Inside Oxford United’s quest to remain undefeated

When Liam Gilbert set out his goals for Oxford United Women last summer, he knew they were a few pieces away from something special.

The 33-year-old manager spent the off-season talking to his staff via group chat and video calls to figure out what they needed to make a serious promotion run, and how they were going to achieve it.

“We needed a bit of a rebuild because we lost quite a few players to the Championship and retirement,” Gilbert told BBC Sport.

“We already had a good core so it was just trying to find the right bits and extra pieces to add to that.

“So we found players that wanted to come in, who might be a good fit and who gave us positive vibes.”

Oxford United play in the third-tier National League Premier Division, two steps below Women’s Super League – English women’s football’s top domestic competition.

The league is split into two divisions of 12 teams, northern and southern, with the winners of each league meeting in a play-off final to get promoted to the Championship.

Halfway through the season the U’s are undefeated through 11 games, with eight wins and three draws in the southern division.

Their closest rivals, second-placed Portsmouth, have already lost three games.

“Character is massive for us and we want players who will buy-in and play for the front of the shirt opposed to the back of it,” added Gilbert, who was trying his best to avoid cliches.

“Touch wood everything is going in the right direction at the moment – let’s hope we can keep it that way.”

Interviewing the young manager in a small classroom at the facility where Oxford United women’s team train and play, it becomes apparent that no-one else is using the word ‘undefeated’.

It does not feel like Oxford’s impressive league record is something that’s causing much of a distraction.

“We are very level-headed and we’re not hyping up every game as if it’s the FA Cup final,” says Gilbert with a smile on his face.

“Our group focuses on the game at hand and then move on to the next one.”

The cold snap that gripped much of the UK in January has passed by the time of midweek training but it is still a cool night – with rain drizzling on to the artificial turf that is illuminated by floodlights, one of which is flickering like a strobe and in need of repair.

The players arrive at the clubhouse in steady intervals for a film review of their next opponents before they hit the pitch.

About 30 of them in their team tracksuits sit in the bar and chat and joke amongst themselves before the coaches begin their video analysis, using a television hooked-up to a laptop.

The tone in the room is suddenly more serious – but the light-hearted atmosphere never feels far away.

“We all have full-time jobs and some of the girls travel two hours to practice and then two hours back,” centre midfielder Leah Burridge says while sipping on a hot drink.

“Some won’t get home until midnight and then they have to get up for work a few hours later.

“It’s a fantastic effort and we are so committed to something that we enjoy, and that’s the most important thing.”

Burridge, 26, is one of the new faces brought in last summer as part of the rebuild project and has made an instant impact, becoming one of the league’s top scorers.

The ex-Wolves player has had one of the highlights of the season so far – a 94th-minute equaliser against Watford in October to keep their unbeaten league run intact.

“We rolled all the dice and went for it,” said manager Gilbert.

“We got a free-kick after a red card and that helped us out a little with the free runners on the set-piece.”

Burridge remembers a tense atmosphere during injury time.

“I just had to make sure I got across my player,” she said.

“As one of the smallest on the pitch I wasn’t quite expecting to get up and win a header but I managed to get on the end of a great delivery.

“You could see that we still wanted it during those dying moments – that is when we realised our resilience as a team.”

Oxford would follow that up with another 1-1 draw, but they have not dropped a point since.

They have been clinical in dispatching their opponents, scoring 22 goals and conceding just three to own the best defensive record in the whole of the Women’s National League.

“The back five have a really good relationship – we are solid, strong and we stick together,” said goalkeeper Rose Kite.

“We get behind each other and pick one another up when it gets tough and we go again – Ipswich and Watford were very tough games.”

Gilbert and his staff prepare drills while the women organise their own warm-ups in small groups, standing in a circle and passing a ball around, while one of them chases the interception to break up play.

The feel-good atmosphere that was there when the team first arrived is ever-present.

“There has been some team building stuff that we’ve done which has been very important,” added Gilbert.

“We like to start most training sessions with a warm-up that is fun, because the players have come straight from work and the last thing they want is to be shouted at and have to follow orders.”

The Football Association made a number of changes to the set-up of women’s football a decade ago and since then, only one team from the National League’s Premier Divisions has gone undefeated to make the play-off final – Blackburn Rovers in 2016-17.

Oxford’s players believe their team culture is why they have got this far without tasting defeat.

“We have had our minds set on the league title right from day dot and we made it pretty clear to everyone that was our target,” said defender and vice-captain Riva Casley.

“Everyone is on board with what we want to do and our league record shows that.”

Casley, 25, a former England Under-17 international, is a club veteran brought back last summer to help lead the squad.

“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing and keep being open and honest with each other.

“If there is something wrong we talk about it because there is no sense in getting frustrated, having a go at people and clashing.

“That is what we have built so well here, if someone has a question, no matter the scenario they know they can ask it and it can be talked out and resolved.

“That bond between us has made this dream of a title feel even closer.”

For Oxford, making the play-off final and having the chance to gain promotion to the Championship would represent more than just team success.

It would represent one step closer to dreams of professional football.

“This team can go as far as it wants to,” said Gilbert.

“Thanks to the foundations that we’ve built and the way that we started the league campaign, we’ve put ourselves in a phenomenal position.

“There will be some ups and downs but it’s in our own hands.”

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