League One play-off final

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Total Football - By Ja­son Burt

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.”

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