Arse-licker: (noun) An individual who supports a football manager who has delivered progress in every season of his tenure, whilst also accepting the aforementioned manager's errors.
Hang on. That's not what it means? Now I'm confused. The kind members of 'Yellows Forum' informed me that I was an 'arse-licker' for the exact reasons outlined above. Next you'll be telling me that the forum isn't an online conglomeration of the finest minds associated with Oxford United...
Whether it makes me an 'arse-licker', a 'disciple' or any other form of insult that comes with supporting someone who has improved my football club during a difficult spell, I am behind Chris Wilder. I'm not ashamed to say it and whatever the internet tells me, I don't think I am in a minority either.
I am extremely disappointed by the manner in which our season capitulated. I have seen us beat Swindon twice and come a wonder-goal away from repeating the trick against Shrewsbury Town, another promoted side. Over those 360 minutes, we proved that we can be a good team. Despite the immensely frustrating home draws with the likes of Bradford, Aldershot, Burton and Hereford making an automatic promotion push difficult, we should still have been able to comfortably negotiate April and May with enough points to secure a play-off berth.
There is no disguising the fact that we have failed to achieve our minimum goal. More importantly, there has been no attempt to do so from within the club. Kelvin Thomas says we should have been in the play-offs. Chris Wilder says we should have been in the play-offs. When the play-offs take place, there will not be many players who are not thinking that they should be in the play-offs. There seems to be a belief that the disappointing end to the campaign does not hurt the club's staff as much as it hurts the fans. It will be doing.
In preparation for this piece, I have had a browse of the available online mouthpieces to gauge the opinion of web-capable Oxford fans (this obviously ignores the number of fans who have become so frustrated by the sensationalism surrounding every event at Oxford United that they have given up using such tools). Research suggests that I am not reacting how I should be. I am not converting my frustration into anger and I have not once questioned the parentage of Chris Wilder or hammered four-letter insults into my keyboard. It still amazes me that football can drive people to form such dislike of an individual who is striving to match the fans' ambitions. I take comfort in the knowledge that promotion next season would see the manager transform into a hero once more and humble pie sales go through the roof.
Online facilities such as Twitter, Facebook and football forums provide fans with a platform, the size of which have never been seen before. They are a forum for immediate emotional response upon which like-minded fans can converge. They can create 'hash-tags' and 'groups' to spread their opinions and whilst those with more extreme views have always existed, they have never been so easily heard. They are all entitled to their opinion. They may even turn out to be right. However, it's a method of opposition that clubs have never had to deal with before.
Whether you view online speech as a positive or negative factor, the fact is that it exists and will remain for a long time. When embracing this, there is one key factor that irritates me more than any name-calling or southern superiority complex (and where on earth has this come from in a club who have worshipped the likes of Shotton, Aldridge and Briggs?): why do none of these fans provide any reasoned explanation? I think we are all happy to listen to reasoned debate about Oxford United, but I am yet to get any deeper than 'We messed up. Wilder is very silly.' These aren't the exact words, but none of the various expletives are a precursor to an explanation that satisfies me. I appreciate that some would like a change of manager. Fine. However, please tell me, who you would like to come in? What qualities does this manager have that Chris Wilder lacks? What are the key changes that you would like to see? I can't promise I will agree with you, but I will give your argument a great deal more time if it isn't packed with isolated insults.
You may have gathered that a great deal of online fans irritate me. 'Yellows Forum' isn't worth the time of day and yet like a motorway shunt, you can't help but have a glance. Invariably, as soon as you see the catastrophic events that are taking place, you wish you hadn't. As a word of advice, there are an 'elite' available on Twitter who will provide logical reasoning, whatever their point of view. I like to think that these people present similar views to those who don't utilise internet forums, merely because it allows me to believe that the world is a slightly happier place.
So far we have established that I don't like a great deal about the internet, I am disappointed by the conclusion to our season and I support Chris Wilder. Considering I am supposed to be writing about the latter, I will attempt to end the rant with some of my own logic.
To provide balance, I will reiterate that I am not happy with our season. We were good enough to be in the play-offs and a return of 3 points from our last 7 league games was pitiful. There are undeniably questions to be answered. However, I want Chris Wilder to be given the opportunity to answer these questions.
