Welcome to June’s Transfer Window, consider this a shelter from the storm of Oxford United tweets complaining about ‘y we dont no about nu singings’. Come and drench yourself in the cleansing waters every spurious rumour in the Oxford United universe.
May was a thrill-ride of former loanees and youth players signing for Conference South teams, you can read about it all here, but let’s carry over three stories of interest.
Having been offered a new contract which he’s expected to turn down, there’s little news of Curtis Nelson’s plans for next season. Leeds’ failure in the play-offs have sparked mutterings of Kemar Roofe going to the Premier League and Callum O’Dowda has done what he does and pulled a sicky to push for a move, possibly to Elland Road.
One half of the Oxford United Jedward – we know the name is a portmanteau, we’re just not sure which is Je and which is Dward – Gavin Whyte is attracting interest from Nottingham Forest. We’re not one to cast aspersions, well, we are, but let’s pretend we’re not; but the story was broken by newspapers in Northern Ireland, where Whyte is away on international duty. Unless a Nottinghamshire hack has speculatively gone to Ireland sniffing for a story, we’d speculate this might be coming from the Camp of Whyte. Is he about to O’Dowda us?
Wednesday 5 June 2019
INCOMING? We’ve been linked with Charlton winger Tarique Fosu <strikethrough>who might be a good replacement for Gavin Whyte</strikethrough>. Apparently the race for his signature is a three-way battle between us, Lincoln and Rotherham. KRob worked with Fosu when was at Charlton, because KRob seems to have worked with every professional footballer in the country at some point. Presumably Fosu wouldn’t have to uproot to come to Oxford, so maybe that’s a go-er.
Meanwhile poor old Callum O’Dowda may have to find a new club to agitate a move to, the same report says Leeds aren’t interested. The big O’D (Original Defector) will have to focus on engineering a move elsewhere.
Sunday 9 June 2019
KRob’s attempt at signing every Charlton player took another step with rumours that we’d like to sign Defender Jason Pearce. Sunderland and Portsmouth are also in for him, so KRob will have his work cut out.
In his book Them, Jon Ronson interviews extremists from all sides of the political spectrum and concludes that they are bound by the single idea that the world is controlled by a nefarious central entity i.e. ‘Them’. He suggests, however, that there is no ‘Them’ and the world is made up of billions of people making trillions of decisions – some good and many bad and that we muddle through dealing with the consequences of both.
This could describe the legacy of Robin Herd, who died last week, towards Oxford United. Having made his name as an engineer, first working on Concorde, then in Formula 1 racing, he became chairman in 1995 owning 89.2% of the club shares. Oxford educated, he was unusual in that rather than becoming wholly ensconced in the insular world of university life, he became a genuine fan of the club.
At the time we were still reeling from the aftermath of the Maxwell era; clinging to a sheer rock face; somehow holding on, but gradually losing our grip. The best we could hope was to hang on as long as possible, even if the end was both inevitable and catastrophic.
Herd’s arrival injected some enthusiasm and energy into the club that it hadn’t seen for a decade. Having a genuine fan leading the club gave a reassurance it was finally in good hands. He was a charismatic showman, fresh from the glamorous world of Formula 1. He had contacts, in particular the Agnelli family, who owned Juventus. Herd announced a strategic alliance between the two clubs, suggesting that there would be a swapping of talent and ideas, they’d get Matt Murphy, we’d get Alessandro Del Piero. There was even talk of having our second kit styled in Juventus’ black and white stripes. The Italians rapidly played down the link up and it ultimately fizzled to nothing; even Oxford officials described it as ‘talks about talks’.
In 1994, after a decade in the top two divisions, we’d finally lost our footing and dropped to the Third Division; it’s wrong to say Herd stimulated an immediate return to the second tier – that work was already underway even in the year we were relegated with the arrival of Denis Smith. But, time was running out financially; we had a solid core of a squad but it couldn’t be maintained forever. The stability Herd offered gave Smith the opportunity to build on what he had, keeping saleable assets such as Matt Elliot, Phil Gilchrist, Joey Beauchamp, Phil Whitehead and Paul Moody. In 1996, that stability allowed us to survive a poor opening to the season before gaining a head of steam, and a thrilling late season run, which saw us snatching promotion on the last day of the season against Peterborough.
