Early potential for experimental side as Pep settles in
The deadwood has been given the boot and the pre-season fixtures have been pencilled in the diary.
And that’s just as well for Oxford United fans, who will be in a rush to put the 2017/18 season at the back of their minds.
Following a summer of disruption, the inexperienced Pep Clotet was charged with steadying the ship of a side who had lost the popular Michael Appleton from the hotseat as well as a handful of star players.
The plan was to build on the success of the previous year which included a play-off charge following promotion. But nothing’s that simple.
Between August and May, the U’s teased their fans as they flirted with the play-offs before dragging them into a relegation battle and a laughable 59-day managerial hunt.
There was no cup run of previous years, but there was at least a positive start, a takeover and saviour Karl Robinson rescued them from the drop.
Here, George Welch starts a review of the season with a look back at 2017
Oxford had impressed under Michael Appleton the previous year, with many players catching the eyes of teams higher up the league ladder.
Skipper John Lundstram (Sheffield United), influential winger Marvin Johnson (Middlesbrough), towering defender Chey Dunkley (Wigan Athletic) and 2016/17 top scorer Chris Maguire (Bury) all moved on.
This gave Clotet a mini rebuilding job so, utilising his European contacts, in came a cohort of ‘Pep Clotet’ players that represented relics and memories of the Spaniard’s coaching career.
In came the Malmo class of 2010, consisting Ricardinho, Ivo Pekalski and Agon Mehmeti, while Xemi, Dwight Tiendalli and Gino van Kessel swelled the overseas contingent.
Jon Obika, Mike Williamson, Scott Shearer, John Mousinho and James Henry were added to the Oxford ranks and Jack Payne and Alex Mowatt joined on loan.
The uninspiring recruitment record contributed to the former Swansea City and Leeds United assistant’s departure in the new year.
However, the Pep era got off to the perfect start with the club’s first ever victory at Oldham Athletic in the opening game of the season.
Wes Thomas netted a debut goal that day and the striker was on target again in the 3-0 dismantling of Portsmouth in the first league game, sending the U’s top of the table.
Defeat at Scunthorpe United and a draw at Shrewsbury Town weren’t the end of the world, especially given they both made the play-offs.
Seventh in League One at the end of August, United kicked off their Checkatrade Trophy with an emphatic 6-2 victory at Stevenage as youngster Shandon Baptiste made his senior debut.
The Carabao Cup campaign was short-lived however, losing 4-3 at home to League Two’s Cheltenham Town in extra time.
The first rough patch of the campaign came in the second month of the season with three successive defeats.
A 3-0 crushing of Gillingham sandwiched by draws with Milton Keynes Dons (A) and Bradford City (A) meant the Yellows started September brightly and on the tail of the early-season pacesetters.
There was some breathtaking football at this point.
But United proved fragile as they lost against Blackpool (A), Walsall (H) and Bury (A) in quick succession to plummet down the table.
The inconsistent performances of Clotet’s side were epitomised by the 4-1 win at Peterborough United that followed.
A goal down at half time, a rejuvenated Oxford bounced back in the second half to blow their hosts away. Agon Mehmeti netted the final goal – and his only goal for the club – in what was one of the small number of highlights under Clotet.
The Posh turnaround seemed a turning point.
Back-to-back league wins followed against AFC Wimbledon (H) and rivals Bristol Rovers (A) before respectable points were collected in home games against Karl Robinson’s Charlton Athletic and Rotherham United, both finishing the campaign in the top-six.
Two goals in the final couple of minutes saw United lose 2-0 at Fleetwood Town at the end of the month, preventing an unbeaten October – and probably a manager of the month nomination for Clotet.
Oxford also drew 2-2 with Brighton and Hove Albion’s academy side in the Checkatrade Trophy at the start of the month, picking up a point after losing on penalties.
Setbacks were expected but, while United were two points off the play-offs heading into November, the best performances came before Halloween.
Youngster Owen James signed a professional contract while fellow local lad Josh Ruffels signed a new three-year deal.
Thai businessman Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth, who would complete his takeover of the club in January, was once again spotted at the Kassam.
2016’s penultimate month began with the return of the excitement of the FA Cup, a competition in which United had thrived – and benefitted financially from – in the previous two seasons.
But, while city rivals Oxford City made history in the world famous cup competition, United crashed and burned to lowly opposition at the very first hurdle.
A lethargic United, who reached the fifth round last season, failed to register a shot on target as they limped to a 2-0 first round loss at League Two Port Vale.
It was little consolation that they qualified for the knockout stages of the Checkatrade Trophy four days later, despite a 4-3 home defeat to MK Dons.
Clotet called on his players to reignite their early-season performances to end his side’s losing habit after a 2-1 defeat at home to in-form Northampton Town – a fourth successive defeat in all competitions.
Form heading into the winter was patchy, but not disastrous.
A 4-0 win at 10-man Plymouth calmed the nerves before they found themselves 3-0 down in 22 minutes against Blackburn Rovers (H).
They lost 4-2 that day and, while the month was rounded off with a 1-1 draw at Southend United, the exciting football of the opening weeks was steadily fading away.
In the treatment room, captain Curtis Nelson, stretchered off against Northampton Town, was ruled out for the season with an Achilles injury.
The defender returned in some huge games towards the end of the season and the club certainly missed the influential leader in between.
Fellow defender Christian Ribeiro wasn’t as lucky however after a knee problem forced the right back to hang up his boots aged just 27.
The festive month began with a win, albeit in the Checkatrade Trophy, but serious questions were now being asked of Clotet’s ability to get his ideas across to his team which, at best, could be described as inconsistent.
United ground out four points against Doncaster Rovers (H) and Rochdale (A) before they blindly walked into a crushing defeat at the hands of Wigan Athletic.
The 7-0 loss was the turning point of the season – a very unwelcome Christmas gift just two days before the festivities.
Losing so heavily at home is bad enough but it was also the manner of the record-breaking defeat that irked U’s fans.
The Latics were sublime but the hosts were complicit in a game in which the manager started Xemi, who later had his contract terminated, but left star players Ryan Ledson and Joe Rothwell on the bench.
A lack of a damage-limiting plan B was exacerbated when Clotet bizarrely defended his players in his post-match interview.
A draw and a defeat at Gillingham and Bradford City respectively between Christmas and New Year did little to boost confidence as Clotet sleepwalked into 2018 on thin ice.
With no Christmas miracle, Oxford slumped and finished 2017 in 12th place, nine points off the play-offs. They were a place lower but seven points off the top-six at the same stage the previous year.