There's no doubting that this season has been a depressing one for Oxford fans. The club has stuttered through the season and we're now a full ten points off the play-offs with just 14 games remaining, our promotion hopes looking distinctly forlorn. Long, spirit-crushing winless runs, controversial signings and a ridiculous list of injuries have characterised the season and against this backdrop large numbers of supporters have begun to stay away as the good-feeling and momentum of just a couple of years ago begins to look increasingly like another false dawn.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Though this season can be considered a disaster in terms of the first team and financially, the club has made huge strides forward in other areas. Unfortunately these are the areas that we fans rarely get more than a glimpse of. And while it can be difficult to find anything positive to say while we're watching our side get effortlessly picked apart by Fleetwood bloody Town in front of barely 5,000 fans, I think it's important that we do take a moment to praise the achievements of the club in other areas and to restore some of our pride in Oxford United.
Because although the first team's disappointing efforts have drawn comparisons with the side that was relegated from the Football League in 2006, and although some of the doom-mongers will tell anyone and everyone that that's the direction we are heading, the club is actually in a vastly different situation now. Back in 2006 Firoz Kassam's systematic dismantling of everything that made the club a real football club – a community asset – was reaching its inevitable conclusion. The youth system which had produced some excellent local products in the 90s and early 00s lay in ruins, decimated by chronic neglect and underfunding. The club's community activities had shrunk to nothing and its reputation in the local area was at rock bottom.
When WPL took over the club they had essentially inherited a ruin of a football club – one which was staring non-league oblivion in the face. It wasn't just the first team that was in poor shape, the whole club had been reduced to barely a shadow of its former self. The easy option – and the one which the club initially seemed to be taking in the first season in the Conference – was to pump money into the first team and attempt to win immediate promotion. But that would only have been papering over the cracks, because all the damage that had been done elsewhere would remain unfixed. Instead the last five or six years have been a rebuilding job at all levels, a slow and steady process which is now at last beginning to bear some fruit.
For the first time in years we've seen some products of the youth team come through and impress, with Tyrone Marsh and Max Crocombe both looking promising in recent glimpses. Sure, we've had players like Aaron Woodley and Alex Fisher in recent years, but neither looked as promising as these two and neither really delivered in the end. But Marsh has already looked a real prospect, scoring his first goal for the club in the JPT against Southend, as well as impressing at Conference South level while on loan at Staines Town. He put in a man-of-the-match performance and then scored the winner in his debut against Bath City and has continued to feature prominently there. A bit of regular competitive football can only help his development. Crocombe has also found himself thrown into first team action this season due to the injury to Ryan Clarke and has acquitted himself very well there. Ian Lenagan even said at the fans forum that Crocombe might have been our number one choice for the rest of the season, if not for the fact that he is due to fly to Fiji in March with the New Zealand under-20 squad.
He's not the only product of Oxford's youth system getting international recognition. Youth teamer Marvin Ekpiteta has been called up to represent Nigeria at under-20 level as well. And another two of Oxford's girls Academy players, Laura Nichol and Ella Franklin-Fraiture, have also been rewarded with an international call-up. They have just spent the last few days at an England under-17 training camp at St George's Park – part of the preparations for under-17s European competition – and both featured in a 1-0 win for England against Wales.
All of this is a good example of the huge amount of work that has gone into bringing our youth system up to scratch in the last few years and bodes well for the future. The youth team have had a remarkable season, currently sitting top of their league after winning an incredible 13 consecutive competitive matches between September and December, as well as reaching the third round of the FA Youth Cup.
The continuing success of the ladies team is another example of the strides the club has been making away from the first team. They feature in the fourth round of the Women's FA Cup for the first time this weekend, as they play at the Kassam Stadium for the first time ever when Newcastle United come to town. They are top of their league this season, after getting promoted in style just last season, and have ambitious plans for the future. This is a side which didn't even exist just a few years ago, and the progress they have made has been little short of remarkable.
And, to cap it all, the club's community activity has earned it recognition from the Football League, with a nomination for Family Club of the Year and an Unsung Hero award for Community Officer Peter Rhoades-Brown. The Youth & Community Sports Trust has become a lot more visible in the past year as well, hosting a range of fundraising events, such as the recent Oxford United on Ice event to the upcoming Charity Breakfast.
What this shows is that there has been a considerable effort to build this club from the ground up, not just to create a first team. So things haven't exactly gone to plan for our League Two promotion hopes, but that's no reason to simply give up on the club altogether. We have a lot to be proud of and it's time we showed our pride.