Saturday 25th January 2014 ko 15.00
OXFORD UNITED 1 (Smalley 6)
TORQUAY UNITED 0
Att 4,744 (322 away)
Programme £3 (inc Oxford Mail)
There are some advantages of writing this article a few days after the event, Saturday was nothing if not bizarre!
On the pitch, it was a routine Chris Wilder game, dull, uninspiring, against a team in desperate trouble at the bottom of the table. The one bright moment was Deane Smalley’s well-taken goal, but many eyes were less on the pitch and more on the home dugout.
Ever since manager Chris Wilder was offered and accepted a one-year contract in the summer the clock was always ticking. Ticking on either his departure, or ticking on chairman and owner Ian Lenagan offering a contract extension. It soon turned into a contest of brinkmanship, and despite United being in the play-off zone, the home form was sufficiently poor for Lenagan to keep his powder dry.
Seldom has a manager polarised opinion like Chris Wilder. On one hand he took United from struggling in the Conference to promotion-chasers in League 2, beating the old enemy Swindon 3 times along the way. On the other, there was a real sense that his tenure had run its course, the football at times looked one-directional, and the goals had dried up.
Normally when a manager leaves a club he’s either been sacked or he’s resigned to join a bigger club, so Wilder joining Northampton is unusual but not illogical. Once he agreed to speak to Portsmouth earlier in the season, it was clear that a reasonable club offering him reasonable terms would see him depart rapidly, and a three-and-a half-year contract at Sixfields was an offer he could hardly turn down even if the Cobblers League position is desperate, 6 points from safety. Lenagan’s refusal to let him speak to Northampton forced Wilder’s hand and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one sat in the stand knowing what would happen at the final whistle.
Wilder’s body language spoke volumes during the game. Sat down for the entirety of the first half and morose during the second, at the end he shook hands with his assistant Mickey Lewis, and Torquay manager Chris Hargreaves (who he both signed and released for Oxford), told the players he was leaving and drove away. He didn’t tell Lenagan, who was left telling the media that he understood his manager had left, and that Lewis had agreed to become caretaker manager.
It got more bizarre that evening when Wilder announced, presumably on the advice of his agent that he hadn’t resigned. Thankfully Lenagan, Wilder, and Northampton managed to negotiated an agreeable package to all parties, and Wilder was unveiled as Cobblers’ manager on Monday morning.
So where next? Lenagan watchers will know that he will not be rushed, and that the process will be kept quiet until the new man is announced. With the culture of secrecy at board level I fully expect the rumours to fly, already the likes of Kevin Keen, Martin Allen, and Mickey Lewis have been touted as the next permanent manager, and as I type Lenagan has announced that already he’s received 50 applications.
So tomorrow its AFC Wimbledon at home. With striker David Connolly at the club on loan from Portsmouth for the rest of the season, but Jake Wright out for a minimum of 4 weeks with a gash sustained saving the win for a manager who didn’t want to be there, changes will be made, particularly in the defence. I hope Mickey Lewis will look to be more positive at home than his predecessor, I’d imagine he’ll have to be to stand a chance of getting the job on a permanent basis
To finish there was one piece of potentially good news. Fellow stadium tenants London Welsh RUFC have applied to build temporary stands at Marriotts Stadium, the derelict home of defunct Witney Town FC. The Exiles moved to Oxford as a means of getting a ground suitable for top-flight rugby. They opted to sign only a one-year deal with Kassam, and annoyed all those connected with Oxford United by plotting to buy the ground from underneath them. If they’d bothered to speak to OUFC first, they’d have learned that Kassam is difficult to deal with, and now find themselves playing second tier rugby in front of crowds of around 1,200. Franchise rugby clearly works less well even than in football, and its now clear that their continued presence is unwelcome, both in terms of pitch damage, and the pressure on Kassam to sell to OUFC (two sets of rent rather than just one). Hopefully they’ll quietly depart and ruin Witney RUFC’s attendances. Why they can’t invest in infrastructure is beyond me.
These are interesting times for Oxford United, and other than the chaos when Wilder walked out without actually seeing Lenagan first, the situation has been handled professionally. That bodes well for the next few weeks which will be crucial not just for the season, but further into the future as well.