IF A couple more results had gone Oxford United’s way this season, today’s trip to Bradford City would have been a mouth-watering clash between play-off rivals.
Faltering form in the last month means the visitors to Valley Parade are out of the promotion race.
On the one hand, it is one of four dead rubbers separating United’s players from the beach.
But for Michael Appleton having certainty over which division the club will be in next season is a big opportunity – both to size up his existing squad and steal a march on rivals when it comes to opening negotiations with transfer targets.
“It can be an advantage,” the U’s boss said on Wednesday.
“Last year even though we were very confident (about promotion) we couldn’t really start recruiting until the last game of the season was done.
“We find ourselves in a position now where we pretty much know we’ll be a League One side and we can start looking to strengthen.
“At some point today I’ll be meeting two players, that’s the type of thing where you have an opportunity to get ahead of certain teams.
“Hopefully that will give us the best chance to get the most competitive squad we can.”
In that sense United’s position heading into the final few games is more akin to two years ago, when they finished 13th in Sky Bet League Two.
Then the advance planning paid off in style, with several top targets putting pen to paper shortly after the end of the season.
The difference this time around is United also need to have one eye on contingency plans if star names are sold.
Appleton is pragmatic enough to not shy away from the likelihood approaches will be made, but there have been discussions on how to avoid a repeat of last summer, when Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda left after the start of pre-season.
United’s boss said: “We’ve spoken about a couple of ways we can prepare a little better to make sure what happened last season doesn’t happen again.
“There are no guarantees, but you can almost put deadlines on situations and say ‘if that’s going to happen, we want it done by a certain date or they’re going nowhere’.
“You can’t have a proper deadline because all of a sudden a club could come in with double what you were originally thinking and you have to take it.
“We want to get back to how we were in 2015, where we got 95 per cent of recruitment done by day one of pre-season.
“That gives you a great opportunity to be successful.
“Last year was very different, it was a bit messy.”
In the short-term, Appleton’s selection at Bradford will continue to test players within his squad with next season in mind.
He said: “I just want to be able to see different scenarios with players and how they adapt to different situations – who can handle a bit of pressure when the heat’s on.
“We’ll be looking to be as competitive as we possibly can.
“As always we’ll be going in with only one frame of mind – to try to win the game.”