Last month, the club publicly pledged its eternal allegiance to the King of Thailand, and everyone thought that was a Very Normal Thing To Do. GLS take these things seriously, so today’s news is dedicated to our new leader.
It’s all going off in non-playing substitute news this week. Tyler Roberts was keeping his snood game strong on the bench for Wales as they got mullered by Hungary. Half of the Oxford United Jedward, Mark Sykes has experienced the joy of wearing a fluorescent tabard after making the bench for Northern Ireland’s Euro qualifier win over Belarus. Gavin Whyte; Sykes’ partner in disposable pop-crime didn’t make the bench and was left in the stands Googling ‘obscenity laws, nottingham’.
KRob’s search for players continues having taken his wife on a hot date to the Toulon Tournament. She tweeted a shot of them looking out across a spartan stadium readying themselves for the semi-final tie between Brazil and the Republic of Ireland.
Giddy fans implored KRob to pull one out of the bag and sign one of the samba stars of the future. But, KRob’s recruitment strategy is taken directly from Henry Ford’s principle of having any colour of car as long as it’s black. Or, in KRob’s case, we can have any player as long as they’re Irish, so we’re only going to get a starlet with a famous Brazilian name if The Republic have Diarmuid O’Pele or Eamonn O’Zico in their ranks.
Friday 14 June 2019
KRob’s admitted defeat in Curtis Nelson signing a new contract. It seems humiliatingly stripping him of the captaincy, giving it to a player with less than 5 games experience, and then preventing him from wearing the armband even for a few minutes at the end of any game has not motivated Nelson to sign. Go figure. He’s looking for a move to the Championship, or at least teams look like they should be in the Championship but are a bit too shambolic to actually be there. Like Sunderland.
Saturday 15 June 2019
The weekend has been a barron wasteland of news, so we end the week pretty much where we started. All eyes will be on the benches of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in USA, Jamaica and Costa Rica (basically, anywhere that’s happy to host a game). This is the international tournament for countries with the best holiday destinations. Jonte Angle Smith is lining up (for the national anthems, before sitting on the bench) for Bermuda in their game against Haiti on Sunday while Gino van Kessel’s Curaçao start their bid to avoid humiliation against El Salvador on Tuesday.
And in other news, Zebroski doesn’t have Twitter anymore.
Monday 3 June 2019
The club used Josh ‘Ruffles’ Ruffels to reveal next season’s home kit; thereby labelling him the player good enough to get game-time next season, but not good enough to be sold before August. According to the Puma marketing drones, the design includes a sublimated flux, which is either the faulty component of the Delorean in Back to the Future or the unintended consequence of consuming a jar full of pickled cucumbers.
John Mousinho may be about to follow his dad Jose into management as KRob has told him that he won’t play much next season despite an appearance related contract extension. That’s like doing your marriage vows then leaning across to your beloved and whispering ‘that’s all just a figure of speech, right?’ KRob would like to offer Mousinho the opportunity to become a player-coach, or as he’ll be known ‘a coach’, or to use its technical term; cone management technician.
Friday 9 June
Grab a spatula, this news barrel won’t scrape itself. The club’s Head of Star Jumps Chris Short has signed a new contract for next season. Short, who is as handsome and rugged as Bear Grylls’ arsehole, is credited with improving the team’s fitness leading to a slew of 94th minute winners in the closing weeks of the season. He’ll be working on improving the other 93 when the players get back together in a few weeks.
Saturday 8 June
We’re assuming it was due to the relentless jumping about in silver drainpipes and orange winklepickers, but the Oxford United Jedward Gavin Sykes and Mark Whyte, or whatever, were split up for Northern Ireland’s game against Estonia. Whyte – who Sky reckoned is now worth £4 million – made his first competitive start for the national team in their 2-1 win whereas Sykes didn’t make the bench.
As they say in Game of Thrones; The North Remembers, unfortunately the south forgets. In the hullabaloo about new contracts and released players last week, the name T’ony McMahon was completely overlooked. The whippet worrying full-back remains on our books despite spending a good chunk of the year on loan at Scunthorpe who he helped steer to a comfortable relegation spot last season. KRob doesn’t expect him to return south next year; he doesn’t want to take a “bad signing and make it into a good signing.”; applying his trademark bewildering logic. Some would argue he spent a decent part of last season achieving the exact opposite. Not us, though, not us.
