Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Bipolar Relationship Between Chris Wilder and Oxford United Supporters

So Chris Wilder has reached the milestone of three years in the job at OUFC, something I doubt many would have predicted three years ago, given that we had endured ten managerial changes in the preceding decade. One striking aspect of Wilder's reign – and this has been thrown into sharp relief in recent weeks – is the extreme extent to which he polarises the opinion of supporters. To a certain extent we would experience this no matter who is in charge (let's not forget the 'Pattonistas' and the 'anti-Pattos' during Darren Patterson's ill-fated tenure) but Wilder in particular appears to be divisive like no other figure currently at the club.

Fans were divided immediately upon Chris Wilder's appointment, some being were disappointed that the club had opted for the 'cheap option' instead of bringing in a recognisable face, while others pointed to the job Wilder had done at Halifax for justification. Throughout that first season, however, signs of the tension which has since been so marked amongst the fanbase were practically non-existent. The almost immediate upturn in results was surely a huge factor in this, United picking up 47 points following Wilder's appointment halfway through the season (23 league matches).

However, there were other factors which caused fans to unite behind Wilder during this time. The controversial points deduction fostered a siege mentality amongst supporters and as a result Wilder was backed without question. Furthermore, Wilder's blunt, no-nonsense approach that so divides fans now was a welcome change from Patterson's 'matey' style of management and his arrival plainly gave the underperforming team the kick up the backside they needed. Wilder's occasional outbursts, to which we have now become so accustomed, were at that time limited to the players or the Conference board and supporters had not yet been the subject of his ire.

It was Wilder's first full season at the club that we began to see the now-familiar divisions appear as attitudes towards our manager started to polarise between worship and contempt. With the form the side had finished the previous season in, and with several big signings in the summer, Wilder's task was obviously promotion, and the season began as planned with Oxford taking an early lead at the top of the table with a ten-game unbeaten run. But Wilder began to attract criticism (fairly) after again slating the players following a 4-0 victory over Eastbourne – with that result being immediately followed by our first defeat of the season, away at Mansfield.

Wilder's first significant clash with the fans came in December 2009, almost a year into the job, as he raged against a section of the crowd who booed Adam Murray for taking the ball into the corner at the end of a 4-2 win over Ebbsfleet. This, in my opinion, is where the tide began to tun for a section of supporters. A manager or player who publicly criticises their supporters must be aware that they will alienate a portion of those supporters for good and there is very little that will win them back. This was a big price to pay for something so petty. Relations were further soured when, during the team's mid-season blip, Wilder angered fans by dismissing the club's history as irrelevant to their current position in the league. The point was actually a very fair one, but with Oxford's history being about the only aspect of the club that supporters had been able to take pride in for quite some time, many supporters were angered at what they saw as an attack on the club's proud history.

However, the 09/10 season shouldn't be portrayed as one of ever-worsening relations because that is simply not true. There were many instances throughout this period when Wilder worship was evident. For example, in the build up to the playoff final a range of Chris Wilder masks were produced for 12th Man Fund which proved to be incredibly popular. The sight of Wilder running up the touchline at Wembley when the winning goal went in is etched in the minds of most fans and is an iconic moment. The fact that promotion was ultimately secured at the end of the season ensured that Chris Wilder joins the very exclusive list of Oxford managers who have actually achieved some degree of success at the club.

Back in the Football League, the debate over Wilder's future has continued to roar and seems likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Much of this debate appears to stem from differing expectations of what the club should be achieving. Many fans look at clubs like Exeter and Stevenage who have simply passed through League Two and feel we should do the same. To some extent I can empathise with this view, but this displays impatience and shortsightedness. Perhaps progress has been slower than some supporters would have hoped, but it is progress nonetheless. Under Chris Wilder we have consistently improved and continue to move in the right direction after many years of decline, and as long as this continues to be the case we should support Wilder to continue that progress.

That there should even be a debate over a manager who has led this club to its first Wembley appearance since 1986, its first promotion since 1996 and its first victory away at Swindon since 1973 is perhaps perverse. But Wilder is blunt, irritable, occasionally fiery and certainly not afraid of speaking his mind, and this is what divides opinion about him. Sometimes it's easy to forget that Wilder has done a very good job at this club and is constantly looking to improve even three years down the line. Every time we suffer a poor run the same old arguments resurface and this seems likely to continue for as long as Wilder remains in the dugout at the Kassam. Perhaps Kemp, Rix and Talbot have been forgotten by some, but they should serve as a reminder of some of the poor managerial appointments made under past regimes at this club. Ultimately, though, arguments about Chris Wilder serve to highlight one simple fact about human nature: the grass is always greener on the other side.


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