League One play-off final
It has been a remarkable season for Oxford, who face Wycombe Wanderers, a few miles down the M40, at Wembley for a place in the Championship. When Robinson took over in March 2018, the club were 16th in the division, in danger of being relegated, had new owners and an uncertain future. Even last season they were bottom. Now, like Wycombe, with one of the lowest budgets in League One, they are one game away from a return to the Championship for the first time in 21 years.
It all started in pre-season when Oxford were thumped 5-0 by Rangers and sold one of their best players, Gavin Whyte, to Cardiff City for £2million.
“I stood in the dressing room and asked, ‘What do we want to achieve?’” Robinson says, with his team embarking on two exciting cup runs – in the Carabao Cup they beat West Ham United 4-0, Sunderland on penalties and pushed Manchester City in the quarter-finals.
“We outplayed Man City in the second half, which is still baffling me because even as I say that I feel like an idiot, it does not make sense,” Robinson says.
Then he had to sell two more important players – Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu in the January window – “and we go to Newcastle and hold them in front of 50,000 at St James’ Park”. The replay was lost only 3-2 after extra time and all the while Oxford stayed in contention in the league, sitting in third place before the lockdown which, of course, has presented its own challenges.
“I have been getting into work at 7.30am and blowing
United front: Karl Robinson says Oxford’s team spirit shone through paddling pools up, putting chairs out, I’ve been sanitising bikes, I’ve been building marquees,” Robinson says. “When you have the likes of [fitness coach] Chris Short, who’s been around the block, and Derek Fazackerley, who was assistant manager of England, putting gazebos up, putting paddling pools out for ice baths and carrying bikes, it just shows you how much everybody cares and there’s been a real sense of community spirit.
“Players have been arriving in their kit, getting back in their cars with towels around them because they are soaking wet. It’s almost like going back to when you were 13 and going to tournaments with your parents and putting the deckchairs out. You were there for the right reasons, the purity of football, and it’s almost like I have gone back to being a junior football coach again.”
An empty Wembley, he says, will be “surreal”, although Robinson jokes that he is used to that. “The FA disciplinary panel, I go three times a year and I sit in the room and look beyond the panel and see the empty seats.” Robinson is, certainly, an animated presence of the touchline. “You can’t moan about it or change it. It’s different,” he says.
“The saving grace is that whoever wins is going to be playing in front of a lot of big crowds next season. We have all dreamed of that Wembley moment in front of a full house, we’ve all been our favourite player scoring a goal there, but we can’t change it and I am not going to let that tarnish what this team have achieved this season.”