Next Oxford United Manager Odds: Three options to replace Karl Robinson
Oxford United are searching for a new head coach for the first time in five years following the exit of Karl Robinson by mutual consent.
EFL expert Gab Sutton picks out three candidates from the next Oxford United manager odds...
For three consecutive seasons, Oxford were in the mix for promotion from League One.
The Yellows recorded successive Play-Off finishes, before being unfortunate to miss out in eighth on 76 points – two more than they got into the top six with, in 2020-21 – last season.
Karl Robinson inherited a struggling, out-of-form side in 2017-18, after the Pep Clotet reign was only heading one way and Derek Fazackerley was unable to turn the tide in interim charge, and turned things around with a possession-heavy, process-driven style.
The U’s were languishing in 23rd after 11 games in 2018-19, but hadn’t played too badly and created enough chances to have had an extra 10 points at that stage, but they had issues at both ends.
Firstly, veteran Jamie Mackie, a then underdeveloped Sam Smith, a less than clinical Jerome Sinclair and an injury-prone Jonathan Obika were Oxford’s only fit, senior attacking options that year, meaning they missed a ruthless goalscoring presence.
Secondly, defensive vulnerabilities meant the chances they allowed their opponents tended to be big ones that counted, but when Robinson brought John Mousinho into the defence for a goalless draw at Southend, it sparked a resurgence.
One run of one defeat in 12 and another of eight wins 11 hauled Oxford to a top half finish at the tip of a heavily congested relegation battle that season, even if those sequences sandwiched a winter relapse of one win in 11.
From there, Robinson built a side around goalkeeper Simon Eastwood (later Jack Stevens), honest full-backs Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, centre-back Elliott Moore, destroyer Alex Gorrin, dynamo Cameron Brannagan, experienced creator James Henry, enigmatic wide man Marcus Browne – via two spells - selfless wide man Mark Sykes, and back-post poacher Matty Taylor.
That core kept Oxford competitive for three seasons, but Ruffels and Sykes departed for the Championship in the summer, Eastwood, Henry and Taylor are no longer at the level of previous seasons, with the latter moving to Port Vale in January, while Gorrin has fallen out of favour even when fit – he hasn’t started a league game this season.
Robinson has foregone the Spaniard’s ball-winning qualities by incorporating three technicians in his side’s midfield – Cameron Brannagan, Lewis Bate and Marcus McGuane.
Each of the trio have shown individual quality, but the equilibrium has been missing, in the same way an inactive car with the finest paint and padded leather seats would miss an engine.
14 players have signed in the previous two windows, of which only Ciaron Brown has been a conclusive success, and Robinson has signed various players like Jodi Jones and Yanic Wildschut with a recent history of injuries.
There is quality in this squad, though, and it will only take a couple of subtle tweaks for the next manager to keep Oxford in League One, then get the opportunity to build something once again.
The Mancunian is already popular around these parts, having led Oxford to automatic promotion from League Two in 2015-16, and a highest finish in 18 years the following season, as well as various memorable cup runs, all whilst playing an expansive style of football.
Appleton is extremely highly-rated in coaching circles, too, and led Lincoln City to the League One Play-Off Final back in 2020-21.
The 47-year-old is an exquisite developer of talent: Kemar Roofe, John Lundstram, George Baldock and Brennan Johnson have all worked with Appleton and gone on to achieve big things.
It may be unsustainable for Oxford to spend their way out of the league, when there are so many big clubs in the division, so to have someone who can nurture assets would be a huge plus.
On the other hand, it’s reasonable to say that Appleton’s final season at Lincoln was unremarkable, his stint at Blackpool did not go as hoped, and it’s plausible he wants to stay near Manchester for family and possibly health-related reasons.
Oxford know just how good Appleton at his best can be, and were he to return he would get a hero’s welcome, but the risk would be that a less successful second spell might taint his legacy slightly.
There’s an argument for the U’s attempting to find the next Appleton, rather than hope the past can repeat itself.
The big question around Oxford’s next appointment is whether a Sporting Director and Head of Recruitment accompany it.
HoR Mark Thomas left for Derby just under a week before Robinson’s dismissal and may be replaced, but Chief Executive Tim Williams had been coy when asked about whether a Sporting Director would be appointed.
It’s possible that the club collectively is reticent to adopt that model, and equally possible that Robinson’s exit makes that conversation a little easier.
The U’s might be able to forego a major structural appointment if they go for an experienced manager like Appleton, or Danny Cowley – although even then there’s a strong argument for one - but for a young, talented Head Coach, it becomes imperative.
As such, Oxford’s interest in 38-year-old Des Buckingham would imply an upstairs re-think.
Buckingham has worked under a Director of Football, Sujay Sharma, at Mumbai City, to whom he’s delivered historic success.
With 22 years of coaching under his belt already, the Oxford-born former youth goalkeeper has enjoyed a record-breaking season with the Islanders in the Indian Super League.
Mumbai have benefited from heavy investment from Khaldoon Al Mubarak, who also owns Manchester City, but Buckingham was highly-rated before taking on that project.
