Liveblog: Wilder to Portsmouth?

As this seems to be an evolving story, here’s an Oxblogger first: a ‘liveblog’, which I’ll keep adding to as things progress over the next few days. That sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Like the posh papers do ironically when covering Strictly, only much much slower with less pictures of Susannah Reid. 

Tuesday night: Righting some wrongs
My previous post on this is the third most read in the history of this blog. It has generated a rather lot of vitriol and misinterpretation. So, in no particular order, a few points of clarification.

  • I know football existed before 1980 – I use it as a convenient breakpoint to define a ‘modern era’ – a lifetime following football (mine, at least). For a 20 year period before 1980 neither Oxford nor Portsmouth did anything of any major note and you can’t say Portsmouth are a big team because they won the league 63 years ago.
  • In the early 80s there were two types of football club; those which were on TV – Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and those who came to the Manor from time to time. Portsmouth were more of the latter than the former, so were Lincoln and Exeter. When you’re eight, that’s how the world is.
  • Just because I don’t think Portsmouth are a HUGE club (certainly not anymore), doesn’t mean I think Oxford are. It’s not a zero-based game. I think Portsmouth risk slipping into the trap of mistaking their ‘brand’ (Premier League pedigree, FA Cup winners) with their team (hovering above the relegation zone in League 2). That’s not healthy.
  • This isn’t a Southampton thing. I feel like the landlord of a quiet country pub that has been invaded by two bikers gangs. Stop fighting each other, at least don’t do it on my blog or in my Twitter feed.
  • It’s not really a Portsmouth thing; it’s about the decisions our manager might make and whether it’s a good move for him or not.
  • It seems there are many very good and reasonable Portsmouth fans who have said some nice things about the post. Thank you, you’re a credit to your club.

Wednesday lunchtime: Dedication? What dedication?
Some people are treating Chris Wilder’s decision to talk to Portsmouth as an act of high treason. They’re beginning to sound like people who would might kill a lover just to ensure they never talk to another man.

With a slightly cooler head, perhaps it’s not quite as bad as it seems:

Scenario #1: “Hi Chris, thanks for the interview. To be honest you’re a bit more northern than we like, we like happy cockneys, y’know like Harry Redknapp who won us the FA Cup. Sorry, we thought you were from Bournemouth.”

Scenario #2: “Hi Chris, thanks for the interview. Do you want the job? We’ll offer you £25k a year and a two year contract, but if we fire you, you won’t be entitled to compensation. Oh, and we’ve got no money for players. But, hey, we’re Portsmouth, we’ve got that crazy bloke with the bell.”

Scenario #3: “Hi Chris, thanks for the interview. We’re going to quadruple your salary, give you a 10 year contract with no break clauses and we’ll pay you your entire salary in full even if we fire you. And that shady character in the corner sitting on a pile of cash is a Russian oil billionaire who will spend anything to get us into the Champions League. Honestly, he’s mad, just ask him for whatever you want; go on. Oi, can I have a speed boat? Yes!? Brilliant! See?”

Portsmouth want to employ a new manager and they might want Chris Wilder to be that man (they might not). If Chris Wilder doesn’t talk to Portsmouth, he doesn’t know which of these scenarios (or any variation thereof) will play out. However, if he talks to them, he will know. Like crossing the road; it’s always good to check if any cars are coming.

And when he knows, all parties can make a rational decision about what they want to happen next. It may be a wonderful offer that makes him for life, it may be a laughable offer. They may hate each other.

This isn’t about an emotional dedication to Oxford United; it’s about being a rational thinking adult.

Friday afternoon: There are three of us in this relationship
Perhaps more.

It seems, for once, Chris Wilder hasn’t got himself a result when playing away. Richie Barker is set to become Pompey’s manager, Chris Wilder is set to be rejected, or perhaps he turned them down. Frankly we’ll probably never really know.

This was presented as a ‘Pompey for Wilder/Wilder for Pompey’ story. The role of the Oxford, beyond doing the admin of allowing permission, was largely ignored. I think they were more important than they’ve been portrayed.

When Chris Wilder appeared on the touchline against Gateshead it became pretty obvious a move is unlikely. In order for Portsmouth to put an offer to Wilder, they would need to do a deal with Oxford first, who hold his contract. The club wouldn’t have stood in Wilder’s way; he only has a few months on his deal and why try to hold on to a manager who clearly doesn’t want to be there?

However, if Pompey really wanted to offer a deal to Wilder, who they talked to on Wednesday, why would they wait? They would have had to gone to Ian Lenagan to arrange compensation – which would have been somewhere between minimal to none, given Wilder’s contract. It would still have had to be done. The club, then, couldn’t risk taking on Gateshead with a manager they knew was leaving. He’d have been put on gardening leave and presumably Mickey Lewis would have taken on the team.

The club are in a strong position to control the speed of the deal; so the longer it goes on, the less likely it is that Wilder is going to leave.

Pompey chimes, Pompey bleats

Just as everyone was basking in the unlikely glory of a last minute goal at Fleetwood and even more improbably, in the fact we’re still top of the league a story broke. Portsmouth want to talk to Chris Wilder. But, would this a good move for him?