It was a good time for Herd to get involved in football. The Premier League was finding its feet, football was becoming a political asset under New Labour not the societal burden promoted by the ailing Tories. Steve Gibson had started to transform Middlesbrough by building a new stadium, Jack Walker had already made waves at Blackburn; with a bit of ambition, moderate clubs could start making progress in a way it never could before.
Oxford’s search for a new stadium had been going on for over thirty years and nobody had cracked it. Even at the peak of our powers with a rich and unctuous owner in Maxwell, we hadn’t managed to budge the combined forces of the local council and university. Sites and plans came and went, it was Robin Herd who broke the cycle.
The conditions were right; the idea of stimulating economic growth by developing out of town greenfield sites for shopping centres and supermarkets was evolving. Football stadiums became a political lever to allow that to happen. Finally the council crumbled and Herd’s greatest project – a brand new Oxford United stadium at Minchery Farm – was underway.
Things progressed rapidly, a four stand design with a conference centre was adopted with plans to fill in the corners when budget allowed. Iron girders went up and the new ground started to take shape. Then rumours started, contractors weren’t on site, bills hadn’t been paid. The club fell silent, I would drive past from time to time, progress seemed to be slow, but I wanted to believe it was just how these things worked.
The contractors, Taylor Woodrow, were gone, Herd’s dream had backfired spectacularly on the club he supported, we had all the same problems as before plus the additional burden of rent on a rotting carcass of a new stadium. The debt was reported to be as high as £18 million.
The blow-back was hideous; Matt Elliot was sold for £1.6 million, Phils Gilchrist and Whitehead went for cut priced deals to Leicester and West Brom, Simon Marsh went to Birmingham. Even as we ran out of playing assets to cash in on, bills and wages weren’t paid and the club descended further, losing £12,000 a week. Then Firoz Kassam appeared to bail Herd and the club out.
If life is a series of decisions, some good, many bad, then judging Robin Herd’s legacy should be judged in that context. He achieved something that nobody else had by securing a new site for a stadium – it drove us to the verge of oblivion and into the hands of an owner who took us to the Conference. But, had we not moved, what would have happened? Perhaps the conditions would have become more favourable and we’d have had a new ground to thrive in, or we could still be at a dilapidated Manor Ground wallowing in the Conference with little prospect of getting out.
Perhaps we needed a fan with an audacious vision to modernise the club; perhaps the blow-up was inevitable but needed. A more objective, rational owner may not have taken the same risk, and not got as far as a result. The brief period of his reign – he left in 1998 – included a famous promotion and the foundations of a new ground, plus a big dose of glamorous lunacy. In isolation, it was as good as it got in the 1990s. The decisions taken after his brief reign shouldn’t cloud what he achieved. Even though the aftermath was painful, Herd’s legacy should be measured more about what he did while he was in charge and less about what impact it ultimately had.
One of the greatest tragedies of the human condition is the realisation that your club’s kit is rarely, if ever, specifically designed for your club. I came to that realisation very late having believed for years that clubs dealt directly with manufacturers to tap into the essence of their existence to inspire a design which would emote to your very soul.
Nope, most football shirts, whether you are playing park or professional football, is simply a manufacturer’s template in a particular colourway with a badge and sponsor sewn on.
The lower leagues are a good place for Puma to operate; away from the arms race between Adidas and Nike, they enjoy a reputation for being a premium brand without the budget of the big two. You could argue that League 1 is full of once premium brands working at a budget level as well.
The strategy appears to be to hoover up as many clubs as possible to benefit from the aggregated audience they offer. Making money, however, means keeping costs low, which means there are limited options available and those that exist are universal, uncontroversial and perhaps a little bland.
The other cost saving is in marketing; rather than spend money on carefully crafted marketing whiffle, it is easier to issue a templated descriptions for threadbare club marketing departments to use. But, if you do that you should never use such supercilious wibble as ‘flux pattern sublimated into the shirt’ because that sort of phrase is a honeypot for stretched copywriters; it must mean something.
