Monday, 27 January 2014

Wilder Walks

Chris Wilder has left Oxford United to join Northampton Town in a move that brings to an end a five year period in charge at the Kassam Stadium.  What legacy will his reign leave and what is next for 'The U's'?

Let's be honest, the managerial job at Oxford United is never going to attract any major names in world football or even English football for that matter.  But as Oxford fans, we have always hoped to attract a reasonably big name for the level we are at. It was the back end of 2008 and the club was sat 13th in the Conference Premier looking up to footballing giants such as Histon, Weymouth and Ebbsfleet United, when the announcement came that a Christopher John Wilder had been appointed as the new manager at the Kassam Stadium. I have no recollection of where I was at that moment but I do remember a quick google informing me that Wilder had been acting as assistant manager at Bury. His CV read of past ventures at Alfreton Town and Halifax Town, nothing immediately inspiring. However, reading deeper, he spent six years in charge at Halifax and took them to the brink of promotion from the Conference before the debt hit in and the club eventually folded. Perhaps, this good knowledge of non-league's top tier could be a vital component in the tool box he would utilise as manager of Oxford United.

The Beginning.
Date: 26th December 2008.
Venue: Raymond McEnhill Stadium, Salisbury.
Result: Salisbury City 2-1 Oxford United
Position: 14th in Blue Square Premier.

Losing to a team even lower in the league than us wasn't the best way to introduce himself to the Oxford fans but to give Wilder credit, just two days later we thumped Ebbsfleet 5-1 at home. Scorers including Lewis 'Orange' Haldane and Phil 'The Power' Trainer - shudder. Just three league defeats in Wilder's first twenty-two games saw us go on a surge towards the playoffs but the deduction of four points from an admin cock-up error ultimately cost us. Nevertheless, it sparked a sense of optimism from the majority of fans for the upcoming 2009/10 season. The signings of Jack Midson, Dannie Bulman and Ryan Clarke within days of the season finishing heightened this optimism. The further additions of Mark Creighton, Alfie Potter and James Constable on a permanent deal made the new look Oxford team a force to be reckoned with. (I will skim over the signings of Marcus Kelly and Alex Rhodes).

Oxford United: Class of 2009/10 - PlayOff Winners

A 2-1 victory over York City (more on them shortly) on the opening day with goals in the 88th and 90th minutes perhaps should have warned us all of the drama to come during the season. But having waltzed into 2010 with a five point lead at the top of the table - all seemed very well. Anthony Tonkin, Jake Wright and Chris Hargreaves were added to the squad during the January window as Wilder looked to boost the ranks for the promotion run-in. The loan signings of Lewis Chalmers and John Grant can be filed alongside the aforementioned Kelly and Rhodes.

But then the wheels appeared to fall off (a regular second half season phenomena during CW's time in charge), by mid-march, we had dropped to third and were four points behind Stevenage. A mini recovery in April with just one defeat in six saw a play-off spot confirmed and a two legged tie against Rushden & Diamonds. After drawing 1-1 at Nene Park, goals from Constable and Matt Green in the return leg fired us to Wembley to face York City (them again) who had kindly dispatched of Luton Town on their own route to the final. I still maintain to this day, if we had played Luton, we wouldn't have won. As it was, we faced the Minstermen, a team who we had claimed four points from with the opening day victory and a 1-1 draw in October despite having 3 shots on target in total over both games.

With two goals in the opening 20 minutes of the final, we should have killed the contest but Ryan Clarke decided to make it more interesting by fumbling a Ben Purkiss cross into his own net to give York a lifeline. After comfortably (kind of) holding out during the second half, the moment was set for this...

I used to think I was quite a subdued supporter, but when Alfie Potter tucked that third goal away in the 90th minute, I found myself hugging a man with a yellow face and dancing about in sheer delight. Almost four years later, I have yet to have experienced another moment that has given me such a feeling of relief and enjoyment. The second best memory from that day? The chants of  'Are You Watching Luton Town' whilst walking down the many many steps from the top tier and down onto Wembley Way. The journey home (back to York in my case) was a blur, we were a football league club once again and Chris Wilder had masterminded this return all be it via a rather up and down route..

