When Oxford United appointed Chris Wilder I thought we’d given up. We’d tried the ‘been there, done that’ appointments (Atkins, Talbot), the emerging talent (Wright, Rix), the messiah (Jim Smith) and even the South American Alex Ferguson (Diaz). None had worked, and so in 2009, with finances biting, this nondescript appointment seemed like a sign we were hunkering down for a long dark winter of simply being a non-league club.
In fact, there was one recruitment tactic we hadn’t tried – advertising the role; applications, interviews, a selection criteria. Where his predecessors were heavily networked into the footballing establishment, Wilder was a hidden gem. He’d taken Halifax to the brink returning to the Football League against a backdrop of crippling financial problems, then working alongside Alan Knill at Bury to win them promotion. What he needed was a chance to get into the system; it came via Kelvin Thomas and Ian Lenagan and a dose of good practice.
Wilder’s first move was to create a siege mentality around the club; he declared Sam Deering – who broke his leg in his first game – to be our best player. Deering wasn’t, but the sense of injustice was galvanising. This was immediately followed by the revelation that the club was being deducted five points for not registering Eddie Hutchinson as a player. Hutchinson had been with the club for three years, but was on his way out and unregistered, then played due to injuries. It was a harsh punishment for an admin error, made all the worse by the fact we missed out on the play-offs by those five points. Wilder’s parting shot for the season was about his desire to get out of ‘this poxy league’ – the club and fans were as one on that.
Wilder’s ‘poxy league’ comment would be repeated countless time because it encapsulated both him as a person and the team he wanted to create – scratchy, awkward, aggressively ambitious and strangely relatable. Wilder knew we didn’t belong in the Conference, but he also knew getting out of it had to be earned.
The following season’s promotion will always be remembered as nothing but glorious, but it wasn’t without issues. Wilder was apoplectic at the apparent apathy after we’d raced to a 4-0 win over Chester in an unbeaten start to the season which saw us topping the table. He ranted about the club being backward looking, wallowing in its Milk Cup glory, much to the considerable chagrin of many fans – a rift that, for some, never healed.
He was right, we’d spent too long expecting a revival, like success would come from the push of a button – a different manager, new player or just some kind of natural justice. What was really needed was culture change, a reality check of who we were. The culture shift came in the form of players who would thrive in the environment, not freeze in it – Dannie Bulman, Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, Ryan Clarke, Jake Wright, James Constable. All players who shared a mindset, the relentless pursuit of success.
The coup de grace was the 3-1 win over York in the play-off final at Wembley. In many ways, a greater achievement than the Milk Cup Final win of 1986, certainly more important in terms of our survival as a club. It should have cemented Wilder as sitting alongside Jim Smith as one of the club’s great managers.
One of my lasting memories of that win was not so much the elation of winning, but the relief that Wilder’s efforts hadn’t gone unrewarded; in many ways the fear of failure, even when things were going well, drove him forward.
Back in the Football League, his elevated flight instinct – running away from failure – seemed to get the better of him. Fans interviewed coming out of Wembley were already talking about back-to-back promotions, so expectations were high. Wilder’s impatience to progress caused him to break up the promotion team – Jack Midson and Matt Green were loaned out, along with Mark Creighton and Dannie Bulman. The dumping of the heroes of Wembley – the spine of the team – didn’t do much for Wilder’s stock with the fans.
To some extent it killed our momentum, steadying the ship took time. The bi-product of the stall was a first league meeting with Swindon Town for 10 years the following season. It was perfect for Wilder; who got under the skin of the more celebrated Paolo DiCanio. A home and away double was as much about outfoxing DiCanio as it was a footballing victory.
The success wasn’t without collateral damage. A proposed move to Swindon for James Constable dragged on for much of that season, damaging the relationship between manager and his on-the-field talisman.
There was another win over Swindon the following season in the JPT Trophy, but after an underwhelming campaign, with promotion missed and financial constraints biting, Ian Lenagan presented a new vision for the club; of homegrown players leading the club’s future. There was a short term contract extension for Wilder, barely an endorsement. Wilder looked haunted, subservient to his owner’s will, constrained by a triple lock of promotion expectations, a falling budget and the burning platform of a short-term contract.
