The Oxford United women's celebrating

Season Review: Oxford United Women

The season’s ending and there’s much to digest and reflect on: first we have to look back to before a ball was kicked, or a player was signed and reflect on the impact of that decision. Yes, that decision. We weren’t awarded a license to compete in the second tier of women’s football and while some people may just think this meant forced relegation, the impact was far greater. The emotional impact on the players, some of whom had spent large parts of their lives with the club, can’t be overstated. They were naturally devastated and the biggest victims of the decision, but there were others. We lost our development team due to a sudden need to restructure; after our devs’ best ever season, under now first-team manager Liam Gilbert, the club were left with little option but to consolidate numbers and focus solely on the first team.

Once that difficult decision was made, or made for us, the rebuild began. I distinctly remember Liam Gilbert and Chris Williams saying ”at one point we were the only ones in the building” during an interview. Hyperbolic? Honestly, I don’t think it was. Which is a testament to the amount of work Liam put in during the close season and highlights just how precarious the situation was; I recall a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach while there were so many unknowns. I love my football club and I took the decision very personally.

Over the coming months things started to take shape and pre-season preparations commenced. Relief was now the overwhelming emotion: we had a team! The club had announced some players over time and I was able to identify others through pictures from training sessions: the turnover of players was big. It’s often reasonably big in women’s football, at least compared to men’s football, but over half the squad was compromised of new faces. My emotion then changed from relief to gratitude. I don’t blame any of the players who chose to leave. Not for one second. But I was – and still am – extremely grateful to the players who decided to stay. And to the new players who chose to embark on a new journey with us.

The season began with many of the players as unfamiliar to each other as they were the manager, and our first few games resembled that of team experiencing growing pains. There was obvious talent in the squad, but it was still a young squad in many senses; it needed to grow to be able to thrive in its new surroundings. We also found ourselves on the receiving end of a few questionable decisions – like a last-minute penalty decision that was awarded, only to have the decision reversed. Those kind of moments are even more impactful and hurt a little more when things aren’t quite clicking. Although it was a tough start, I never felt we were outclassed, and it was more of a start defined by small margins as much as anything else. From the first whistle, I loved the attitude of the players; their never say die mentality has been the lifeblood of the team throughout the season: we were 1-3 down against MK Dons and the application and desire to play the right way was evident, the fundamentals solid. I said afterwards it was only a matter of time before someone was on the receiving end of a good beating and in the next game that happened, beating Gillingham 0-5.

Oxford United's Emily Allen
Oxford United's Emily Allen

As things on the field began to improve, an older head arrived to help guide our young team. Cat Beaver‘s arrival was significant in that the team now had another leader on the pitch, confident in her ability to read the game, as well a willingness to offer guidance and reassurance to those around her. Next to captain Lauren Haynes and Emily Allen, Beaver’s presence was notable and experience invaluable, especially during the early stages of the season.

The evolution continued on and off the pitch and over the next few games we managed to complete with a very good, well-drilled Coventry side – the best team I saw us play this season – and were minutes away from beating Crawley Wasps before being denied the win by late free-kick, which we went on to lose in extra time. Following on from those tough games, we recorded our biggest ever win: an emphatic 18-0 win over North Leigh. A game we were expected to win, but a nice confidence boost for the team after two hard fought defeats.

Then, with arguably the most meaningful tactical change of the season, the manager performed a master stroke: the decision to move Haynes out of defence into a slightly more advanced role. It proved to be huge; not only would not only allow Haynes to influence play more going forward, but she would also go on to provide invaluable cover to our defence. We were instantly harder to break down – conceding just two games in the next five games, securing four wins and a draw. The tide had turned, we were beginning to gain a little momentum and went into the Christmas break full of confidence.

Oxford United against the all conquering Blackburn Rovers.
Oxford United against the all conquering Blackburn Rovers. All photos from @OfficialOUWFC

The hard work didn’t stop though and Liam Gilbert maximised the opportunity to strengthen his squad. The arrival of Evie Gane from Aston Villa, as well Gemma Sims and Cheryl Williams, both from Barton Rovers, have all proven to be very positive additions, with all three featuring in the majority of the games since their arrival.

Oxford United's Evie Gane against Cambridge in the FA Cup
Oxford United's Evie Gane against Cambridge in the FA Cup

The season recommenced and our good form continued after the Christmas break – conceding just 5 goals in 11 games from the end of October to the end of February, which I suitably dubbed ’Flawless February’ due to the fact that we won all four games that month without shipping a single goal. During that time we also beat the then league leaders, Chichester City. It wasn’t always pretty and Lucy Thomas made some ridiculous saves, but we did it. Proving that not only had we evolved, we also had the resolve to grind out results against the best teams. A definite season highlight, the emotion that accompanied that win was immense.

Our 25 week unbeaten run in the league eventually came to an against Plymouth on 31st March. It’s always disappointing to lose, even more so under questionable circumstances, but what an achievement in itself – 25 weeks! It’s one that I look back on proudly and hope the players will carry with them going forward.

The next few games would help determine our final league position, but I have never liked the saying ’nothing to play for.’ Was our final league position almost decided? Within a position or two, yes it was. But these players are proud and they are winners; approaching every game with anything other than the desire to earn 3 points was never in doubt. I’d expect nothing less of them and neither would they.

But before we could play our last few league games, we had another very important fixture on the calendar. Exactly six years to the day since we last won a trophy, it was the Oxfordshire County Cup final. Our chance of glory. The match was played in difficult conditions and felt fairly routine, though City to their credit were very organised and made us work hard for our eventual 2-0 win. The match itself was of little importance compared to what the team had achieved and the moment they were about to enjoy. And what a moment – having claimed their medals, they posed for a photo and then the champagne cork popped: Bobby Lynch grinning and baring the shower; Roberts flinching away from the alcohol in a very ’unstudentlike’ manner; Georgia Timms and Baker looking on in joy; Haynes wishing the cup she about to drink from was bigger, and smiles! So many smiles! It was a proud moment and one the players, staff and club deserved.

Oxford United celebrate after a local cup win. Photo by @TimAngerPhoto
Oxford United celebrate after a local cup win. Photo by @TimAngerPhoto

With one game remaining our final league position is virtually determined: 4th. We’ll go into the final league game against Foxes wanting to consolidate 4th position with 3 more points than we currently have, but barring a 30 goal turnaround – the goal difference between us and Watford below us – that’s where we’ll finish. We’ve also scored 97 goals this season, so have the opportunity to reach 100, which would be another notable milestone for the team.

So while the curtain is about to fall, the hard work will continue as we look ahead to next season. If we keep the team together I genuinely believe we’ll be pushing for promotion next season. We aren’t the team we were at the start of this season and the fact that we were capable of going 25 weeks unbeaten highlights the potential of this team. Will we do it? Who knows. That’s the reason we play dozens of games each season and love the accompanying emotional roller coaster, but the potential exists.

Through a difficult situation, we’ve persevered despite a tricky start in a new league. We have never shied away from anything and have grown as a team. We’ve endured painful losses and experienced an incredible run. We’ve lifted silverware. We’ve always tried to play good football and represented the OUFC badge impeccably. I think it’s fair to say that we are in a good place as a football club. And speaking personally, I’ve loved every minute and it has been a privilege to watch these talented footballers wear the yellow shirt. Thank you all.

Finally, I want to conclude this piece with the smiles these players have brought to the faces of young fans and aspiring footballers. Their adoration as undeniable as it is infectious. Simply incredible.

The Oxford United girls meeting the next generations of footballers
The Oxford United girls meeting the next generations of footballers
Craig B
24ctplonker@gmail.com