Twitter is at its best moments after a story breaks, and at its worst for the 2 weeks after. I hadn’t really kept up with our draw at Fleetwood; I was in Tesco when Danny Rose missed his penalty. By the time I’d got in the car Jerome Sale was winding up the game saying we were still unbeaten away. Somewhere in between Dave Kitson scored.

By the time I’d got home I knew that Radio Oxford would have been heading round the grounds to people like Headley Feast to find out how the Oxford City Nomads got on, or giving out the results of the Cherry Red Records 8th Reserve Division. I didn’t bother putting the radio on.

Later, I checked Twitter; something had happened. Wilder, Pompey, #wilder, #pompey. Mick Brown said something, Ian Lenagan said something. I love these moments, when fragments of a news story start coming together into something vaguely coherent. Twitter is perfect for something like this.

Eventually it transpired that Portsmouth had made an approach for Chris Wilder. Mick Brown appears to have revealed it to the media despite there being no official acknowledgement of the approach from either club.

This is big news; Portsmouth are a massive club, FA Cup winners in 2008, they were finalists in 2010. How could Chris Wilder resist the lure of such a massive opportunity to manage a such a massive club…

… who are currently languishing in 18th in League 2 without a win in 5.

Ian Lenagan referred to them as a ‘failing club’ which is a little ungracious but ultimately true. In his defence, it was said under pressure, but Portsmouth fans were incredulous at the slight. They’re fan-owned, they’re HUGE and they’ve got a history to die for. Hear them roar.

This delusional behaviour should be enough to put Chris Wilder off whether we were top of the division or not. Portsmouth may have taken a worthy step in the right direction, but the corner they’re turning is a very long one.

When I started going regularly to football, Portsmouth were just another lower-league team. They were, to me, no different to, say, Lincoln City or Exeter. We seemed to be kindred spirits for a period; having very similar levels of success, mostly around the Championship.

Since 1980 Portsmouth have won two domestic divisional titles, three promotions and one major domestic trophy. We’ve won two domestic titles, two promotions and one major domestic trophy. On balance, their successes probably slightly outstrip ours, but what I’m saying is that this massive club, in reality, has a fairly moderate history.

In the mid-2000s, as our world collapsed, they suddenly did something remarkable; Harry Redknapp got them promoted to the Premier League almost without warning.

They established themselves by signing a slew of top players; Peter Crouch, David James, Kanu, Jermaine Defoe, er, Dave Kitson. One thing that never added up was how they were doing it – signing such players with such a ropey infrastructure. The PR keeps it pretty simple – the line goes that there’s such an enormous amount of money flowing through the Premier League from Sky that everyone’s getting rich.

In reality, as Alan Sugar pointed out at the league’s inception, the money flows straight through the clubs and into the players’ pockets. The size of the TV deal doesn’t really matter to the clubs, they won’t get to see any of it because it goes on the colossal wages that need to be paid to keep you in the league. If you keep the money, you go down, if you spend the money, you’ve got nothing in the bank. Portsmouth were hugely trapped in this cycle; they looked and spent like a Premier League club; but they had a ramshackle ground and an owner of limited means.

Only two things breaks you from that cycle; better facilities and/or a mega rich benefactor. When the new stadium failed to materialise and the owner sold up to an Arabian who, it seems, didn’t actually have any money, it became clear the club couldn’t service their debt. They had to liquidate their assets; sell their players. What followed was three relegations and two periods in administration.

So Portsmouth’s massiveness is overstated; their history artificially over-inflated only by a brief, recent period in the Premier League they couldn’t really afford.

The artifice of their size brings with it a complacency. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that Portsmouth are currently the 85th in the football league; that they haven’t won in 5, that, on current data, the only way is down for them.

However, it is not their on-the-pitch situation that is of most concern. What they have been through is deeply traumatic; the psychological damage that they have suffered lingers on, the cognisant discord between being a club 10 times the size of those around them, but not 10 times better brings with it a deep trauma. Every defeat by an insignificant spec of a club is another mortal blow to their confidence and self-esteem.

We speak from some experience; we were a terrible team with a glorious past and, apparently, money to burn. Guy Whittingham is Mark Wright, the former star who failed to reignite the club. Chris Wilder, in this case, is John Ward or Chris Turner 7 years ago – a good manager we should just bring in to solve all our problems. As easy as picking up a bottle of milk from the newsagents.

Perhaps Portsmouth have got everything in place to turn the corner, there’s no evidence on the pitch that this is the case, and it’s difficult to ignore the lingering financial burden of having to pay-off former players eye-watering amounts.

A big club? A glorious history? Turning the corner? Ready to return to the big time?

I don’t have anything against Portsmouth, I hope on a human level that they survive and prosper. On a football level, I’m not that bothered either way. However, from what I can see, they’ve got a long way to go before they’ve recovered and may well fall some way yet. From Chris Wilder’s perspective, unless the financial offer is breathtaking, he would be mad to accept the job at this stage in their evolution.

Wilder in

So it’s settled then, Chris Wilder is going staying. Not the scenario that anyone foresaw. But the statement about Wilder and the club’s future says a lot about the club going forward.

Well, I don’t think anyone expected that, as someone said on Twitter, you don’t call press conferences to say that managers are staying.

