Pep Clotet has big shoes to fill. After leading Oxford United to their highest league finish in 17 years, manager Michael Appleton rocked the Kassam Stadium this summer after deciding to become Craig Shakespeare’s assistant at 2015-16 Premier League champions Leicester City.
Having guided The Us to automatic promotion from League Two and two Wembley finals in his three years at the club, Oxford’s preparations for a fourth consecutively successful campaign took a huge blow, added to by the loss of several key players.
But chosen from a final shortlist of six; Clotet was appointed Appleton’s successor on a one-year rolling contract in July, despite never managing in English football and having not become a first-team coach since June 2012 after leaving Norwegian outfit Viking Stavanger.
However, his high regard and glowing reputation following assistant managerial spells at Premier League side Swansea City (2013-2015) and Championship club Leeds United (2016-17) saw Oxford owner Darryl Eales take a gamble on the Barcelona-born coach.
Comfortable victories over Oldham Athletic and Portsmouth in their opening 2017-18 league fixtures triggered optimism and instant expectation among Yellow fans, in the hope that Clotet would swimmingly sustain Appleton’s project at the Kassam and catapult Oxford into the Championship at his first attempt.
One win in their next eight league outings saw The Us tumble down the table, dropping from top spot to 15th place, delivering a sizeable wake-up call and slice of reality to everyone at Grenoble Road.
However, after back-to-back league victories over Peterborough United and AFC Wimbledon respectively, Shoot!’s Dan Church rocked up at the training ground for an exclusive interview with United’s Catalan, asking Clotet about his experience in English football, his golden opportunity at Oxford and the philosophical project he is planning at the club…
Dan: Let’s start at the very beginning. You began coaching in your twenties, do you think your experience in the game will help you thrive during a long managerial career?
Pep: I was doing everything [playing and coaching]. You always play the game, but as well, I was always coaching and working with the young ones in the club [Cornella] there, that is very normal back in my country. Players do that. I never really tried to be a coach, but obviously afterwards I enjoyed it and got my pro licence when I was still young. Then everything kind of clicked and led itself from one club to another. Then I found myself after a while at Espanyol, suddenly I had a career.
D: In 2013, you joined Swansea City, before becoming assistant manager at the Premier League club the following year. A similar role followed at Leeds United, but you turned down the managerial job at Brentford whilst in Wales. So, what made you turn down The Bees? And, why did you accept the Oxford United role this summer?
P: I turned down Brentford. I think Brentford would have been a fantastic place for me because I really value what they are doing. But unfortunately the timing was not the best one because I was in the middle of the fight with Garry [Monk] to try and stay alive with Swansea. We were competing in a lot of hard games in the Premier League and that was bad timing. So I had to turn it down, unfortunately. Oxford, it was different because the opportunity came in the summer and I spoke to Garry and he encouraged me a lot to take it. He said that it would be fantastic, because he had heard many good things about the club, and he obviously played here, came here on loan. He told me that it would be a fantastic club and there is a chairman there who would let you work, give you a chance, so you could have the first season to get yourself into the position, and then obviously be very committed and do very well.
D: Simply, how are you enjoying your time at Oxford so far?
P: Yeah, I am enjoying it a lot. I enjoy the club a lot and the group of players we have.
D: Are you finding it more stressful than your previous assistant roles?
P: It is a little bit more busy, bit more thinking. It is more intense when it comes to it. Obviously I have managed before in Sweden and Spain, but after four years here being an assistant manager, I kind of forgot it and now it is very intense. You are working 24 hours a day thinking how can we make the team better. That is the main difference.
D: Do you see Oxford United as a long-term project for yourself? Much like your predecessor Appleton envisaged and carried out.
P: Yes, that is what I would like. As a coach or as a manager, the longer you can be at a club, the more you can build it up. I think this is a really good club for that. I think it is stable enough and it has the perfect foundations to go forward. For the second season in League One, I understand that everyone is really anxious because they had success coming from League Two, but they all know how hard it is to come from League Two to League One. Now we have to build ourselves in League One, do the right things and we have to do it the right way. We have to develop the sort of football we require.
D: Born in Barcelona, will you be looking to implement any Catalan factors into Oxford’s players? Summarise the style of play you are looking to achieve this season.
P: What we are trying to do is play very aggressive. When we don’t have the ball, try to get it back as soon as possible. And when we have the ball, we would like to be very offensive, but at the same time, not too offensive that we lose position, or the ball. We would like to attack as much as possible and recover the ball as soon as possible after we’ve finished. I like the game with a lot of mobility and a lot of options, especially going forward and a lot of players attacking the box, and obviously a lot of commitment coming from the players defending.
