THERE’S no doubt that this summer is going to be crucial to Oxford United’s future.
A season that promised so much, yet delivered so little seems to have left great divides throughout the club.
Head coach Gary Waddock has promised a massive overhaul of the playing squad – something that clearly needs to happen after what can only be described as a pathetic end to the campaign.
But the problem at the club appears more deep-rooted.
Players, managers and chairmen come and go, but the supporters are the lifeblood of any club.
The connection between Oxford United and its fans has always been the backbone to its success.
But the link has come apart and chairman Ian Lenagan has got a huge job as the U’s embark on a summer of change in order to connect that chain once again.
Many people blame Lenagan for United’s slump, others point at Chris Wilder and the manner of his departure.
Mickey Lewis did his best in caretake charge, but although the rot had appeared to have already set in to the squad by the time Waddock came in, he could only record one win from eight matches in charge.
And the players? How can the same group show title form in the early part of the season and relegation form in the second half?
In truth, everyone has played a part in the slump.
The Kassam Stadium does not help – a soulless ground with no atmosphere, but that’s not an excuse for on-field performances.
What matters now is how United go about rebuilding the club, from top to bottom.
It’s a perfect time for Lenagan and Waddock to stamp their mark on United – but they need to deliver.
If Wilder had stayed in charge of Oxford United for the whole season, I have no doubt that the U’s would have secured at least a play-off berth.
Longer-term, whether this would have benefitted the club is open to question.
Lenagan wanted Wilder to do things his way, which meant the U’s boss was always going to be swimming against the tide. It was never going to end well.
- Two United fans sum up the feeling during the second half of the season
When Wilder was given a new contract at the end of the 2012/13 season, many supporters questioned the decision after United had again failed to reach the play-offs.
But the manager rebuilt his squad and was delivering. The U’s were in the automatic promotion places until Christmas.
However, as soon as Lenagan stated publicly that no further talks over a longer deal for Wilder would happen until the latter stages of the season, things started to go wrong.
Unsure of his future, the U’s boss started to be linked to various other jobs, something that started to provoke vociferous debate amongst fans about how much he wanted to stay here.
Wilder was never going to get the type of deal he ended up with at Northampton – three-and-a-half years – but surely deserved contract offers put on the table.
By offering him, for example, a new one-year deal if United reached the play-offs, a two-year contract if he achieved promotion and a three-year deal if Oxford were champions, everyone would have known where they stood.
If the U’s didn’t make the top seven, he would go.
As soon as Wilder spoke to Portsmouth over their vacant job, the writing was on the wall.
Maybe, what ultimately happened was what both parties wanted.
The manner of his departure, however, was a complete shambles and nobody came out of it well.
It was, in truth, the start of a shambolic final four months of the season.
Mickey Lewis was everyone’s choice to fill in and all United fans were desperate for him to succeed.
Early results were promising, but when late goals went in at Bristol Rovers and Morecambe to leave United with two points instead of six, the signs were there that things might be starting to go wrong.
This was the time that Lenagan should have made progress behind the scenes to line up a replacement.
If United had won their next few games, Mickey should have continued in the job.
They didn’t, but nobody was ready to come in.
By the time Waddock was appointed, the slump had started.
With a tough fixture list combined with injuries and a lack of confidence, United’s season was spiralling out of control.
A tremendous win at Plymouth gave renewed hope that United would scrape into the top seven, but the next match – a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of York City on Good Friday – undid all their good work.
It was to prove a dismal end to thecampaign and it leaves United with a mammoth job to rebuild and pick everyone up again.
The emergence of several young players – and the form of goalkeeper Ryan Clarke – provide the shining light for U’s supporters.
But those rays of sunshine struggled to break through the dark cloud that hung over United in 2014.
While fellow promotion rivals splashed the cash in January to improve their squads, Oxford added only 36-year-old striker David Connolly on loan and brought in Nicky Wroe to replace Asa Hall.
Lenagan’s policy of no short-term deals is admirable, but at the end of the loan window in March, with the team devoid of confidence and sliding down the table, a new face might have been what was needed to lift spirits and reignite their season.
Too many players waited for others to lead the way on the pitch, and there was a sense of inevitability when United fell behind in games.
There was just not the character or desire to fight back.
Incidents involving players and supporters did little to improve the feeling about the club and the task facing Lenagan and Waddock should not be underestimated.
The club pride themselves on their motto of ‘United We Stand’.
Never has a saying been more appropriate, because Oxford United now need the feelgood factor back more than ever.