It remains our eternal and elusive hope, could it be resolved next year? Probably not.

General progress

More generally, people wanted to see progress; this is a nebulous concept – fans back at the stadium? Promotion? A general feeling of goodwill? More investment? While there isn’t the fervour of last season’s successes, there still seems to be a good vibe around the place and a general enthusiasm for the club. So, we’re probably in a similar place to where we were this time last year and in the circumstances, that’s no bad thing.

A return to normality

What everyone was looking for back in September was a return to normal and we’re still a way from that. There does seem to be some indication that we’re moving in the right direction with fans back at games, albeit in a limited way. The return to normality didn’t just focus on our own situation, there was also a real hope that the financial damage to other clubs wasn’t too deep either. So far, although full recovery is still a long way away, the fact that no clubs have gone bust is, perhaps, a big bonus. 

Nine in a row

This season offered the opportunity to turn seven in a row against Swindon into nine. Naturally, that all went up in a puff of smoke. Despite the hope, lots of you were predicting this, just by the law of averages.

Predictions

Your predictions were wild, varied and mostly misguided, but there were a few gems in there:

Fans

The most optimistic prediction was the return of fans by October, so the brief return in December wasn’t miles off even if it was short lived. One prediction was that we wouldn’t see a live game and we were pretty close to that. Someone predicted that crowds wouldn’t top 4000 all year, which was bang on. Many of you were right to predict that away games would be out of the question, but at least the season wasn’t interrupted as some thought it might.

Players

Matty Taylor was predicted to notch 20-30 goals, but fell short by a single goal, Dan Agyei was also predicted to score 15-20 goals, so six was some way off that. Rob Atkinson did emerge as a key talent as some thought he would. 

Cameron Brannagan is still with us, when many thought he wouldn’t be, but Marcus Browne’s return in January failed to materialise.

One person predicted that Simon Eastwood would be ousted as our first choice keeper, which was inconceivable at the time, although it has surprised many that he hasn’t moved back north and has, in fact, signed a new contract.

Off the field

You predicted financial chaos across the divisions, which, miraculously, hasn’t yet shown itself. Some thought we’d have a winding up order, which we didn’t, others thought there’d be a cash injection, which, if rumours of a boardroom shake up are anything to go by, could actually be right. You also thought Karl Robinson would leave for the Championship, but he’s still here.

Matches

On the field, someone predicted there would be a 1-1 draw with Sunderland, which, for the first time ever, there wasn’t, nor was there another cup game against Manchester City. 

Elsewhere, the season didn’t end with 10 teams with a chance of the play-offs but Lincoln City did turn out to be the dark horses of the division. At the other end, the expectation that relegation would be determined by points deductions didn’t happen.

Other

And finally; there was no red away kit and Jerome Sale didn’t win commentator of the year nor, thankfully, did he swear live on air.

The verdict

Purely objectively, based on your predictions and hopes, it’s been a disappointing season with general under-achievement all round. Why doesn’t it feel like that? Probably because there was a realisation that after narrowly missing out on promotion in 2019/20, expectations were very high, perhaps too high, as was the competition within the division. In such a volatile environment, standing still could easily be seen as progress in itself.

Midweek fixture: Sam Long – local hero

The first time I remember seeing Sam Long he was 18-years-old and stood in a school assembly hall handing out end of season awards to a local junior football club having signed his first professional contract a few days earlier. 

Long was unremarkable; his hair was short and he was wearing jeans, trainers and a hoodie, looking indistinguishable from the teenagers he was rewarding. The year before, the club had attracted England international Eniola Aluko. By contrast, dressed in her England tracksuit, she looked comfortable in her ambassadorial role. 

One of the coaches congratulated Long on his new contract; though most didn’t know who he was. My thoughts were less magnanimous, it had been nearly a decade since Dean Whitehead and Sam Ricketts had cultivated successful careers in the game and two decades since Joey Beauchamp and Chris Allen had done the same. Long didn’t seem the type that was likely to follow in their footsteps.

There are always players that fans see as being the great new hope for the club; there were frenzied calls for James Roberts and Tyrone Marsh to solve our goalscoring problems despite being inexperienced teenagers, like many others, they quickly faded from the scene.

Long’s debut was as a substitute for James Constable in 2013 away to Accrington Stanley. The team, managed by Chris Wilder, mixed veterans from our Conference promotion season – Constable, Damian Batt and Alfie Potter – with experienced pros like Michael Duberry who had been brought in to fire us towards promotion. Duberry had already picked Long out for his work ethic and lack of ego, praising the influence of Chris Allen, his youth team coach, for instilling a culture of listening and learning which, he said, would serve him well.

