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.