It says quite something that they did; one thing they teach you at journalism school is that something isn’t news if opposite is a surprise. So, the news that a man stays in his job shouldn’t be news because the opposite (that he’s been fired) is the surprise.

I don’t think anyone expected to hear Wilder was staying. If nothing else, the economic argument; that him staying would impact season ticket sales, seemed to be enough to see him go. I’ve been challenged on this. Say we have 3000 season ticket holders (I don’t know if that’s right, but just say) how many would renew out of habit? I would, and pretty much everyone that sits around me would. I reckon as many as 80% would renew regardless of who was the manager. That leaves, perhaps, £70,000 which could be lost to ‘floating’ season ticket holders. Firing Wilder and recruiting a replacement could be a costly business – research suggests as much as 150% of that person’s salary. So the simple equation is one of lost revenue versus recruitment costs. Perhaps the financial argument isn’t so strong.

Which brings us onto football. The statement on the club website admits the ‘upward curve’ has ‘flattened out’. Sure enough, we’re 10 points behind where we were last season. Some of which might reasonably be explained by injuries and the appalling state of our pitch. Our poor home form does appear to be at the core of this season’s problem and it does appear that the one of the key factors behind the poor state of the pitch – London Welsh – may soon disappear.

Another factor to consider is that in the past people have compared our comparative lack of success to those who have also recently ascended from the Conference. Many have enjoyed continued success after their promotion, but we haven’t rampaged in the same way. But of the 12 teams promoted from the Conference since 2006, five go into Saturday’s final round of fixtures facing the prospect of being relegated back to the Conference. And we’re not one of them. It’s not a definitive argument supporting Wilder, but if we’re benchmarking our success against our peers, then we could be in a significantly worse position.

The reason why this is important is that it highlights that those focussed on long term steady growth tend to prosper more than those who enjoy fluctuations in success. In the end, what goes up, usually comes down and you can argue that we’ve now left our former Conference brethren for the establishment of the football league. There is strong evidence that steadier clubs are beginning to see dividends in the current economic climate. Why is German football coming to the fore? Because the Spanish and English leagues are one a downward slope after a period of booming success. The German’s have just continued to be German.

This is tortoise and hare stuff; in the economy is penalising the hares who have boomed in boom times and dived in the dip, the tortoises are coming through to steal the prizes.

What is interesting about the statement is that Lenagan appears to have generally reduced Wilder’s influence within the club. There’s some dispute as to whether he was on a rolling contract or still had 12 months to go (I’m fairly sure that BBC Radio Oxford said he was still under contract beyond the end of the season). The statement says he’s been ‘re-appointed’ on a contract which the club were at pains to say is fixed term with options in favour of the club. Everything about it suggests that the new deal puts control much more into the hands of Lenagan and the board.

The statement develops this further; emphasising the focus on sports science within the club and developing talent. Everything points to a steadier, long term development of the club, more corporate, more cohesive, more German, if you like. This is not a bad thing for Chris Wilder. It takes the emphasis away from the English obsession with the cult of the manager as being the only thing that influences results. It steps away from the nihilistic strategies of signing ‘big names’ on big wages in the hope of gaining short term success.

The criticism I have of Lenagan is that he’s allowed this to go on too long. If Chris Wilder knew he was staying; he been showing no evidence at all to suggest that this was the case. His body language smacked of someone whose days were numbered. In short, he’s been treated abysmally.

But, I like the vision, Lenagan the chairman frustrates me with his poor PR skills. His statements are good, but they’re slow, poorly timed and patchy leaving chasms of silence into which speculation grows. As an owner, I like him. It appeals to me that we might see success in 2-3 years at Oxford United with 6-7 players playing regularly for the first team developed from the youth scheme. Most fans love this as a concept, there’s nothing they like supporting a team of local players. Sadly, few clubs are brave enough to see the strategy through. Could we actually be the one to do it?

Is it time to start pointing fingers?

Playing a blame game is very tempting, but rarely particularly helpful. But after two home defeats in a row, and a run of five without a win, the knives are out and everyone is sniping at each other. So who is at fault for our current predicament?

The manager

There’s little doubt that Chris Wilder is under pressure and it’s difficult to see quite how he can pull the fans around to give him sustained support. Each run of form feels like a patch over a much longer decline. Like an old car that breaks down more and more and becomes more expensive to fix; there’s a point at which you just need to buy a new car. That said, managers rarely get the opportunity to turn their team around, they’re fired before they get to that situation, so there are few reference points to imagine him going from zero to hero.

On Tuesday, against Fleetwood, there was a sense that it wasn’t so much that he should be fired, more that he should be released from the purgatory of the situation he finds himself in. Though there are harsh critics of Wilder, only the truly demented will deny that he’s been dealt a tough hand. Money is tight, the pitch is terrible and injuries have desecrated us; it’s not an easy ride. One bloke behind me bemoaned that Lewis Montrose was “Another Wilder choice” ignoring that every player in the squad is a Wilder choice, even the good ones. A fit Ryan Clarke, Andy Whing, Michael Duberry, Peter Leven and Tom Craddock – all Wilder choices – would have undoubtedly given Fleetwood a better game – most of Wilder’s good decisions are not currently available.

