How Karl Robinson's Oxford overcame play-off final heartache to challenge again

Watch the second leg of the Sky Bet League One play-off semi-final between Oxford and Blackpool from 7.30pm on Sky Sports Football on Friday, May 21; Kick off 7.45pm.

When Oxford lined up against Wycombe in the League One play-off final last July, they were seen as favourites to triumph at Wembley and secure a second tier return for the first time in two decades.

But after taking the lead inside nine minutes, it was Gareth Ainsworth's Chairboys who would go on to win 2-1 and reach the Championship for the first time in their history, leaving Karl Robinson's team shell-shocked.

With insight from Oxford fan 'Oxblogger' and the Oxford Mail's James Roberts, here is the story of how the club recovered to challenge again...

Joe Jacobson's late penalty sent Wycombe to the Championship at Oxford's expense
Image: Joe Jacobson's late penalty sent Wycombe to the Championship at Oxford's expense

Fan view: Last year felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; this year there's no pressure

Oxblogger, www.oxblogger.co.uk

"Oxford United are part of an exclusive club; a single generation has seen us lift a major domestic trophy and experience life in the non-League; only Luton and Wimbledon have done the same.

"Finding our natural level is hard; some of us are relieved to be free from the tractor beam of non-League, others still hanker for a return to the glory years. For me, having stood on the terrace at Wembley in 1986 and at Eastbourne Borough 20 years later, I know there's no boundary of what you can achieve and no safety net when you don't.

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"In the 1990s, the second tier was our home, for decades it was our aspirational steady state - where we belonged. But while we dreamt, reality dragged us down; mismanagement, under funding, a three-sided stadium replacing the loved and feared Manor Ground.

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"Football was blossoming with millions of pounds of investment; we were left reminding people, who no longer cared, of the glories of the past. When you're losing to Tonbridge Angels in the FA Trophy, the Championship seems far away.

"You don't feel it when it's happening to you; you live in endless hope that you'll turn the corner, that the next signing from Airdrie or Liepājas Metalurgs (yes, really) will stimulate a resurgence.

"Then we did regroup and resurge; first out of the Conference with Chris Wilder, then out of League Two with Michael Appleton. Then last year, a series of improbable events gave us an opportunity; a late season run of form saw us into the play-offs just as the pandemic struck. It felt like destiny, a reward for all the suffering, a once in lifetime opportunity, nobody wanted to be promoted like this, but we knew it might be the only way.

Play-offs: Essential reading

Play-offs: Essential reading

Read all the best interviews, previews and stories ahead of the 2020/21 Sky Bet Championship, League One and League Two play-offs.

"We were the better team at Wembley, we had more possession, we had more chances; but Wycombe were ruthlessly efficient and the opportunity was crushed. Everything had aligned and we had missed the opportunity.

"There was optimism about this season, but League One is fiercely competitive; lots of clubs who consider their natural level to be the second tier or higher. We were leaden-footed, results were poor, we were looking down more than up. Then, after Christmas, a surge of form and a record streak of wins propelled us to safety, then closer to the play-offs.

"The top six looked beyond us and we were running out of games, just surviving the season had been enough, then another run, a hatful of goals, comebacks and last-minute winners. Our final day win over Burton saw us sneak in on goal difference.

Karl Robinson's men secured a League One play-off place on the final day of the season
Image: Karl Robinson's team secured a League One play-off place on the final day of the season

"Last year felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity, the stars aligning, a job interview that we had fluffed. This year feels like a riot, like we are gate-crashing a party, there's no pressure, it's a welcome home for the fans as much as a chance for glory. We are just going to throw everything at it and see where it takes us; you never know, we might reach our new natural level."

Analysis: How Oxford rebuilt after last season's play-off heartache

Oxford United reporter James Roberts, @OxfordMailOUFC

"Rather than one big reason, there were a few things that contributed to a poor start to the season.

"Oxford only had three weeks between the play-off final on July 13 and coming back for the start of pre-season, which was the first week of August and I also think it affected them mentally. Karl (Robinson) had been saying about not having a play-off hangover, but I think that was always going to be inevitable in some way.

"Signings played a part as well. They lost Rob Dickie to QPR, but in terms of the ones that came in, they either took a bit of time to settle or, for some of them, it didn't quite work out. The players that had got them there i.e. Matty Taylor, James Henry, who had been in such brilliant form the previous season just couldn't quite find the same levels.

Oxford will play Blackpool over two legs in the League One play-off semi-finals

"Robinson signed a four-year deal in September just before the season started and he had been pretty popular at that point off the back of a play-off final and Oxford's highest league finish since 1999, which was a very good achievement. I don't think there was ever serious pressure from the board if I'm completely honest.

"But for the fanbase, it came after the Swindon defeat on November 28, when they conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes to their biggest rivals in a game that they should have been 3-0 up at half-time in. That left them 19th and there needed to be a lot of trust from the fans rebuilt after that.

"The nine wins from 10 league games from mid-December to mid-February lifted the mood massively. The first win was against Northampton in a cagey game and if they had drawn that game, the pressure would have gone up. But they scored four goals in the second half and showed that they could pull it together.

"At the start, it was just about getting away from relegation, consolidating and going again next season, but by the end of the winning run, they had broken a club record of nine straight wins in all competitions, had a very good transfer deadline day, signing Elliot Lee and Brandon Barker and were suddenly right on the edge of the play-offs. It was almost a completely different team and almost a different club.

Matty Taylor has scored 18 goals for the club so far this season
Image: Matty Taylor has scored 18 goals for the club so far this season

"After that came a bit of a strange time where they played a lot of teams near the top of the league in a patchy run but until the Crewe game on April 10, there was this constant issue of just not being clinical. The way Robinson plays is possession-based and they had played so many games where they had had 60 per cent possession and lost 2-0.

"I remember going to the Crewe game thinking that, with seven games left, play-offs were pretty much impossible and if they could finish in the top 10, that would be good. They just turned it on, won 6-0, played with freedom, which I think was the key thing. The constant thing coming out of the club had been about being calm, not being under pressure, and just letting the players do what they could do.

"I think fans and the team were quite united in the thought that if they had beaten Burton and Portsmouth had beaten Accrington on the final day, they had got to 74 points and finished seventh, then they would have been pretty happy because of where they had been earlier in the season. The fact they got in on the final day is a massive boost, especially going into two very tough games.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Oxford United and Burton Albion

"The play-off final was quite a horrible experience for a lot of the players last season. Oxford went into the game as fairly strong favourites, especially with the way the season ended and Wycombe getting in on points-per-game. The final was one of those games where, again, they probably had more possession and were, at times, the better team, but didn't make their mark. I think the manner of the defeat was almost as bad as the defeat itself, knowing how big an opportunity it was.

"There are so many players in the team that were part of the team that lost at Wembley. There are some that, if Oxford stay in League One, are good enough to play at a higher level and there will be serious interest from bigger clubs, so that's where the desperation extends to as well. If Oxford can get into the Championship, then they have got a lot better chance at keeping their best players."

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