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; so we can say with a degree of confidence that nobody killed Robbie Cundy during his time at the Kassam. With his career solidly rooted in a single Oxford United appearance against Dagenham and Redbridge in the JPT in 2015, Cundy dropped out of the Football League in 2017 eventually joining Bath City. As a result of his performances as The Romans’ Jake Wright to their Ryan Clarke, who also happens to be the actual Ryan Clarke, Bristol City have signed him up on a two-year contract.
Johnny Mullins has retired. Mullins was part of the promotion winning team of 2016 before leaving for Luton Town. He was at Cheltenham Town last season, but has chosen to jack it all in. Mullins was known as as The Magnet because he twice scored from a corner in 127 games. At approximately 5 corners a game, that’s a magnetism of 0.2%. Coincidentally, he also has an excellent, if slightly pricey range of kitchens.
KRob has spoken. Let’s face it this is not an unusual thing, he seems to have spoken continuously since the end of the season. So much so that it’s possible he’s still standing pitchside at Kenilworth Road speaking to an increasingly weary Nathan Cooper. That’s probably not true, although it’s exactly the kind of thing he’d do, isn’t it? His latest ejaculation focuses on his wish list for next season. Nothing remarkable about the list, although he did mention that he was hoping to bring back Wonderfoot Luke Garbutt and ban-magnet Ahmed Kashi and the sloth in the box, Jerome Sinclair.
Saturday 18 May 2019
It’s theday that the whole nation stops, gathers together around the TV set and watches a great annual institution play out in front of them. As well as Eurovision, it’s also the FA Cup final. It’s Watford’s first appearance since 1984 when they were captained by former Oxford United player and now Youth Team Officer Les Taylor. You can read him banging on about it like your drunk uncle here.
Our week closes with the news that conscientious objector Callum O’Dowda has joined us the the Republic of Ireland squad. Nothing unusual about that except he hasn’t played for Bristol City since March due to a mystery injury. Always a highly principled young man, O’Dowda and his medical team have searched for a diagnosis. It appears that it could be suffering from a broken contract resulting from an inflated ego with a number of Championship and Premier League teams interested in his signature. All very treatable if you apply a great pile of money to it.
A goalkeeper who saved his team more times than any other player is ironically most well known for dropping the ball into his own net with the score at 2-0. Clarke went on to play more than 200 times for the club before moving to Northampton Town. His career stalled a bit and he failed to make a single appearance, later admitting to depression. After a brief spell at Wimbledon he moved to Eastleigh and Torquay and is currently at Bath City.
Signed midway through the season to replace Luke Foster, Wright evolved into a formidable centre-back and leader. Wright steered the club through the League 2 years and into the Appleton era where he captained the team to promotion in 2016. He signed for Sheffield United, rejoining Chris Wilder during that summer and promptly won promotion with them to The Championship.
A sanguine full-back signed in the January before the play-off final. Tonkin drifted out of the team after promotion, but had a moment in the sun against Swindon Town. In 2012 he moved to Aldershot Town before moving onto Frome Town. A business graduate, he had a sideline as a property developer during his playing days. He became a Financial Advisor on retiring before becoming a Quantity Surveyor.
Bulman was signed at the start of the promotion season after leaving Crawley Town. He had already played over 350 games for Wycombe, Stevenage and Crawley. Bulman was quickly moved on back to Crawley following promotion; Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake. After that he moves to Wimbledon where he was the Football League’s oldest player in 2018. Currently back at Crawley.
A player with a deft touch and great poise; Midson was another player who undeservedly was moved out of the club by Chris Wilder following promotion. He eventually settled with Wimbledon, taking them back to the Football League and having the honour of scoring against the Dons’ nemesis MK Dons. Following a number of moves he became assistant manager at Concord Rangers. He’s also a director of M&M Sports Coaching with his team mate Sammy Moore. Recently appointed manager at Hemel Hempstead Town.
A bona fide club legend. Constable scored over 100 goals and just one short of the club’s goalscoring record left for Eastleigh. After four years he moved to Poole Town one loan, recently announcing his semi-retirement and became a patron of Oxford United in the Community. Left Eastleigh permanently in May 2019.
A peculiar career which started at Cardiff, he had a brief loan spell at Oxford before controversially moving to Torquay. He came back in 2010 and became part of a formidable three pronged attack. Another player who was moved on a little too quickly, in 2013 he scored a bucketload at Mansfield earning him a move to The Championship and Birmingham City. Injury stalled his career and he moved back to Mansfield before moving to Lincoln and Salford.