He looks a bit of a spent force at the moment, without ideas and without anyone to turn to for support.

The owner

In the main I trust Lenagan’s ownership. He has a track record in running decent professional sports clubs and is clearly a successful businessman. Like many very clever people he seems able to process lots of information and distill his options into a series of apparently simple yes/no decisions. Emotion and indecision doesn’t come into it; as long as you’re not too risk averse, this is a good thing for running a business.

But Lenagan’s clear thinking comes at a cost; he lacks the empathy of people who are less clear thinking than him, which means he struggles to understand what makes football fans; with their baked in irrationality, tick. As a result he appears cold hearted and distant and some of his decisions – such as the signing of Luke McCormick – seem ill-judged. What’s more, he’s almost too honest. Suggesting that some players have been signed without a medical during the most acute injury crisis in several generations leaves him vulnerable. And, at the fan forum, failing to mention that the club were about to hand over their shirt sponsorship space to a local charity was a missed opportunity for some good PR.

The landlord

Firoka have a lot to answer for. There is more to being the landlord of a professional sports stadium then providing a patch of grass, or as it has become now, rutted mud and sand. The science of hosting multiple sports exists; Cardiff, Wigan, Swansea and Hull all successfully run stadia featuring both rugby and football. And Firoka have actively sought a rugby tenant for some years. So this season’s difficulties were all predicable. Kassam isn’t providing a multi-sport facility; it’s a football pitch with rugby being played on it. The Firoz Kassam business model is the same throughout his empire; identify a desperate group of people; whether that be rugby and football teams or asylum seekers and provide them with a bare minimum service. In his purely transactional world, he ignores the benefit of collaboration – better facilities mean larger crowds mean more money and higher rents.

There is a chance to sort this out over the close season so that it never happens again, but the state of the pitch could be the route cause of a whole lot of our problems. If it does result in the manager losing his job, key players getting injured and crowds dropping, then Firoka should (but won’t) be held to account.

The team

There’s no lack of commitment in the team, and no lack of quality, at least not in the treatment room. We just can’t keep the good players on the pitch and the likes of Potter and Chapman need good players around them to help them perform. With so much going against them, the sense of helplessness, the lack of confidence is becoming overwhelming. What’s more worrying is that the season doesn’t really offer any respite from the gloom. There’s no cup or derby to distract us from the solemn trudge from here to May.

The injury problem has been so extensive that you can look at it two ways; either it points towards a systemic failure in the club’s sports science set up, or it’s so bizarre that you cannot imagine that you’ll be inflicted with it again for a generation. Certainly the club should tighten up in giving players fitness tests before signing them, and the investment in sports science promised at the end of last season needs to begin paying dividends. But there have been a surprising number of in-game ‘impact’ injuries, particularly at home in the first half. While players may be carrying injuries into games that they aggravate, a lot of these injuries do seem to be the result of bad luck; or perhaps a badly rutted pitch.

The fans

Whilst understandably angry and frustrated, the fans have been spoilt in recent years; Wilder has produced three derby victories, a win at Wembley and, in his first season, a thrilling, if ultimately doomed dash to the play offs. We expect to be entertained. During the latter months of the Kassam reign the fans were in a similar rut; in a game against Rochdale the crowd spontaneously started chanting and banging the many empty seats around them. The fans had taken it upon themselves to claw back the club.

The same sense of helplessness, coupled with a degree of expectation, means the the fans are sitting back, or not even turning up. It’s certainly hard to raise yourself when faced with defeat after defeat, but sitting back and waiting to be entertained, is not going to help.

… And the solution?

Don’t fire the manager. At least not yet. Admittedly, Wilder’s future is an entirely valid discussion to have. It might make us feel better for five minutes because it’ll give us a sense of doing something, but it’ll instantly lose us 4 years of collective learning, and if Lenagan is to be believed then it’ll cost us £200,000 in compensation and recruitment fees, money that could easily be spent on something more positive.

You can’t isolate our performances down to Wilder’s decisions alone. So what could you do that would address the influencing factors? I would appoint a new chairman. Whilst Kelvin Thomas may be a little devil-may-care in this age of austerity, somebody who can dedicate time to engaging with Firoka, provide some support for the manager and give the fans something to get behind. This could create a galvanising force would pay huge dividends.

When would be the right time to let Wilder go?

Six defeats, not many managers survive such a streak. One of the arguments against the sacking of Chris Wilder is the lack of an alternative. I don’t fully agree with that point of view; there aren’t many football clubs flapping around unable to appoint a manager due to a lack of available candidates. However, many clubs have rushed to replace their manager under the delusion that they are in a buyers’ market. This is true, to a point, there is no shortage of managers out there. But, if you discount all the managers you don’t want and focus on those that you do, you realise that the roles of beggar and chooser reverses. Those managers you can rely on are either in post, in demand or don’t need a job; at least not one in League 2.

The problem with managers is that it’s not so much a skills shortage, but a skills gap. There are plenty out there who will do no more than an adequate job at best.

Ian Lenegan’s decision as to whether he lets Chris Wilder go or not, is therefore more difficult than many perhaps perceive. In Online-Forum-World life is simple; fire Wilder and get someone brilliant in to revitalise the club. A quick replacement for the short term is OK, but, if you’re looking to the long-term, how many managers are you happy to be in position in, say, 5-10 years time?

