When we refer to the rivalry between Oxford and Swindon, we are used to emphasising the differences between us. “They're not like us, they're...different” seems to be the prevailing discourse at both ends of the A420. However, in many ways the two clubs are rather similar. Both have a similar-sized core support, have each won a major trophy, spent just a few short years in the top flight and are both clubs who have traditionally lurched from one financial crisis to the next.
However, in the true spirit of rivalry, we're not going to focus on any of that stuff right now. Instead, this article looks at the contrasting ideologies dictating the way these two rivals operate. Most obviously, and most publicly, this is exemplified by the people in the dugout.
Casting our minds back to the dark days of December 2008, and the appointment of one Christopher John Wilder as Oxford United boss, the arrival of the former Halifax boss came as something of a surprise. He was not the highly-fancied choice, and with a host of more popular names linked with the job Oxford fans could have been forgiven for being left slightly underwhelmed by the move. However, as Kelvin Thomas explained at the time – and as has subsequently become apparent – Wilder would bring much-needed “grit, determination and focus” to the club. And Wilder's greatest asset? “He's very professional, and very determined”.
This is very much in keeping with the entire culture surrounding our club. A look at the most successful managers in our club's history is not a list of larger-than-life publicity machines, but instead sensible, professional and highly-respected managers with a knack for identifying a good bargain and building sensibly and sustainably. From Arthur Turner to Jim Smith to Denis Smith, the image of an archetypal Oxford manager begins to appear. In contrast, Firoz Kassam's dalliances with former top flight stars such as Mark Wright and Graham Rix were nothing short of disastrous at Oxford.
In Swindon, the situation is rather different. By appointing the controversial Paolo Di Canio as manager, Swindon have taken the complete opposite route to Oxford. The national press descended on Swindon for the announcement (having first had to dig out a sat-nav that actually knows where Swindon is), while Di Canio's headline-grabbing antics have since kept darkest Wiltshire bathed in limelight. As surprising as it may have been to see Paolo Di Canio taking the reigns at the County Ground, Swindon have previous in this respect and take pride in being a stepping stone for famous former stars to learn the ropes before leaving for bigger and better things.
In the 1980s, former Celtic and Man United star Lou Macari took Swindon from the Fourth Division to the Second before leaving to take over at West Ham. He was replaced by former Argentinian international Osvaldo Ardiles who earned the club even more publicity (for the wrong reasons) before leaving them in favour of Newcastle United. He was succeeded by Glenn Hoddle, who earned Swindon promotion to the Premier League only to depart the club for Chelsea that summer, leaving Swindon to suffer immediate and humiliating relegation. Evidently, Swindon's traditional blueprint for success differs hugely from ours and, given the differing contexts, it is perhaps not so surprising that Oxford and Swindon have chosen such vastly different approaches in the present day.
The differing ideologies are not simply limited to managerial preference either. Under the chairmanship of Kelvin Thomas, Oxford have generally run a very tight ship and over the last few years have turned a profit. Chris Wilder has been given a strict budget and has been forced to operate on a 'one in, one out' basis during the January transfer window. Swindon, on the other hand, have been making operating losses of several million pounds in recent seasons, but appear to have backed Di Canio with substantial funds, during both the summer and January transfer windows. As well as paying six-figure transfer fees and funding international relocations for new signings, the club have also this season turned down big money moves for some of their star players – a unique position for a club to be in at this level.
Such a difference of ideology only adds extra intrigue to these encounters, as was evidenced in the build-up to the big match at Swindon earlier in the season, when preparation in the two camps could not have been more different. Di Canio, in typical fashion, chose to sound off to the media ahead of the match, proclaiming it to be “our World Cup final” before turning his attention to James Constable, labelling him a Swindon supporter. On the other side of the divide, Chris Wilder took a rather different approach, declining to comment on any of the opposition players and attempting to dampen the hype surrounding the fixture, responding to the Swindon manager's antics by saying “We will keep our heads down and let them get on with it. You don't win anything with articles or quotes in the paper”.
Of course, back in August it was our steady and reserved approach that came out on top, with Constable's brace adding extra embarrassment to Di Canio, who was forced to eat his words afterwards, claiming he was given the 'wrong information' about Constable's allegiances. But Swindon didn't learn their lesson after this embarrassment, and have continued to be antagonistic after the event, launching an unsuccessful bid for Constable in January and, more recently, proclaiming themselves 'a thousand miles ahead' of Oxford. Perhaps they have good reason to be so confident, currently sat top of the league and on a club-record ten-match winning streak. However, their form and league position will mean little on Saturday with over 10,000 Oxford fans baying for blood, and following their recent pronouncements there is a decent chance that the Robins will be left red-faced again.