With the post-season hysterics starting to subside, clubs up and down the country are going through the cathartic process of shedding themselves of deadweights. This process of renewal – soon to be followed by a slew of new signings – encourages everyone to return in August with renewed vigour and enthusiasm.
Reading some views of our squad, it’s a wonder that we have any players left at all. Some would have preferred a frenzied mass slaughter with no player spared the pyre. One of the few exceptions was Ryan Clarke, who gets the Oxblogger Player of the Year Award for the second year running. It is to our massive advantage that other clubs seem too dopey to look at Clarke. His presence, or not, has defined our season. With him in goal we were dependable and effective. Then, when injured he palmed the ball into his own net against Torquay which was a pivot in our and his season.
In came Wayne Brown, who I’d envisaged had spent most his time doing odd jobs around the stadium. He proved himself to be more than a worthy replacement. Just as we thought we’d got away with it he too got injured. Connor Ripley came in and looked shakey beyond belief. We completed the season with four keepers in five games. It was hardly the bedrock upon which to sustain an effective promotion chase. If people want to blame Chris Wilder for any failure; they might want to consider how good Ryan Clarke was up to the point he got injured and how much we missed him at the moment we needed him most.
The hand-ringing that surrounded our failure to reach the play-offs masks the fact that defensively this season has been a vast improvement on last. Last season we looked porous and niave. The introduction of Michael Duberry has transformed the back-four. His influence, assurance and experience made a critical difference. For a period he was neck and neck with Clarke in terms of player of the year, but he seemed to fade marginally as the season progressed. Phil Gilchrist was similarly dominant when he returned to the club in our first Conference year, but his performances fell away as a career of wear and tear took their toll. The only concern about Duberry, given his age, is that he could blow up spectacularly at any point next season.
Jake Wright is a great leader and clearly respected by his team mates, but he still gives me the heebie jeebies. He has been caught out many times over the last couple of years trying to be too clever; glancing back headers or playmaking from the back-four. I do wonder whether Harry Worley, whose brief appearances this season have shown him to be a more than able deputy, might feature more regularly next season.
With the introduction of Liam Davis our full-backs have looked more balanced. Davis is pacey and strong, although his crossing could be improved and he always seems to want to beat one too many players. On the other side, Damien Batt, fresh from being voted the best right-back in the division at the end of 2010/11, seemed a more subdued. Perhaps he was fulfilling his pledge to work on his defensive work, perhaps age is beginning to catch up on him a little. It’s a tricky balance because Batt is a potent force going forward; but it does leave us with a gap at the back when he does.
Wembley romantisists will be saddened by the inevitable departure of Anthony Tonkin. Oddly, Tonkin has looked more aggressive than in previous years, with his performance against Swindon being his standout display for Oxford. The emergence of Davis and the largely absent Capaldi did leave Tonkin with little future at the club.