Midweek fixture: Absolute State of Oxford United mid-season survey results

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.

PosFavourite playerPre-season
1Sam Long 9
2Matty Taylor2
3Alex Gorrin5
4Cameron Brannagan1
=5James Henry4
=5Josh Ruffels3
=5Jack Stevens 
8Marcus McGuane 
9Rob Atkinson 
=10John Mousinho11
=10Mark Sykes6
=10Dan Agyei8

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.

PosPre-season
1Hull City 4
2Lincoln City 12
3Portsmouth 2
4Peterborough 3
4Sunderland 6
6Ipswich Town 5
=7Charlton Athletic 7
=7Doncaster Rovers 12
=7Shrewsbury Town 14
=10Accrington 19
=10AFC Wimbledon 22
=10Blackpool 10
=10Crewe Alexandra 21
=10Fleetwood Town 9
=10Gillingham 17
=10MK Dons 18
=10Oxford United 8
=10Plymouth Argyle 14
=10Rochdale 23
=20Bristol Rovers 11
=20Northampton Town 20
22Wigan Athletic 1
23Burton Albion 16
24Swindon 24

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.

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.