A character and a dying breed, Turley lost his place to Ryan Clarke at the beginning of the season. He was released immediately after the final before spending some time at Brackley Town.
An early Chris Wilder Signing, he lost his place to Anthony Tonkin at Christmas. Released after the final he went to Mansfield before drifting around the non-league and disappearing.
Potter came on to score the iconic third goal at Wembley. He played on until 2015 enjoying moments in the sun such as a winner over Swindon and a leading part in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth. Joined Chris Wilder at Northampton in 2015 before moving to Mansfield and Billericay Town.
A diminutive forward who set up Alfie Potter for the third goal. Deering drifted in and out of the team until 2011 before moving to Barnet. Enjoyed an FA Cup giant killing with Whitehawk before ending up at Billericay.
Manager: Chris Wilder
Battled on with the club until everyone forgot what a remarkable job he had done. Left acrimoniously in 2014 for Northampton who were, at the time, bottom of League 2. He saved them by beating us on the last game of the season. He followed it up by winning the title while we came second. Shortly after, he moved to Sheffield United where he won promotion to the Championship and then, in 2019, The Premier League.
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.
The return of Chris Wilder to the Kassam was being billed by some as the game in which new-era Oxford would sweep away his new charges with a dazzling display of pace and passing. In return, it was assumed, Wilder would – in a fashion typical of the man – launch the ball forward in the vein hope of snatching a goal before defending for grim death. More important than a win, we were going to prove a philosophical point.
Those, like me, who supported Chris Wilder throughout his time at the club and will continue to defend his legacy are labelled as living in the past, as hankering for a time that never truly existed.
This is unfair, any support for Wilder is not revisionism, there were games during his time which left me giddy with adrenaline, feelings an adult male deadened by life’s trudge are no longer supposed to feel. Before yesterday’s game I was trying to think of Wilder’s top 10 Oxford moments and got to 17 candidates before giving up; everything from Wembley to my favourite moment; the last minute goal against Wrexham in 2009. Most of the Kassam Stadium’s greatest moments have been under Wilder with perhaps only Louis Jefferson’s goal against Swindon threatening to break the hegemony.
Being featured in great moments at the Kassam might feel like winning the world’s tallest dwarf competition, so beyond that, aside from Denis Smith’s half-season aberration 19 years ago, which lead to a thrilling last ditch promotion via wins over Swindon and Wycombe, you have to go back to THOSE years in the mid-eighties for anything to compare to the period under Wilder.
Nor is it a pining for his return, I think everyone accepts, as he said, that the bus was driving itself by the time Wilder left. We were chipping away at the same problems with the same tools. Wilder didn’t have the support to develop as a manager, the club didn’t have the money to help him develop. It was time to move on for all concerned, it was only a matter of when and how that would come about. An increasingly delicate game of chess being played behind the scenes meant a handful of Ian Lenagan missed steps – his failure to back or sack Wilder in 2013 and allowing him to talk to Portsmouth a few months later – opened a door to an inevitable conclusion.
What I do pine for is what was demonstrated by Northampton on Tuesday night; organisation, structure, commitment, purpose. Basic tenets on which teams perform and in League 2 can actually be enough to help you succeed. The sort of stuff you only miss when it’s gone.
It is difficult to describe how bad we actually were, but rather than dazzling Wilder with a hybrid of tiki-taka and Brazillian showmanship, it was the Cobblers who passed the ball over our rutted pitch, around and through us for long periods while we stood around waiting for someone to take control of the situation.
Wilder spent most of the night hidden away in his dugout, as he did in his last game as our manager, rather than at the edge of the technical area. He left Alan Knill to bark instructions out to their players.
This was an illustration of the man and perhaps explains why he frustrates people. He is, at heart, an introvert; treading a precarious line between wanting recognition and hiding away from it. He wants to be successful, believes in his abilities, but doesn’t want to become the focus of the attention that success inevitably brings. He fears being labelled as a failure or having weaknesses exposed, because that too brings unwanted attention. As a result introverts tend to work extra hard trying to stay one-step ahead of a dragon of their own making. In a sense, not being liked is a more comfortable position.
Those who don’t understand that mindset can find their subject awkward and difficult to like. Introverts appear diffident and scratchy whereas this is really just a method of avoiding talking about themselves too much. But, players respond because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of the wrath of their managers’ anxieties. When compared to the cosy comfort of someone satisfied in their own abilities, who believes success will come from the osmosis of philosophical belief, there really is only one type of person you want in charge of your football team.
