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.

The rebirth of JP Pittman?

With two goals in two games, can JP Pittman succeed where so many have failed, and recover from Chris Wilder rejection to become a permanent fixture in his future plans?

Wilder’s three years in charge is strewn with the victims of his relentless focus on improvement. Chris Carruthers was an early victim, never one to do much wrong (or indeed, right), his Oxford career was finished (allegedly) when he took the last portion of pasta from the team canteen ahead of his manager.

Seems unlikely that this was the only reason, and his generally apathetic performances on the pitch support this view, but he wasn’t the only one to be swiftly sidelined from first team duties.

Luke Foster’s (again, alleged) problems were masked by some excellent performances in the first half of the 2009/10 season, but he was quickly despatched and Jake Wright brought in. After an initial wobble, Wright’s performances as a leader as much as a player, has proven Wilder’s instinct to be right.

Wright’s partner during much of that promotion campaign, Mark Creighton, was similarly shown the door at the point that his manager no longer saw him as part of the programme. Creighton fundamentally did nothing wrong, he just no longer fitted with the masterplan.

Creighton’s departure confronted a reality the club hadn’t experienced in more than a decade. We had actually achieved something and were therefore at the uncomfortable point where good players had to move on to make way for better players. Up to that point, achievements fell below expectations so players left with a general shrug of apathy from the fans. Now we were culling our own. 

If Creighton’s departure wasn’t controversial enough, the exit of Dannie Bulman – to my mind Wilder’s only real mistake in this sense – Jack Midson and Sam Deering were all the victims of Wilder’s cold logic. Harsh as this seems to footballing romanticists like you and I, in nearly all cases, and Bulman perhaps aside, we have progressed with each subsequent, ruthless, decision.

The swiftness with which Pittman arrived and then departed the club for Crawley suggested that something was seriously wrong. Nobody outside the training ground could honestly say they knew what that might be. The glib and meaningless assumption was that Wilder was simply victimising the poor boy. This is a favourite taunt of all football fans, the idea that ‘he doesn’t play him because he doesn’t fancy him’ is tautological. Why would a manager play someone he doesn’t like? His job is to decide which eleven players he likes the most every week. Pittman, evidently, wasn’t someone he wanted around at that time.

But with the mystery surrounding his exit, he instantly, became an enigma, a martyr that proved the  anti-Wilder brigade ‘right’. He was no longer able to take the club forward because he’d, in some way, lost it. One forum comment suggested that if Pitman was crap, then he should at least be able to prove it in a yellow shirt. Personally, if he’s crap, I think he should be given a Swindon shirt in which to prove it. Whatever the reason, he seemed destined to become nothing more than a footnote in a future edition of the Oxford United Miscellany.

His return, and goals against Crawley and then on Saturday in the demolition of Aldershot, is welcomed but should still be greeted with some caution. Although demonstrating some poetic justice with the goal against Crawley, he still has much to prove. A year ago Jack Midson led the line with a hat-trick against Torquay in the Miracle of Plainmoor, which rightly afforded him a brief reprieve from the knackers’ yard. But, despite tireless, though largely ineffectual performances (11 more appearances, 1 goal) his story had already been written and it was a mere stay of execution.

Wilder is right to be ruthless with players; such is the way with football, a manager’s contract is meaningless so he can be fired at any moment. A failed player can sit on the sidelines drawing a salary for months, years even, without ever having to prove himself. The manager has the right to protect his job and reputation. His use of the term ‘assets’ to describe players is also appropriate, that’s what the players have to be. He would be a weaker manager if he felt paternalistic towards his charges. Players are happy to sell themselves as assets when looking for a new contract, so they should also be happy to be used and sold as such.

So, can Pittman make turn his Oxford career around? Wilder is right when he asserts that his future is in his own hands. If he wants to play in front of 8-9,000 people and draw the adulation that comes with that, then he’s got to get past his manager first. His challenge, should he accept it, is to remove the option available to Wilder in overlooking him by working his arse off and being bloody brilliant.Two goals in two games helps.