But does it? The simple answer is no, it is promotional boohockey of the first order. Of the many definitions of flux, the one which even remotely makes sense is not the ‘abnormal discharge of blood’ but a description of something that flows. ‘Sublimate’ is less clear and probably refers to the elevation of something, though perhaps not to a higher social plain as is its true definition. Distilled into something more digestible, it might be better to say there are textured wavy lines in the fabric.
That’s the new shirt’s defining motif; a nod to some of the more imaginative styles developed by Puma as they’ve courted emergent footballing nations from Africa, in particular. As well as the sublimated flux; the shirt has blue sleeves with a thick yellow cuff, similar to the 2016/2017 ‘Starter’ shirt although the overall effect is more towards the 2011/2012 Nike edition.
Thankfully, the club have reverted to blue shorts, which gives everyone hope that the world’s most complex problems can be resolved, along with yellow socks, of which I’ve always been a fan.
All in all, it’s OK, a bit derivative and obviously generic, but ultimately OK. I can see how people will like it, because there’s so little to be offended by. Perhaps my shattered illusions of a kit which is truly ours, plus the regimented annual reveal of yet another new shirt – which is necessarily limited in scope in terms of colour and layout – has made the whole thing less exciting than it once was.
It is what it is; so the club are rightly marketing it as an empty vessel whose meaning is derived from the moments that happen in it. These things only become classics if something memorable happens while wearing them – think promotions, cup or derby wins. Whether this becomes a classic remains to be seen.
There’s only one question asked for more often by Oxford United fans than ‘What is Danny Philliskirk up to these days?’ and that is; ‘Who the hell is Danny Philliskirk?’. Well, he played four memorable games on loan from Chelsea for us in 2010 scoring no fewer, and no more, than zero goals. Like Sam Smith, but less prolific. Having largely disappeared off the scene for a while, he resurfaced on Sunday to win the FA Trophy with Fylde against Leyton Orient.
In a tactic straight out of Theresa May’s Brexit playbook of doing the same thing repeatedly in the hope of getting a different result, the club will put aside 20 years of animosity and vitriol and return to Firoz Kassam with a proposal for a better relationship. That’ll work won’t it?
Fulham, who were accidentally promoted to the Premier League, but righted that particular wrong last season by being relegated at the earliest opportunity last season will visit The Kassam in July. This is the game in which our new signing will score his fifth goal of pre-season and his last before Christmas.
They neglect to mention that White Clarke and Black Dyer have just worked together with great success at Kilmarnock, which might have been an influencing factor. Obviously Black Dyer isn’t quoted in the story because he might say some black things; that honour has gone to White Steve and Kilmarnock’s owner White Billy Bowie.
Ah summer, the gentle caress of the sun on cheek, light summer dresses, birds chirping happily in the trees. Time to freshen up, let air flow through your soul, and renew. Fling those windows open, for light is here to replace the dark!
Except if the window is a transfer window, then a swarm of wasps will consume your head, sting your eyeballs until pustules ravage your eyelids. But, football is dead, long live transfer windows.
So, what can we expect? New contracts for Rob Hall and Curtis Nelson? Freedom for Jon Obika, Jonte Smith and Scott Shearer? Players returning to their clubs to continue their long and winding journey towards an two-year contract at Fleetwood Town? Let us not forget, Fierce Keheller’s mission to play for every Conference South team in the country.
So, welcome to the summer’s transfer window, what a ride it’ll be.
Callum O’Dowda appears to be on his way out of Bristol City. There’s a familiarity with the story, O’Dowda has a year on his contract and is refusing to sign an extension. With a number of clubs interested, Leeds especially, he’s suddenly gotten himself injured, though not injured enough to miss the Republic of Ireland’s upcoming internationals.
Chelsea have finally decided that Todd Kane, who has had more clubs on loan than Tiger Woods after his luggage got lost on his way to the British Open, isn’t going to make the grade. Hull City are interested.