I have supported Oxford United in some desperate times. I've seen multiple relegations, useless football and players that I wouldn't welcome in my Sunday team. This is a great deal better than that so let's not pretend that we are witnessing the lowest of the low. However frustrating, this was Oxford United's best finish since Ian Atkins' days. We also play football now. Yes, it should have been better than the Atkins' days and the collapse now hurts as much as it did then, but why are we acting as if we are about to fall out of the Football League once more?
Fans of Oxford United have great expectations. We were once a top level club and have consistently played at a higher level, but I honestly believed we had got over the theory that we deserve promotion due to our previous successes. This is a club that was on its knees in the Conference, yet should now breeze through the leagues on name alone. Our attendances are reflected by a budget that should have enabled us to do better than we did, but let's not pretend that we are rivalling some of the teams that are (or were) in League Two in terms of player expenditure. We have no divine right to win promotion and like the other good clubs in this league, will have to do something special to be promoted from it.
Expectations haven't been helped by the rapid rise of teams like Stevenage, who have made the transition between divisions seamlessly with a relatively consistent squad. The achievements at that club have been phenomenal, but they are an exception and not a measure of the minimum requirement. There was no desperate need to be promoted this season, as there had been in the Blue Square Premier days. We all wanted it, but why does the atmosphere suggest that we are on the brink of ultimate failure? We are not as far superior to last year as we should have been, but we are still better. Chris Wilder's record reads, simply, as follows:
Year One – rapid improvement from lower-half to play-off chasers.
Year Two – play-off winners.
Year Three – mid-table transitional period.
Year Four – Failure to achieve the play-offs.
By my calculations, I make that one explicit disappointment and one set-back that was immediately salvaged in the BSP play-offs. That the disappointment comes from missing the League Two play-offs with our highest finish for nine years tells you a great deal about what Chris Wilder has achieved. We have progressed massively and I am not keen to become a club that employs a 'one strike and you're out' policy.
The other main criticism from some quarters is that Wilder has “taken us as far as he can”. How do we know that? Granted, the improvement this season was lesser than anticipated in March, but we haven't gone backwards. Furthermore, that overlooks the fact that we have had some miserable luck this season. Tom Craddock gets the kind of goals that we have been lacking, yet has barely crossed the whitewash. Alfie Potter, however frustrating, is a nightmare for opposition defences and makes us a far more potent attacking unit. We've been without him for four months. Peter Leven? Plagued by injury since January. Having those three players fit throughout would have considerably improved the quality that has been so lacking in the final third this year.
What about the players who have been brought in? Rob Hall was exceptionally talented, but was removed from our squad for reasons out of our control. Lee Holmes was also a fantastic signing, but the luxurious finances available elsewhere ensured that his stay was a brief one. We all complain about the signing of Dean Morgan, but would it have ever happened if our own players were fit or first-choice loan players had been obtainable in the long-term? Of course not.
There have been misses (Guy, Philliskirk and the ultimate, Smalley), but Wilder has had a sizeable dose of bad luck this season. I may be accused of being overly optimistic, but I don't think that our full squad is a long way off achieving promotion. Greater midfield creativity is needed in the summer and a wide player with the ability of Hall and Holmes who is signed on our own books would be a valuable asset. Compared to the teams around us, our defence is strong and provides a good platform upon which to build. Promotion was lost in the opposition's defensive third, where profligate doesn't do our finishing justice.
There is no denying that this is the crucial summer in Wilder's tenure. Our home record is nowhere near good enough and to achieve our ambitions next season, we simply have to score more goals. This involves greater quality in delivery from wide, drive from midfield and composure amongst our strikers. If we are unable to bring in sufficient quality, we will stutter again next season and there will be no excuse. However, I am yet to see a good reason why Wilder should not be given the opportunity to give promotion another crack.
I trust that Chris Wilder is every bit as disappointed in our season from the end of March onwards and that he will learn from the mistakes of this season. Despite what some may have you believe, Wilder gets more decisions right than he gets wrong. The absolute minimum expectation for next season will rightly be a play-off place and another failure to achieve that would deservedly lead to questions. However, if we change manager every time we have a setback, we are not the kind of club that I thought we were. I've seen us chop and change management and it didn't end well. I appreciate what Chris Wilder has done for Oxford United and I have enjoyed the majority of his tenure immensely. I care as much about gaining promotion as the next man, but I truly believe that a change in manager would be every bit as likely to set us back as it would to improve us.
I would be disappointed in Oxford United if we became a club who chucked a loyal manager out after one disappointing season and I would be more disappointed if our own fans tried to make it happen.
Bookmark this and bring it back to me next May. I think Chris Wilder will get things right.