Time to press the panic button?

I have to confess I had my first Wilder wobble after the heartless 4-0 defeat to Burton on Saturday. The results aren’t going our way, the manager’s position is uncertain; he’s either being sacked or moving to Coventry. The board is in transition with Kelvin Thomas and Jim Rosenthal standing down, and the fixture list looks uninspiring. What have we got to look forward to? Where are the wins? Where’s the derby? What is going to spring us out of our malaise? I can only see a procession of tough games. Are we going to trudge through the season only to end up in mid-table meaninglessness? That’s not why we support football clubs.

Football is escapism, we seek it because it give us something different to our normal lives. Everything else in our lives demands certainty. Our jobs are process driven, we want security; job security, financial security. Football is our unpredictable wildcard, our release, an opportunity to satisfy our animalistic urges. It is one of football’s great paradoxes; those who succeed in achieving predictability, notably the Premier League, are chastised by traditionalists for ruining excitement. And yet it is the traditionalists who constantly call for more sensible and rational thinking in the game. So do we want excitement or predictability?

When, as now, there seems so little prospect of excitement, we agitate to generate some. We like to target the manager to try and shake things up. There is the frisson of excitement; the period of speculation where, in full fantasy-manager mode, we pick a realistic, but attached, target like Paul Tidsdale, or a unrealistic and unattached target like Harry Redknapp. Then you end up with someone with a moderate, occasionally good, occasionally rubbish track record. He inherits a team low on confidence and form and criticises, without risk, the previous regime’s methods. I remember during the Kassam years, each manager coming in to criticise the players’ lack of fitness, for example.

Fundamentally, the new manager has the same resources to play with; things don’t change significantly. We then criticise and agitate to replace the new man (or even bring back the original manager, who with the blurring of time has returned to his previous state of being a legend). So many clubs fall into that cycle, it’s so tempting to do it to brighten up our sorry lives. But is it the answer?

Is changing the manager really going to solve the problem? And more to the point, what the hell is the problem in the first place? And don’t say it’s the fact we concede too many goals and have just gone four league defeats in a row. That’s not the problem, the defeats are the result of the problem.

We’re missing the players that Chris Wilder brought in to add quality to the squad; he doesn’t have Whing or Duberry in defence, Davis or (until Tuesday) Leven going forward, he hasn’t had Cox. These are all his signings; good signings and they’re all injured. Is that bad luck? Presumably it’s possible to put together an algorithm that will predict when multiple factors converge to create form like we’ve got in the situation we’re in. Or is it bad management? Is it wholly Wilder’s fault? In other words, if you took Wilder out of the equation and put in a replacement, are the injured players suddenly going become available? I remember the charmless David Kemp saying after he was sacked that he wasn’t going to take it to heart, because changing the manager hadn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. Now, David Kemp is the worst manager we’ve ever had, but he was right, wasn’t he? Will a new manager, playing to different tactics turn this squad into league champions? I can’t conclusively be sure.

Is it a bigger issue? The policy of signing proven, older, players who are therefore more injury prone, without the infrastructure to keep them on the pitch. Is that the problem? Is it a bigger strategic issue; the focus of signings over science? Isn’t that a board consideration; how much do you spend on players, support of players and the business that funds the show? That’s not Chris Wilder’s responsibility, at least not wholly, that’s done higher up. So is it a board issue? Moreover, isn’t that being dealt with? The board changes could conceivably be an attempt to deal with a deeper problem and there is already a stated commitment into investing into sport science.

The Greiner growth model says that it is inevitable that organisations hit crises as they grow, and perhaps that’s the problem; a growing pain. He talks of a ‘crisis of control’; where delegating responsibility results in growth that is too quick and out of control. What results is a tightening of control; is that why Lenegan is at the head of the table in the board room? He’s managing the readjustment? If this is an inevitable wobble, then we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and sack everyone involved because it satisfies our frustration and discomfort.

We can comfortably demonise the manager, it’s a common thing to do. That’s what most clubs do; and yet most clubs are badly run. So, do we want to follow the pattern of others just because it’s the way football has always done it?

I don’t know, on one hand, Wilder’s position seems to be weakening, on the other hand, I can’t definitively say that his replacement will provide the solution. And is it even fair to judge him on four league games of which three were away? And, this is our (equal) best start to a season since we returned from the Conference.

Many have already made their mind up, but as it currently stands; I would argue that this difficult early season was predictable. We have three home games in the next four. The opponents will test all our credentials; can we dispose of a lesser team like Wimbledon? Can we compete with a high flyer like Gillingham? And can we develop the resolve to compete with Rotherham? The next 18 days will tell us a lot more, I think.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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