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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fan Files: Conference Play Off Final

Ahead of the Conference play-off final, our Fan Files turn the spotlight on a supporter of both Oxford United and York City to gauge their mood ahead of Sunday.

Oxford fan Clive Browning has been following the club's fortunes for over 40 years.

In that time he's witnessed the highs of the 1980s - successive championships and their three year spell in the top flight of English football. That included victory in the 1986 League Cup final.

However, he's also been around for the pain of relegation from the Football League in 2006 - the lowest point in his time following United.

Now though, he looks forward as his club appears to be moving in the right direction both on and off the pitch.

So Clive, you're in the play-off final and one game away from a return to the Football League - how are you feeling?

Nervous. Hopeful. Excited. I would easily class this game as the biggest in our history since that 1986 League Cup final. I'd even go as far to say that it's bigger.

I think that we had an almost blase attitude to being in the Football League. Relegation out of it happened to other clubs, not us, and when it did it was an immense shock.

We now recognise what we had was very special. Being a member of the 92 is very special and we desperately want to be part of it again. Okay, it won't be the end of the world if we lose, but it will be terribly disappointing to have got so close and failed.

Oxford defeated Rushden & Diamonds to make the play-off final on Sunday

At one point you were sitting top and looking good for automatic promoton - what went wrong?

I think as an Oxford fan you are always waiting for something to go wrong!

In any other season we would have been streets ahead of the pack but Stevenage, to their credit, were always just a few points behind us - keeping up the pressure.

The period over Christmas when the weather was so bad certainly didn't help. The postponements and our cup ties meant we only had two league games in January.

The fact that Stevenage were able to get games in to close the gap on us really disrupted our rhythm.

A severe back injury to our key play maker, Adam Murray, which has sidelined him 'til next season, also played a major part.

Up to this point, Chris Wilder had been a very lucky manager, with most of his decisions coming off. His meddling with the formation and unsuitable loanees only served to disrupt the team spirit though.

Under pressure from the fans, he then made a few silly statements to the press which he probably regrets now. In the last month of the season though, he seemed to regain his composure and with a more settled side results started to pick up again.

Wilder's a young manager who shows all the signs of being very good one day. Hopefully he would have learned a valuable lesson from this experience and, should we still be in this league next season, I'm sure he would go about things differently.

Oxford have sometimes been accused of not handling pressure situations. Do you feel that's changed with this team after your win against Rushden in the semis?

I was quietly confident going into this tie because people were expecting us to fail. In a way it took the pressure off us.

Leading up to the play-offs we'd actually got a little run together and the spirit in the side seemed to be back to what it was like at the beginning of the season when we started so well.

The big test was the home tie in the second leg. Too often it's been packed to the rafters and then we've failed miserably. You sense now that we have players for the big occasion.

We glimpsed that earlier in the season when we beat Luton 2-0 at home in a highly charged atmosphere, and again on Monday when we looked comfortable in what was a really pressured situation.

Your boss, Chris Wilder, took Halifax to the 2006 play-off final, are you hoping his experience will benefit you?

Wilder knows the pain of losing in a play-off final, so hopefully that will motivate him to prepare our team in a positive way.

Of course, York have played at Wembley in the FA Trophy final last season, so they'll probably be going into the game hoping the experience will benefit them too.

It's a cliche I know, but on the day the winner will be the team that handles the pressure best.

Oxford manager Chris Wilder has tasted play-off final defeat in the past

Who are the key men for you in the final if you're to emerge victorious?

I'm loathe to single out individuals because when we play well it's down to each man in the team performing to their maximum potential.

James Constable is the obvious focal point because of all the goals he's scored. However, we have players like Adam Chapman, Matt Green, Jack Midson, Simon Clist, Sam Deering, and Alfie Potter - all who could be matchwinners on the day.

How do you feel about York as opponents? Are you happier to be facing them than Luton?

Everybody expected Luton vs. Oxford to be the final but I wasn't surprised because, from our two games against them during the season, York are a very good side and you treat them lightly at your peril - as Luton found out.

