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By Matthew Handley
This time last year Danny Baker, described Oxford United’s season as ‘pointless’ after they finished the season firmly in the middle of League Two, with a goal difference of 0 and exactly half the possible points from the season. If anything though this season felt even more pointless, as an end of season collapse cost them a play-off place.
Their loss of form was contrasted on the outskirts of the city at Court Palace Farm, where an end of season surge saw Oxford City clinch promotion to the Southern Football League Premier division through the play-offs, now only two tiers below the U’s.
It’s a remarkable rise for a club whose only claim to footballing fame is competing in (and losing) the longest ever FA Cup tie – a final qualifying round tie against Alvechurch required six replays before the Birmingham amateur side finally triumphed with a 1-0 victory at Villa Park.
The season started slowly for City, with a draw at home to Redditch on the opening day followed by defeat to Toton three days later. Results steadily improved though, as they took points from the fancied St Albans City and thrashed Swindon Supermarine 7-1, although defeat in the FA Cup First Round to Redbridge dispelled any hopes of a repeat of 2000-01’s cup run.
Meanwhile Oxford United hinted that this season could be special, as they went a run of form that saw them take eventual finalists Cardiff City to extra-time in the League Cup and, most importantly, beat Palo di Canio’s Swindon side in the local derby. A tough draw away to Sheffield United in the first round of the FA Cup ended their hopes of a good run, but solid league form saw them challenging for the play-off positions as we entered 2012.
A poor run of form in December meant City were not so successful, finding themselves marooned in midtable but still in touching distance of promotion. The sacking of top scorer Lee Steele for homophobic tweets could have ended their promotion charge, but after January they went on an impressive run of form, losing only four league games in the run-in, finishing the season in second place to enter the play-offs.
Things were also going well at the Kassam, despite a draw at home to an awful Hereford team who eventually finished bottom, courtesy of two own goals from former Leeds centre back Michael Duberry. Another win over league leaders Swindon propelled them into the upper echelons of the division, and suddenly the prospect of League One football seemed a distinct possibility.
After March there was no joy though, as they failed to win any of their final seven games, and their points cushion was slowly destroyed. They finished the season an excruciating four points off the play-off places, watching on as Swindon took the title at a canter.
City swept Cambridge City aside in the play-offs, before avenging their 6-0 defeat to Totton earlier in the season with a 4-2 win in the final to lift them to the 6th tier of English football. Former Oxford United man Steve Basham and his strike partner Felipe Barcelos were instrumental in the game, and throughout the season, as they constantly created chances.
It remains to be seen how Oxford City will fare in a higher division. The likes of St Albans City, once of the Conference but now stuck in the Evo-Stick Southern League, have shown that non-league promotion can be hard to balance with financial issues and greater pressure. United, meanwhile, must be disappointed at their failure to capitalise on a good start to the season that saw them beat the eventual league winners twice. Given that three years ago there were no Oxford sides above the Conference though, there are certainly encouraging signs for Oxford’s football teams.