Well, that happened quicker than I’d expected. A defeat to Morecambe and we’ve been plunged into crisis. What’s more, it’s all Chris Wilder’s fault.
When Wilder was first appointed, he seemed to be the choice of impoverished and unambitious owners. A fortune was spent trying to blast our way out of the Conference, and when the wheels fell off the Merry and Jim happy bus, the club sought the services of the nice chap from within. However, Darren Patterson lacked the objectiveness to take on the deep challenges that lay at the heart of the Oxford problem.
Chris Wilder was different; an outsider, not just from Oxford, but almost from the entire management firmament. At Halifax he’d steered them to the edge of promotion with a team built of string and Blu Tac, he then avoided relegation despite a 10 point deduction as the club crumbled to dust around him. He then assisted Alan Knill in turning Bury around. Success is not a simple thing to define; but wherever he’d been, Wilder had made a positive impact.
“He understands budgets” was Ian Lenagan’s telling praise of his manager after the win against Swindon. At Oxford he had some money, unlike at Halifax, but he brought with him the understanding that he knew he had to use it well.
We approached Wilder with caution; he was a spiky northerner from small time football, an interloper amongst fancy dans of the southern sophisticates at Oxford. But he was lean and demanding, while we were bloated and expectant. We’d been to Wembley and played in the top flight, if others would just get out of our way, we’d be right back up there, that was the attitude. Those that were left were the best fans in the world, that’s what we told ourselves.
Wilder gave himself some space by calling Sam Deering his best player – highlighting that he had been disadvantaged by losing him to a broken leg in his first game in charge. We were docked five points, setting us back further. Admist this, he built some decent results and in James Constable, he had a template for ‘his type of player’. Everything else about the club, pretty much, was thrown on the fire and replaced. But, with results going our way and us being a bit shy we didn’t want to bother him about what he was doing.
We started 2009/10 like a rocket; and the good times kept rolling. Team, management and fans were as one because there was no real need to consider our differences. We played Eastbourne and cruised to a 4-2 win, but Wilder blew his top at our second half performance. This burst the bubble, the honeymoon was over.
What Wilder knew all along, and what we were too complicit in to realise, was that we were a club wallowing in self-importance and complacency. The late 2009 surge which just missed promotion was with a team that had ‘been thrown together’. However, we thought the success had been brought about by our spirit; we were told to ‘Believe’ and good things would happen. Wilder knew that magical powers weren’t going to sustain us and when, against Eastbourne, our standards dropped, he was quick to jump on it.
During another uncomfortable period he accused fans of living in the past; practically blaspheming when he dismissed the Milk Cup Final as something of ancient history. He was right, we weren’t prepared to accept that we were a failed club, slumming it with Conference pond life buoyed only by successes of men long gone. We might have seen Wilder as coming from ‘small time’ Bury, but the harsh reality is that he’d taken a step down to come to Oxford.
Although it is easy to back a manager who brings success; you’ll rarely find a fan totally happy with that man’s methods. That’s because he’s not there to be a fan, who collectively gain cohesion through a shared past of great games, cups, promotions, away days and players; a whimsical world of magical fairy stories that have boundaries. The manager’s job is to mould and organise a group of players into an effective unit within constraints of a finite budget. In comparison to the football dream, real football is instantly sobering.
Wilder’s criticism of the team on Saturday again opened up a small window into the real workings of a football club and its manager. He is not shirking responsibility; criticism of the players and the way they play is criticism of the man who chose them. And, on Saturday, who got it wrong.
Part of us wants him to join us in falling to the floor in dispair; making gradiose statements of how the whole season has fallen into disrepair. That’s the fans’ job, the role we play is to create a hystrionic sideshow which proves football to be more than a game. But, managers have to get up and go again, because if they’re hiding under the duvet fearful of leaving the house, nobody else is going to sort the problem out.
So, we want manager’s to behave like fans; but if they did that we’d barely be able to function. The history of football management is strewn with managers who have failed because they’ve believed in the magical powers of fan-like passion – Keegan and Shearer at Newcastle, Dalglish at Liverpool, Ardiles at Spurs. Amongst these are the real managers – Wenger, Ferguson, Westley and Steve Evans, who have brought success through a pigheaded dedication to practical management. I don’t like Evans or Westley, but it’s difficult to deny their effectiveness.
Wilder’s not here to preserve our past. He’s here to carve out our future. This will mean getting rid of things which we have become comfortable with, including players and a sense of entitlement. Success is more important to him than it is to us because we’ll be here through success and failure and he won’t. Therefore, you don’t have to like his methods, but you have to respect his right to be a manager.