7th August 2010
The Pirelli Stadium, Burton-on-Trent and the "Oxford are back, Oxford are back" chants were ringing around as over 1500 fans packed the away sections to welcome their team to League Two football. It was an anti-climax with a 0-0 draw but seeing the team back on the coupon (Credit to Jerome Sale for that one) was the main draw of the day. It soon became clear that Mr Wilder would not keep players just because they were involved in the promotion effort. Messers Bulman, Creighton, Deering, Green, Midson were all binned before the end of the first season joining the likes of Adam Murray and Billy Turley who had left after the Wembley final. The first season back ended with one win from the last seven games after a substantial time spent flirting with the play-offs and a final position of 12th.

The 11/12 season followed a similar pattern but with more strange signings. The likes of Mehdi Kerrouche, Mark Wilson and Jonathan Franks donning the famous yellow shirt. It did contain two more of the finest moments under Chris Wilder - home and away victories over arch rivals Swindon Town.

We win again Mr Di Canio

After another chase of the play-offs and this time one win from the final eight games, United finished four points off seventh place on 68 points. For those who like that kind of thing - five points better off than the previous season. For some fans, this is where Mr Wilder should have departed the club whilst for others, they believed in another chance to chase promotion.

The 2012/13 season started well with a league cup win over Bournemouth, three straight wins in the league and another win over Swindon - this time in the JPT. The summer additions of Sean Rigg and Jake Forster-Caskey were performing well whilst Tom Craddock and Deane Smalley had both hit the goal trail early. Six straight defeats followed the perfect start and dropped us into 17th place by the end of September. The second half of the season followed the standard Wilder consistent at being inconsistent pattern and with more strange signings such as Josh Parker and Justin Richards, Wilder's failure to learn from past mistakes was becoming more apparent. Three straight wins from the final three games was not enough to sneak a play-off spot and the club finished marooned in 9th on 65 points.

The close season saw the usual speculation from all corners on Wilder's future - should he go or should he stay? We didn't have to wait very long, chairman Ian Lenagan announced that Wilder had signed a new one year contract and would no longer be on a rolling deal. This agreement came with a remit that an extension would be discussed once it was clear whether United were well in the promotion race - a suggested date in the media had been the back end of January. To aid his promotion quest, Wilder was handed the funds to sign Jon Meades, Danny Rose, David Hunt and Tom Newey. In addition, Wilder completed the major signings of Johnny Mullins and Dave Kitson whilst brining in Asa Hall and Ryan Williams on loan deals. A number of players were also signed to the clubs new development squad in a bid to re-ignite the chairman's ambition to bring through young players.

2013/14: It all started so well
A fantastic 4-1 victory at Fratton Park over title favourites Portsmouth brought fresh hope that United would finally be looking up to League One. An unbeaten league started lasted until 21st September where the visit of Chesterfield was the first of five home defeats experience so far this season. Away from the Kassam, the U's remain unbeaten going into tomorrow's game at Exeter City. A feat which perhaps highlights some of the flaws in the tactics and/or side that Wilder often uses at home.

The failure to reach at least a play-off position in each of the clubs three seasons back in the football league alongside criticisms of negative tactics had left some fans on Wilder's back and two home defeats in a row against Plymouth and Scunthorpe prompted more fans to join the ever growing anti-Wilder group. For Wilder himself, his decision to attend an interview at Portsmouth perhaps indicated his attentions were not 100% on Oxford United and their promotion push so when news broke of Northampton Town's interest, it was expected that he would leave. After a bizarre sequence of events that included a 1-0 HOME victory, an announced resignation and a denial of any resignation, this morning, Northampton Town announced Chris Wilder as their new manager after agreeing compensation with Oxford United chairman Ian Lenagan. It brought about a sad way to end a five year spell in charge at the Kassam but also left a fresh atmosphere at the club with many in the media and in the stands suggesting that things had gone stale with Wilder at the helm.

The End.
Date: 25th January 2014.
Venue: Kassam Stadium, Oxford.
Result: Oxford United 1-0 Torquay United
Position: 6th in SkyBet League Two.

Chris Wilder leaves Oxford United just two points off the automatic promotion spots to join a Northampton side six points adrift at the bottom. But with a record of 269 games, 121 wins, 70 draws and 78 losses - a win ratio of 44.98%

For me, I'm not as upset as the departure of Wilder as I had expected to be. Perhaps the saga of how it was handled and the apparent lack of any learnings from previous seasons have finally worn away my relatively patient nature. But as a club and a fanbase we now move on, the aim for this season still has to be promotion and as a group of fans we are more important now than at any stage during the last 3 and a half seasons.
My choice for the new manager? Paul Tisdale. Has earned promotion out of this league and has been able to produce good attacking sides on very limited budgets.


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