AS A Blackpool fan working at an Oxford newspaper, the ending to the Sky Bet League One season thrust me into a difficult situation.

Going into the final day of the season, it felt almost inevitable that my beloved tangerines would be paired up against Oxford United in the play-offs – and so it happened.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to see a handful of live U’s games this season (including both Blackpool home and away) when helping the sports desk.

So, sitting down with my colleague, sports reporter James Roberts, we attempted to put together a combined XI from the Blackpool and Oxford United squads.

Trust me – it wasn’t easy. Both teams set out in different formations but we decided on a 4-4-2 for this side. More on that later.

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GOALKEEPER

JR: Jack Stevens was arguably the biggest turning point personnel wise, coming in after the Swindon game. Considering he’d played two league games in his career before, he has been unbelievable, keeping 13 clean sheets in 33 games and was named Young Player of the Year at United.

LR: From what I’ve seen of Stevens, I really like him. However, we can’t look beyond Chris Maxwell. He won the league’s Golden Glove award after keeping 21 clean sheets and has been a fantastic captain. His recovery from Covid in January and instant heroics in the penalty shoot-out against West Brom in the FA Cup typify his season.

Our choice: Chris Maxwell

RIGHT BACK

LR: It’s been a battle between Jordan Gabriel and Ollie Turton for much of the season but Turton gets my nod. He is Blackpool’s James Milner – playing anywhere his manager tells him, whether that be across the backline or in midfield, and will always give a solid showing.

JR: Turton may be Blackpool’s Milner but is he Blackpool’s Sam Long? Mr Oxford United has had his best season at the club with six goals and four assists. At the start of the season when the U’s were struggling, he was the one consistent player in the back four.

Our choice: Sam Long

CENTRE BACKS

LR: When you consider the injuries Blackpool have had at the back this season, the fact they’ve conceded 37 goals (the least in the league) is miraculous. Much of the credit must go to Neil Critchley and his coaching staff. They’ve worked wonders when you think that the likes of Dan Ballard, Marvin Ekpiteta and Daniel Gretarsson have all spent time on the sidelines. Jordan Thorniley has really impressed but the lack of game time may just count against them all here.

JR: Baring in mind this is Elliott Moore’s first full season, and he was made captain at a difficult time, he’s had an excellent campaign. He wins everything in the air and has even scored five goals and bagged five assists due to his threat from set-pieces. He’s played every minute in the league. Rob Atkinson has the potential to go right to the top, he can take players on and was named in the League One Team of the Season.

Our choice: Elliot Moore and Rob Atkinson

LEFT BACK

JR: Seven goals and six assists from left back for Josh Ruffels. Since missing a few weeks from injury at the start of the season, he’s played in pretty much every game and it’s very rare he’s below a seven out of 10. He’s a very good League One left back.

LR: Ruffels is someone I rate but for me it’s got to be Luke Garbutt. He joined at the beginning of the campaign after that infamous Carlo Ancelotti press conference when the Everton boss seemed to forget who Garbutt was. But, the left back has got better and better as the season went on. He’s got four goals, and his crossing and set pieces are a manager’s dream. He’s got great quality with his left foot.

Our choice: Luke Garbutt

See also: Elliot Lee reveals story behind Oxford United’s saxophone celebration

RIGHT MIDFIELD

LR: It’s a tough one between CJ Hamilton and Elliot Embleton. CJ has phenomenal pace, and was looking a really top player at the beginning of the season with five goals and three assists. Unfortunately a couple of injuries cut his campaign short but then in came Embleton on loan from Sunderland in January. He took a bit of time to adjust and is now a real creative force in the side.

JR: Elliot Lee has six goals in 18, and four in the last eight so he’s scored when it matters. He’s a very clever player that has fitted right in at the club.

LR: I think this might be the tightest one to choose, flipping a coin might be the only way to do it.

JR: And that coin has come down in favour of Elliot Lee.

Our choice: Elliot Lee

CENTRAL MIDFIELD

JR: James Henry by his standards has been below par until the last couple of months. Since coming back from injury, he’s been getting goals and assists, and drives the team both in terms of the tempo and his link up with Taylor and Lee. Meanwhile, Cameron Brannagan in the deeper role has been brilliant, picking up the ball from the full backs and getting things moving with 40-yard diagonals. He’s also tenacious out of possession. The only thing going against him is that he missed three months with an unlucky eye injury.

LR: Just like the centre backs, Blackpool have been dealt a poor hand when it comes to injuries in the middle of the park. We’ve not been able to see enough of Matty Virtue and Kevin Stewart, but Grant Ward has been superb when filling in as opposed to playing in his more natural position out wide. The man for me though is Kenny Dougall. Every team needs someone like the Australian – he picks the ball off opponents and always looks forward with his passing. A real all-rounder.

Our choice: James Henry and Kenny Dougall

LEFT MIDFIELD

JR: It’s tough to choose between Mide Shodipo and Brandon Barker but Barker is a matchwinner, and his solo effort against Crewe was United’s goal of the season. He has so much ability – probably too much for League One, but injuries have let him down a bit so he hasn’t been able to build up consistency.

LR: This has probably been Sullay Kaikai’s best season in a tangerine shirt. Seven goals and eight assists is a healthy return. A very tricky and clever player, he’s been Blackpool’s key creative man for the last couple of years. Even though this may have been his best season for Blackpool, you just feel there’s another level or two in his locker if he wants.

Our choice: Sullay Kaikai

Read also: Brandon Barker ‘absolutely ready’ for play-offs after injury issues

STRIKERS

JR: Dan Agyei in the last two and a half months has arguably been United’s most consistent attacking player. He’s always been a threat and scored a couple of crucial goals. He’s mostly used in the last 20 minutes so that goes against him.

LR: Gary Madine has missed much of the latter half of the campaign but in Ellis Simms, Pool have found a real gem. The on-loan Everton man joined in January and has bagged himself eight goals. His performances are maturing, he holds up the ball exceptionally well and has formed a great partnership with Jerry Yates.

JR: Matty Taylor is top scorer again this season with 18 goals in the league – no mean feat. This season has also shown how good his hold-up play is and he’s scored important goals at important times. He remains a top striker for League One.

LR: What can you say about Jerry Yates? Oxford fans will hope very little with him being a former Swindon man. He struggled initially when the rest of the team did at the beginning of the season but once he hit the net, he hasn’t stopped. 20 goals in the league is a real achievement and through what has become his signature thumbs up celebration after games, he’s become a real fans’ favourite.

Our choice: Matty Taylor and Jerry Yates

Read also: Five games that were crucial to Oxford United reaching the play-offs

OVERALL VERDICT

JR: Even though United have six players to Blackpool’s five, it still doesn’t feel right to leave out Jack Stevens, Josh Ruffels and Cameron Brannagan – but I’d prefer to keep things civil until the first leg, at least.

I think it shows how much individual quality the U’s have, despite finishing three places and six points below Blackpool. Sullay Kaikai and Jerry Yates were the only ones I couldn’t argue with at all, but that’s absolutely not underestimating Neil Critchley’s side.

LR: This was incredibly tough – some of the places are really tight. Because of how good Taylor and Yates have been, you have to play both so a 4-4-2 seemed the most appropriate formation.

It feels almost criminal that Blackpool have one less player in the side, however seeing as though I work at an Oxford newspaper maybe I should just let that one go.

Banbury Cake: Oxford Mail reporters Liam Rice and James Roberts' combined XIOxford Mail reporters Liam Rice and James Roberts' combined XI