A walk on the Wilder side

Sitting in the sunny dug-out at the Kassam Stadium, it is hard to believe that the relaxed man sitting opposite me is the same man who ferociously patrolled the technical area at Wembley on that memorable afternoon just two weeks ago.

And well he might be relaxed, after a rollercoaster season which saw Oxford let the title slip between their fingers, but then achieve promotion with a breath-taking display at Wembley.

The U’s have swung from the dread of another season in the Blue Square to preparing for an assault on the upper echelons of football.

An attitude of excitement, optimism and ambition is palpable throughout the stadium, from the players to the manager and the men and women behind the scenes that keep Oxford Utd heading to the bright lights of league football.

“Mission accomplished” remarks Chris Wilder with a wry smile when asked about Oxford’s season in retrospect, especially after the debacle that was the end of last season.

The manager’s appraisal of last year’s play-off disaster (where Oxford slipped from the play-off positions after being docked points for playing an unregistered player) as being “emotionally mixed” stakes a claim to being understatement of the year.

Nevertheless, looking towards the U’s future in League Two, Wilder gives a considered reply, explaining how there is “an element of going into the unknown … but we are just looking to get as many points as possible, win as much and not get beat.”

Neither brashly optimistic nor unnecessarily pessimistic, it is hard to fault Wilder’s perspective particularly when he points out how well teams of the Conference have done in League Two historically, and also how the club is “well run on and off the pitch”, something which is taken less and less for granted these days as the likes of Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday make it clear that financial risk isn’t consigned to the Premier League.

What of the Oxford squad? The permanent signing of Steven Kinniburgh just moments after our conversation shows a confident and practical approach to the transfer market, focusing on consolidation rather than massive upheaval.

“I think we’ve got a group of players who can handle the division” Wilder says, “[there will be] no major changes … but we’re always looking to improve in every department.”

Given some of the performances put on by the likes of Constable and Creighton amongst others over the past few months, this isn’t a stance that will worry many Oxford fans.

And it is Oxford fans that Wilder points to as being key to this recent upturn in fortune: “Things like the civic reception give you the hunger to repeat the success, to get more…and supporters trust the club, and have seen us as an honest, hardworking group of people.”

Judging from the yellow and blue carnival that appeared on Broad Street to welcome home the all conquering heroes, he’s not wrong there either.

So what does he think about the town and gown coming together at the Kassam every Saturday?

“I see no reason why the relationship between the club and the university can’t be a good one, it would be great if the students came and watched the games…there’s a great atmosphere at the ground, it’s a great environment to watch football,” Wilder says,

New signing Steve Kinniburgh shares Wilder’s optimism for the future and also feels that the atmosphere around the Kassam is something special.

“Going up a division is a challenge but not one a club of this size can’t handle. Hopefully we’ll push on and be near the top end of the league by this time next season” remarks the towering left back.

Kinniburgh adds: “When you come here on a Saturday there’s great support, and a great atmosphere and it would be fantastic to see students come down and support the club.”

Next season could be the start of a new era for Oxford United under the excellent stewardship of Chris Wilder and it’s a start that the whole club want the student population to be a part of — from the stands through the board room and into the dug-out.

All that remains is for students to realise what they’ve been missing and catch the yellow and blue bug.