If Wilder were removed, then surely Lewis and Melville would quickly follow. It seems unlikely that the purpose of ridding the club of Wilder’s service is to give the coaches a chance. Unless, of course, the purpose of sacking Wilder is to save money, which it isn’t. The key is to improve performances. Much as he is a stalwart and a lovely bloke, anyone who witnessed Lewis’ brief managerial career at Oxford will remember that he’s good at committing his team to a ‘proper’ passing game without ever threatening to score.

From a coaching perspective the club is pretty lean, we don’t have a wealth of coaches with managerial experience ready to step in on a temporary basis. So who do you hand the reigns over to? Even in the short term? Michael Duberry? Or do you go Kassam-like into the beggers market hoping to strike gold.

And then, you’ve got to consider what you’ve got to offer a manager. A team, starved through injuries, demoralised by a long stretch of defeats, having recently lost a manager that, according to reliable sources, the players are behind. Is there going to be money available? Apparently not, according to Ian Lenegan, the club has max’ed out in terms of the wage bill. Are the injured players on their way back? Who knows? The club’s policy of not commenting on injuries is frustrating, but perhaps you can surmise, during a period of crisis, you’d expect the club to use any returns from injury as a good news story to buoy things up. There is no indication that the returns are imminent.

Wilder’s stock will be permanently damaged as a result of this run. People will have adjusted their gearing; a win will be considered a small step forward, a defeat 10 steps back. So, even if we did go 5-6 games unbeaten from Tuesday, all likelihood is that another defeat will see people calling for his head at the next defeat. Aside from promotion, it is difficult to imagine a situation where he will win over the crowd wholly. However, for the interests of the club in the long term, while expectations remain so low and Wilder continues to take a beating from some sections of the crowd, it may actually be better for Lenegan to hold things at this low ebb for a little while the situation improves and a suitable replacement is found.

Whether he stays or goes, Chris Wilder deserves respect

I can’t get into an extended discussion as to whether Wilder should go or not. The statistics and facts can be manipulated either way to support your predisposition; the long term development of the club during his tenure and the mitigating factors of injuries against the cold hard facts of five league games without a point following a poor finish to last season.

After Saturday’s soul destroying defeat to Bradford, I was tempted to avoid the Radio Oxford phone-in. I did listen, however, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. There was a surprising balance of opinion and Jerome Sale was prepared to challenge back on some of the more ridiculous suggestions (such as, it is time Ian Lenegan released some of his hidden gazillions to get us promoted).

However, there was an unpleasant passive aggressive tone to some of the Wilder-out brigade; “I’m sorry, I have nothing against the bloke, but he’s got to go.” That was the main thrust from people who have clearly never been in the position of having to fire decent people.

Whatever Wilder’s future is, Oxford fans owe him a debt of gratitude. He fought against a deep complacency that had existed in the club for more than a decade. He deconstructed the club’s over-inflated ego and put in place a work ethic and level of professionalism that levered us out of the mess we were in.

He brought in a squad of players that has taken us to a comfortable position in League 2, has given us three legendary derby wins and plenty more moments of breathtaking excitement. More than that, he has recreated a football club out of a wandering zombie. Don’t pretend that the fans did that, the growing crowds are testament to the fact that fan loyalty is locked to positive results. To treat him as though he is a piece of meat is to act in the way ‘plastic’ fans of the nouveau-Premier League treat their teams. As a distant product to be bought and played with, not a club run by real hard working people. 

Chris Wilder deserves respect. His achievements should not be simply dismissed on the basis of a poor run of form, even if that does cost him his job ultimately.

He believes he can turn it round, and he’s every right to hold that belief. He is under no obligation to resign just to satisfy our frustration. If he were such a quitter he would have given up on the Oxford job a long time ago and we would probably have been dwelling in the Conference today because people forget just how stuck we were. His track record affords him the right to try and get it right, and above all as a person, the guy has the right to try and earn a living.

As he himself says, he understands the game and the frustrations of the fans. He doesn’t need reminding that defeats are unacceptable, or that our current position is poor. However, why should we simply follow fans of other teams and dismiss his previous successes, labelling him some kind of failure? Chris Wilder has proved that he is one of the finest managers the club has seen. Perhaps he is even the best considering the circumstances in which he is working and where he picked us up from. Whether it is his time to stand down or not he deserves some respect.

Time to press the panic button?

I have to confess I had my first Wilder wobble after the heartless 4-0 defeat to Burton on Saturday. The results aren’t going our way, the manager’s position is uncertain; he’s either being sacked or moving to Coventry. The board is in transition with Kelvin Thomas and Jim Rosenthal standing down, and the fixture list looks uninspiring. What have we got to look forward to? Where are the wins? Where’s the derby? What is going to spring us out of our malaise? I can only see a procession of tough games. Are we going to trudge through the season only to end up in mid-table meaninglessness? That’s not why we support football clubs.

