The rebirth of JP Pittman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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