The Opposition View: Oxford

It’s play-off final weekend (just pretend Monday is a bank holiday)! For the usual insight from behind enemy lines, CC caught up with U’s fan Joel Harrison.

At the end of a season in which Oxford’s aim was to win promotion, you’ve got the chance to do just that. That said, there must have been a sense of disappointment that you weren’t able to push on for automatic promotion?

Yes, that’s right. Despite the fact that we sold two of our better players to Brentford in the [January] transfer window and that our excellent right-back Chris Cadden went back to his parent club in the States, I still believe we had the strength in depth to finish in the top two. My neighbour is a Coventry City fan and I’m envious of his relaxed summer… However, I’m sure he’s somewhat envious that I’m at least getting to watch some live football that I have an emotional attachment to, as well as a psychological end to the season, however that might go!

Going into the play-offs – and football’s resumption in general – there was a fair amount of talk about which styles might gain an edge. We saw in League Two, for example, Northampton’s highly direct approach run riot over Exeter’s passing game. It worked for Wycombe too in the first leg and we were able to defend out the second. Do you feel the long break and short preparation time has had a big impact on the slickness of your play, and how might Karl Robinson adapt to the challenge Wycombe pose?

The more involved passing game that Oxford play is inspired by the qualities seen in teams like Liverpool. Of course, as you move up the leagues, the players who are towards the top end of the footballing pyramid are there for a reason and probably have a better set of abilities to cope with a more complex passing game. I’ve always said that you wouldn’t ask for a wine list in McDonald’s – you have to be aware of the environment you’re in. Equally, don’t try and get players who aren’t adept at passing football to try and play that way – and you’re less likely to find those players towards the wider end of the footballing pyramid.

I believe that Oxford have players capable of playing a wide, expansive style of football, yet we also have players like John Mousinho and Jamie Mackie who don’t mind a bit of a physical challenge either. So for me, the balance is there and the preparation time, long or short, is’t really relevant. What is relevant is how we set up to play against Wycombe in the final and which elements of the two styles we blend together and in what proportions.

We’ve seen individual moments of class have quite a big bearing on the semis and that could well be the case in the final. Marcus Browne stood out for you, but he’s just one of a number of difference makers in your ranks. Who else do you tip to shine on the big stage?

Going back to my previous point, the battlefield is a blend of warriors and princes. You only have to look at Alex Gorrin, who I believe is one of the key linchpins in the team. He’s not a glamour player, but he is key. When it comes to entertainment, you have to look at Matty Taylor; you feel he could score each time he gets the ball.

Before Christmas, you’d have to say both Shandon Baptiste and Tarique Fosu, who are exceptionally exciting players but now wear the colours of Brentford, and our loanee from West Ham, Nathan Holland (who scored against Newcastle in our FA Cup replay), who isn’t eligible for the play-offs. However, when it comes to the final at Wembley, the real hero will be a united squad from Oxford.

Do you feel there’s particular pressure to get promoted? Whether financial or from the fans – who can seem an expectant bunch from the outside!

I think there is always pressure to get promoted. I don’t understand fans of teams in the higher echelons of football who never see their team relegated or promoted; for me, that’s 90% of football. I think both sets of fans have seen their teams play all sorts of types of clubs over the last 20 years and promotion brings with it a certain level of excitement, visiting new grounds etc.. Yet for me, at 40, it feels like in the Championship we will be back playing against teams I grew up watching as Oxford’s regular opponents, so that will be nice.

Financially, who knows? We are now a new breed of club with foreign ownership and the spaghetti of company accounts that comes with that. Hopefully the move up the league means we can finally look at ownership of our own ground, and hopefully that’ll be a new stadium fit for purpose.

Last of all, how do you see the game going? It has the potential to be a dramatic end to the most dramatic season any of us have ever known.

I honestly think this is anyone’s game. Wycombe will look to play the underdog card, but having been at the top of the league for so long this season, I’m not sure how much credence that holds. Just because the club is ’small’ doesn’t mean you’ve galloped into the play-offs from a mid-table position all season. Quite the opposite – you’ve been the top driver for most of it and, as such, must be looking at going into the game as the top dogs.

Equally, you could argue that Oxford are the underdog. It’s been 20 years since we were in the second tier, and that was on the fumes of the Maxwell era, so what right do we have to be there? We hardly have a history of being a major player in English football in the last 150 years. So for me, it is a story of two underdogs, only that one is shouting louder about that than the other – which I always think sets a team up more for a fall than for a moment of surprise glory. But let’s see. As the banner at the Kassam reads: ‘Now Is The Time For Heroes’.

Header image by Dan Clark

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