Football is escapism, we seek it because it give us something different to our normal lives. Everything else in our lives demands certainty. Our jobs are process driven, we want security; job security, financial security. Football is our unpredictable wildcard, our release, an opportunity to satisfy our animalistic urges. It is one of football’s great paradoxes; those who succeed in achieving predictability, notably the Premier League, are chastised by traditionalists for ruining excitement. And yet it is the traditionalists who constantly call for more sensible and rational thinking in the game. So do we want excitement or predictability?

When, as now, there seems so little prospect of excitement, we agitate to generate some. We like to target the manager to try and shake things up. There is the frisson of excitement; the period of speculation where, in full fantasy-manager mode, we pick a realistic, but attached, target like Paul Tidsdale, or a unrealistic and unattached target like Harry Redknapp. Then you end up with someone with a moderate, occasionally good, occasionally rubbish track record. He inherits a team low on confidence and form and criticises, without risk, the previous regime’s methods. I remember during the Kassam years, each manager coming in to criticise the players’ lack of fitness, for example.

Fundamentally, the new manager has the same resources to play with; things don’t change significantly. We then criticise and agitate to replace the new man (or even bring back the original manager, who with the blurring of time has returned to his previous state of being a legend). So many clubs fall into that cycle, it’s so tempting to do it to brighten up our sorry lives. But is it the answer?

Is changing the manager really going to solve the problem? And more to the point, what the hell is the problem in the first place? And don’t say it’s the fact we concede too many goals and have just gone four league defeats in a row. That’s not the problem, the defeats are the result of the problem.

We’re missing the players that Chris Wilder brought in to add quality to the squad; he doesn’t have Whing or Duberry in defence, Davis or (until Tuesday) Leven going forward, he hasn’t had Cox. These are all his signings; good signings and they’re all injured. Is that bad luck? Presumably it’s possible to put together an algorithm that will predict when multiple factors converge to create form like we’ve got in the situation we’re in. Or is it bad management? Is it wholly Wilder’s fault? In other words, if you took Wilder out of the equation and put in a replacement, are the injured players suddenly going become available? I remember the charmless David Kemp saying after he was sacked that he wasn’t going to take it to heart, because changing the manager hadn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. Now, David Kemp is the worst manager we’ve ever had, but he was right, wasn’t he? Will a new manager, playing to different tactics turn this squad into league champions? I can’t conclusively be sure.

Is it a bigger issue? The policy of signing proven, older, players who are therefore more injury prone, without the infrastructure to keep them on the pitch. Is that the problem? Is it a bigger strategic issue; the focus of signings over science? Isn’t that a board consideration; how much do you spend on players, support of players and the business that funds the show? That’s not Chris Wilder’s responsibility, at least not wholly, that’s done higher up. So is it a board issue? Moreover, isn’t that being dealt with? The board changes could conceivably be an attempt to deal with a deeper problem and there is already a stated commitment into investing into sport science.

The Greiner growth model says that it is inevitable that organisations hit crises as they grow, and perhaps that’s the problem; a growing pain. He talks of a ‘crisis of control’; where delegating responsibility results in growth that is too quick and out of control. What results is a tightening of control; is that why Lenegan is at the head of the table in the board room? He’s managing the readjustment? If this is an inevitable wobble, then we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and sack everyone involved because it satisfies our frustration and discomfort.

We can comfortably demonise the manager, it’s a common thing to do. That’s what most clubs do; and yet most clubs are badly run. So, do we want to follow the pattern of others just because it’s the way football has always done it?

I don’t know, on one hand, Wilder’s position seems to be weakening, on the other hand, I can’t definitively say that his replacement will provide the solution. And is it even fair to judge him on four league games of which three were away? And, this is our (equal) best start to a season since we returned from the Conference.

Many have already made their mind up, but as it currently stands; I would argue that this difficult early season was predictable. We have three home games in the next four. The opponents will test all our credentials; can we dispose of a lesser team like Wimbledon? Can we compete with a high flyer like Gillingham? And can we develop the resolve to compete with Rotherham? The next 18 days will tell us a lot more, I think.

That one’s for Chris Wilder

Everyone hates Swindon. It’s not just us. If you ask anyone to name a dank, soulless British town then people say Slough. Or Swindon. It is neither a quaint northern relic of our industrial past, a gleaming economic powerhouse, a seat of learning or innovation, or a monument to our establishment. It represents, if anything at all, the rigmarole of everyday life where nothing much happens.

Paolo DiCanio is very Italian. Italy is, in one sense, stylish, engaging and beautiful. But it is also morally and economically corrupted. In one sense we envy its ability to achieve the spectacular – Ferrari, Armani, Da Vinci – but we’re British and we like steadfastness so the erratic behaviour of Italy and Italians gets up our noses. Paolo Di Canio gets up our noses.

Di Canio and Swindon seem like such an unlikely match, but they are perfect for each other because they are so easy to dislike. It is, of course, unfair to tar every Swindonian and every Italian with the same brush, but it remains a fact that many people expressly don’t like the town or the man.

Our manager is dour and pragmatic; he talks about budgets and hard work. He is very British. People like Oxford; it stands for something that we, as a country, can be proud of; learning, innovation, saving lives, improving lives. Great things are achieved in Oxford. It is extraordinary, you ask someone to name a British town that represents great learning, people will say Cambridge. Or Oxford. We are the perfect counterpoint to Swindon.