I’m often asked on Twitter what went wrong with Chris Wilder and Oxford. It seems such weird scenario that a club on the brink of promotion allows its manager to go to a team at the bottom of the football league. This is easy to answer in a 140 characters. So, for the benefit of future reference, here’s my take on the whole episode.
When Chris Wilder joined Oxford we were perhaps at our lowest ebb for the best part of fifty years. We’d suffered more than a decade of decline which had seen us fall from lower Championship stability into the Conference.
The return of Jim Smith into management as part of a takeover of the club failed to arrest the slide. Magic and sentimentality, it seems, wasn’t enough. The club handed over the reigns to Darren Patterson; general club good egg. He couldn’t stop the slide either and was blighted by falling funds.
The club then appointed a bullish new chairman, Kelvin Thomas, who appointed Chris Wilder. Wilder had managed well in a difficult situation at Halifax and had been part of the management set up at Bury which saw them promoted. He was not a name, and in some ways, it seemed like the club had given up. But, below the dour northerness, he had a track record.
The impact was immediate; despite the loss of arguably our best player, a low starting league position and a questionable points deduction for fielding an ineligible player (someone who had been with us for 3 years but hadn’t had his registration paperwork completed for the season), Wilder took the club to within one game of the Conference play-offs. Eventually we fell short by 5 points; the number of points we’d been deducted.
The following season; chastened by previous experience (Wilder describing the Conference as a ‘poxy league’) the club invested heavily in the best it could afford. The aggressive policy paid instant dividends as the club lead the Conference at Christmas. However, in what is a very typical Chris Wilder pattern, we hit a bad patch and were gently reeled in by the ever consistent Stevenage, who eventually took the title.
The club recovered in March to go into the conference play-offs with an apparently unstoppable momentum. And so it proved; we roared past Rushden and then York at Wembley; a high point in Wilder’s Oxford career.
The first season back was a ball as we continued to enjoy the afterglow of Wembley. Performances weren’t bad; we lost in the last minute at West Ham in the League Cup. Wilder got rid of Dannie Bulman and Mark Creighton; stalwarts of the promotion campaign, and didn’t replace them. The season petered out to not very much, but that was OK, we were just happy to be back.
Another bonus of not being promoted was the prospect of facing Swindon Town in the league for the first time in 10 years. What’s more, they had morphed into the most evil team in the league with the appointment of known fascist Paolo Di Canio. The game at the County Ground in August was another key highlight as we beat them for the first time in 38 years with two goals from James Constable who had been courted by Di Canio in the weeks leading up to the game (including claiming him to be a Swindon fan). We followed it up with a home win in March to complete the double with a patched up team. More great memories. To some extent those results glossed over another moderate season and there were early rumblings of discontent. We had won the battles against Swindon, but their title meant that they had won the war.
Our third season back saw a third win over Di Canio and Swindon, this time in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but this couldn’t disguise the lack of league progress. This was made worse by our ability to fall away from strong positions. The questions were growing as to whether Wilder could take us any further.
Last summer, things started to go wrong, the debate about whether Wilder would stay or go were answered when owner Ian Lenagan offered him a one year contract, with options for extension. These options favoured the club, putting Wilder in the position of subordinate. Lenagan was neither backing nor sacking the manager.
This season started spectacularly with a 4-1 win away at Portsmouth. We performed well on the road, remaining unbeaten right up until after Wilder eventually departed. At home things were not good and we stuttered from week to week. However, as unlikely as our form suggested, it was still good enough for us to dance around the top three or four all season.
The poor home form couldn’t be denied; most fans were seeing a team that won only occasionally, and even then with turgid performances. Many fans had now turned on Wilder, and it seemed the damage was irreparable.
Nonetheless, we continued to occupy the top spots into Christmas. Ian Lenagan hinted at a new contract for Wilder, but it wasn’t forthcoming as form dipped, again. Crowds were dropping as we rose up the table. The owner was stuck between a rock and a hard place; should he back a manager who got results, but entertained few – perhaps we’re the only club in the country whose crowds fell the better we got.
Portsmouth then sacked Guy Whittingham. Wilder was in the frame for the job and Lenagan held firm in not offering him a contract. Instead, he allowed him to talk to Pompey, although he didn’t get the job. Suddenly it was clear that Wilder had value as a manager who could get failing teams working, a financial value he couldn’t realise at Oxford, who were already a functioning unit.
When Northampton came along they were in a similar predicament; facing relegation, but with some money available. They were able to offer Wilder the longer term stability that Oxford wouldn’t or couldn’t.