As they say in Game of Thrones; The North Remembers, unfortunately the south forgets. In the hullabaloo about new contracts and released players last week, the name T’ony McMahon was completely overlooked. The whippet worrying full-back remains on our books despite spending a good chunk of the year on loan at Scunthorpe who he helped steer to a comfortable relegation spot last season. KRob doesn’t expect him to return south next year; he doesn’t want to take a “bad signing and make it into a good signing.”; applying his trademark bewildering logic. Some would argue he spent a decent part of last season achieving the exact opposite. Not us, though, not us.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; so we can say with a degree of confidence that nobody killed Robbie Cundy during his time at the Kassam. With his career solidly rooted in a single Oxford United appearance against Dagenham and Redbridge in the JPT in 2015, Cundy dropped out of the Football League in 2017 eventually joining Bath City. As a result of his performances as The Romans’ Jake Wright to their Ryan Clarke, who also happens to be the actual Ryan Clarke, Bristol City have signed him up on a two-year contract.
Johnny Mullins has retired. Mullins was part of the promotion winning team of 2016 before leaving for Luton Town. He was at Cheltenham Town last season, but has chosen to jack it all in. Mullins was known as as The Magnet because he twice scored from a corner in 127 games. At approximately 5 corners a game, that’s a magnetism of 0.2%. Coincidentally, he also has an excellent, if slightly pricey range of kitchens.
KRob has spoken. Let’s face it this is not an unusual thing, he seems to have spoken continuously since the end of the season. So much so that it’s possible he’s still standing pitchside at Kenilworth Road speaking to an increasingly weary Nathan Cooper. That’s probably not true, although it’s exactly the kind of thing he’d do, isn’t it? His latest ejaculation focuses on his wish list for next season. Nothing remarkable about the list, although he did mention that he was hoping to bring back Wonderfoot Luke Garbutt and ban-magnet Ahmed Kashi and the sloth in the box, Jerome Sinclair.
Saturday 18 May 2019
It’s theday that the whole nation stops, gathers together around the TV set and watches a great annual institution play out in front of them. As well as Eurovision, it’s also the FA Cup final. It’s Watford’s first appearance since 1984 when they were captained by former Oxford United player and now Youth Team Officer Les Taylor. You can read him banging on about it like your drunk uncle here.
Our week closes with the news that conscientious objector Callum O’Dowda has joined us the the Republic of Ireland squad. Nothing unusual about that except he hasn’t played for Bristol City since March due to a mystery injury. Always a highly principled young man, O’Dowda and his medical team have searched for a diagnosis. It appears that it could be suffering from a broken contract resulting from an inflated ego with a number of Championship and Premier League teams interested in his signature. All very treatable if you apply a great pile of money to it.
A goalkeeper who saved his team more times than any other player is ironically most well known for dropping the ball into his own net with the score at 2-0. Clarke went on to play more than 200 times for the club before moving to Northampton Town. His career stalled a bit and he failed to make a single appearance, later admitting to depression. After a brief spell at Wimbledon he moved to Eastleigh and Torquay and is currently at Bath City.
Signed midway through the season to replace Luke Foster, Wright evolved into a formidable centre-back and leader. Wright steered the club through the League 2 years and into the Appleton era where he captained the team to promotion in 2016. He signed for Sheffield United, rejoining Chris Wilder during that summer and promptly won promotion with them to The Championship.
A sanguine full-back signed in the January before the play-off final. Tonkin drifted out of the team after promotion, but had a moment in the sun against Swindon Town. In 2012 he moved to Aldershot Town before moving onto Frome Town. A business graduate, he had a sideline as a property developer during his playing days. He became a Financial Advisor on retiring before becoming a Quantity Surveyor.
Bulman was signed at the start of the promotion season after leaving Crawley Town. He had already played over 350 games for Wycombe, Stevenage and Crawley. Bulman was quickly moved on back to Crawley following promotion; Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake. After that he moves to Wimbledon where he was the Football League’s oldest player in 2018. Currently back at Crawley.
A player with a deft touch and great poise; Midson was another player who undeservedly was moved out of the club by Chris Wilder following promotion. He eventually settled with Wimbledon, taking them back to the Football League and having the honour of scoring against the Dons’ nemesis MK Dons. Following a number of moves he became assistant manager at Concord Rangers. He’s also a director of M&M Sports Coaching with his team mate Sammy Moore. Recently appointed manager at Hemel Hempstead Town.
