The toughest in the infants

The win over Dagenham saw both sides of our season; a team in good, perhaps, dominant form but one which had to battle to get a result. It’s a timely reminder that quality is not always enough. Perhaps it’s this regular dose of realism that is keeping this team on track.

During a rare rendition of “Chris Wilder m’Lord” from the East Stand, the manager put his hands above his head and clapped his appreciation vigorously. It was a rare moment when the manager broke free from his sometimes scratchy external self to reveal a warmer, connected side. A bit like his knee slide at Wembley, or the three-finger salute of triumph after the JPT win over Swindon, or the blood curdling scream of frustration after one of our draws during the promotion season – a clip seemingly now lost to YouTube.

Wilder is a fractious, guarded, character. Not a nasty person, someone who wants to please, but won’t bask in it if he does. He’s an introvert; not shy, but internally aware. Being a football manager must do that to you; you’re not a fan who is free to make irrational irregular judgements, you’re not a player enjoying an extended childhood with all the freedoms that offers, you’re not the owner or the board, who can do anything you please. It’s a lonely experience; you’ve got to connect and earn the respect of all three parties, but stay distant and objective at all times. If you become indulgent in the role; like Paolo DiCanio, then you’re more likely to rub people up the wrong way.

The reason Wilder acted in such a comparatively emotional way to the song was that it effectively represented a welcome back. It was the first time he’d been on the touchline at home since the Portsmouth story broke, and his name being sung was the fans appreciating what he’s done for the club and also, most maturely, that they understood his reasoning behind talking to Pompey. In short, we were ‘tight’ and Wilder appreciated being welcomed back so warmly.

It was only a couple of weeks ago, before one of our home games, that while sitting in second place, someone on the radio was talking about Wilder needing to be replaced. Because; she said, the players need to understand that it’s the home crowd that pays their wages (as if the team somehow decide to perform poorly as home to spite fans). The Wilderout lobby remains like a sleeper cell. There’s no evidence of its activities; but you know it’s there somewhere. It’s a cowardly position to take, 95% of manager’s leave under some kind of cloud – which means the Wilderout campaigners know that ultimately they will be proved ‘right’ in saying he should go. The other 4% of the time, the manager will go step up a level – proof, to the campaigners, of a lack of loyalty. 1% of the time it’s all mutual and good natured. If you believe in Wilderout then you are a coward, there’s no bravery in supporting something you know will almost certainly happen at some point in some undetermined time. Bravery comes from backing him, even when it feels like you shouldn’t.

Wilderout still lingers, along with our still questionable home form and the tightness of the league – something which the doubting media seem intent on reminding everyone of as though we’re lucky to be top of the pile. However, this may be a healthy thing. Over the years we’ve been tended to be good for about half a season. Generally speaking that’s been until Christmas before falling away, occasionally it’s been average in the first half followed by a drive for success. We haven’t had a full season of relentless, title winning, success for nearly 30 years. Malcolm Shotton, Denis Smith, Ian Atkins, Jim Smith and Chris Wilder have all felt the pain of a team that historically chokes. It’s not a manager or player specific thing; it’s a club thing. It’s an ‘us’ thing.

Perhaps, as a club, we’re so desperate to see a repeat of the spectacular successes of the mid-80s – either because you were there, or you weren’t and people (like me) keep going on about it. As soon as we see something resembling success we believe this is it. It’s like seeing pictures of Jesus burnt into your toast; you’re so desperate to see a sign, you over-interpret what you see.

This season, nobody can comfortably say this yet feels like a title winning season. Of course, we’ve kept the points ticking over; which has kept us top of the table. At home, it doesn’t fell much different to last year. The natives are not yet excitable for a trophy come May; and the radicals are still campaigning, quietly, for the removal of our most successful manager in nearly 20 years. The  ‘normal state’ remains, which is good for our prospects in the long term. When we get excitable and emotional, that’s when things, invariably, go wrong.    

The muted response to the ‘boring’ FA Cup draw to Charlton is one case in point. It is not so much that it was boring; more that it wasn’t big enough to be a distraction. There’s no doubt that we’ll take a good number and we’ll be hopeful of a win. But there’s no belief that the fixture represents some kind of arrival, there’s work still to be done. That’s a very healthy position for us to be in.

This is particularly important for the fans; we’re the ones who set the tone and create the expectation. If we’re workmanlike then so are the players. If we expect success, then we risk the players getting a sense that we have already achieved. That’s when the effort drops just enough to make a difference. It helps, perhaps, to have the polarised squad we have, a group of seasoned senior pros who understand the need to remain patient, balanced and hard working, and a group of juniors who don’t know any differently. I can see why Ian Lenagan is reluctant to add to the squad with panic loan signings; we don’t need the addition of jaded players, disillusioned and tired of the system, just looking for a break.

Saturday spoke volumes for the season. Yes, undoubtedly the best team, playing some of the best football we’ve seen at the Kassam for years, but still a struggle to pull a result out of the bag. A sage lesson.

But beware, Juggernaut January is coming. Such a juggernaut it starts in December, Boxing Day – Plymouth is deliberately not a business as usual fixture – but remember Woking. Then Charlton, Portsmouth, Wycombe – unusual games because of their comparative scale. If we do come out of January unscathed, psychologically, maybe we can begin to start planning the end game of the title.  

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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