By Wilder’s own admission, the Oxford bus was driving itself, he couldn’t add much more and even if he had succeeded in getting us into the play-offs or promotion, his time at Oxford was probably numbered. He was the third longest serving manager in the league, and so was already in an extraordinary position within the club.
Wilder went to Northampton amidst a brief acrimonious drama. He set to work doing what he originally did at Oxford, he got them organised and playing. Even if he succeeds in keeping them up – and presumably becomes a hero – they too will eventually grow tired of his approach. But there will always be a place for a troubleshooter like Wilder; a club, somewhere, staring at catastrophe and with bit of money to spare.
Oxford in the meantime handed the reigns over to Wilder’s trusted sidekicks Mickey Lewis and Andy Melville. The owners, quite reasonably, perhaps, considered Lewis and Melville capable of continuing the Wilder philosophy while finding his replacement.
They were horribly, horribly wrong. Lewis, as ostensibly the caretaker manager, began to employ a series of baffling tactical changes. By their own admission, players took their foot off the gas; Lewis is a lovable teddy bear and a complete contrast to the scratchy, sometimes unlikeable Wilder. The season gently fell apart while the club’s slow and considered recruitment policy ground away in the background.
Eventually Gary Waddock was brought in 10 weeks after Wilder’s departure. Waddock is a man with all the right credentials, but with a squad that despite sitting at the top of the league, were already on their holidays. Form was terrible and we fell from the play-offs. On Saturday we go to Sixfields with Wilder and Northampton needing just a point to ensure survival and a great escape.
Wilder has accumulated 73 points this season with his two teams; good enough for 5th place. Factor in that he’s been rebuilding at Northampton, you might have expected him to achieve even more if he’d stayed at Oxford and been backed in a similar way. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but it would have been effective.
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.
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.
So, after a mildly diverting twist, that appears to be very much that. Chris Wilder has gone. There will be time for his legacy and legend, but, first, what of his resignation?
I’ve heard a story of Aidy Boothroyd that when he was interviewed for the Watford job, they asked him about his ambition. His response went something along the lines of “I want to be England manager, but right now; I’m free”.
If you think that seems like the height of arrogance, then you’re probably right, but for a period Boothroyd seemed to go some way to justify his bradaggio. He took an underfunded Watford into the Premier League and to an FA Cup Semi-Final, and it appeared that whilst becoming England manager was still a bit beyond him, establishing himself as a Premier League go-to man was well within his grasp. It’s all been downhill from there from Colchester to Coventry and finally to Northampton Town who he dumped at the bottom of League 2 and was promptly sacked in December. And that’s pretty much where Aidy Boothroyd, the brand, now sits – a manager of relegation threatened League 2 sides.
You are only really ever as good as where you left your last team. This is what makes Chris Wilder’s decision to resign for Northampton Town seem bizarre. Currently he’s considered a young manager on the up. What might he hope to achieve with the Cobblers who are six points from safety and less than a week from the end of the transfer window?
If it goes well, then he’ll avoid relegation and he will need to rebuild. But as Aidy Boothroyd and others have found out, the promise of riches to spend seems not to be the answer to their troubles. At best, it seems that he might stabilise the Cobblers, but it’s not unreasonable to question whether he’ll see them improve on what he’s left behind at Oxford.
If he fails – which is the more normal thing for Northampton managers to do – they will fall into the Conference. The culture shock of which, as we know and countless others have found out, is so deep that an instant return is unlikely. Will Chris Wilder be given 2-3 years to get the Cobblers back? It seems unlikely, he will be moved on for another ‘saviour’. What will be left behind will be Chris Wilder with a reputation for being a decent Conference manager, but little else.
There was no doubt that Wilder was in a bind at Oxford. His future was wholly in the hands of Ian Lenagan. Lenagan wouldn’t extend his contract until he’d proved that he could achieve promotion. He was unlikely to do that until his contract was virtually up. Lenagan, not unreasonably, wasn’t prepared to commit to extending Wilder’s contract given that he is now in his fourth year of trying to get the club into League 1. He was some way behind the great Lenagan plan of getting the team into the Championship in five years. All the cards – including a P45 – were being held by Lenagan and that made Wilder vulnerable. Wilder needed to gamble; did he see the job through and get his extension and maintain his reputation, or should he quit at the earliest opportunity?
