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.

The wrap – Doncaster Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

Safe? Surely. You know this because you’ve looked at the table over and over as well, but let me articulate my anxiety. MK Dons and Northampton can’t catch us, meaning from our perspective, things are very simple. We are at the top of a six team league table with the only objective being to avoid dropping to the bottom. We’re six points clear with, for some, three to play. Barring everyone finding form including Rochdale going on a run which will see them winning the same number of games in the next three as they have in the last fifteen, phew.

I had been fairly optimistic about our prospects of avoiding relegation, things would have to swing against us in a big way for it to have been a realistic proposition. But, I’d written off the Blackburn games as obvious defeat, so by the time we got to Doncaster, we were rapidly running out of games to make ourselves safe.

My peak moment of panic was immediately before James Henry’s winner. The live league table had us four points clear with Rochdale and Oldham winning, and Walsall drawing – all having played a game less. It wasn’t nice, particularly with our ability to concede late goals; a late Doncaster winner would have made things significantly more unpleasant.

Then Henry scores on 63, Oldham equalise at Wimbledon in the 74th minute, two minutes later Scunthorpe get their winner at Walsall and 14 minutes after that Bradford equalise at Oldham in injury time. 27 minutes and our season turns round.

Relegation threats do that to you; games become merely an exercise in computation and prediction. Numbers are more important than style. All cultural and social aspects of the game are abandoned for the accumulation of points. Your gaze narrows to nothing.

Great credit, then, to Karl Robinson. Results haven’t been perfect, but he’s had to work with the players he’s been given. Everyone knows that the squad is likely to get an overhaul in the summer, yet he’s kept motivation high and held things together enough to get the results we needed. Once safety has been mathematically secured the re-set button can be pressed, for now, his finger can hover over it.

I have a lot of sympathy for both Robinson and Ricardinho for the situation they both find themselves in. The Brazilian didn’t start due to a clause in his contract which would have given him an automatic renewal. But, he’ll be 34 at the start of next season, an age where players can switch from being experienced pros to costly liabilities in a heartbeat – think Dwight Tiendelli and Mike Williamson (or going back; Phil Gilchrist or Rufus Brevett). For Robinson, he can’t afford to use up a salary on a player he can’t be certain will play next year. It may not be the end for him at the club; once the contract clause is no longer live, there may be other roles or deals possible, but automatic renewal not good for the club.

Robinson’s ability to keep the squad together when many know they’re likely to leave during a high pressure time has been his most impressive quality. He’s right in saying that Charlton were in a similar position last season, as were Shrewsbury, both of whom are likely to be in the play-offs this year. The rules around signing players now mean that sometimes you have to wait a little longer to see the true impact of a manager.

So, we’re very close to the point where we can file the season as one which is transitional and forgettable. We can start to look forward again. Robinson said that he wanted us to develop a big-club mentality, something Chris Wilder was particularly good at in our Conference days. Getting over the imposter syndrome related to being a successful League 1 club may be one of the biggest challenges he’ll face.

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Doncaster Rovers 0

Last time we played Doncaster Rovers was Graham Rix’s first game in charge. He’d taken over from the pragmatic Ian Atkins who had stropped off to Bristol Rovers after a fall-out with Firoz Kassam.

Rix’s first decision was to drop Andy Woodman in place of debutante teenager Simon Cox in goal, he brought in the apathetic Courtney Pitt from Chelsea, but most alarming of all was his insistence that a team built on physicality and direct football play an intricate passing game, even on our own six yard line.

Atkins understood the constraints he was working within and built a team accordingly, although it had suffered a dip in form, it was on the verge of the play-offs as a result. Rix’s philosophy was a volte face of epic proportions, he seemed to believe that he could simply switch the players’ approach like turning on a light-switch. He ignored the foundations Atkins left behind and tried to change them over night. Following a hairy 0-0 draw with Doncaster, we won one (the last game when all was lost), drew two and lost five of our last eight games and fell away from the play-offs. It was the start of a slippery slope which ended with us in the Conference two years later.

Rix’s failure was to impose a philosophy on team it was ill equipped to deal with.

Fast forward to Saturday’s meeting with Doncaster; a disjointed affair in a disjointed season. Pep Clotet, like Rix inherited a successful formula, some of it was wrecked for him – Lundstram, Johnson and Maguire leaving, other bits have been cruelly ripped from his hands – Hall, Ribiero and Nelson’s injuries – but he’s broadly tried to keep things stable. An evolution in comparison to Rix wreckless attempt at revolution.

The effect is uncomfortable, but hardly the failure Rix instigated. We’ve created chances and scored goals, we’re a very creditable eighth, but at no point have we hit anything resembling a groove.
The club’s summer was disrupted by Michael Appleton’s departure, Clotet, like Appleton when he started, had to piece together a squad when time was against him. He called on a rag-tag bunch of contacts from around the world, people he knew he could rely on to at least stabilise the club.

With the injuries we’ve had, that sense of the squad being a ramshackle bunch of desperadoes, battling for every point while taking heavy blows has intensified. A sort of Rebel Alliance. Whether this is Clotet’s envisaged end-state is anyone’s guess. Most managers don’t get the opportunity to get to reach a stable state, but Oxford under Darryl Eales is different and you suspect, given his Michael Appleton experience, he will be patient.

In the meantime, it does look like this is it; the January transfer window may help bolster resources, but it’s not going to turn us into a ruthless unit. This year, may well be more about 35 yard pile drivers in the sixth minute of injury time than a unrelenting march to promotion.