Time was running out; like many managers who have got teams promoted from the Conference Wilder remained a decent bet for any struggling team. Portsmouth were first to bite, and Lenagan barely blinked allowing him to speak to them, he didn’t get the job, but it was the clearest indication yet that Wilder wasn’t wanted.
Then Northampton came sniffing; they were bottom of the league and heading for the Conference, any manager would have been mad to take it on. But, for Wilder, it was perfect; an opportunity to get angry, invigorate and agitate, to shake them out of their slumber, no excuses. At Oxford, his fight had gone, he could please nobody. But also, things were running themselves, Wilder couldn’t be a hands-off manager strategically shaping the club, he needed a problem to solve. The impact was instant; Wilder sparked an astonishing revival, they went into the final game of the season within a win of saving themselves from relegation. Their opponents? Oxford United.
It goes without saying that Northampton swept to safety with a 3-1 win, it was such a Wilder thing to do.
As Wilder steadied Northampton, Michael Appleton arrived to transform Oxford. Appleton was the anti-Wilder – a theoretician and strategist – process, not results. Very modern.
Over the next year Appleton remodelled the he inherited from Wilder; jettisoning many of his players. Ryan Clarke, Alfie Potter and Danny Rose all eventually reconnected Wilder with his Oxford past.
With both managers battleplans fully in place; 2015/16 put Wilder’s resurgent Northampton side in direct opposition to his previous club. For once, we were the progressive modern affectation, they were the rugged survivors. The Cobblers task made all the more difficult in a backdrop of implied corruption and near bankruptcy. No Oxford fan would trade Michael Appleton, but it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Wilder rounded on those who were putting the club in jeopardy, imploring them to accept an offer for the club from his former Oxford boss Kelvin Thomas.
Thomas eventually took over, and Wilder took Northampton on a long undefeated streak to the top of the league. We weren’t doing bad ourselves, but were burdened by cup runs in the JPT and FA Cup. While we took plaudits from the media, they streaked to the title, inflicting a typically Wilder-esque defeat at the Kassam in February. We secured the second promotion spot, with Michael Appleton claiming we were the best footballing team in the division. Wilder raged, but it showed the difference between the two managers – Appleton the scientist and theoretician, Wilder, a results man through and through.
Inevitably, Wilder’s success brought the attention of others, and finally a club he couldn’t resist – Sheffield United. There’d been talk, even at Oxford, about how they just had to ask and Wilder would go, but now was his opportunity. Like his two previous clubs, The Blades needed organising, shaking out of their slumber; perfect for Wilder. The only question was whether he could scale his skills to a club of their size.
Yes. He took them to the League 1 title in his first season, swatting us out the way, yet again. Mirroring his Northampton days; he acquired Oxford captain Jake Wright. Following a period of consolidation in The Championship, George Baldock and Jon Lundstram – a chunk of the best footballing team in League 2 were now gunning for the Premier League. Marvin Johnson was added, albeit on loan and not really playing.
While it is likely that maybe only Baldock will expect to play in the Premier League, it is telling that no less than four former Michael Appleton players were in Wilder’s promotion squad. Appleton found the players, Wilder got them winning. If there wasn’t animosity between the two of them, they’d probably be a dream team.
So, Wilder is now one of the elite managers in the country, fourth or fifth in line for the England job, you might argue. Weirdly, the Premier League might suit him. Nobody will fancy his team to stay up so he’ll have plenty to rail against, he can create the siege mentality and rage against the uneven playing field as he did in his first season with us in the Conference, he can get under the skin of the suave European managers like he did with Paolo DiCanio.
And yet, his time at Oxford, which started it all has left a stain with all parties. You only have to see Wilder celebrating promotion; middle aged spread, a weak lager in his hand frothing over to tell you everything you need to know about how Oxford fans should feel towards him. Should we be proud of what he’s achieved, and wish him well in the future? Yes. Is he a bit of a tit? Yes also. When it comes to Oxford’s relationship with Wilder, that’s probably about as good as it will get.