A bona fide club legend. Constable scored over 100 goals and just one short of the club’s goalscoring record left for Eastleigh. After four years he moved to Poole Town one loan, recently announcing his semi-retirement and became a patron of Oxford United in the Community. Left Eastleigh permanently in May 2019.
A peculiar career which started at Cardiff, he had a brief loan spell at Oxford before controversially moving to Torquay. He came back in 2010 and became part of a formidable three pronged attack. Another player who was moved on a little too quickly, in 2013 he scored a bucketload at Mansfield earning him a move to The Championship and Birmingham City. Injury stalled his career and he moved back to Mansfield before moving to Lincoln and Salford.
A character and a dying breed, Turley lost his place to Ryan Clarke at the beginning of the season. He was released immediately after the final before spending some time at Brackley Town.
An early Chris Wilder Signing, he lost his place to Anthony Tonkin at Christmas. Released after the final he went to Mansfield before drifting around the non-league and disappearing.
Potter came on to score the iconic third goal at Wembley. He played on until 2015 enjoying moments in the sun such as a winner over Swindon and a leading part in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth. Joined Chris Wilder at Northampton in 2015 before moving to Mansfield and Billericay Town.
A diminutive forward who set up Alfie Potter for the third goal. Deering drifted in and out of the team until 2011 before moving to Barnet. Enjoyed an FA Cup giant killing with Whitehawk before ending up at Billericay.
Manager: Chris Wilder
Battled on with the club until everyone forgot what a remarkable job he had done. Left acrimoniously in 2014 for Northampton who were, at the time, bottom of League 2. He saved them by beating us on the last game of the season. He followed it up by winning the title while we came second. Shortly after, he moved to Sheffield United where he won promotion to the Championship and then, in 2019, The Premier League.
Like Cheers or The Simpsons, Oxford United have launched a spin-off show which threatens to be funnier than the original. The latest episode of the new show – The Oxford United Board – aired yesterday following the successful pilot episode; Whose Tax Bill Is It Anyway? and yesterday’s season opener The King and I.
Curtis Nelson and The Aylesbury Ashley Young, Rob Hall, have been offered new contracts, Jose’s son, John Mousinho and Son of God, Jack Stephens have had their sentences, sorry, contracts, extended.
Friday 10 May
Like the time GLS ate that four day old paella, Oxford United endured an unfortunate Spanish incident a couple of years ago when it hired Pep Clotet as manager. It all passed in a blur of Dwight Tiendellis, but one little Spanish aberration has been largely forgotten.
When Oxford United appointed Chris Wilder I thought we’d given up. We’d tried the ‘been there, done that’ appointments (Atkins, Talbot), the emerging talent (Wright, Rix), the messiah (Jim Smith) and even the South American Alex Ferguson (Diaz). None had worked, and so in 2009, with finances biting, this nondescript appointment seemed like a sign we were hunkering down for a long dark winter of simply being a non-league club.
In fact, there was one recruitment tactic we hadn’t tried – advertising the role; applications, interviews, a selection criteria. Where his predecessors were heavily networked into the footballing establishment, Wilder was a hidden gem. He’d taken Halifax to the brink returning to the Football League against a backdrop of crippling financial problems, then working alongside Alan Knill at Bury to win them promotion. What he needed was a chance to get into the system; it came via Kelvin Thomas and Ian Lenagan and a dose of good practice.
Wilder’s first move was to create a siege mentality around the club; he declared Sam Deering – who broke his leg in his first game – to be our best player. Deering wasn’t, but the sense of injustice was galvanising. This was immediately followed by the revelation that the club was being deducted five points for not registering Eddie Hutchinson as a player. Hutchinson had been with the club for three years, but was on his way out and unregistered, then played due to injuries. It was a harsh punishment for an admin error, made all the worse by the fact we missed out on the play-offs by those five points. Wilder’s parting shot for the season was about his desire to get out of ‘this poxy league’ – the club and fans were as one on that.