I suspect that Di Canio and Swindon rather like their reputation, after all, if you can’t be loved, being hated is better than being ignored. The derby is a quintessential good versus bad story. It’s context; whether it be a cup final or Johnstone’s Paint Trophy has an endearing quality about it.

Last night’s derby was a builder; I’d set off early because of parking anxiety. But I parked easily, more easily than a league game. I was in the ground 30 minutes before kick-off. Swindon fans, who had presumably been escorted in, were loud, raucous and in plentiful number. We were nowhere to be seen. I thought I’d fallen into the trap of believing the hype. Nobody was really going to turn up to a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy 1st Round tie, Swindon or not.

Then suddenly, 15 minutes before kick-off the car park – already full of cars – filled with people. Coming from the direction of The Priory; it seemed the entire Oxford crowd were arriving together. They swarmed around the cars like a river. Pausing briefly to exchange insults with the Swindon fans in the ground. Then they poured into the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. Suddenly, bang on time, the noise was turned on and the place thundered into life.

The game was loud and energetic, but there wasn’t a cramp-inducing tightness in the muscles or the gnawing stomach grumbles. It wasn’t like the game last year. It was more like one of those early season League Cup games we used to land periodically against mid-ranking Premier League teams. A big game we wanted to win, but weren’t that fearful of losing.

As the minutes ticked by and penalties seemed to only logical way of getting us home at a reasonable hour, I’d pretty much settled on the idea that the draw was the right result. That way, regardless of the penalties, nobody could definitively make much of what the result meant in the great irresolvable debate of which club rules supreme.

I was enjoying the game, and the atmosphere, but drifted in and out of the specifics. In my head I was filing it away under ‘unremarkable, but fun’. The time ticked by towards the 90th minute and suddenly, from nowhere, James Constable was clear. He’d been OK, again, a decent target man, but not full of movement and threat. He could have taken it on, probably would have if his confidence had been with him. But he squared it, and there was Alfie Potter.

You couldn’t mistake the similarity to Potter’s goal at Wembley, just with Constable playing the Deering role. Wilder hooned down the touchline, exactly as he did at Wembley, stopping just short of giving himself wedgey and grass burns with an ill advised slide on the turf.

With all the talk of Wilder going to Coventry, winning the derby, in the last minute with a goal from two players who have been with him pretty much throughout, who he’s nurtured, protected, defended and battled for seems almost too perfect.

There may be more to come from him, this might be it, who knows? But perhaps this was a result for Chris Wilder. A testimonial to his achievements with Oxford. It means nothing in the great scheme of things; but it was a bloody fun load of nothing. 

The science of the rumour mill

The football rumour mill is a closed system. For it to start it needs to be agitated by some kind of event. If the rumour relates to a player, that event is either a bid from another club or a declaration from the player that he wants to move.

Rumours related to managers are almost exclusively triggered by another manager being fired. It is very rare that a manager steps down of their own accord. For obvious reasons, let’s focus on the manager related rumour mill.

Once the system is triggered, the press begin the process of speculating who might replace the fired manager. This is what keeps the journalists in a job, there’s no shame in it. With the internet; fan generated speculation is almost as instantaneous; albeit initially less realistic (for example, suggestions that Harry Redknapp might become the next Oxford manager).

Eventually, the crazier fan-driven ideas are reasoned out through the debate and the media and fan speculation settles to a few more realistic targets. This creates a domino effect throughout the game because by-and-large some of those targets already have jobs. For the clubs of potential targets the rumour mill begins to cycle around two questions; ‘will he go?’ and ‘who will replace him?’

The other factor at play is the bookmaker. They’re often viewed as being the barometer of truth – ‘the bookies favourite…’ – that, however, is often misinterpreted as that they know what is actually going on. Their job is not to speculate, but to quantify the validity of any speculation. Their focus is on managing the odds to ensure they are long enough to attract punters’ cash, short enough to protect them from taking a financial bath in the event of any payout. If they speculate (wildly proffer suggestions without evidence) then they add further uncertainty into the cycle, this increases the risk and reduces the likelihood of making money. They reflect speculation; they don’t generate it; so stories about shortening odds are simply re-hashes of old stories used to fill up air time.

Shortening odds are just a reflection of increased numbers of people putting money on a name in hope of a payout. The shorter the odds, the lower the payout – so if people flood to a particular name, the bookmaker moves quickly to reduce the size of the payout on that name. The reason people flood towards a particular name is because that name keeps coming up in the speculation. So, Chris Wilder’s odds are shortening because more people believe what they’re hearing. They believe what they’re hearing because they’re hearing it so often. It’s like a Twitter trend; if a celebrity death trends on Twitter; eventually people believe the trend rather than the fact.

Neither club has said anything amongst all this; both sides will want to keep their powder dry in any current or future negotiation. If Oxford came out and said that it is true that Chris Wilder is likely to go to Coventry (after note: or Portsmouth or Northampton), then they effectively throw in their hand in the negotiation for compensation. If Coventry says they want Wilder, then his price goes up. As a result everyone keeps quiet whilst edging towards some sort of mutually agreed set of terms (if, of course, they are talking at all).

