Archive for the ‘Oxford United 2011/12 Season’ Category

The phrase ‘emotional roller-coaster’ is one of the most over-used clichés in our sport, but it is one that best describes Oxford United’s 2011/12 season. We’ve seen some wonderful highs this year and some pretty awful lows.

The biggest high was arguably doing the double against bitter-rivals Swindon Town. James Constable was heavily involved in both games. He scored both goals in the 2-1 win at The County Ground making Oxford the only team to win at the Wiltshire club this season. The goals were made even sweeter due to Swindon Manager Paolo Di Canio’s comments pre-game where he labelled Constable a “Swindon fan,” so when the reverse fixture came around, tensions were high. And clearly too high for Constable as he got sent off after ten minutes for an alleged elbow.

A man down with 80 minutes left against the league leaders, you wouldn’t have blamed Oxford for losing. Despite the ten men, Oxford managed to steal the lead in the 16th minute when Asa Hall bundled the ball in from a Lee Holmes free-kick. Then two minutes later it was Lee Holmes with an assist again, this time for Oli Johnson to slide in. 2-0 up with ten men! There was utter delirium in the stands. I ended up five rows down from where I started. The remaining 72 minutes were the best defensive performance I have ever witnessed. Andy Whing, Anthony Tonkin and Michael Duberry. All lions. Every shot was charged down. Every pass was intercepted. Every tackle was made. When the final whistle finally went, you could have mistaken it for a third goal. Despite only four shots to Swindon’s twenty and ten men to Swindon’s eleven, Oxford managed to come out of the game with the three points.

Another moment this season will be remembered for again took place at the Kassam Stadium – arguably the greatest goal Peter Leven has ever scored, arguably the greatest goal ever seen at the stadium. It was Oxford vs Port Vale and the score was 1-1 with 25 minutes to go. Port Vale had just equalised through Mark Richards and Port Vale were cranking up the pressure on the Oxford goal. But up stepped Leven. It was all the Scot’s work, as he intercepted a pass from a Vale midfielder, before lobbing it over the keeper from just inside the opposition half. When the ball hit the net there was utter pandemonium around me, but as the realisation of what Leven had just done crept in, people began to look around quietly with mouths open and with incredulity in their expressions. The best goal I have ever witnessed live at a football match in my 18 years on this planet.

Another real positive has been the turnaround in fortunes of Andy Whing. He was subjected to the boo boys as early as 13th August due to being scapegoated after the 1-1 draw at home to Bradford City. The boo-boys grew louder after another 1-1 home draw, this time against 10-man Aldershot Town. Whing had always been selected as a right back at his former clubs, but managr Chris Wilder saw he was getting caught for pace and deployed him to sit in front of the back four as a defensive anchor man.

It was a masterstroke from Wilder as Whing’s performance and confidence improved. Soon he was putting in man-of-the-match performances, most notably against Macclesfield at home where he was imperious in the midfield making a number of excellent tackles. Amazingly, the same supporters who were booing him at the start of the season were now singing ‘all we want is a team of Andy Whings!’The comeback was complete as he was given the Andrew Knapton Supporter’s Player of the Year award as voted by the Oxford United supporters.

But along with the highs, we’ve had some lows. Dropping out of the play-offs despite being sat in the top seven since August was a bitter pill to take for many Oxford supporters. The way the season seemed to finish at the end of March for many of our players was odd. We did not win a single game from our last seven and picked up only two points in the process. Some supporters blamed a lack of fitness, while others blamed the influx of loan players. I believe it’s a combination of both. A damning statistic was that 16 different attackers were used this season. Wilder must learn from his mistakes next season and not on loanees, but players under contract.

Another low was the number 10 signed from Oldham in the summer, Deane Smalley. Oxford had to pay compensation to Oldham as he was under the age of 24 and it was thought to be in the region for £50,000. The forward had an excellent season on loan to League Two Champions Chesterfield in the 2010/11 season scoring 12 goals in 28 games, but this season was nowhere near to what was expected.

Two goals in 26 appearances in all competitions was what Smalley managed. Perhaps too much was expected of 23-year old Deane, he was expected to challenge James Constable in the club scoring charts, despite  having a one in ten goals to appearances record at Oldham. After all, his natural position is not centre forward, it is on the right wing. In January, he was loaned out to Bradford City with similar success – 13 appearances, 0 goals. Many Oxford supporters want the club to sell him this summer, but Wilder has kept faith in his future at the club going into next season saying “The boy wants to come back, we’ve kept in contact with him and he knows he’s not done himself justice.” Let’s hope that Smalley can show the same quality he did for Chesterfield in 2010/11.

Oxford under-achieved this season – 9th place is not good enough. But he has progressed in terms of league position every season he has been in charge of this football club without fail. Although if progression into the play-off positions is not achieved next season, it may well turn out to be Wilder’s final one in charge of Oxford United.

On Saturday the 3rd of March at 12pm, Oxford United will take on Swindon Town at the Kassam Stadium in the imaginatively named “A420 derby.” The derby between the two sides has been fierce since the early 1980′s. The rivalry intensified due to the regularity of meeting between the sides and the geographical proximity throughout the decade. Swindon fans’ vandalism of Oxford’s stadium means there is absolutely no love lost between the two sides. They painted the bronze Ox outside the Kassam in Swindon colours (Oxford then used it to promote Cancer Month) as well as burning “STFC” into Oxford’s pitch before the game last August.