The bias in this arrangement allowed distrust to fester, Lenagan didn’t trust Wilder to complete the job – or else he would have given him a contract; Wilder didn’t trust Lenagan to stick with him and see it through. In a sense, this season was the worst case scenario where success remains on a knife edge. Had we royally succeeded or demonstrably failed, then the decision either way becomes easy. Being on the edge of something left everyone looking over their shoulder.
Wilder, in the meantime, has been suffering a series of monumental dead-cat bounces with the fans. Every time his stock fell, it would fall further, every time it bounced back, it wasn’t quite as strong as before. It was difficult to see that trend reversing; perhaps we’ve all become just too familiar, but his final win against Torquay on Saturday was generally received as being a really boring do. A ‘bad win’, if such a thing exists. If he had taken us up, then no doubt there would have been growing numbers who would have viewed it as lucky, or boring. And then we’d only have needed a poor run in League 1 before calls for his head would grow under accusations of him not being up to the task.
Wilder knew about the growing disquiet, although I’m sure it was overstated. Sadly, as always, the liberal, reasonable majority tend to remain silent on issues, allowing more radical thinkers to fill the void. Increasingly in interviews, he made dark asides about people who were against him. He couldn’t have missed the mix of ‘Chris Wilder m’lord’ and the simultaneous chorus of boos that rang out during Saturday’s second half. You can bet which he would have heard louder.
Radio Oxford practically came to blows over the issue before the game on Saturday. It was more interesting and entertaining than usual, but they curiously forgot their public service remit not to editorialise the news. Both Nick Harris and Nathan Cooper took it upon themselves to speculate with force that Wilder was leaving whilst still refusing to reveal a single piece of evidence to suggest that they were right.
Presumably they knew stuff that they weren’t allowed to talk about, but they were going beyond their remit and seemed to be taking the opportunity, in fact, to attack Ian Lenagan and particularly the club’s ever-woeful PR. For all his strengths as a strategist and businessman – and I trust him to run our club and run it well – communication and PR remains a weakness. The club aren’t exactly a journalists dream; refusing to make comment on player injuries, potential targets or managerial speculation, and it seems Harris and Cooper were venting frustrations about the lack of information by revealing a rift between Wilder and Lenagan, suggesting that Oxford weren’t an attractive proposition for good managers and, perhaps even that between Nathan Cooper and Wilder didn’t see eye-to-eye (I didn’t quite catch the drift of what he was saying). They weren’t this vocal during the Firoz Kassam years.
The end, when it did come, was a mess. Lenagan said he’d refused Northampton an approach for Wilder. A bizarre move after he’d allowed him to talk to Portsmouth. He was also ambiguous about the nature of Wilder’s resignation; admitting that Wilder, frustrated at not being able to talk to the Cobblers, had announced his intention to walk on Friday. Lenagan simultaneously suggested that Wilder had walked without a word – or at a least without a resignation letter. Cutting through the garbled announcement and the hoo-ha on Saturday night, it does seem that this is nothing more than an administrative issue. Lenagan knew of Wilder’s intention to resign, which he subsequently did. Not ruling out legal action was also an unnecessarily careless remark. Just let it go; it’s over, it was good for a long time and it isn’t now.
So, we’re left with fans at the manager’s throat, the manager at the owner’s throat and the owner at the media’s throat. And all the while, to the credit of the players, we’re still just 2 points off automatic promotion. Is it that Lenagan’s poor external PR extends to his key internal stakeholders too? That this essential four-way relationship has gently collapsed in on itself? Or, perhaps Wilder’s time had come and it was simply that we’d all grown too close; we were a family at Christmas rowing over trivia, the origins of which nobody can quite remember. Perhaps what is surprising is that it took so long to surface, and that it blew up so quickly. And all over the worst team in the football league.
As a result, Chris Wilder was always going to be the one most likely to jump. He can talk about protecting his family, but will he see out the three year contract he might get at Northampton? Personally, I doubt it, and I doubt his contract will be so generous that he’ll get three years full pay if he goes early. This is a big risk for him, a potential career suicide, because it could cement him as a manager who needs an eternity to succeed and one that drags teams into the Conference. But, people who are unhappy do things like that; they put their careers and future success on the line simply to get away from an suffocating situation. You can’t help thinking that it was for the good of everyone concerned that he walked away.
Personally, I’m sad to see him go and find the gloating of those who aren’t distasteful. Even those who have been calling for Wilder’s head, will, with the benefit of some space and time, remember Wembley, Swindon, Swindon, Swindon and Portsmouth and many other times and remember him, as he should always be remembered, as a legend of the club.