Set up to fail?

Another defeat and another day creeping to the inevitable decision to let Chris Wilder go. In a sense it’ll be a relief just to allow the pent up frustration to be released. But, perhaps we should ask ourselves some exacting questions about how precisely we managed to get into this situation.

It’s been a pretty grim weekend, and one which has summed up our season. The poor form that resulted in the late draw with Morecambe and soul destroying defeat to Aldershot has perhaps reinforced the inevitable; that Chris Wilder’s position is all but untenable.

Some have adopted a nasty bullying approach to Chris Wilder, feeling that he has a moral responsibility to resign thereby risking his family’s financial security. Others, like me, would like his departure, if and when it comes, to be as painless and dignified as it can possibly be. He deserves that. My reading is that in all likelihood he will leave, quietly, at the end of the season rather than in a humiliating knee-jerk post-defeat sacking.

For some reason, people continue to ring into the Radio Oxford phone-in with the groundbreaking view that Wilder should step down. It staggers me that people consider their view to be so important and different to the thirty other people who have said precisely the same thing, that the county wants to hear their views. I think there’s a more involved argument to have about the problem the club faces. Wilder has so far proved himself to be a manager who can competently manage towards the top of League 2; his performance is broadly consistent with the budget he’s been given – a top 10 budget for a top 10 team. There’s currently little evidence that he has the ability to take the team much higher.

Some might argue with reason that Wilder appears to have become less able in the last year. It is possible to become less competent, I remember a couple of years ago playing tennis for the first time in over 10 years; my arms and legs simply wouldn’t move like they did before. My timing was all off and I spent the entire game chasing shadows. But that was because I hadn’t practiced. It seems strange, however, that Wilder has become less competent while still active within his profession.

If you look at the club in the last year it’s been one of significant upheaval; Jim Smith, Jim Rosenthal and Kelvin Thomas have all left, the strategy of signing fast and aiming big has come to an end amidst increasing financial prudence, there have been injuries and a combination of overuse and bad weather has meant the pitch is like a potato patch. Wilder is a constant, which suggests that it is not so much that Wilder’s competence has changed, more that the club has changed to a point that Wilder’s core strengths are no longer effective.

I’ve said before that Wilder excels in an aggressive proactive environment, one that is constantly moving forward. He has excelled at big one off games, and has pulled us out of desperate runs time after time. But we’re in a more conservative environment now; the pitch demands more direct Atkins-like football, we need to sign players who are less exciting but more likely to play 30-40 games. Our next manager may well need to be whorey old manager who will grind the results out.

The question that never gets asked is why are managers allowed to simply remain in position until their competences no longer suit the situation they’re in? It seems strange that clubs rely so heavily on one person for their success. In other businesses, competence is nurtured within a structure of mentoring and coaching. Wilder is 45, he’s been left to it as though he was a man with nothing more to learn. His only learning comes from being objective enough to assess his own performance based on mistakes he’s made. He’s been left to mark his own homework. Whereas in the early days Wilder had Thomas and Smith to work with, now he has nobody apart from Lenagan, who is juggling several jobs at once. This doesn’t make any sense; the further you progress, the more support, coaching and mentoring you need because you’re increasingly venturing into the unknown; as time has moved on, Wilder has been given less support.

What is infuriating is that winning promotion from League 2 is a known quantity; others have done it, Chris Wilder hasn’t done it. It seems peculiar that clubs don’t invest in their manager’s development by providing him with the opportunities to learn from those who have been there before. What successful company puts their key product, in the hands of one person and then leaves them to get on with it?

Some of this is down to the autocratic traditions of football management in Britain where clubs are frequently looking for a Clough or Ferguson. We call it the ‘managerial merry-go-round’ as if it’s the only way of doing things. In Europe, there’s a more formalised and corporate approach involving directors of football and succession planning.

It’s often said how many games Wilder goes to scouting and looking for players. Why is this a virtue? The hours of scouring the country will have an effect on him; he’ll be tired, it may even put strain on his home life, how does being tired and stressed help him turn a team from top 10 to top 3? If you want the manager to make good decisions, he needs to have a clear head and that means having people around him who can take the strain whether it’s scouting, coaching or assessing his performance.

It’s probably too late for Chris Wilder; a lack of support means recovering from his current predicament seems a bridge too far. But if we’re really looking for sustained success we’re going to have to work a lot harder to develop our managers into what we want them to become rather than hoping they might muddle their way to success.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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