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  • Writer's pictureBy Dan Evans

Former Hammers youth boss Manning hoping he’s found a home at Oxford United

It has not taken long for Liam Manning to realise that football is a fickle business. On the final day of the League One season last year, he was denied automatic promotion to the Championship by a solitary point in what was his first year managing in England. A little over six months later he was out of a job.

The former West Ham United under-23 coach surpassed all expectations in so nearly guiding MK Dons to the second tier last term, but a summer transfer window that saw several of his most important players sold meant his second season began slowly and he was moved on before Christmas.

He is back now. Nominated for April’s League One Manager of the Month after taking over at Oxford United at the start of March. It took until his eighth game to register a win in Oxfordshire, but just three defeats in his ten matches in charge means that he will be featuring in the third tier once again next term after steering the U’s clear of relegation.

“I think it has been a terrific year for me in terms of learning and developing,” he said following Oxford’s final game of the season against Accrington Stanley. “I’m my own biggest critic. I want to learn, I want to get better, I want to improve - so whenever I have a good or bad experience it’s about what I take from that to get things right in the future.”

“I’ve learnt bundles [this year]. It’s quite funny from that aspect. [My] stock was extremely high last summer, I [then] had a difficult time with MK.. I’m a much better coach for having had that period.”

Manning’s methodical nature was typified by him targeting ten points from Oxford's final ten matches of this season, and he retained perspective when his first five fixtures yielded four draws and a loss, keeping his composure before overseeing vital victories against Cheltenham Town and Forest Green Rovers in recent weeks.

Whilst defeat against Accrington meant Oxford ultimately finished just two points clear of the relegation zone, the new head coach is already looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

“We need to have a bit of rebuild and use that as an opportunity to make sure we do push on and we get better and do evolve,” explained Manning. “I’m really excited by the future. I can’t wait to get started in the new season, but I won’t be stopping in the off-season.

“I want to be successful, and I want a team that wants to be successful, so we need people that fit that profile. Players that can step up in key moments and deliver. Players that have the right quality whether that be physically, technically, tactically. I’ve had a good opportunity over the nine weeks that I’ve done to assess the group and make some tough decisions.

“There have been time factors in terms of restricting the work,” he added. “We’ve had to prioritise key areas and also inherited a group that have played slightly differently in terms of how I see the game. Being difficult to beat, not giving away goals – I always felt would be the key to keeping us up.”

West Ham academy graduate Marcus Browne has been one of Manning’s key men since he took the reins at the Kassam Stadium, with the pair continuing a relationship that began in the Hammers youth ranks. The winger scored Oxford’s first goal under the new head coach and contributed a brace in a 4-0 win against Cheltenham last month that put an end to the club’s worrying run of 17 games without a victory.

Despite earning a place on the cover of the matchday programme, Browne was left frustrated in Sunday’s season finale against Accrington. He was denied on more than one occasion by opposition goalkeeper Lukas Jensen, and it was instead Oxford’s own exciting young prospect Tyler Goodrham who caught the eye. The 19-year-old set up Billy Bodin’s opening goal on eight minutes before proving a constant menace as he drifted inside from his starting position on the right flank.

“He’s done terrific the last few games,” said Manning, who also played a significant role in the early years of Declan Rice’s career. “He’s fearless in that aspect for someone so young. It’s probably what you get with someone inexperienced in terms of games and years – that fearlessness. They’ve not been scarred by certain incidents or elements of the industry.

“I think he’s stepped for us and delivered at key moments. He’s got lots to do, lots to learn and lots to get better at but the fact that he’s such a terrific character – willing to learn, willing to work and doesn’t carry any fears – it’s going to set him up to continue to progress.”

With plenty of young talent of varying levels of familiarity at his disposal and a potential new stadium on the way, Manning may just have found a long-term home in the men’s game. This season will surely have taught him to take nothing for granted, yet his willingness to look to next season and beyond suggested he is more than comfortable in his new environment.

“Going forward I want a real connection between the players and the staff and the fans - the supporters are the important ones, that’s who the game is for. We have to give them something to get behind and in the tough moments we need the fans to pick the players up.

“We’ve shown this club can stick together in key moments, and we have to make sure that we come back ready to compete at the right end of the table next season. It’s such a difficult division, so competitive, if you don’t get it right and you don’t recruit right and you don’t coach right and you aren’t all in, you can find yourself in the position that the club has been.”


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