Pittman’s Twitter persona paints him as a reasonable and thoughtful bloke, so hopefully he realises that success is in his gift. Unless he’s taken the last portion of pasta at training this morning, that is.

Photo by NobbyD, reproduced without kind permission, but he’s such a top bloke, I’m sure he won’t mind.

Oxford United 1 Aldershot 1

Real success typically comes at the end of the season; a cup win, league title or promotion giving you a whole summer to reflect in its glory. No such headspace is offered when you win a mid-season derby; instead you have to have to jam a summer’s worth of self-congratulations into a less than a week.

Inside the club, Chris Wilder’s interview on Yellow Player confirmed that there was a ‘good buzz’ around the club following the win over Swindon. He admitted, though, that the 3 points and ascent to 7th were a complete after thought.

To exacebate things, my own appraisal of the game was picked up by the Guardian who billed it as one of their ‘favourite things of the week’. Suddenly this site was awash with thousands of visitors. It’s fair to say, that this wasn’t a typical week.

It took me a few days to realise that there was a game on Saturday. I hadn’t really given it much thought; perhaps I assumed that the Football League would grant us special dispensation or something. Pre-match talk was of a heroes welcome, not another 3 points.

A pre-game splash of rain helped tone down the sense of occasion and the usually buoyant Aldershot fans – a shadow of the blaze of colour that came to the Kassam back in 2007 – forgot to bring their best drums, meaning the atmosphere was very League 2. Peter Rhodes-Brown couldn’t resist a couple of mentions of ‘Your Swindon heroes’ but the crowd didn’t rise to it too much. It seemed, at first, that despite everything, it was going to be business as usual. Like waking up from a massive night out only to find that you don’t have a hangover (albeit for the reason that you’re probably just still drunk).

We started the game comfortable and in control. They lost a player in a most irritating and benign way – bringing a player down is not exactly dangerous play and it’s only a goalscoring opportunity if Lewis Guy brings the ball bouncing 2 feet above his head under control. But hey, Constable scooped in the opener shortly afterwards and we looked set for a good afternoon.

But when we tried to step up a gear we couldn’t. It was like we had one of those illnesses in which you have a deep and indescribable tiredness. A form of footballing glandular fever.

Which is, perhaps, what we do have. Last year was a lot of fun, but we were caught out by teams more organised and savvy. This season there is more emphasis on assuring the midfield with McLaren sitting to provide a platform for Leven to make plays.

But, McLaren is three games back from injury, Leven just two. Both went from being the creative centre piece to virtually non-existent as game progressed. Whing, who was drafted to play the McLaren role when he eventually puffed off after an hour, really hasn’t found his mojo yet and looked leggy having had to chase McGlashen up and down the left wing. Our engine room was drained.

The trick of bringing on Batt and Potter to reignite some pace didn’t work, partly because the central midfield was gutted. Leven sprayed increasingly tired and speculative balls out to the flanks and everything fell flat. There was no time for a plan C.

It was disappointing, but far from the disaster that many said it was. Leven and McLaren will get sharper. Guy, who would be playing a couple of levels higher if he could score, will be replaced by Craddock. Although it would be good to have points on the board, sitting in 9th a point off the play-offs, away from the headwind of expectation that would be brought on by being higher up, it perhaps a good place to be at this time of year.

Aldershot 1 Yellows 2

In the twilight of your days, you will sit in front of an open log fire and children will sit at your feet looking at you longingly. If this is not illegal, they will be your grandchildren and they will ask you to tell the story, again, of The Miracle of Plainmoor.

As with all legends, you will embellish this story with every telling. You will tell of how Steve Maclean floated in mid-air, how the whole team was replaced after the originals were lost in the post and how Jack Midson recovered from a coma to win the game single handedly. Some of you will claim that you were playing in a holding role in midfield. Go on, admit it, you will. I will.

