WHEN the dust settles after nine months of ups and downs in a football season, everything really boils down to one question: are we making progress?

At the most basic level, the answer for Oxford United in 2018/19 is yes.

Gaining four more points than the previous campaign, they finished four places higher than 12 months earlier. Only once in the past two decades have the U’s achieved a better finish.

So far, so good.

The bare facts – P46 W15 D15 L16 – look solid boring, even.

How they finished there was anything but dull, though.

Pre-season gave little hint of what was to follow.

Delays with the new training ground aside, head coach Karl Robinson was a happy man on the eve of the new campaign, having overseen a major overhaul of the squad.

But it did not take long for things to start unravelling.

It is never a good sign when apologies are being made to supporters with the season just 90 minutes old, but it happened after a 4-0 defeat at Barnsley which included an injury to Samir Carruthers.

Oxford Mail:

  • Samir Carruthers comes off with a knee injury at Barnsley on the opening day of the season  Picture: Richard Parkes

He was hardly seen again and before August was over Rob Hall’s season was wiped out, while Simon Eastwood began a two-month lay-off for a freak finger injury.

The latter was poor luck, but the signing of Jonathan Mitchell as cover exposed a lack of confidence in Scott Shearer and Jack Stevens.

A sixth loan signing, one more than the maximum permitted in a matchday squad, also ruled out any possibility of an extra attacking option, which was badly needed after Hall’s operation.

The opening weeks did have their bright moments. Gavin Whyte and Marcus Browne hit the ground running, while Shandon Baptiste went from the fringes to become a pivotal player.

Oxford Mail:

  • Shandon Baptiste was given the honour of captaining United for the 3-0 Carabao Cup defeat to Manchester City in September Picture: Ed Nix

But there were big issues up front, where Jamie Mackie, Jon Obika and Sam Smith struggled for different reasons.

Robinson was keen on Nicky Maynard, but a move for the free agent was not sanctioned, leaving the striker, who had scored twice in the previous two seasons, to sign for Bury, where he banged in 22 goals.

It summed up a period in which even when Robinson was right, things went wrong.

His days began to look numbered and after a stoppage-time defeat to Luton Town at the start of October, something needed changing.

In the context, a day bonding at Center Parcs looked like a last roll of the dice.

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Whether the fresh air at Woburn was responsible or not, the change of scene led to a change of shape and with John Mousinho in midfield the division’s leakiest defence ground out a goalless draw at Southend United.

It was the start of something, although that was hard to see at the time as they slipped bottom with six points from 12 games.

It was a catastrophic start which rendered the other 34 games as a salvage operation.

The stakes were sky-high for the visit of second-bottom Plymouth Argyle – and it was taking its toll as Robinson raged at losing Whyte to international duty.

When Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill responded by saying “I think Karl should maybe think before he speaks”, it chimed with a growing section of U’s supporters losing faith.

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But crucially the players stayed together and not for the last time this season they delivered under pressure.

Eastwood returned in the nick of time, while Mackie – the summer’s biggest-name signing – shrugged off his poor start to inspire a 2-0 win.

From there United began to look a different side.

Just one defeat followed in the next 16 games, as James Henry stepped up to become a regular source of goals.

Oxford Mail:

  • James Henry celebrates the first of his two goals at Peterborough United in December  Picture: David Fleming

It lifted them out of the relegation zone, but the settled side bottled up a problem.

While United had a strong starting XI, injuries had depleted the alternatives. And when the congested festive period hit, they were running on fumes.

Three defeats without scoring in seven days sent them spiralling back into trouble – and the mood darkened further at Brentford, during a 1-0 FA Cup defeat.

Baptiste, out since October with a dislocated shoulder, ruptured cruciate knee ligaments just six minutes into his return. Robinson had gone on to the pitch to offer his support to the stricken midfielder and looked a broken man afterwards.

For the second time in three months, United had to claw their way out of the darkness.

The fixture list was daunting, but results followed against the division’s big hitters. Portsmouth were beaten, while they had the better of draws against Barnsley and Sunderland.

While it stopped United getting cut adrift, defeats to Peterborough United and Accrington Stanley suggested the relegation battle would go the distance.

But once again, salvation arrived just in time.

Four days after Accrington, Jordan Graham’s free-kick won a scrappy game at Blackpool to claim a first away league win since April.

Oxford Mail:

  • Karl Robinson’s face says it all as he celebrates the victory at Blackpool with skipper John Mousinho. It was United’s first away league win for ten months Picture: Richard Parkes

Another January signing, Jerome Sinclair, scored twice in the following game to beat Scunthorpe United.

The next two home fixtures saw 94th-minute winners – chaotically over Bradford and spectacularly against Wycombe Wanderers.

It was part of a sprint finish which secured safety with a month to spare, something for which Robinson and the players deserve credit.

Comparisons were made with 2014/15, where Michael Appleton’s awkward first season suddenly blossomed in the run-in to lay the foundations for promotion.

In some respects this was even better. Setting aside the dreadful start, United had the sixth best record over the other three-quarters of the campaign. That is no purple patch.

Oxford Mail:

  • United owner Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth (centre) with director Zaki Nuseibeh (left) and managing director Niall McWilliams after Josh Ruffels’s stoppage-time winner against Wycombe Wanderers

But in one key area the parallel breaks down.

Back then, Appleton was building from stable foundations off the field. The same cannot be said this time.

The board being assembled by Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth is in theory the envy of most clubs in the EFL. But on an organisational level it has been a mess when it comes to paying routine bills on time.

Overdue tax is one thing, paying wages late – as happened at the end of March – is another. Closing offices for the day is not a good look, no matter the explanation.

The season ended with a winding-up petition still pending, brought by landlords Firoka over unpaid rent. It is indicative of a relationship which has crashed from bad to worse as United grasped the scale of the costs post-arbitration.

They are scouring for alternative homes, but that does not solve problems in the short-term.

The heavy-hitters on the board have not signed up to tread water in League One, but as it stands can anyone seriously say this is a club ready for the Championship?

The side’s on-pitch revival has earned them another crack next season, but getting through it without a winding-up petition needs to be the first goal.

That would be progress.