The league history is overwhelmingly in favour in terms of Swindon Town with 23 wins and 81 goals scored to Oxford’s 11 wins and 57 goals scored. There have also been 20 draws between the sides over the years.

Oxford have never faced Swindon in the league at the Kassam Stadium. The only time they have played each other at the Kassam was in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup in December 2002. The score was 1-0. Controversial striker Jefferson Louis scored the winner that day to send The U’s faithful into utter delirium. The goal, in truth, was a fluke. Louis’ flick on went straight in after Steve Basham’s run bamboozled Bart Griemink in front of the Oxford Mail Stand. Louis’ celebrations post-match have to be seen to be believed as he ran round the home changing room naked after Oxford were drawn against Arsenal at Highbury in the next round.

That was then. This is now. I, as an Oxford fan, am not confident going into Saturday’s game. Oxford’s current form has been sketchy of late with 9 points from a possible 15 in their last five games and a disappointing 1-1 draw with Macclesfield at home last weekend and sit 7th. Macclesfield had lost 8 straight away games before that game. Swindon, on the other hand, have won 9 games on the trot and have seen the Wiltshire club move from 7th to 1st since just after Christmas. Paolo Di Canio, who has divided opinion, appears to be working his magic with the side after spending big in January signing Paul Benson, Luke Rooney and Lee Cox as well as Ronan Murray and Derek Boating on loan from Ipswich and Arsenal respectively.

They also failed in signing Oxford’s top goalscorer, James Constable. Known to Oxford fans as “Beano” – a nickname given to him in his younger years due to his alleged likeness to the Heinz product. Oxford accepted a bid, but Constable decided against even travelling up, re-affirming his legend status at the club. The Yellows number nine decided the game the last time the two teams met back in August 2011 with a brace helping Oxford win 2-1 at the County Ground. This followed comments from Di Canio claiming that he was a Swindon fan. Constable does in fact support Tottenham and after the embarrassing error, Di Canio backtracked in the post-match press conference citing having “wrong information”.

Oxford’s key man for the game this Saturday would have been Peter Leven. He’s scored a halfway line winner against Port Vale, a brilliant free-kick against Cheltenham from 30-odd yards as well as a curling effort against Plymouth from the corner of the 18 yard box to name a few. If the Oxford faithful are to be believed, Peter Leven does what he wants. But Peter Leven cannot guard against injury. He’ll miss the game with a shoulder injury. A massive blow for Oxford. Simon Heslop is fighting to be fit, but if he doesn’t recover in time, Wilder will have to choose between Mark Wilson, Asa Hall and Adam Chapman to partner the tireless Andy Whing and Lee Holmes in a midfield three.

The possible inclusion of Chapman is an interesting one. He was Man of the Match in Conference Play-Off Final in 2010. Oxford won that game 3-1 to end their four year absence from the Football League. But the midfielder’s promising career was thrown into turmoil after he was jailed for causing the death of 77-year old Tom Bryan by dangerous driving. Since his release in September, he has had an injury plagued 6 months. Earlier on this week, Chapman was recalled from an impressive monthly loan spell at Newport. Now he’s got his match sharpness back, he could be Oxford’s secret weapon against Swindon. Oxford lack a free-kick taker with Leven’s unavailability and Chapman looks the perfect replacement for Leven in terms of dead-ball delivery.

For a side that went 22 games without a clean sheet last season, Oxford have had 11 clean sheets this term which puts them fifth in the clean sheet table. Swindon are first with 15. This is a marked improvement and we have to look at who Wilder has brought into the defence. Former Chelsea and Leeds centre-back Michael Duberry divided fans opinion when he arrived in the summer from St. Johnstone. His apparent lack of pace worried some fans, but his commanding presence has given the Oxford back line confidence this season. When he was injured in November, Oxford lost every game which shows his importance to the side. He has hit a purple patch with four goals in his last four games. The only problem is that three of them have been in his own goal. That includes what he dubbed on Twitter as the “Imperfect Hat-trick”. Left foot (OG), Header (OG), Right Foot. Despite this, Duberry remains a cult hero at the Kassam. I doubt many other players could get away with scoring so many own goals in a debut season and still be loved by the fans of a club.

Oxford usually play a 4-3-3, but played 4-4-2 at times last week. The weakness in the 4-3-3 formation is that it is susceptible to attacks down the wings. Swindon’s key man will be their left winger, Matt Ritchie. The former Portsmouth player moved to Swindon in the summer and has scored 10 goals and managed 10 assists making a case for League 2′s player of the season. Oxford will need to change to a 4-5-1 when not in possession with the wingers tracking the Swindon full backs. It is extremely important for Oxford to have a midfielder move across and help cover the full back to help nullify Ritchie’s threat to the Oxford defence.

As an Oxford fan, a loss would be devastating for the fans. The fact of the matter is, Swindon are a better side. There is a reason they are sat at the top of the league. On paper Swindon should win, but derby games never stick to the script. 1973 was the last time Oxford won at the County Ground and the only season we’ve done the double over the Robins. We broke that 38 year record for not winning in Wiltshere earlier on this season. Can we achieve a famous double?