For the Miracle of Plainmoor to materialise, extraordinary things needed to happen. And that started with the 8 changes made by Chris Wilder. This, by accident or design created a world (or at least a game) where there was no expectation. There was no reference point (previous games, previous line-ups) by which we could judge the performance. All the pressure was off the players. As a result of creating this parallel universe, all the shackles of the season were released.

The genius of Chris Wilder?

This is not a stunt you can pull very often because to create an unreal world for the team to thrive in, you need a real world to continue to exist. If there was anywhere that a real world would exist it would be manifested in a trip to Aldershot. This is precisely the kind of game that would historically have brought us back down to earth. A win, regardless of how it was gained, shows that we seem to have shaken the panic that characterised November. The way we’re grinding out results in a gritty non-flamboyant way makes me think that we could actually be dark horses for the play-offs.

There. I’ve said it.

Yellows 0 Aldershot 1

Life is a constant struggle between idealism and pragmatism, should you aim to thrive through your art, or survive through results? This struggle is the pathway to madness, or perhaps oblivion, or nirvana. This is why you need philosophy.

The British frown on philosophy; or at least its articulation (everyone uses it every day). It’s a middle class folly, but we are a ruthless expansionist race, a small island with the 6th biggest economy on the planet. We’re results-driven pragmatists; our exploitation of industry, oppression of the commonwealth, and invention of get-rich-quick financial systems are testament to that. Our football is the product of our culture where results are admired over performances. This is our philosophy.

It is the same locally, Aldershot is a garrison town, where people are stripped of their freewill and personality in order to fight for a nebulous ‘cause’. Their football is similarly without personality; effective though it is. Is it ironic or illustrative that in their promotion year the Shots attack was lead by John Grant, a position now occupied by Marvin Morgan who was replaced by another big, black, athletic target man Spencer. Identikit strikers for a pragmatic solution.

So what is Oxford football? Difficult to say given that we’ve lost our way in the last decade. But Oxford is a seat of learning; a place that appreciates the power of intellect. It is a place, above all others, where a footballing philosophy should be allowed to develop.

It is a frustrating process; all art is. Sometimes its beautiful and effective, sometimes it leaves you cold. Saturday’s result and performance was exactly that.

It’s true that we need to find the code for our Alamo setting. On Saturday, we evolved from an expansive attacking unit into a bunch of strangers that became more iterative and less coherent. We abandoned any emergent philosophy in a tactical vacuum.

But this isn’t just vacuous twaddle. If you need any evidence that a football philosophy works, just look at our current world champions. Their current dominance is based on a philosophy almost half a century in the making. Spain’s World Cup is based on Barcelona’s football philosophy, which is an evolution (via Johan Cruyff) of Ajax’s Total Football concept. Rather than waiting for the perfect generation to chance upon each other once in a millennium, a philosophy provides a link from one generation to the next. Continued, long term success.

The importance of this philosophy is that it should last beyond Chris Wilder and James Constable and provide the backbone to success for decades to come.

Us 0 Grays 0, Aldershot 1 Us 0

In the round we are just about on the awful side of average. It would be difficult to describe us as totally inept. We gave Grays a game without ever threatening to beat them, we gave Aldershot a game without ever truly looking to disturb their promotion push. We’re like a decent sparring partner, but nothing like a contender.

The games are so drab they’re beyond analysis, it’s some relief that Darren Patterson’s swashbuckling in the transfer market has created some interest.

The decision to transfer list six players two weeks before the transfer window closed looked at best a risk, at worst foolhardy. But there’s no doubt that Patterson is not here to muck about. Out go Twigg, Corcoran, Robinson, Jeannin and Duffy in comes McCallister, Howard, Murray, Richards and Blackwood. It’s about time a manager cut the crap in this way.

Every player he’s brought in seems to be better than the players he’s let go; though admittedly none have yet been properly exposed to the United curse. It does make you question what Smith, Merry et al were up to in the summer. Twigg apart, everyone came in as triallists. One can only think that, hopefully, something else useful was occupying their time. The ground, for a whole manner of reasons, seems key to getting out of this mess. If they can produce the goods in that area, then Patterson’s work may eventually be rewarded.