With Pep Clotet fresh in the The U’s dugout, Ross Bramble is tipping Oxford United for success in the near future.
It’s fair to say that Oxford United aren’t the most enticing name in League One.
They lack the glamour and gravitas of Blackburn Rovers, Portsmouth and Charlton, for example, but don’t let that fool you; they are by far and away the most interesting club in League One this season.
Since their return to the Football League in 2011, Oxford have enjoyed a slow and steady development. For three years, the club flirted with the promotion picture, ultimately falling short on each occasion.
That all changed, however, when Gary Waddock was replaced by Michael Appleton. The ex-Portsmouth, Blackburn and Blackpool manager was looking for safer surroundings than those of his previous employers, and the Kassam Stadium was the ideal place to feather his nest.
Appleton’s first season in charge may have been a little average, but given the change in ownership and all that came with it, his inaugural campaign laid the foundations for the success that was yet to come. A year later, the U’s had gained automatic promotion to League One with an impressive 86 points. They even managed to secure a place at Wembley in the Football League Trophy final, which ended in 3-2 defeat to Barnsley.
The following season saw the sale of star winger Kemar Roofe for a club record £3m. Even with that handicap, Oxford defied expectations to finish 8th in League One, four points shy of the playoffs. The club even managed a second appearance at Wembley, which also ended in defeat to Coventry City.
Given their success, it seemed a safe bet to suggest Oxford would challenge again in 2017. That prediction seemed to waver with the departure of manager Michael Appleton, though.
Now the assistant manager to Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare, Appleton left a sizeable hole in the Oxford machine with his unexpected move. The job of replacing him seemed a delicate one; given how many clubs were in the market for a new manager, it seemed Oxford had to prepare themselves for the crumbs that fell from the bigger side’s plates.
A New Direction
When Pep Clotet was announced as the new man at the Kassam, it seemed that the prophecy had come true.
The former Swansea and Leeds assistant manager didn’t come with great fanfare or a decorated CV. The neutrals expectations quickly fell away; many had never heard of the man. What was lost in the scoffing was the impressively diverse experience the Spaniard had accrued in his 20-year career.
From Spain to Scandinavia to Swansea, Clotet had been exposed to numerous styles and methods of management. All he needed now – still at the tender age of 40 – was the platform.
At the time of writing, the League One season is still only two games old. It is, of course, impossible to draw any defined conclusions on the back of two results, but certainly early indications are extremely impressive.
A slick 2-0 victory on the opening day against Oldham Athletic was followed up by a rather surprising 3-0 win over play-off dark horses Portsmouth. Although a disappointing League Cup 3-4 defeat to Cheltenham lay between those results, the performances have been encouraging.
The U’s have shown incisive, direct attacking prowess and responsible defensive organisation early doors; in fact, they’ve been one of the most enterprising teams to watch in the entire English football league so far.
Many stories will be undervalued this campaign thanks to the presence of Blackburn Rovers, but in Oxford United exists a dangerous, sexy variable in the promotion chase that should not be dismissed.
An impressive start is not always a marker of season-long success, but the Oxford United story will be a fascinating tale to watch unfold, whether they can maintain their early pace or not.
Follow Ross on Twitter at @rossbramble