This weekend sees the Cobblers attempt to build on a morale boosting away win at AFC Wimbledon as we make the shortest trip of our season. The Kassam Stadium hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Town over the last few years barring that fantastic day in 2006 when we took a giant leap towards promotion with a 3-1 win at the home of the U’s. The stadium hasn’t been kind to our hosts this season, though, with away form the backbone of their early success.
I’m joined for this week’s Fan Feature by Scott Walkinshaw from the excellent Oxford United blog Oxblogger and he gives his thoughts on the positive start to the season for his club and their early home struggles…
After missing out on the playoffs last season, Chris Wilder has rebuilt his Oxford side and has them already battling it out at the top end of League Two. A thumping 4-1 win at Portsmouth on the opening day sent a message to the rest of the division and set their own standards for what has been a positive opening. The U’s are unbeaten away from home but at the Kassam Stadium they haven’t won since overcoming Bury in their first home game of the season with two draws and two defeats since.
“In simple terms,” Scott says, “we’ve got a very low shots to goals ratio, we don’t miss many, but we don’t shoot much either. When we’re away from home teams tend to come at us and we have more space to attack on the break. At home teams sit back and we don’t seem to have the guile to break them down. We really need to make count the few chances we create and more often than not recently, we don’t.”
“On top of that is a growing psychological barrier; a fear that we simply can’t win at home. We’ve had bad runs before and you get to a point where you can’t imagine winning ever again. That seems to be with us at home at the moment. The Kassam Stadium is still not a comfortable home for us, there’s a sense that something about it is conspiring against us. People talk about teams upping their game at the Kassam. I don’t really buy that, but it must be an easy place to come and play. The pitch is great, the facilities are nice, and the open end of the stadium means the atmosphere can drain away so it’s not too intimidating.”
“The Firoz Kassam years were full of failure, perhaps playing in a stadium bearing his name, given the woeful legacy it carries, puts us on the back foot before we’ve stepped on the pitch. If you can knock our confidence, we can be pretty fragile. Away from home, we don’t seem to have these constraints.”
The good form has come from hard work in pre-season, according to our U’s expert, with a summer clear out followed by some tough work on the training ground. Scott says,
“We had a big clear out in the summer which has made a big difference. Many of those let go, such as Michael Duberry and Peter Leven, had their moments, but they weren’t fit for much of last year. We got dragged down waiting for all these players to get fit and find form, it never really came. We didn’t put the same team out from one week to another.”
“This year we have a much more robust side and the close season focussed a lot on building fitness. That seems to be offering a bit more stability. We have a core squad of players capable of playing most of the season.”
“In addition, the club have made a commitment to developing young players. Although we haven’t seen many coming through to the first team, the long term view is welcomed by most. It feels like we’ve got a cause to get behind; a plan for the future, which has brought people back together after a fairly fractious season last year.”
Chris Wilder, who played one game on loan with the Cobblers in 1998 during his playing career, is now the third longest serving manager in England having joined Oxford in 2008. Whilst that says a lot about the quick fire nature of managerial jobs in the country at the moment it’s admirable that the club has stuck by the man who has led them back into the Football League. Scott says that taking the focus off the man in charge has been key:
“It’s pretty ridiculous that he is the third longest serving manager given that he’s been with us for less than 5 years. Part of the key is that he brought us back to the Football League, which has bought him a lot of time with the fans. Also, our owner Ian Lenagan, I think, has been very astute in focussing on stable growth, of which keeping Chris Wilder is undoubtedly part. Lenagan’s also moved us away from the manager being the focus of all our success or failure, so if there’s a problem at the club, we don’t default to sacrificing the manager.”
“So, for example, when it came to light that we’d been signing players without putting them through medicals – meaning they’d look good on paper but they’d spend loads of time in the treatment room. The answer wasn’t fire the manager, it was to invest in a more robust sports science function.”
“That’s not to say Wilder’s untouchable. Many fans have doubts in his ability to take us further. It was a surprise when he was kept on at the end of the season, and it’s quite conceivable that failure to make the play-offs this year will see him moving on at the end of the year. Personally, I hope he does stay and succeed, I quite like the idea that our club has the maturity to retain the 3rd longest serving manager in the league.”
So what of the overall expectations for this season? After missing out on the playoffs by just four points last time out, going a few places better seems to be the general feeling. Scott explains,
“I think we’ll probably end up between 6th-8th. Chesterfield look favourites, despite their recent results. Exeter, Fleetwood and Scunthorpe all look capable of sustaining a challenge. You wouldn’t rule out Portsmouth and Southend despite slow starts. That said, Chesterfield and, at the other end, Accrington aside, pretty much everyone looks capable of going up or down. I can’t quite get to grips with where we’re at. It’s not exactly normal to win 72% of your points away from home.”
In terms of the Cobblers, it appears that Oxford fans have a bit of time for us with some shared links and history. Scott looks back on some famous players who have donned both Oxford and Cobblers shirts over the years whilst celebrating one of our more recently departed heroes.
“I think there’s quite a lot of affection for Northampton,” he says, “We have quite a lot of shared history – Martin Aldridge, Ian Atkins, Andy Woodman – so that helps. You’re near enough to make the away game a good one, far enough away to make sure the rivalry doesn’t get too bitter. I think everyone enjoyed the snow and the orange ball from last season’s game at Sixfields and you’d have to be dead not to have enjoyed the phenomena that is Ade Akinfenwa. Plus, I think you have a really nice kit.”
Finally, a prediction for Saturday’s game?
“If you get an early goal, the doubts may consume us. But, we’re not a bad team at all and it’s hard to believe that we’ll lose a 4th home game on the trot. You don’t seem to have had a great start, so I’m thinking that we’re looking at an extremely uncomfortable (for us) narrow home win.”
Oxford United Links…
Official website: http://www.oufc.co.uk/
Stadium Guide: http://www.footballgroundguide.com/oxford_united/
Local News site: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/sport/