Two early defeats and speculation about the future of key players has provided something of a come-down after all the preseason positivity around Oxford. Wednesday's performance against Cardiff has certainly kept much of the hope alive and shown the undoubted quality of the side, so at this early stage of the season optimism and uncertainty meet to create an unusual tension around the club.
Wednesday's extra time defeat to Cardiff marked a second defeat in two attempts. However, despite the result, there were many positives to take from the match. The blood-and-thunder performance of Michael Duberry was a sight to behold, and his immense commitment to the cause belied the fact that this was technically his home debut. The performance of the whole back line was commendable, if not for those few costly errors I would have been tempted to write that it was unrecognisable from last season's shaky defence. New signing Liam Davis also impressed on Wednesday night and his addition to the left side provides a natural symmetry to Damian Batt on the right. Going forward, the inability to really test the Cardiff goalkeeper was a slight concern, but the movement around the edge of the area was much improved on last season and players also weren't afraid to shoot when in sight of goal. Peter Leven's delivery from set pieces was also impressive and caused chaos in the Cardiff box every time he put the ball into their area. We may even score from one this season!
Bradford (and their lurid pink away kit) make their second ever visit to the Kassam Stadium, also on the back of two defeats. They lost their opening match at home to Aldershot last weekend in disappointing fashion but, much like Oxford, improved significantly in their League Cup match this week. Despite losing 3-2 against local rivals Leeds they played valiantly, twice taking the lead before eventually succumbing to their Championship opponents. The performance will give them confidence, and the fact that they will have had an extra day's rest will mean that Bradford will represent a strong test for an Oxford side that looked exhausted after the 120th minute on Wednesday. The side is already beginning to feel some pressure to get a victory under their belt.
But is it possible for the side to be feeling pressure so early in the season? Wilder's summer transfer activity won't have come cheap and the expectation from the fans is for the side to challenge near the top of the table. The team has a tough start to the season and already this is compounded by injury concerns. Unfortunately, results might not live up to those expectations during these early stages and should the club go into the Swindon match in just over a week's time still looking for their first win, the pressure will have mounted to huge proportions, even at this early stage.
However, no matter how tough the early stages are, the quality of the squad should shine through over the course of the season, we're bound to get some impressive results at some point and our style of play means that fans are likely to come away from some matches (Wednesday night, for example) delighted with the quality of entertainment. Unfortunately, we're also a League Two club and have already shown that we're capable of stinkers, so the real question will be whether we can be more consistent than last season, and that still remains very much unanswered.
One final factor that may add to the pressure on the team at the moment is the uncertain future of James Constable. 'Beano' has been a talismanic figure and is adored by fans of club, as well as being a proven goalscorer. Fans will be perplexed by any decision to let him go, and any resulting cash windfall should be expected to be reinvested in a big name replacement – something which is unlikely to happen. Constable has been a huge player for Oxford United since he arrived here and fans will be understandably upset if he is sold.
The next few weeks will be very revealing about the trajectory this season will take – an upturn in form, and derby victory next weekend, may be enough to soften the blow of losing Constable for some, but should the side struggle for results fans will inevitably look at the James Constable situation and criticise. Of course, rumours about Constable leaving remain just rumours for the time being, so this is just idle speculation.
The beginning of the season is generally a time of optimism and there is certainly plenty of that around OUFC at the moment. Wednesday's performance has done much to banish the memories of last Saturday in Sheffield, but the resultant positivity is tempered by fears about the future of Constable, concern about results and nervousness about our first trip to Swindon in over a decade.