Three years ago Oxford United fell to their lowest ever position in their 122 year history. They had dropped out of the 92 Football League and into the lowly depths of the Non-League. Now, though, just four years later, it is only fellow Blue Square Premier League rivals York city and ninety minutes of frenetic football which stand between manager Chris Wilder and his group of players and a return to heights of the Football League. The stakes could not be any higher.
For Oxford United, the road to recovery has been a long and arduous one. Since relegation from the top flight in 1988, the club has been on an 18-year decline which culminated in a final blow for the club with their relegation to the Blue Square Premier League in 2006. There is, above all, one reason which encapsulates the Us calamitous fall into the Non-League: instability. A total of sixteen managers have passed through the club’s revolving door in just twenty years – that really does say it all.
Although, the picture painted so far has been one of doom and gloom, it is important to underline that in the 1980s the club enjoyed unrivalled success. Under the leadership of the ex-Derby County manager and now a member on the Oxford United Board, Jim Smith, otherwise known as ‘The Bald Eagle,’ he led Oxford United to successive promotions into the First Division, and under his successor, Maurice Evans, the League Cup. Such heady heights echoed the glory days of the club in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s when silverware was the norm. Since the 1980s though, silverware and success has been in very short supply.
Although the club has been blighted by problems on the field, the same can be said for the club off the field. Relegation from one league after the other inevitably took its toll on the club’s finances and a constant change at boardroom level has also not helped. Nevertheless, the club made a giant stride in 2001 with the completion of their current stadium, The Kassam Stadium, built by former chairman Firoz Kassam. In The Kassam Stadium, the Us are currently the best supported club in the Blue Square Premier League and have had the largest average attendance every year since joining the league. The infrastructure for the present and future is there, the support has been unwavering throughout and in manager Chris Wilder the club could potentially be going places.
Since joining the club in December 2008, the former Halifax manager has enjoyed a successful period in charge. Whilst just missing out on the playoffs last year, this year Wilder has guided the Us through to the playoff final and within reach of a return to the Football League. Yet, given their outstanding form in the first half of the season, Wilder will undoubtedly feel a tinge of disappointment at not getting automatically promoted. And the great hope is that lightning won’t strike twice. Four years ago the Us reached the playoffs only to taste disappointment and not champagne. Nevertheless, Wilder has bought shrewdly during his short period in charge, and in striker James Constable, Oxford United possess one of the most dangerous, in-form and highly sought after strikers in the division. Furthermore, captain Adam Murray has added a distinct steeliness to the midfield and defender Mark Creighton has shown total commitment throughout their campaign.
Unlike his predecessors, Wilder has placed round pegs in round holes. Having established a strong spine throughout the team, Wilder has introduced a new dimension to the Oxford United team: that of fast flowing absorbing football. Above all though, Wilder and current chairman Kelvin Thomas have, as it currently stands, brought something which all Us fans have been craving for for many years: stability.
When the Us walk out onto the Wembley turf on Sunday, the question which all Us fans will be asking themselves is which Oxford United side will turn up. If it is the side who faded away towards the end of the season, they may as well prepare for a fifth season of non-league football, but if it’s the Oxford United team that dominated the opening half of the season, then success may well return to the Yellows and Chris Wilder may well be on the way to writing himself into the Oxford United history books.