It would be another year before Long would make his first start. With Wilder moving on to Northampton, caretaker manager Mickey Lewis gave him his debut in a draw at Morecambe. It was an illustration of Lewis’ generous character to give young players a chance, even if it was sometimes at the expense of results. Lewis was quick to praise Long’s performance, in what was otherwise a disappointing display.

The arrival of Michael Appleton and new ownership in 2014 saw a revolution at the club. Long wasn’t an established player and with Appleton impatient to find a winning formula, his chances were limited to eight games, although he did score his first goal against Southend. 

Appleton churned through over 40 players in his first season, weeding out many of Chris Wilder’s signings who he saw as having a loser’s mentality. Long could easily have been swept away in the tidal wave, but he survived the cull, going on a six-week loan to Kidderminster in November 2014 as part of a deal that brought Chey Dunkley to the club.

With the painful screwdriver work complete; everything seemed to be falling into place for Long as the 2015/16 season approached. Jake Wright called him the best player in pre-season; in a crowded field, it was quite an accolade. 

It went further; Michael Appleton started implementing a philosophy inspired by the book Legacy – which details the winning formula of the All-Blacks. He established a leadership group to build cohesiveness and deal with squad issues; Long was made part of it to stand alongside more experienced first team regulars.

Then, just as things started to click, Long was stretchered off in a League Cup tie at Hillsborough with an ankle ligament injury that plagued him all season. He returned to the bench for the 2016 EFL Trophy defeat to Barnsley, but while the club were advancing, Long was stuck in the physio’s room.

Long would make the bench a year later for another EFL Trophy final against Coventry, but injuries slowed his progress. When Pep Clotet replaced Appleton in 2017, the new manager turned to experienced players, a rainbow alliance of old mates. When he was fit, Long was loaned out to Hampton and Richmond Borough.

To outsiders, it seemed that the club were running Long’s contract down; he’d started four league games in three years and faced the prospect of getting to the end of his deal with little or no experience and no reputation to take him elsewhere. 

It would be romantic to suggest that Karl Robinson spotted Long’s potential and nurtured him into the player he is today, but that wouldn’t be wholly true. Robinson wanted a modern full-back, an auxiliary midfielder expected to defend and attack for 90 minutes. He strained his resources to land someone with the modern characteristics of pace, energy, resilience and those crucial defensive and attacking qualities. Chris Cadden arrived from Motherwell, but the budget couldn’t stretch to a permanent deal so the club signed up to a curious arrangement where he moved to Columbus Crew before being immediately loaned bak to the Oxford for half a season while the MLS season was in recess. When Cadden’s deal ran out, Robinson turned to Long to fill the vacant slot. 

Finally getting regular starts, the season was curtailed as the coronavirus pandemic hit, a late run of form saw Oxford qualify for the play-off final against Wycombe. It was Long’s third trip to Wembley, his first time on the pitch and his third disappointment. 

Although Long signed a new two-year deal just before the play-offs, 2020/21 felt like déjà vu; Sean Clare was signed from Hearts and given the right-back’s number two shirt, implying that he was the preferred starting option. The season started underwhelmingly and Clare’s performances we’re fitful. Long clawed his way back into the starting line-up once again.

His return coincided with a return to form and a scintillating winning streak. He was also picking up assists and goals that had been absent from his CV. Against Plymouth, he sprinted half the length of the pitch, exchanging passes with Clare along the way, to score the winner in a crucial 3-2 win. With the play-off race tightening, he popped up to score a memorable last-minute brace to put Gillingham to the sword. Long edged past the milestone of 100 starts and was leading from the front. 

Perhaps it was that time spent with the leaders of the club under Michael Appleton, or the guidance as a youth team player under Chris Allen that encouraged Long to take a greater responsibility in terms of being a leader in the team. His willingness to take responsibility grew as the season progressed. The regular season closed with a play-off spot, and two player of the season awards. Next season, he’ll wear the number 2 shirt.

What is a full back? They don’t score the goals like a striker; they don’t show the great artistic impudence like a midfielder nor the alpha-brutish strength of central defender. When you get a good one they dictate mood and tone. Long has emerged as an attacking threat and an active contributor to our success as a club, he represents his community and embodies the philosophy that Karl Robinson has tried to instil into the club. Perhaps he needed that journey to establish himself in that role and build the mental fortitude to fulfil it; now he’s here, long may he reign.

Midweek fixture: The 17 best games of Oxford United’s 2016 promotion season

A long time ago, I asked for your favourite games of the 2015/16 season, then the pandemic hit and everything went belly up. That season had everything – derby wins, giant killings, a Wembley visit and, of course, promotion. There was a lot to choose from, but vote you did. Here are the seventeen best games from that unforgettable year.

17. Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

A hard won away win in a lovely kit, apart from that, it’s not obvious why this was such a significant game. But, if you’re in the pub, a job interview or hostage situation and someone asks what was the 17th most memorable game of the 2015/16 season; this is it.

