Oxford United fans couldn’t be blamed for welcoming 2017 with an air of optimism.
While the first five months of the 2016/17 campaign was a period of steady adjustment as the U’s adapted to life in the third tier, the new year began with Oxford sat in mid-table and fighting on three fronts.
In the four months between January and April, United jam-packed their schedule with 29 matches.
In that time Michael Appleton’s side propelled themselves up the SkyBet League One table and continued their form in the Emirates FA Cup and the Checkatrade Trophy.
The Yellows’ 62-game season included Wembley heartbreak for the second season running and the campaign ended the with the play-offs tantalisingly out of reach.
Appleton admitted Wembley defeat to Coventry City in the Checkatrade Trophy was the lowest moment in football for him, but he will be delighted with his team’s performance over nine months, particularly in January and February.
United, who finished eighth and four points off the play-off places, gave fans plenty to cheer about in a season that has built solid foundations for the club to build on.
Three successive wins and clean sheets to finish the season sent U’s supporters into the summer optimistic of another successful League One campaign, which will kick off on August 5.
There was no New Year hangover for the United players and six wins in seven matches in all competitions made January the most successful month of the season.
Appleton celebrated his cup heroes following a 3-0 thrashing of eventual Championship winners Newcastle United at the Kassam Stadium – his 150th game in charge.
An inspired performance from goalkeeper Simon Eastwood and a debut goal from West Ham loanee Toni Martinez helped United to the thumping win against a significantly rotated Toon side.
Goals either side of half-time from Kane Hemmings and Curtis Nelson secured Oxford’s first FA Cup fifth round appearance since the 1993/94 season. They would meet another north east side, Middlesbrough, in the next round.
Appleton hailed the fourth round win over the Magpies as the best of his career, despite beating Arsenal at the Emirates as Blackburn Rovers manager in 2013’s FA Cup.
The U’s also made progress in the Checkatrade Trophy, brushing aside two League One high-flyers – Scunthorpe United and Bradford City – to reach the semi-final.
Off the field, fans’ favourites Alex MacDonald and Ryan Taylor both departed the club for League Two Mansfield and Plymouth. Appleton boosted his forward line with the loan signings of Conor McAleny from Everton and West Ham’s Martinez.
Midfielder Liam Sercombe and winger Rob Hall became the latest names to become part of derby folklore when Oxford United came from behind to beat rivals Swindon Town at the County Ground.
The pair scored three minutes apart in the final 20 minutes to overturn a first half Swindon goal to complete a 2-1 win and a league double over the Robins.
A first ever win over MK Dons and further victories at Charlton Athletic and Chesterfield followed to launch Oxford from 12th at the start of the month to ninth and within sight of the play-offs heading into penultimate month of the season.
McAleny announced himself to U’s fans in style with the winner at Charlton and a hat-trick against Chesterfield to help the Yellows to an impressive 10 wins in 13 matches.
Unfortunately for Appleton, hotshot McAleny was ineligible for the FA Cup fourth round when a late Middlesbrough goal broke the hearts of more than 3,300 United fans at the Riverside and cruelly ended Oxford’s FA Cup giant killing hopes.
It initially looked far too easy for the Premier League side when Grant Leadbitter and Rudy Gestede gave the hosts a 2-0 lead within 35 minutes.
But United were brave and two goals in a minute from Chris Maguire and Martinez shortly after the hour mark brought Oxford level and dreaming of another cup upset.
That dream was crushed in the most dramatic fashion however, when Uruguay international Christian Stuani gave Middlesbrough, who would be relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season, a late winner four minutes from time.
The Oxford United squad was pushed to the limit in a month packed with eight league matches and a Checkatrade Trophy semi-final.
A thrilling 3-2 win at League Two Luton booked Oxford’s tickets for the EFL Trophy final for a second consecutive year.
United held a commanding 2-0 lead heading into the final 20 minutes thanks to a first half strike from loanee right back Phil Edwards and an own goal.
However, the Hatters turned the game on its head with two goals in three minutes from Isaac Vassell and former United striker Danny Hylton.
It took a moment of individual brilliance from winger Marvin Johnson, whose left-footed curler from just outside the area five minutes from time reclaimed the away side’s lead. Luton had no comeback this time.
The U’s shared the League One goals around the squad with 10 different scorers on hand to notch 14 goals in eight games.
Three wins, a draw and four defeats left United four points off the play-offs heading into the final six league games.
McAleny continued to catch the eye and the forward received the plaudits once more for his second hat-trick for the club after joining in the winter transfer window.
His treble – and further goals from Marvin Johnson and Joe Rothwell – punished struggling Bury 5-1 at the Kassam as the U’s warmed up in style for Wembley and ended the month in a seasons-high of eighth place.
Oxford United’s players and fans enjoyed their day at Wembley in the final of the 2016 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – but this year Appleton said his side were there to win the trophy.
The head coach admitted he approached the Checkatrade Trophy final differently this time around but his under-par U’s wilted in the Wembley sun for the second time in 12 months.
Coventry City midfielders Gail Bigirimana and George Thomas gave the Sky Blues, who were rooted to the bottom of League One, a two-goal advantage.
United failed to fight back despite Sercombe’s lifeline 15 minutes from the end and some frantic, late pressure.
A dejected Appleton said he refused to watch the 2-1 defeat back and described the defeat as “the worst day I’ve had in football”.
A bad week turned into a dreadful week when a home loss to Fleetwood Town three days later ended United’s play-off hopes.
After stalling further with a solidary point against Walsall and Bradford City, the U’s finished the season in assured style.
Academy product Josh Ruffels scored two goals in two games as United finished with a statement of intent for next season, racking up three consecutive wins and clean sheets.
A self-assured U’s scored seven goals without reply against strugglers Port Vale and Shrewsbury Town and play-off finalists Millwall to finish an impressive season in eighth place, a position anybody would have taken back in August.