D: How is your relationship with club chairman Darryl Eales?
P: Very well, because that was one of the main reasons for me to come. I did not know him before, but you get to know him, understand how he thinks and what he wants to do. There is a lot of good people on the board as well, but obviously my relationship really is with Darryl, because he is the one who knows 100 per cent [about] what we are doing and we have a very, very high degree of communication. This is his business, so we keep him informed on everything because he needs to be a part of this as well. I think that is important. He delegates and lets you work a lot and lets you focus on your thing and this way. I have no regrets, so it is very good so far.
D: And what about your family, how have they settled into life in Oxfordshire?
P: Yeah it has been a big, big change because Swansea was obviously very different than Leeds. We lived in North Leeds and now coming here, we found a city that is ‘wow’! It is so different than everything else we have found. The city centre is unbelievable, fantastic. Everything around Oxford is beautiful when it comes to enjoying the countryside and the little villages and towns. You have plenty of that. My family loves it very much. We live where we can still walk to the city centre and we can always have a car and go to Woodstock or whatever, so they really, really like it.
D: As you know, Appleton left the club in the summer, joining Leicester. He led Oxford to eighth in League One last season – the club’s highest finish in 17 years. What would you count as success in your debut season at the Kassam?
P: I would consider that we lost important players that made a huge contribution for us to finish eighth. I would class setting the right foundations when it comes to first stabilising the squad, because when I first came in the summer, there were not many players left. Players were gone because their contracts were not tied up or it was not possible for the club. So for me, the best situation would be to at the end of the season, have a plan ready for all the contracts that the players we want to keep having been done much earlier. And when it comes to competition, I think we are going to see an Oxford that will be obviously challenging as much as possible to try to win every game that we play. But my target is to do it step by step and do correcting, get better and obviously get to the maximum of our potential as soon as possible. That is my approach, so it is difficult for me to assess. But I do think that if we manage to understand that to finish eighth last season, it was very good coming from League Two. We lost really important players as all the fans know, and we brought in a lot of players, so we had to start over from the beginning. So if we get closer to that, but at the same time be able to prepare for next season better than the club was in the summer, then I would be very happy.
D: If I had to push you on a finishing position, what would you say?
P: I don’t know. If I am happy with the football we are doing, and I am happy with the performance of every player, this is a league where anything can happen. I do think now that there are a lot of strong teams that have started the season very well. We had a decent start, but then we had a little bit of a blip. It came to us, it will come to the other teams later, so it is difficult for me now to assess, because it is too early. Maybe in a few games, or ten games or when we get to halfway, you will know more or less.
D: Upon your arrival in July, did you see Oxford as potential promotion contenders this term?
P: When it comes to thinking whether we were promotion candidates in the summer, I didn’t think so. No. I think we can be, but we have to work very hard. In the summer, we lost really important players, that were really important for us to achieve what we achieved. That is called [John] Lundstram and Marvin Johnson, but at the same time, there were players who played a lot of games last season and they were not here in the summer. Chris Maguire, we did everything we could and he had better offers to go, so he preferred to go somewhere else. But he was very good because we did meet in Birmingham and we had a very good football talk, actually it was a very good football talk, because he loves his football. We talked about the game and everything, but he had some demands. So in my idea, we managed to get back to a squad that had a bit more experience and had a little bit of young talent as well. I am focused on them and trying to gel them as much as possible to see where we can go. For me, it is going game by game, I don’t know where we are going to finish. I go game by game, trying to compete, try to learn and not make the mistakes that we have done before.
D: Ultimately, you are not ruling out promotion this season then..?
P: If we finish the league in seventh, or sixth, or fifth and we deserve to be there and have done a good job, and everyone has worked very hard for that, then I will be happy. If the same happens and we finish ninth, then I will be happy as well. We will have the foundations going forward. It is difficult for us as no one can say, ‘When you come to League One, we will finish eighth or in the top seven’. It is very difficult in football. Especially because it is a new team. We know they are good players, but we need to know how well they can play together.
D: The fans, the magnificent Yellow Army, what have you made of the supporters since arriving at the club?
P: I really, really like the away support. I think they have been fantastic.
D: Having worked in the Premier League and the Championship, have you been surprised by Oxford’s fanbase?
P: Yeah especially considering us being in League One. There were a lot at Leeds, but that was Championship. But it is different. I value it a lot. When you hear you have to go to Bury on a Tuesday night and they are there with high numbers, and still we are not strong enough or don’t get lucky enough to give them the result they deserve, I feel frustrated for them. The away support is what I class as the best at this club.