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.
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.