Wilder’s ‘poxy league’ comment would be repeated countless time because it encapsulated both him as a person and the team he wanted to create – scratchy, awkward, aggressively ambitious and strangely relatable. Wilder knew we didn’t belong in the Conference, but he also knew getting out of it had to be earned.
The following season’s promotion will always be remembered as nothing but glorious, but it wasn’t without issues. Wilder was apoplectic at the apparent apathy after we’d raced to a 4-0 win over Chester in an unbeaten start to the season which saw us topping the table. He ranted about the club being backward looking, wallowing in its Milk Cup glory, much to the considerable chagrin of many fans – a rift that, for some, never healed.
He was right, we’d spent too long expecting a revival, like success would come from the push of a button – a different manager, new player or just some kind of natural justice. What was really needed was culture change, a reality check of who we were. The culture shift came in the form of players who would thrive in the environment, not freeze in it – Dannie Bulman, Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, Ryan Clarke, Jake Wright, James Constable. All players who shared a mindset, the relentless pursuit of success.
The coup de grace was the 3-1 win over York in the play-off final at Wembley. In many ways, a greater achievement than the Milk Cup Final win of 1986, certainly more important in terms of our survival as a club. It should have cemented Wilder as sitting alongside Jim Smith as one of the club’s great managers.
One of my lasting memories of that win was not so much the elation of winning, but the relief that Wilder’s efforts hadn’t gone unrewarded; in many ways the fear of failure, even when things were going well, drove him forward.
Back in the Football League, his elevated flight instinct – running away from failure – seemed to get the better of him. Fans interviewed coming out of Wembley were already talking about back-to-back promotions, so expectations were high. Wilder’s impatience to progress caused him to break up the promotion team – Jack Midson and Matt Green were loaned out, along with Mark Creighton and Dannie Bulman. The dumping of the heroes of Wembley – the spine of the team – didn’t do much for Wilder’s stock with the fans.
To some extent it killed our momentum, steadying the ship took time. The bi-product of the stall was a first league meeting with Swindon Town for 10 years the following season. It was perfect for Wilder; who got under the skin of the more celebrated Paolo DiCanio. A home and away double was as much about outfoxing DiCanio as it was a footballing victory.
The success wasn’t without collateral damage. A proposed move to Swindon for James Constable dragged on for much of that season, damaging the relationship between manager and his on-the-field talisman.
There was another win over Swindon the following season in the JPT Trophy, but after an underwhelming campaign, with promotion missed and financial constraints biting, Ian Lenagan presented a new vision for the club; of homegrown players leading the club’s future. There was a short term contract extension for Wilder, barely an endorsement. Wilder looked haunted, subservient to his owner’s will, constrained by a triple lock of promotion expectations, a falling budget and the burning platform of a short-term contract.
Time was running out; like many managers who have got teams promoted from the Conference Wilder remained a decent bet for any struggling team. Portsmouth were first to bite, and Lenagan barely blinked allowing him to speak to them, he didn’t get the job, but it was the clearest indication yet that Wilder wasn’t wanted.
Then Northampton came sniffing; they were bottom of the league and heading for the Conference, any manager would have been mad to take it on. But, for Wilder, it was perfect; an opportunity to get angry, invigorate and agitate, to shake them out of their slumber, no excuses. At Oxford, his fight had gone, he could please nobody. But also, things were running themselves, Wilder couldn’t be a hands-off manager strategically shaping the club, he needed a problem to solve. The impact was instant; Wilder sparked an astonishing revival, they went into the final game of the season within a win of saving themselves from relegation. Their opponents? Oxford United.
It goes without saying that Northampton swept to safety with a 3-1 win, it was such a Wilder thing to do.
As Wilder steadied Northampton, Michael Appleton arrived to transform Oxford. Appleton was the anti-Wilder – a theoretician and strategist – process, not results. Very modern.
Over the next year Appleton remodelled the he inherited from Wilder; jettisoning many of his players. Ryan Clarke, Alfie Potter and Danny Rose all eventually reconnected Wilder with his Oxford past.