Our first game of the season was at home to York so, in some ways, our season has come around full circle and it seems fitting that we end with them.

In our two league encounters they have been the better side and we were extremely fortunate to come away with four points.

In the home game they dominated for 88 minutes and were 1-0 up, but we scored two very late goals in added time to nick all three points. They will be out for revenge and will be very dangerous opponents.

If you do get promoted, how do you think you'd do in League Two next season?

I'm confident we would do well. A top half finish shouldn't be beyond us.

There's talk that promotion could net us around £700,000 and, while I know that a portion of that money would have to be used to service some of our debt, I'm pretty sure Wilder would be given funds to strengthen the team.

For the first time in many years the club actually feels as if it's moving forwards again. Chris Wilder has had a lot to do with that, but the man who appointed him, chairman Kelvin Thomas, must take the major credit.

The previous chairman, Nick Merry, while being a staunch Oxford man, was an absolute disaster at running the club. His poor PR skills alienated fans and possible business business people alike.

His dealings with Firoz Kassam hit such an all time low that the former owner was ready to bring the bailiffs in over unpaid bills.

Thomas has smoothed over the rift with Kassam by massaging his ego and has managed to increase our revenue from the stadium after agreeing a 50 per cent slip over advertising and catering where we'd previous got none.

He then listened to the fans concerns and, in partnership with the OXVOX supporters group, a 12th Man fund has been implemented in which the supporters raise funds through various activities for the manager to buy or loan players.

There are even rumours that we could re-introduce a reserve side through such funding.

There's a positivity around the place that hasn't been there since the early 1990s and a feeling that, if we get back into the League, we have a solid foundation on which to build for the future.

York supporter David Husband has been following City's fortunes for 24 years. His finest memory was their 3-0 win in the 1995 League Cup against Manchester United at Old Trafford.

The Minstermen's relegation from the Football League in 2004, unsurprisingly, ranks as his worst moment following his club.

So, David, you're into the play-off final then, did you expect to be here when the season kicked off?

No, most York fans expected mid-table after last season's relegation battle. It's now hard to remember we were in trouble right until we beat Weymouth on the final Friday of last season.

Many people were tipping Luton as favourites in the play-offs, but you comfortably saw them off in the semis. Does that make you favourites now?

No way. Oxford are the favourites as they finished eight points clear of us in the table. They also got back into form in the last month of the season, while we laboured after we confirmed our places after the 5-0 win over AFC Wimbledon.

Martin Foyle's the man in charge, and City fans must be very pleased with the job he's done so far?

Excellent. The thing is he can be a bit too defensive which, for a former striker, is surprising.

Even after last season - when we were strong at the back - he still brought in Neil Barrett, Alex Lawless, and Luke Graham, who has been excellent since signing from Mansfield.

Martin Foyle has turned around York's fortunes this season

You're up against Oxford in the final. Are you pleased to be facing them, or would you rather you were playing Rushden?

I wasn't that fussed who we played as, whoever we faced, would have been a tough game.

Then again, we do owe Oxford one as we've outplayed them twice and, somehow, only got one point off them. Both league games against Rushden were tight affairs though.

Who are the key players for York if you are to beat Oxford on Sunday then?

Our front two and the centre back. Richard Brodie and Michael Rankine are a handful - as are the Oxford front pair - so David McGurk and Luke Graham will have to be on top form.

There's also Alex Lawless - who is our playmaker, along with Neil Barrett.

How do you think you'd do next season in League Two should you win the final?

The top half of the Conference is no worse than the bottom half of League Two.

We've beaten Crewe this season in the Cup and - from what I've seen from the League Two games on Sky - us, Oxford, and Stevenage should at least be mid-table next season.

York were 2-1 losers to Oxford when the pair met on the opening day of the season

Finally, what would returning to the Football League mean to York fans if you do manage it?

It means the world to us. We've been down here for six years now and we feel it's our time to go back.

Other than one season under Billy McEwan where we got knocked out by Morecambe in the play-offs, we've been poor down here - and the runs in the FA Trophy doesn't hide that fact in City fans' eyes.

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