As I walked down a decrepit Belfast street with a Sheffield United supporting colleague last Tuesday, conversation inevitably turned to Chris Wilder.
Me: ‘The constant fear is that they [Sheffield United] will take Wilder”
He: “They probably will next time. It’s the sort of stupid sentimental thing they do”
It’s true, Chris Wilder may well be lured to a bigger club, Mickey Adams certainly thinks he’s capable. He’ll probably end up at Sheffield United or a similar ‘big club’ basket case. At this point one of two things are likely to happen. He’ll either buckle under the deep seated historical failures of his new club or he will bring them moderate success and become a member of the small cabal of managers who constantly swap places amongst the lower Premier/upper Championship pseudo-elite – Sam Allardyce, Steve McCLaren, Mick McCarthy et al. He will not be offered a position which gives him the security or resources to bring genuine trophy-led success to a club. His legacy will be his moderate success at a moderate club. His time at Oxford, to the vast majority, a mere footnote.
We won’t forget. Saturday’s 2-1 win over Port Vale was the convergence of all that Chris Wilder has achieved in the last three years. There have been bigger games such as the play-off final against York or the win over Swindon, and bigger wins such as Bristol Rovers and Plymouth. But those were champagne moments, this was the bread and butter humdrum of the league and he turned it into something special.
He’s made having 8,000 people in the stadium feel normal. That’s about 3,000 on the gate since he arrived. Extrapolate that over a season, and he could easily be generating the club an additional £1.5 million a year at the turnstiles.
With this he’s put together a team that inspires front to back, all of which were evident on Saturday. Ryan Clarke’s penalty save was an absolute marvel, you couldn’t have scripted it better. Michael Duberry is a revelation in his performances and his attitude. His goal – his first in English goal since 18 October 2005 – was a joy . Jake Wright got involved with a brilliant suicide block in the first half followed by a triple sliding tackle on the edge of his box in the second. Paul McLaren’s set the tone, battling for the ball whilst sitting on his backside. On the half way line. In the most ordinary of league games, this was the most extraordinary of league games.
Then there was Peter Leven’s goal. I’ve seen similar goals from the halfway line on TV and written them off as either a fluke or relatively easy. On TV it’s tightly cropped and two dimensional. The commentator announces it removing the surprise. The player has worked a bit of space, all he needs is a bit of line and length and a hapless keeper hopelessly out of position and he’s in. In the end, all you’re doing is looping one over his head. How difficult is that?
In reality, it’s very different; let me break it down.
Part 1: The context – We had conceded a couple of minutes earlier. Port Vale are a good side, the jolt of the goal and the rabid reaction of the Vale fans had us on the back foot. With our confidence dented, there was a real risk of throwing away points in a game where we’d created an avalanche of chances. The natural reaction is to be conservative and edgy. Any misplaced pass or skewed shot was likely to trigger derision from the home fans, then fear and finally, quite possibly, defeat. Leven, however, was thinking beyond this bucked the natural law by looking towards the audacious.
Part 2: The vision – Football is played to a certain geometry. There were a number of conventional options once Leven had won the ball; play-in Constable or push it wide to Hall or Potter. Or maybe a little side pass to Heslop, who had the time to look up and choose the best option.That’s the text book approach. In conventional football, there is very little positive about the ball traveling 50 yards, 12 feet above the ground. This is a plain in a football arena reserved for defensive clearances. So, Leven defied the laws of football physics by making a creative, attacking and purposeful move towards the goal from 50 yards beyond head height – that’s vision.
Part 3 – The opposition – The goalkeeper is a real living, breathing opponent. He doesn’t just let the ball go over his head and shrug his shoulders, he back tracks and reaches and stretches. In short, he’s there to be beaten, not just lobbed over.
Part 4 – the maths – The ball has to remain at a height beyond the reach of the keeper as he’s back tracking, that must be 8-10 metres. But it can’t be too high because it’ll need to dip if it’s going to go in.
Then it starts dipping. Once you’ve got your head around the idea that he’s gone for goal, you start calculating the probability of it actually going in. When the ball leaveshis boot, the calculator clocks it at about 10% likelihood of actually going in, once it’s beaten the keeper it’s gone up, but only to 20%. It then starts its descent and the probability clock starts whirring madly; 25%, 30%, 35%, 40%, 60%, 80%. This. Might. Actually. Go. In. You hit 100% certainty a millisecond before the net ripples.
There’s vision, precision, uncertainty and geometry. And Chris Wilder has brought this and more to the club, along with Duberry and Wright’s bullish defending, Heslop’s long range bullets, Constable’s goals and Clarke’s world class goalkeeping. When he is slogging away, getting hammered for not taking some deadbeat ‘sleeping giant’ into the Champions League, we will always remember that, and be thankful for what he has brought to the club, if you ever need a reminder of what that is, watch Saturday’s 90 minutes. It will tell you everything.