At a press conference held this morning, United chairman Ian Lenagan announced that manager Chris Wilder has signed a new one-year fixed-term contract to remain in charge for next season.
Good morning and welcome.
I am here to today to review the past season, on which more shortly, and to announce that the Board of Oxford United has decided to re-appoint Chris Wilder as Manager of Oxford United.
I am fully aware that many supporters, perhaps even a majority of supporters, have been expecting me to make a different decision. That is understandable. After three years of good progress under Chris’s Management, the last 14 months have seen that upward curve flatten out and the stated target this year of promotion has been missed.
In the circumstances, therefore, the easy decision would have been to dismiss Chris - the easy decision but, in the view of the Board, the wrong one.
I have not been slow to change Managers in the past when I felt that that decision was in the best interests of a club. Both here at Oxford (twice) and at Wigan Warriors (once) I have made the decision to part company with Managers I liked and respected because I felt that a fundamental change was necessary. However, this time we believe the situation to be very different.
We are convinced that, in Chris Wilder, Oxford United has a young Manager of high promise who is about to reach his potential, having learned some valuable - if painful - lessons over the last two years in the areas of player recruitment and dealing with fans. Having lived through some of those painful lessons recently with him, I am clear in my own mind that we at Oxford are about to reap the rewards.
Chris’s achievements at Oxford are already considerable, and should be noted. We are 30 places higher in football’s pyramid since he took over as manager four-and-a-half years ago. He ensured that this great Club is once again a Football League Club and respected by other clubs as a place where things are done properly.
His work ethic is without question; his understanding of the game from a technical and tactical viewpoint is widely acknowledged in football as I hear consistently when I speak to other senior people in the sport.
That is not to say that gratitude for the past is the reason we have made our decision. It is simply to recognise that, for a young Manager, Chris has already demonstrated considerable acumen and achieved significant successes and, importantly, has learned lessons as a Manager from the failings of the past two years. Add that acumen and learned experience to a stronger base here at Oxford United - with the Sports Science department and the Academy now firing on all cylinders ¬- and both he and we strongly believe that the upward curve we saw in Chris Wilder’s first three years at OUFC is about to be resumed.
In the unanimous opinion of the Board, it would be an emotional decision – not a rational or business decision – to change the Manager at this time, when success is potentially within reach. Far wiser to retain the Manager, refresh the squad where clearly needed and build upon the existing strengths and lessons learned in order to achieve next year the further 10 points or more needed for promotion.
In detail terms: Chris Wilder has accepted a new 12-month fixed-term contract with an option in favour of the Club to extend the contract further, on defined terms, if it chooses to.
Before moving on to my next important area, let me just say that I am always conscious when referring to my experiences with Wigan, that some Oxford supporters think it shows that I’m more of a rugby man than a football man.
I only refer to Wigan because I’ve been driving Wigan forward for six years and the experiences are relevant and valid. At Wigan too, we made some decisions that were unpopular with fans and supporters three or four years ago. Now, happily, those decisions are perceived to have been the right ones, with Wigan profitable and currently at the top of Super League for the second year running whilst regularly putting out 11 local lads onto the pitch.
That last point is a critical part of the Board’s future vision for Oxford United as a Club which understands that it is Oxfordshire’s professional sports club. We want Oxfordshire people to be proud of the club; to feel proud of Oxfordshire youngsters coming through into the game and, as fans, to feel bound to their club by these strong local and family ties.
That is why the Board – and especially my son, Simon – have spent so much time and money in recent years investing in the Youth and Community Trust. The fruits of that effort are now beginning to show with the Youth and Ladies teams having an excellent season whilst - for the first time in over a decade -next season will see almost 25% of the Oxford United first-team squad having come from the Academy ranks.
Nor does it look like stopping there.
Chris Allen’s Youth Team has had a fantastic season doing well in the FA Youth Cup and having been only narrowly pipped for their League title. Many of the players in Chris’s team were only first-year apprentices who will be looking for an even better second-year to put them in line for professional contracts this time next year.
With the greater opportunities arising for Oxford United as a result of other clubs choosing to scale back their Youth Development, it is the Board’s belief that Youth Development is the best strategy to support Oxford United’s further progression up the League pyramid.
I am happy to say that Chris Wilder supports this strategy entirely.
Let me turn now to a review of this season at first-team level. I became Chairman of the club into the season on July 13th. I have been working hard since then to understand all facets of the organisation. I have travelled all over the country to watch the team on 38 occasions so I’ve shared the frustrations - and some moments of joy - with those loyal fans who spend considerable amounts of money and time following the team home and away.
It became clear to me before the start of the season, and was reinforced in September that our injury problems were a mountainous obstacle to overcome. Some of our best players were absent for very long periods. To give an example, anyone who has seen Andy Whing play recently will probably appreciate just how valuable an asset he would have been during those long winter months. At one point, almost half of our entire wages budget was being paid to players who were in the treatment room. Given that situation, it would have been a remarkable achievement if we had actually managed to sneak into the play-offs. Unfortunately, we didn’t!
Understanding the importance of fitness and medical science, the Board invested nearly £200,000 last summer in creating a top-class Sports Science function at the club. The Board knew full well that the investment would come too late for players who were already injured for long periods. But we were determined that we would not find ourselves in the same situation again of competing with one hand behind our backs!
I believe that the club will now start to see the benefits, both in terms of a decline in long-term injury incidence but also in terms of selecting which players we bring to the club and in building a refreshed squad able to cope with the rigours of a League 2 season.
That said - there have been numerous positives to take from the season. We performed credibly in Cup competitions. We demonstrated at some of the better clubs in the division that we have the class to out-play any side at this level. The captain Jake Wright had an outstanding season. Other players such as Alfie Potter continued to progress: scoring more than 10 goals and operating in a variety of positions as required.
Meanwhile, both Ty Marsh and Max Crocombe were blooded into the first team, and demonstrated that – given plenty of further hard work – they have the ability to perform at senior level.
The bottom line, though, is that we’re about 10 points off where we’d have liked to have been at this stage. Those are largely points that were dropped in September and October when we were struggling to get a fit team out on the pitch.
The challenge, then, for next season is to make all the improvements we can to bridge that gap and to be successful.
Let me be absolutely clear: it will not be straightforward or easy. Promotion remains the clear target, but for us to achieve that we will have to out-perform our salary budget which is around the seventh highest in this league. However, my instincts, beliefs and experience - drawn from both sport and business - tell me that promotion is eminently achievable provided everyone plays their part.
We on the Board must make the right decisions as to where to invest. Chris Wilder must select the right players to come in and improve the squad. The young lads we have signed as professionals must work hard and improve their skills to break into the first team.
And, of course, the fans and supporters of Oxford United must come out and support us!
This desire to see all parts of the club pulling together as one is why we have chosen as our slogan ‘United We Stand’.
It is because we now have a club worthy of Oxfordshire. A club that is once again ready to achieve. But it is so, so much more likely to happen:
• When we are United behind our goals
• When we are United behind our players
• When we are United behind our Manager
History suggests that when Oxford United stands united, success follows.