The win against Gillingham surprised everyone, but it didn’t spark a renewed optimism amongst Oxford fans. We’re now 11th, but nobody is expecting a run at the play-offs. Our form seems to be returning, but most expect it to slip away again. Even if the football is improving, the mood isn’t; is there an argument for keeping Chris Wilder?
A dark veil has gently descended over Oxford United and specifically Chris Wilder. It started last year with the most vehement reactionaries screaming for the sacking of the manager after every home draw. Any tabloid journalist will tell you that if you react hard enough often enough, that you’ll eventually be right about something; but that doesn’t mean we should praise the supposed foresight of extremists. More moderate and thoughtful fans recognised what Wilder had quite a lot of credit banked with his achievements for the club.
Time was needed, and stability, there were mitigating factors such as injuries, financial constraints and the pitch. Plus, it’s a long season and all things being even results should improve. The assumption was that the severity of the injury crisis couldn’t continue forever and eventually there would be a period of stability where we could judge Wilder’s merits and abilities. Things got worse; the spine of the team was desecrated and almost every new injury seemed to come with the news that the player concerned would be out for the season.
Gradually, the darkness has engulfed more and more people and it seems now that almost everyone takes the view that Wilder’s time has come. The pedestrian draw on Saturday was met with grudging acceptance that the season, perhaps even our long term ambitions, were over. Of course, then, on Tuesday the team surprised everyone with the win at Gillingham, the third year in a row in which we’ve beaten the league leaders away from home.
Some have reacted by saying that the result is almost the exception that proves the rule. The ‘rule’ being that Wilder is incompetent. It doesn’t; it proves that Wilder is not a spent force. He’s far from perfect, but you don’t become the 7th longest serving manager in the league through without having some ability.
Following Tuesday’s result, we’re only one position lower than we finished last year. While the play-offs seem as distant a prospect as they’ve been all season, the football argument for replacing Chris Wilder is slightly more open than most will countenance.
However, the Wilder-out argument with the most credence is the economic one. We’re the 7th best away team in the league; another argument for keeping him on. But most supporters don’t see us away and at home we are lacking in confidence and quality; the pitch is sapping the legs of the likes of Rigg and Potter, the ensuing trench warfare either neutralises the game to the point of tedium or it gives the away team an advantage. Week after week of the same is dispiriting; for the players and the fans. The tide of vacant blue seats rises with each game.
The result is that crowds have dropped. Revenues are only being propped up by season tickets purchased in brighter times last season. Come renewal time, with precious little about the new season to look forward to, many more are likely to take a wait and see approach to next season’s involvement. From a customer perspective, with a product promising little, it seems better to keep a little cash in the bank than to commit to a year of disapointment.
The promise of new signings might make a difference, but the prospect of that seems unlikely. More likely is the mass departure of big wage earners replaced by less remarkable names. This may not be a bad thing; better to have moderate to good players playing than good to great players in the treatment room. However, a slew signings that might stimulate a surge of season ticket sales seems unlikely. The other option is to fire the manager to stimulate something.
This will undoubtedly trigger a flurry of interest – one of the most noticeable things about the amount of Twitter traffic during the win over Gillingham was the fact there wasn’t any – we stared at each other like an old married couple on Valentine’s Day sitting silently in a restaurant hoping no one suggests rounding the night off with some passionless rutting. A vacant manager’s seat will get us chattering again, but the malaise digs much deeper, if Lenagan does indeed ‘grow some’ and fire Wilder is this decisive act really going to jolt us into buying season tickets?
I doubt it. I also doubt that any replacement will be thrilling enough to trick us into immediate renewed optimism. But, on the other hand, it seems a better option than doing nothing and drifting helplessly towards the precipice. I’m a bit tired of the brief dawns of hope that come with wins like the one on Tuesday, and, although my head says that we should stay rational; I still think a new chairman is needed to galvanise and lead the club, a growing part of me says we should just give in and pull the trigger just to get the job out the way, and let’s move onto something else, whatever that may be.