The only other factor here is outside agents; they may know something about any discussions that are going on between clubs. If the media spots a candidate at the ground of his pursuers, it is a pretty strong indication that something’s up. More covertly, agents of players and managers will facilitate movements by feeding information into the system.

It seems that most people know a bloke who knows a bloke who lives next door to the kit man who knows that Wilder is going. But, think about your boss or his boss’ boss; do you know if he’s applying for new job? I doubt it.

So, speculation and the recycling of speculation, appears to make up 90% of the source of any story. The emerging facts which tend make up the other 10% are not enough to fill up 24-hours of sports coverage on radio, TV, online and print. It helps to keep that in perspective when another retweet comes through about Wilder’s future.

The harsh realities of Chris Wilder

Well, that happened quicker than I’d expected. A defeat to Morecambe and we’ve been plunged into crisis. What’s more, it’s all Chris Wilder’s fault.

When Wilder was first appointed, he seemed to be the choice of impoverished and unambitious owners. A fortune was spent trying to blast our way out of the Conference, and when the wheels fell off the Merry and Jim happy bus, the club sought the services of the nice chap from within. However, Darren Patterson lacked the objectiveness to take on the deep challenges that lay at the heart of the Oxford problem.

Chris Wilder was different; an outsider, not just from Oxford, but almost from the entire management firmament. At Halifax he’d steered them to the edge of promotion with a team built of string and Blu Tac, he then avoided relegation despite a 10 point deduction as the club crumbled to dust around him. He then assisted Alan Knill in turning Bury around. Success is not a simple thing to define; but wherever he’d been, Wilder had made a positive impact.

“He understands budgets” was Ian Lenagan’s telling praise of his manager after the win against Swindon. At Oxford he had some money, unlike at Halifax, but he brought with him the understanding that he knew he had to use it well.

We approached Wilder with caution; he was a spiky northerner from small time football, an interloper amongst fancy dans of the southern sophisticates at Oxford. But he was lean and demanding, while we were bloated and expectant. We’d been to Wembley and played in the top flight, if others would just get out of our way, we’d be right back up there, that was the attitude. Those that were left were the best fans in the world, that’s what we told ourselves.

Wilder gave himself some space by calling Sam Deering his best player – highlighting that he had been disadvantaged by losing him to a broken leg in his first game in charge. We were docked five points, setting us back further. Admist this, he built some decent results and in James Constable, he had a template for ‘his type of player’. Everything else about the club, pretty much, was thrown on the fire and replaced. But, with results going our way and us being a bit shy we didn’t want to bother him about what he was doing.

We started 2009/10 like a rocket; and the good times kept rolling. Team, management and fans were as one because there was no real need to consider our differences. We played Eastbourne and cruised to a 4-2 win, but Wilder blew his top at our second half performance. This burst the bubble, the honeymoon was over.

What Wilder knew all along, and what we were too complicit in to realise, was that we were a club wallowing in self-importance and complacency. The late 2009 surge which just missed promotion was with a team that had ‘been thrown together’. However, we thought the success had been brought about by our spirit; we were told to ‘Believe’ and good things would happen. Wilder knew that magical powers weren’t going to sustain us and when, against Eastbourne, our standards dropped, he was quick to jump on it.

During another uncomfortable period he accused fans of living in the past; practically blaspheming when he dismissed the Milk Cup Final as something of ancient history. He was right, we weren’t prepared to accept that we were a failed club, slumming it with Conference pond life buoyed only by successes of men long gone. We might have seen Wilder as coming from ‘small time’ Bury, but the harsh reality is that he’d taken a step down to come to Oxford.

Although it is easy to back a manager who brings success; you’ll rarely find a fan totally happy with that man’s methods. That’s because he’s not there to be a fan, who collectively gain cohesion through a shared past of great games, cups, promotions, away days and players; a whimsical world of magical fairy stories that have boundaries. The manager’s job is to mould and organise a group of players into an effective unit within constraints of a finite budget. In comparison to the football dream, real football is instantly sobering.

Wilder’s criticism of the team on Saturday again opened up a small window into the real workings of a football club and its manager. He is not shirking responsibility; criticism of the players and the way they play is criticism of the man who chose them. And, on Saturday, who got it wrong.

Part of us wants him to join us in falling to the floor in dispair; making gradiose statements of how the whole season has fallen into disrepair. That’s the fans’ job, the role we play is to create a hystrionic sideshow which proves football to be more than a game. But, managers have to get up and go again, because if they’re hiding under the duvet fearful of leaving the house, nobody else is going to sort the problem out.

So, we want manager’s to behave like fans; but if they did that we’d barely be able to function. The history of football management is strewn with managers who have failed because they’ve believed in the magical powers of fan-like passion – Keegan and Shearer at Newcastle, Dalglish at Liverpool, Ardiles at Spurs. Amongst these are the real managers – Wenger, Ferguson, Westley and Steve Evans, who have brought success through a pigheaded dedication to practical management. I don’t like Evans or Westley, but it’s difficult to deny their effectiveness.

Wilder’s not here to preserve our past. He’s here to carve out our future. This will mean getting rid of things which we have become comfortable with, including players and a sense of entitlement. Success is more important to him than it is to us because we’ll be here through success and failure and he won’t. Therefore, you don’t have to like his methods, but you have to respect his right to be a manager.