With both managers battleplans fully in place; 2015/16 put Wilder’s resurgent Northampton side in direct opposition to his previous club. For once, we were the progressive modern affectation, they were the rugged survivors. The Cobblers task made all the more difficult in a backdrop of implied corruption and near bankruptcy. No Oxford fan would trade Michael Appleton, but it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Wilder rounded on those who were putting the club in jeopardy, imploring them to accept an offer for the club from his former Oxford boss Kelvin Thomas.
Thomas eventually took over, and Wilder took Northampton on a long undefeated streak to the top of the league. We weren’t doing bad ourselves, but were burdened by cup runs in the JPT and FA Cup. While we took plaudits from the media, they streaked to the title, inflicting a typically Wilder-esque defeat at the Kassam in February. We secured the second promotion spot, with Michael Appleton claiming we were the best footballing team in the division. Wilder raged, but it showed the difference between the two managers – Appleton the scientist and theoretician, Wilder, a results man through and through.
Inevitably, Wilder’s success brought the attention of others, and finally a club he couldn’t resist – Sheffield United. There’d been talk, even at Oxford, about how they just had to ask and Wilder would go, but now was his opportunity. Like his two previous clubs, The Blades needed organising, shaking out of their slumber; perfect for Wilder. The only question was whether he could scale his skills to a club of their size.
Yes. He took them to the League 1 title in his first season, swatting us out the way, yet again. Mirroring his Northampton days; he acquired Oxford captain Jake Wright. Following a period of consolidation in The Championship, George Baldock and Jon Lundstram – a chunk of the best footballing team in League 2 were now gunning for the Premier League. Marvin Johnson was added, albeit on loan and not really playing.
While it is likely that maybe only Baldock will expect to play in the Premier League, it is telling that no less than four former Michael Appleton players were in Wilder’s promotion squad. Appleton found the players, Wilder got them winning. If there wasn’t animosity between the two of them, they’d probably be a dream team.
So, Wilder is now one of the elite managers in the country, fourth or fifth in line for the England job, you might argue. Weirdly, the Premier League might suit him. Nobody will fancy his team to stay up so he’ll have plenty to rail against, he can create the siege mentality and rage against the uneven playing field as he did in his first season with us in the Conference, he can get under the skin of the suave European managers like he did with Paolo DiCanio.
And yet, his time at Oxford, which started it all has left a stain with all parties. You only have to see Wilder celebrating promotion; middle aged spread, a weak lager in his hand frothing over to tell you everything you need to know about how Oxford fans should feel towards him. Should we be proud of what he’s achieved, and wish him well in the future? Yes. Is he a bit of a tit? Yes also. When it comes to Oxford’s relationship with Wilder, that’s probably about as good as it will get.
In other ways, it’s heartening to see Luton succeed, it gives us a glimmer of hope. In truth, if you look at all our ups and downs over the decades, mid-table in third tier is probably our natural place, despite ambitions stating otherwise. The biggest challenge is that the increments needed to navigate beyond where we are grow by the year. A team can spend £4m on a striker and finish fifth in the third division now.
Luton’s promotion means that three of the four teams you’d think have Championship infrastructures – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster – will still be with us next year. Of those coming down, Ipswich, Bolton (if they survive the summer) and Rotherham are all similarly capable of competing for promotion despite their woes.
For us, bridging the gap and breaking into the top six has to be our target. This season reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s famous line to Andre Previn – we played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. If we want to progress, then we have to be more organised; our season was killed by our form in the opening weeks, which was preceded by a chaotic summer.
The last few weeks have been as entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the last decade or more, even the promotion seasons, which have been laced with anxiety. We’ve been swashbuckling and daring, sparking life back into the club just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral. Even narrowly avoiding relegation in our 125th year would have been a grim way to celebrate.
Any sign the problems that caused us to fail so badly are sorting themselves out may come in the next couple of weeks. Our previous two promotions were characterised by high quality early signings. Fans will always get jittery during May and early-June because signings aren’t flowing in. In the main, that’s not justified because football slows down during those months as people take a well-earned break. However, if our results on the pitch in the last couple of months are a reflection of us getting our act together off it, then maybe we’ll see some signs of that in the coming days.