Hang on, this is starting to sound very familiar…
I remember it as if it were yesterday; Paul McCarthy and Andy Crosby; tree-people with feet like they were encased in concrete, swinging away hopelessly at the ball as though they were trying to kick a panicked buttered piglet. There they were flailing six feet from their own goal while debutant keeper Simon Cox watched with the horror that a child might have if his otherwise dependable and reliable parents had consumed large numbers of hallucinogenic narcotics and were masturbating in the kitchen.
We were playing Doncaster Rovers who were top of the league and what we were watching – wincing at – was Oxford United’s new more enlightened philosophy. This was a passing game forged on the chalkboards of Ajax of Amsterdam and globalised as ‘the right way’ through the messianic qualities of Johan Cruyff. Total football, sexy football – playing it from the back, on the floor, a style that would become rebranded for the Opta generation as tika-taka.
This was a statement of intent from our new manager, a wiry bubble haired ex-winger turned sex-offender called Graham Rix. The luddite dark ages of the previous manager, Ian Atkins, were over, Rix – one of Europe’s most promising coaches, as Kassam would read verbatim from the manager’s carefully crafted CV – was here to introduce us to the light.
Binmen doing ballet, shot-putters lacemaking, the analogies of the early days of Graham Rix’s reign are nigh on endless. Keyhole surgery with a crossbow, there’s another one. Out on the wing, looking like a frightened kitten who had just been promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer was Courtney Pitt. This was Rix’s marquee signing; a tricky winger who would dazzle all those in front of him. He would be supplying the crosses that would harvest a hatful of goals while, in his wake, defenders untangled each others’ legs as though tending to the dead and dying on a First World War battlefield.
It was horrible, terrifying and completely unnecessary. Under Atkins we had charged from the blocks in 2003/4 like a North Korean dictator sensing treachery before breakfast; topping the table at Christmas and beyond. We were undone 4-2 in mid-January – only our second defeat of the season – in an early promotion selection at Hull before hitting a patch of troubling form which saw us into and then out of the play-off spots. The Atkins philosophy was of single minded belligerence, a triumph of science and rationalism over art and inspiration, and he had faith – nay, he had calculated, that by following his template our form would eventually return. And there was a suggestion that he was right; after six games without a win we squeezed out a 1-0 win over Cheltenham.
But, rumours began flying around before the game which only grew after. Things were afoot; Atkins had become frustrated with his owner and particularly his reluctance to extend the manager’s contract. The lack of trust stretched the patience of both sides. He would also, later, claim frustrations with a lack of quality signings, especially when Rix started the following season with Lee Bradbury, Tommy Mooney and Craig Davies amongst his number. Atkins cited a need to protect his family and pay his mortgage. When Bristol Rovers came sniffing around; Atkins took the opportunity to jump.
Sounds familiar? No, it’s not familiar, it’s allegorical, it’s prophetical, it’s a parable. A story from the past that teaches us things about the future. The Chris Wilder story is simply a re-run of the Ian Atkins story. And while it is nearly impossible to control the will of an individual and their decision to seek financial and job security elsewhere, we can definitely learn from what happened afterwards.
Firoz Kassam and Ian Atkins were at loggerheads, the fans weren’t particularly thrilled by the product on the pitch, but we were on the cusp of a play-off place with a style which was prosaic but effective. More importantly we had players designed for a particular job; deep sea trawlermen not sushi chefs (that’s another one, but notably less good than before).
The Rix philosophy was completely at odds with that of Atkins. But, it played to Kassam’s fantasy of having a team to be proud of which would sweep all in front of them with panache and grace. Qualities of which Kassam himself held little. Kassam’s core belief is that people are capital that can be changed at will. What Rix tried to introduce in style would be completely eclipsed by a profound lack of substance. We would take just six points from a possible 27 – three of which were from the last game of the season when all was lost – we finished the season with a whimper some way outside the play-offs.
Speculation surrounds Chris Wilder’s replacement. Martin Allen and Paolo Di Canio have been mentioned. In the main, they’re favourites because they’re free and famous. As someone more eloquent about ways of the book said; the book is small, any sizable bet will swing the odds wildly at the moment. It seems pretty fanciful that either would be considered.
But, if Oxford were even tempted – both managers have done what we want to achieve in recent years – then they’d do well to take heed from the Rix Parable. Allen and Di Canio are narcissists, their ‘own men’, they are likely to want to change things to their image. Introduce a new style, sweep away any remaining fragments of the Wilderian era. As dry as that philosophy became, players will be forced to change to something else or risk being moved along. Ryan Clarke, James Constable and others are Wilder’s men and therefore prime targets for being shipped out, just to do little more than prove a point, to ‘own’ the space that Wilder recently occupied.
Thankfully, I can’t imagine someone like Ian Lenagan, with his dry, calculated approach, finding these characters appealing. Remember after the Swindon win at the Kassam, with adrenaline coursing through every sinew, the greatest compliment he could pay Chris Wilder was that ‘he understood budgets’. But, if he is ever tempted by the likes of Allen or DiCanio he must remember; we’re not broke, we don’t need fixing, we just need managing. Rix’s failure to realise that from day one killed us stone dead that season, he was gone the next, and it has taken us 10 years to get that close to promotion again.