Like all Oxford United fans at 9:45pm on Tuesday, I was gutted. Entering 5 minutes of stoppage time United looked set to maintain a lead at the top of the Blue Square Premier with a tactically perfect 1-0 victory at the hostile Kenilworth Road. Terrific. 7 minutes into the ‘5 minutes’ of stoppage time, the Oxford backline had been breached twice and the referee brought proceedings to an end, sparking euphoric scenes amongst the Luton support. Less than terrific. Over the next few days, internet forums were bombarded with fans declaring that the season was over, the capitulation had begun and Chris Wilder had lost the dressing room. Fast forward to Saturday evening and everything was wonderful again. Whilst a 2-0 home victory over Histon was welcomed by those in yellow, the news of away defeats for promotion rivals Stevenage Borough and York City created a noise similar to that generated after an Oxford goal and sent the home faithful home with a smile upon their collective face.
I try to avoid internet forums after points are dropped to maintain a realistic perspective upon the current situation. Thankfully, Chris Wilder and his staff insist upon the same mentality within the dressing room. Whilst home wins against Luton and Stevenage Borough don’t mean that the title is won, neither does a defeat in February mean that the season must be written off as a failure. The last week has exposed the fickle nature of the football supporter for all to see. Every club has fans that are guilty of knee-jerk reactions and a minority who are able to see through disappointment to maintain a positive attitude. Rather than trying to comfort the knee-jerkers and tell them that everything will be alright in the end, it is easier to maintain a dignified silence and wait for a positive result to ease their troubled minds.
Thankfully, the Oxford United squad don’t react to defeat in the same manner as your average fan. Chris Wilder and Mickey Lewis have implemented a mentality throughout the club that treats each game for what it is. Irrespective of the result in the last game or upcoming fixtures, the focus in always upon the next match. It is a simple idea but one that seems to be working. In the heat of the moment, fans will overlook the fact that for 90 minutes, the performance at Luton was everything Wilder would have asked for. Although the problems experienced in stoppage time must not be overlooked, if United had managed to hold on then the fans would have been raving about a tactical master class. The mentality of the manager is far more objective than that of his fans. Rather than looking at the wider picture, Wilder is helping his men to win the next battle. If everything goes to plan, these battles will win a war and see Oxford United return to the Football League.
However, football is not that simple. The fact that football is not formulaic makes it a far more interesting spectacle for everybody involved. Across all divisions, points will be dropped by teams between now and the season’s climax. Looking specifically at the Blue Square Premier, it is evident that teams can drop points in any match. As we go into the final third of the season, it is the reaction to dropped points that will decide who is playing in League Two next season. For York City, a positive reaction to the end of a run that has seen them gain 31 points from a possible 33 is crucial. For Stevenage, two defeats in relatively quick succession have knocked Graham Westley’s side from their stride. Similarly, Oxford are currently 14th in the form table when looking at the past 6 matches. One of the great strengths of Wilder’s team this season has been the ability to respond to a defeat with a morale-boosting victory and continue on a winning run for a significant period of time. Although it is entirely possible that Stevenage and York will respond positively to their setbacks, I have full faith in Chris Wilder being able to complete the job that he has started so well.
This season’s Blue Square Premier is the most competitive the top tier of Non-League football has been for quite some time. Whereas Burton, Dagenham and Redbridge and Aldershot were able to run away with the title for much of the second half of the season, the same will not be true this season. To name but a few, Oxford United, Stevenage Borough, York City, Mansfield Town and Luton Town are teams that are able to take points from each other. Although the matches between these sides will undoubtedly be important in determining the destination of the league title, the ability to cope with frequent matches will also play a large role. Due to the impromptu winter break, the remainder of the season will see teams playing Saturday-Tuesday. It is in this respect that I have great confidence in Oxford United. Kelvin Thomas has allowed Wilder to construct a squad that boasts both quality and depth. With the congested end of season fixture list, this should serve as an advantage for United. Whilst the mentality of the promotion chasing sides will be one that sees no issue with a rush of fixtures, the squads that lack strength in depth will be exposed in the run in as players become fatigued and pick up knocks. Chris Wilder has maintained throughout the season that each and every one of his squad will have a role to play if Oxford United are to win promotion. This is being shown at the moment by the key performances of Rhys Day and Sam Deering, two players who barely figured in the first half of the season. Everybody at Oxford United believes that the squad assembled has enough depth to challenge for both league and FA Trophy honours. If things go to plan, Oxford United fans will have a lot to celebrate at the end of the season.
The end to the Blue Square Premier season will be the clichéd rollercoaster ride with twists and turns in the remaining months. It is inevitable that the fans of each promotion-chasing side will respond to each result with an extreme overreaction. Victory for Oxford against the in-form Rushden and Diamonds on Tuesday night will see fans planning for a League Two campaign whilst dropped points would see a return to the doom and gloom experienced after the Kenilworth Road disappointment. Whilst the fans change their mind on the team’s credentials after each game, Chris Wilder and his staff will stick to the game plan. The only thing that matters is winning the next game. Wilder’s ability to overlook the emotions of the fans around him whilst maintaining a steely focus within the club is a major strength. The football fan is a fickle being but if there was ever a time to believe in Oxford United, this is it.