Read the match wrap.

16. Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

Had it really come to this? After the derby, Wembley, giant killings and all the winning, we were faced with the prospect of three games and three wins for promotion. This was the first, Joe Skarz returned from what was thought to be a season ending injury to help drag us to three points against a stubborn Hartlepool side. One down, two to go.

Read the match wrap.

15. Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

An absolute Boxing Day banger, in front of a near capacity crowd, we put on a breathtaking second half attacking display to sweep away Exeter City.

Read the match wrap

14. Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

All good teams need a magician to make them great; ours came in the form of Kemar Roofe. His early season wonder-strike at Bristol Rovers was just a sign of things to come. The Roofe was on fire.

Read the match wrap.

13. Stevenage 1 Oxford United 5

Sometimes, everything just clicks. When the club designated the game at Teddy Sheringham’s Stevenage a family away-day special, they couldn’t have hoped for a better game than this 5-1 annihilation. It was the first time in nine years we’d scored five away from home and was, at the time, a record equalling away victory. One for the record books, but more importantly, one for the kids.

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12. Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Sometimes games are less about the performance and more about the result. The atmosphere was ugly, the game was tense for this JPT Semi-Final Second Leg against Millwall. All we needed to do was protect our 2-0 first leg advantage. A 1-0 defeat made things uncomfortable, but still meant we were heading for Wembley.

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11. Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

The season turned into a farewell tour of the clubs we’d considered equals for a decade or more. This dominant display at Barnet with two goals from Callum O’Dowda had a strong ‘we’ll never play you again’ vibe about it.

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10. Portsmouth 0 Oxford United 1

Roofe, Dunkley, Hylton, MacDonald, Wright, Baldock, Lundstram, Maguire – the list of great names from that season live long in the memory – Skarz. See? Was Jordan Bowery the great forgotten player from that season? Maybe. With JPT, FA Cup and league interests, things were getting hectic. A trip to Portsmouth looked daunting, but Bowery’s second half winner secured a memorable and crucial three points.

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9. Oxford United 2 Barnsley 3

Wembley; the JPT Final was a true game of two halves. In the first 45 minutes we were, by far, the better team and went in 1-0 up with a goal from Callum O’Dowda and a Cruyff turn from Chey Dunkley. In the second half we came out heavy legged and conceded three. A Danny Hylton goal pulled it back to 3-2, which wasn’t quite enough. But, what a day out.

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8. Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

We needed this; after two frustrating league draws and a defeat at Wembley, we just needed to give someone a good pummelling. It’d taken nine years for us to score five away from home and five months to do it again. Crawley, it was nothing personal.

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7. Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

Days after knocking Swansea City out of the FA Cup, we headed to The New Den for our JPT Semi-Final First Leg against Millwall. After the Lord Mayor’s Show? Not a chance. Two giant killings in four days? Yes please.

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6. Brentford 0 Oxford United 4

There may have been a good feeling around the place, but the obliteration of Championship Brentford in the League Cup ignited the season. The opening was rampant with Oxford three up inside 15 minutes, including a wonder strike from Kemar Roofe, Johnny Mullins’ second half goal saw us stroll to a 4-0 win.

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5. Notts County 2 Oxford United 4

New Year, New You. The first game of 2016 was at a grim Meadow Lane. What resulted was a titanic tussle with two breathtaking last minute goals.

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4. Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The Kassam Stadium can feel like a soulless concrete brick, but when Oxford’s Ultras unveiled a giant flag of an ox impaling a robin which stretched from the top of the stand to the bottom, it felt like the Curva Sud. We were absolutely dominant for this JPT derby; two Kemar Roofe goals swept Swindon aside in a true changing of the guard in the rivalry.

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3. Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

Did someone order a Family Bucket of limbs? The penultimate game of the season saw us 270 miles to Carlisle and owner Daryl Eales dishing out free hot dogs. Chris Maguire’s early penalty was a settler, but it was Liam Sercombe’s trademark surge into the box which cemented this as the third best game of the season. Now, where have my shoes gone?

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2. Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

When you’ve got Premier League opponents; keep it tight, see if you can nick a goal. Right? Wrong. Despite conceding early, we put on a scintillating display of attacking joie de vivre to sweep away Swansea City in the FA Cup. If we didn’t know something special was happening before, we did now.

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1. Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0

The pinnacle, the denouement, the culmination of a wonderful season, the sun shone, the crowds came, promotion was won. Chey Dunkley physically, emotionally and psychologically broke the deadlock, Chris Maguire made it certain, then it was over to the local boy Callum O’Dowda to weave his way to an injury-time third. For O’Dowda, Jake Wright, Danny Hylton and Kemar Roofe, it was their last appearance in an Oxford shirt. A magical spell had been broken.

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