A COMBINATION of pre-existing injury problems and heavy fixture programme have led to a vicious circle which is responsible for Oxford United’s fitness crisis.
That’s the view of strength and conditioning coach Alasdair Lane, who was brought into the club this summer in response to problems with the squad’s vulnerability to injuries last season.
United owner Ian Lenagan made sports science a priority when he took over from Kelvin Thomas as chairman in July and aimed to provide the best department in npower League Two.
But since the first day of pre-season, injuries have been a constant problem for United.
The situation reached its most critical point a week ago, when manager Chris Wilder had nine players ruled out for the trip to Cheltenham Town, while at least three others were forced to play in the game despite not being fully fit.
Lane, who held a similar role at Brentford and Rotherham United, is optimistic the availability will improve markedly in the next few weeks, but admits it has been a very tough start at the club.
United's injury situationAndy Whing/Peter Leven/Harry Worley – available, but not yet match fit
Jake Wright/Lee Cox/ Damian Batt – likely to be back for tonight’s match at Port Vale after minor problems
Deane Smalley/ Michael Raynes/Jon-Paul Pittman/ Wayne Brown – due back later this month
Liam Davis – likely to return next month
Michael Duberry – doing very light work, but still a long way off returning
“Right from the beginning since I came in it has been fighting fires,” he said.
“We’re about three-quarters of the way through that period now, maybe a little bit further.
“I think within four weeks we’ll have the majority of the squad back.“ One aspect has been the loss of five key senior players – Michael Duberry, Peter Leven, Andy Whing, Liam Davis and Harry Worley – who were injured when Lane arrived.
It stretched the squad and forced United to use players with minor knocks who would normally have been rested. In some cases the gamble has backfired.
“We haven’t had the luxury of Chris being able to choose and rotate players around, so sometimes we’ve had to do patch jobs to get players back in,” Lane said.
“Normally you take the view is someone available and fit to play 90 minutes, but we haven’t had that luxury.
“We’ve had to say ‘he’s available, but ideally you want him on the bench’.
“That’s the way it is, unfortunately.”
Compounding the problem has been a busy start to the season.
The U’s played 16 games in the opening two months of the campaign, three more than last season.
With seven midweek games there has been little time to regroup, which has exacerbated the problem.
Lane said: “This is the worst experience I’ve ever had, but if we had a whole week to do stuff I honestly think it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as it has been.
“It’s just the accumulative effect of all those games and the same players having to play each one has led to general fatigue.”
The final factor has been issues stored up in players due to a lack of strength and conditioning work done earlier in their careers.
Lane explained it was a common problem in football, where often the root causes of injuries can be ignored by clubs’ short-term thinking.
He said: “It’s like trying to build a house – if you have poor foundations that’s going to crumble at some point.
“Unfortunately that’s what happened with Andy Whing, and quite a few of them.
“What we’re finding is clubs in general don’t look after their players as well as they should do.
“They look at them as a commodity, they do patch-up jobs and then pass them on.
“With Coxy (Lee Cox), for example, this is a problem that stems from when he was 14 years old and has never been dealt with properly.
“Last week was the first time he spoke to somebody who identified it and could see the pattern.”
Wilder feels that the scale of the injuries he has dealt with this season would have tested any manager.
It has forced the coaching staff to take a close look at their methods, but the U’s boss believes the structure will pay off. He said: “We have countless meetings where we look at the intensity of the training, surfaces, what we’re doing, how long we’re doing it for, everything.
“Alasdair’s a big part of those discussions and knows where we’re at.
“As always with sports science it is about preventing injuries and strengthening players, so it will take time, but I’m sure it will make a difference going forward.”