Buckingham cut his cloth, initially, at Oxford United Academy, and Oxford & Cherwell Valley College, where he learnt from U’s legend, the late, great Micky Lewis.
He attained his UEFA A Licence badge during this period, and coached the first team with Chris Wilder at only 29, before seeking opportunities abroad as a number one.
Few English coaches have the open-mindedness to move abroad, but Buckingham became Football Development Manager with the New Zealand FA, before taking on various roles with A-League club Wellington Pheonix, Stoke City, then New Zealand Under-20s, Under-23s for the Olympics, and assistant to Fritz Schmidt with the senior crop.
In those national team roles, Buckingham gained plaudits for inspiring a positive, attacking approach, from which point he earnt a gig assisting Melbourne City to their first A-League title in 11 years, as part of a historic double.
While Buckingham’s work at Mumbai City was on paper more straightforward, after Sergio Lobera had guided them to the domestic double the year before he took charge, the situation brought it’s own challenges.
Five senior players who had been part of the previous season’s achievements had departed, while recruitment wheels were in motion five weeks into pre-season, so Buckingham could neither revert directly to last year’s template, nor put his own stamp on things in terms of personnel.
Nonetheless, the coach led Mumbai City to become the first Indian side to win a game in the Asian Champions League, still with an expansive, enterprising style that’s always been associated with his work.
Buckingham has inspired Mumbai to an astonishing 2022-23 season, with the club taking the ISL shield and breaking as many as 15 records, including an 18-game unbeaten run.
As such, appointing Buckingham would clearly be a left-field yet extremely exciting move for Oxford, but they will be hard-pressed to prize their man away, after the coach signed a two-year contract with his current employers earlier this year, and still has the title to be decided via the Play-Offs – New Zealand’s advances were rejected two months ago.
However, if the Yellows could pull this one off, they would get a highly talented coach with bags of potential, yet also someone with experience, and a person who appears to have excellent people skills.
Revisionism and recency bias has crept into football, to the extent that almost any manager worth their salt has seen their stock drop at a certain point.
As such, the Cowley brothers are a fantastic management team who will undoubtedly go on to achieve huge things, even if right now they happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the public perception pendulum.
Winning three consecutive promotions with Concord Rangers was a huge achievement, with the non-leaguers moving from the Essex Senior League to the coattails of the National League South Play-Offs, before the duo inspired part-timers Braintree to the National League Play-Offs and a narrow Semi-Final defeat to Grimsby.
The brothers then inspired Lincoln, perennial National League midtable fodder, to two titles in three seasons, via a historic run to the FA Cup quarter-finals – the first non-league side to achieve that feat in 92 years – and an EFL Trophy victory.
Through that time, the Cowleys evolved the style from the direct play to Matt Rhead in the first two seasons, to a more free-flowing yet efficient counter-attacking approach in the title win, before more technical-focus in recruitment for League One.
Huddersfield and Portsmouth spells are perceived as failures in some quarters, but a lot of that is judged retrospectively.
Most Terriers supporters, at the time, completely opposed the decision, and had Carlos Corberan not turned out to be an excellent appointment, it would likely be remembered comparably to Birmingham’s decision to sack Gary Rowett for Gianfranco Zola in 2016.
The Cowleys inherited a losing mentality, after the club had been relegated from the Premier League the year before with a meagre 16 points – eight fewer than Sunderland went down with two years previous, and they then suffered successive relegations – and Town had taken only one point from their first six Championship games, too.
If anyone had offered Huddersfield fans 50 points from 40 subsequent games, and comfortable survival in the season in which more points are required to stay up than would have been needed two Championship campaigns either side, they would have taken it.
Portsmouth, meanwhile, were in a position of investing in infrastructure and assets, rather than putting more of their money into the first team as they did for Kenny Jackett – budget wise, they ranked not too far into the top half.
Pompey missed out on the Play-Offs on the final day of 2020-21, after the Cowleys took charge in March, and amassed 73 points the following season, which would have sufficed in three of the previous four full campaigns – the competition was simply unusually high.
This season, the Portsea Island club were fifth by late November with a game in hand, having lost only two of their first 17 league games, but a spate of injuries in the same areas hindered progress.
For instance, creator Tom Lowery, dynamo Louis Thompson, all-rounder Marlon Pack and controller Joe Morrell were all absent simultaneously, when having just two of those midfielders fit would have made a difference.
Plus, what is sometimes levelled at the Cowleys is that their instructions can overcomplicate things at times, but that would hold more sway if they’d only worked at the top level – yet their ideas have worked successfully at all levels down to the 10th tier.
So, if Portsmouth players weren’t grasping their instructions, that reflects badly on them as much as anything.
None of this is to say that one win in 13 at the end of their time at Fratton Park was good enough: it wasn’t, so with performances like the ones at home to MK Dons and Charlton at the tail-end, it was understandable in one sense that the hierarchy felt they had to take action.
However, the Cowley brothers are ambitious people, they are meticulous in their work, they are pragmatic, they have outstanding people skills, and can learn lessons very quickly.
After a couple of months out of the game to rest, reflect and refresh, the duo will be ready to rise again – could it be with Oxford?
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