OXFORD United’s season may be on the verge of petering out, but Michael Appleton will not stop learning about both his team and himself.
This time 12 months ago the U’s were in the midst of a race for promotion from Sky Bet League Two.
It all boiled down to the last game of the season when their return to the third tier was confirmed with victory over Wycombe Wanderers.
A year on and United have grown into a top-half team in League One and, until Wednesday evening, had harboured plans of making a last-ditch attempt of sneaking into the play-offs.
Defeat to Fleetwood Town looks to have all but ended their slim hopes with seven points still separating themselves and the top-six with five games remaining.
Morale may have already been low after Sunday’s Checkatrade Trophy final defeat, but Appleton is keen to find some perspective.
He said: “If people think it’s a disaster then they’ve certainly got their tinted glasses on.
“We’ve been competitive in every competition we’ve been in and none more so than the league.
“We’ve fallen short probably six or seven times where we’ve had an opportunity to really push on and ask a question of the teams above us.
“That probably gives you the answers to certain questions you ask yourself about the group.
“I’ve been saying it for a while, we do lack three or four senior players that get you through those sort of games.”
From the outside, it may seem as though United head to Walsall tomorrow with nothing riding on the rest of the season, but Appleton knows if they are to challenge next year, the hard work starts now.
One area the head coach highlighted after the Fleetwood loss was their defensive naivety and he is fully aware the U’s need to show they can become a solid outfit.
“The goals were soft (on Wednesday) and we know that,” said Appleton.
“We don’t seem to score those type of goals, because the opposition seem to be a little more resolute and just a little bit more experienced.
“I know we’re a young team, I’m aware of that, but they will improve and get better.
“But in terms of ability, I do believe we’re as good as anyone in this league and, at times against Fleetwood, we showed it.”
While he is always carefully watching his players, Appleton feels he is still a work in progress as he closes in on the end of his third season in charge.
“I try to improve all the time,” he said.
“Even the games that you win comfortably, I always weigh up what I do and how I do things.
“The day I stop doing that will be the time I’ll call it a day.”