Eales, Appleton and Clotet’s role in the rise of Oxford United FC

In the summer of 2014, Oxford United were bought by Birmingham-based Investment banker Darryl Eales from Ian Lenagan, with the club firmly in League Two mediocrity.

Eales now owns 84% of the football club. Eales immediately made his mark by removing manager Gary Waddock, who had only been hired a few months earlier following Chris Wilder’s switch to Northampton. Former Portsmouth manager Michael Appleton was hired.

It was a tough start for Appleton, as he struggled to find his best 11, leading to inconsistent performances.

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Eales kept patience with Appleton, with the addition of striker Kemar Roofe on loan from West Brom seen as one of the key turning points in the 2014-15 season.

Oxford finished the season in fantastic form, going the final eight league games unbeaten and winning five of those last eight, of which Roofe was a huge part, finalizing a 13th place finish for the U’s.

The summer of 2015 was therefore a massive one for Oxford, with promotion being the main focus.

United brought in eight players in the summer transfer window, including Roofe, ex-Everton youth graduate John Lundstram and Exeter City’s Liam Sercombe.

This certainly required financial backing from Eales, with many clubs in the division above attempting to bring Roofe and Lundstram to their clubs.

The season began with a morale-boosting pre-season tour in Austria, with a fantastic turnout from supporters building a strong relationship between the fans and the club, which many fans see as a catalyst for that campaign.

The U’s gained automatic promotion from League Two finishing in second place, making the Fourth Round of the FA Cup and eliminating Premier League Swansea, and losing out in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy (JPT) final to Barnsley at Wembley.

Going into the 2016-17 season, Oxford endured a tough summer, losing a large bulk of the goals that sent them up the previous season, as well as well-known names in defence.

Roofe left for Leeds United, local boy Callum O’Dowda joined Bristol City and captain Jake Wright (who had signed for the club back in the Conference) went to Sheffield United on a free.

This meant a huge recruitment job for Appleton and Eales, albeit backed with over £4 million from the sales of Roofe and O’Dowda, with ten players joining in the summer and a slow start showed the time it would take for the players to gel together.

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Oxford managed to regroup and find some decent form in the new year, defeating Newcastle United 3-0 at home in the FA Cup Third Round and only just losing at Premier League Middlesbrough 3-2 in the Fourth Round.

They attended Wembley again, in the newly branded and controversial Check-A-Trade Trophy, this time losing out to Coventry City 2-1.

An eighth placed finish was cause for optimism, with the team finally starting to look settled and with the right additions, the play-offs weren’t a million miles away.

Some notable mentions to Chris Maguire (top scorer) and Simon Eastwood (goalkeeper) who won points at many occasions in his first season back at Oxford, but also the emergence of England Under-20 star Ryan Ledson, whose hard tackle and high energy attitude quickly gained him plaudits amongst U’s fans.

Eales has since been working hard in negotiations with stadium owner Firoz Kassam to get the stadium into club ownership and end the £500k+ annual rent.

Kassam has never been keen to the see his development go to the club, frustrating Eales, and thus raising questions over his future as chairman of the football club.

This has been hindered by the fact that talks are underway between Kassam and supporters group OxVox over making the stadium a community asset, with the omission of Eales and the club from these discussions.

In June 2017, it was announced Appleton would be leaving his head coach role to become assistant manager at Premier League Leicester City.

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With the timing coming so close to the beginning of pre-season, this put the club under pressure to find a new manager.

It was vital for Eales to find somebody who shared a similar vision and view on football as Appleton.

This led to the appointment of Spanish coach Pep Clotet, previously assistant manager at Swansea City and Leeds United

With this change in management, came a change in playing squad too. In the summer transfer window, Oxford lost key players Lundstram to Sheffield United and Marvin Johnson to Middlesbrough.

On top of this, Chey Dunkley, Sercombe, Maguire and Joe Skarz all left the club, who all played a huge part in the club’s promotion to League One.

Incredibly, this meant that only one player from the 2015/16 squad was still at the club, midfielder Josh Ruffels, whose appearances were limited during that season too.

In Clotet, Oxford had a well-travelled coach leading to several overseas players joining the club.

This included Curacao international Gino van Kessel and full back Ricardinho, both who have quickly become “cult heroes” for their performances and personality on and off the pitch.

Clotet certainly wants to continue with the project Eales is building, with his style of play allowing for players to properly shine, including Ledson, Joe Rothwell, Wes Thomas and Josh Ruffels, who seems to have finally got his place in the team.

Oxford fans are feeling optimistic for the future, the team are playing positive, attacking football and with further rumoured takeover interest, as Thai businessman Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been spotted in the directors’ box on recent occasions.

This proves the waves Oxford United are causing in the lower leagues and offer an attractive investment opportunity, something the fans certainly hope to continue.

The Author

George Sheldon

My main focus on BPF will be writing about lower league English football. I support Oxford United and am currently studying Sport Management at Coventry University.

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