Pre-season is a difficult time of year for the average football fan. Having negotiated the barren weeks that form the close-season break with great difficulty, fans reconvene to witness the early stages of preparation for the new season. Deprived of a pleasing Saturday afternoon activity for longer than is considered safe, these warm-up games are not particularly exciting but they do a job.
Inevitably, the summer is spent convincing yourself that you won't get carried away this year, before lumping your weekly wage upon promotion the following May as your club announce the signing of a young striker, whom the internet informs you is 'the next big thing'. This is not a sign of weakness, but an entirely natural process to which we are all victims.
Oxford United fans are, admittedly, an odd bunch. Combining unfeasible optimism with constant assertions towards impending doom, you can find a little bit of everything on Grenoble Road. However, this year's confident approach could well be justified.
Chairman Kelvin Thomas has deservedly received plaudits for his work at the club since taking over the every day running of the club in October 2008, whilst his partnership with manager Chris Wilder (hired in December of the same year) has brought the club to a point of strength scarcely believed possible during Oxford's spell in the Conference. It is the desire of the pair to maintain the club's upward movement that has inspired such confidence amongst the supporters ahead of the 2011/12 campaign.
If we rewind to August 2010, Oxford United returned to the Football League with a hard-fought 0-0 draw away to Burton Albion. Considering where the club had come from, the pre-season predictions were perhaps more cautiously optimistic than boastful. Fans had faith in the side that had seen Oxford promoted in the play-off final at Wembley, but were wary of the gap in quality between League Two and the top tier of the the non-league pyramid. Only when looking back now is it possible to see the vast improvements made to Wilder's squad in the past year.
The following players formed the 18-man squad at the Pirelli Stadium:
Clarke, Batt, Tonkin, Wright, Worley, Bulman, Heslop, Hall, Constable, Midson (Philliskirk 66), Green (Deering 61).
Subs: Eastwood, Creighton, Franks, Clist, Baker, Deering, Philliskirk.
Whilst eight of those players remain a part of Wilder's plans, two are transfer-listed and eight have left the club. This is symptomatic of Oxford United under this manager. Wilder constantly refers to his desire to push the club forward and explains that the club's management are always looking to see how the squad can be improved.
This approach to the squad development should be applauded, but has frequently resulted in criticism from certain sections of the supporters. The exits of fan favourites such as Luke Foster, Dannie Bulman, Jack Midson and Mark Creighton were never expected to be welcomed, but Wilder's judgements have consistently been justified by his ability to bring in better players. For every Foster, Bulman, Midson or Creighton leaving the club in the past 24 months, a Jake Wright, Paul McLaren or Steve MacLean was signed. This process will continue in the long-term but possibly at a lesser frequency as the club exhibit the ability to attract players who could perform at a higher level and as such, command a place in the manager's thoughts for the considerable future.
The turnover of players at Oxford has been substantial since the Burton Albion fixture, with a number of players coming in throughout last season, only to be moved on and replaced with stronger players in the more flexible summer market. When analysing Wilder's dealings by comparing the new players with those that they have replaced, the strategy is clear for all to understand. Ben Purkiss, a solid but unspectacular right back, has been replaced by Andy Whing, a consistent League One performer who was offered a new deal at Leyton Orient. Djoumin Sangare has been replaced by the experienced Michael Duberry, Steven Kinniburgh by one-time FA Cup finalist Tony Capaldi, Mitchell Hanson by the raw potential of Ryan James and the likes of Matt Green, Sam Deering and Jack Midson could all be considered to have been replaced by the livewire Jon-Paul Pittman. In each case, there has been improvement in Wilder's squad.
Oxford's two most exciting summer captures are undeniably Peter Leven and Deane Smalley (potentially replacing Steve MacLean and Ryan Burge). These signings are evidence of the club's highly effective work in the window, but also show the flexible nature of Oxford's business. Smalley was one of several players captured early in the window, having been identified as a primary target during the previous season.
Wilder's proactive transfer-market strategy, coupled with the ability of both manager and chairman to sell the club to prospective signings, has been a significant factor in Oxford's success in the past two seasons. Previously, Dannie Bulman, Jack Midson, Mark Creighton, Ryan Clarke and Asa Hall were all signed in the month of May, allowing a near complete squad to attend the first day of pre-season training.
The signing of MK Dons midfielder Peter Leven shows the other side to Oxford's effective work in the transfer market. Due to the Scot's injury and potential moves not coming to fruition, Leven became available. Oxford acted quickly and captured the signing of a player who has the quality to play at a far higher level.
Football is a world in which you can never be happy to stand still and must never switch off. In Wilder, Oxford have a manager who is always thinking. In this transfer window, perhaps more than any other, Wilder has been rewarded.
Despite all the positivity regarding new signings, what can we expect from Oxford United this season?
Oxford have genuine competition in almost every position on the pitch (with a goalkeeper still needed to support Ryan Clarke). Rather than players simply providing support for the first team, there will be a number of very difficult decisions for Wilder to make. League Two Team of the Year right-back Damian Batt will be up against former Brighton 'Player of the Year' Whing for his place in the side, with Anthony Tonkin and Capaldi equally competitive on the other side. There are five strong players competing for the three midfield places, with a further five strikers trying to force their way into the starting eleven for the opener against Rotherham. Wilder will be quick to state that every one of these players will have a part to play over the course of the season with periods of frequent fixtures and inevitable injuries.
There is a marked difference between the quality of the squad that was named at Burton Albion and the one that can be named for the fixture at the Don Valley Stadium in August. There will be plenty of twists and turns throughout the season, and it is likely that further adjustments will be made when necessary. However, Thomas and Wilder have reaped the rewards for their proactive style, passion for the club and desire to continue to push forwards. So long as the remainder of the pre-season campaign can be negotiated without significant injury, everything is in place to push forwards in the coming nine months.
It might be written off as the natural process taking its toll and there are dangers associated with overconfidence, but Oxford United fans have every reason to dream of a successful League Two campaign.