Spending a year on loan with Oxford United and getting first team football away from MK Dons has made George Baldock twice the player he was 12 months ago.
Making 42 appearances for Michael Appleton’s side, Baldock, a relative novice at full back when he left stadium:mk this time last year, was dubbed the best in League 2 by Karl Robinson, who has been keeping a watchful, yet distant eye on his young charge.
Left relatively alone to cut his own path, Baldock thrived, helping Oxford to the promotion spots in League 2, knocking Premier League Swansea out of the FA Cup and booking a weekend at Wembley as they reached the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
“I’m twice the player I ever was,” he said.
“It has been brilliant for me, and vital for my career. To tell you the truth, it could have gone either way for my career. I was doing alright before I got injured, and then Jordan (Spence) was doing really well, but it was frustrating being on the sidelines. I was really pushing to go out on loan.
“My first loan spell was really good but cut short through injury. It was just a case of pushing my cause in the summer. The gaffer told me I could go out on loan if I signed a new deal, so it was win-win for me: staying here where I want my future to be, while going out to a good League 2 team where I could be challenged, to get first team football and learn the position. It was a perfect scenario.
“It has done me the world of good. I’ve learned the position now.”
His year-long stint with Oxford was split over two very different loan spells - different specifically in Baldock’s mental approach.
“When I first went, my focus was still on MK because we were so close to promotion. I was still thinking how good it could be for my career.
“In the second spell it was different: I was supposed to be there for the whole year.
“I needed, for a year, to put MK to the back of my mind. My focus was to play first team football.
“The gaffer told me to get away from it. It’s the best thing I could have done.
“I knew the gaffer was happy with my development and there was a chance of coming back.
“Until then, I was concentrating on getting promoted with Oxford, being engrained with the team, that helped massively.
“You never forget your parent club. MK Dons is my boyhood club. But I was out there focussing on myself, and making a name for myself.”
And make a name for himself he certainly did, endearing himself to the Oxford fans in the process.
Popular both on and off the pitch, U’s supporters were keen for their club to make Baldock’s loan move permanent before news of his recall broke late in January.
Both Oxford and Baldock knew of the likelihood of a Dons recall though.
He said: “I always knew it could happen. I had my agent knew it could happen, the Oxford manager was asking me what was happening - I just wanted to play! But after a while, I felt it was inevitable.
“The gaffer was brilliant with me. When he called me, I felt something clicked. He felt he could trust me and that he was really impressed with how I was playing. He told me what I wanted to hear and that was that.
“I was thinking ‘brilliant, I could potentially be a Championship player.’
“But I didn’t hear anything for a while, but I didn’t dwell on it, I just got my head down.
“That’s something I’ve got my brother to thank for. The amount of times he was told who was after him, he just had to get on with it.
“That kind of person to look for has been brilliant.”
Baldock’s return, on the eve of the game against Chelsea earlier this month has seen him start all three games he has been eligible for.
In a week that should have returned few points, Dons conceded just once, keeping two clean sheets and picking up five points against Cardiff City, Middlesbrough and Derby County.
Baldock said: “I’ve been really impressed. I watched the game against Charlton, which was a bit bitty.
“I watched the home game against Derby and thought we were passing it around like Barcelona! But I also saw the games against Burnley and Chelsea which weren’t so good.
“But since I’ve come back, we’ve been on fire. The togetherness is incredible.
“They’ve done the business they wanted to do in January, so they’re now thinking ‘this is us, let’s go’ so the last three games have been so impressive.
“We’ve realised where we are and what it takes to get out of trouble. We need to be resolute, I’ve been really impressed.”