The title of this post has a very deliberate question mark at the end. Only time will tell how Chris Wilder is remembered, in the coldness of his immediate departure it probably seems a ludicrous idea that he might be considered amongst the greats. But, is it?
There’s an old trick in music journalism. When describing someone’s music you list three comparable acts, the first two are easily recognisable, the third should be completely obscure. So you might say something like; ‘with a sound that is a cross between The Artic Monkeys, The Stone Roses, and Herbert’s Juniper Cello.’ The first two are for the benefit of the reader, the third gives credibility to the journalist.
So when talking about Oxford United’s greatest manager, expect someone to offer the name Arthur Turner. To know Turner’s achievements is to reveal either a grand old age, or a credibility enhancing deep knowledge of our history. His achievements may have been greater than all those who followed, but I wasn’t alive when he was manager, so, when considering our greatest ever manager, I’m not going to count him.
At last count, we’ve had 26 managers since I’ve been a ‘proper’ Oxford fan – that is since I’ve consciously considered them to be my team. This includes 6 caretakers and a few repeat offenders (Jim Smith, Denis Smith and Darren Patterson). Just four have won anything; the Smiths, Jim and Denis, Maurice Evans and Chris Wilder. I have a soft spot for Ian Greaves, but when talking about the best of that vast batch, it’s difficult to include anyone who simply did a decent job.
Maurice Evans, of course, was the steward for our greatest ever achievement; the Milk Cup in 1986. That success was tempered by the fact the team he did it with was constructed by the man on the opposite bench, Jim Smith. Only Ray Houghton was an Evans addition. In support of his greatness, he also kept us in the First Division, which was no mean feat, and whilst it was always a struggle, this included an often forgotten League Cup Semi-Final in 1989.
Evans’ success as a manager reinforces just how important he was in the success of Jim Smith. Smith is the default greatest ever manager in most debates, and for good reasons; he jettisoned us from obscurity to the big time with two titles. The only manager, during my lifetime, to actually get us promoted as champions, and he did it in consecutive years.
Smith blotted his copybook a little with his heavy handed return in 2006. There were some mitigating factors; we were in a desperate slide and at 66 he wasn’t at his sharpest. It was a case of heart ruling head. What it also revealed was how much Smith thrived when supported by an able assistant – which in the main he wasn’t during his second spell. Maurice Evans played that role in the glory years, finding the likes John Aldridge. Later in his career Smith had some more success with Derby, where he was supported by Steve McLaren who despite some ridicule still coached Manchester United’s treble team of 1999, took Middlesborugh to a UEFA cup final, managed England and took FC Twente to a Dutch title.
Smith, first time around, was also funded by Robert Maxwell. Although this didn’t offer Abramovich levels of largess, it wasn’t inconsiderable in the impoverished world of 80’s football. There’s no doubt that Smith’s successes were significant, but we shouldn’t ignore the favourable environment he was in.
The same can’t be said for Denis Smith who took over the club while it was in happy stagnation. Smith’s predecessor; Brian Horton, has passed into legend with the almost ubiquitous London Road chant of the time ‘Horton Out’.
Smith’s arrival came at a time when the fans’ expectations and the club’s capability fell out of line. We expected to be higher than we were able to be. Maxwell died in 1991 taking with him the finances that had sustained our success. The club were regressing back to its normal state of being a plucky, if small, club.
Although he ultimately failed, Smith made a decent fist of trying to keep us in the Division 1 when he arrived in 1994. He sustained the feel-good factor for the first half of the following season before we fell away. In 1995 the hangover of the previous season seemed to be hanging heavy and we chugged on unremarkably. But, Smith had assembled a strong team with Whitehead, Elliot, Gilchrist, Moody and Beauchamp amongst others. He may well have lost his job and with it gained the obscurity others have since enjoyed, but eventually things began to click leading to a late run and promotion at the end of that season. Smith sustained the progress of the club as its finances fell apart, but jumped ship for West Brom in 1997.
The occassionally patchy form, inflated expectations, Smith’s prodigious ego (reminding people that he was being considered for the England job) and nature of his departure means that he wasn’t that well liked, but he did a pretty decent job all things considered.
Where does Chris Wilder feature in this debate? He’s more like Denis Smith than Jim Smith in that he managed the club in largey unfavourable times. Wilder took over when we were demonstrably going backwards. He built a key partnership with Kelvin Thomas, but things didn’t look good. At least Denis Smith took us over when we were standing still and still had the fast-failing glow of Premier League football in our arsenal.
Wilder changed the club completely, using its strength – it’s size and history to its advantage whereas previously it had been a millstone. While he didn’t sign them all, he had players that thrived on being the big boys in town; Murray, Midson, Green, Turley, Creighton.
Despite criticism that he couldn’t manage strikers, he managed to switch on James Constable, which gave us the first genuine Oxford hero in a generation.
Above all, Wilder gave us memories. Wembley, of course. Swindon, three times. The play-off semi-final against Rushden, the last minute against York and Wrexham, Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale, Tom Craddock’s last minute winner against the same team and the 4-1 win over Portsmouth.
I don’t buy the idea that Wilder didn’t achieve enough in the time he had at the club. Had he achieved more, then he would have left much earlier than he did because he would have been plucked by a larger team with more finances. In the end, he achieved what he achieved. It is not necessarily the ratio of success to duration that should define his achievements; it is the quality of the memories he left behind.
The frustrations around Wilder more recently will fade in time, what I hope will be left are these memories. For me, one of my strongest lasting memories is perhaps a strange one. After our win over Swindon at home, I headed back to quiet domesticity at home by walking the children into town to buy some books. The adrenaline was still pumping, my ears were ringing and the memory still burned brightly. The sun came our and shone gently on my cheek. It gave me a momentary flashback to playing in the garden after a day watching the FA Cup final as a child. Those FA Cup final days are one of my happiest memories. They were revitalised, in a form, by Wilder decades later.
I think his time in charge represents a golden age for the club. He is, at least, on a par with Denis Smith in terms of greatness. I could easily argue that he’s offered more in terms of the sheer volume of good times.
Jim Smith and Maurice Evans’ successes were both greater in terms of stature, but both were given the envinronment to achieve what they did. Chris Wilder had to turn a ship around before he could make it progress; a big lumbering, rusting ship. Promotion from the Conference is the narrowest of windows, so there was little room for error, and he still got us up. As big an achievement as any I’ve seen.
Is he the best? Difficult to say. It will take a lot to topple Jim Smith but we would be wrong to dismiss Wilder as a credible challenger to that crown.