Thursday is the anniversary of a fondly remembered night for longer-serving Oxford United supporters. It was exactly 30 years ago this evening that Jim Smith's Third Division side beat Manchester United 2-1 in the League Cup fourth round, Steve Biggins' extra-time header sealing victory in the second replay of a tie that was played on the sloping pitch of their old Manor Ground home only after Robert Maxwell, then Oxford chairman, had won a toss against Martin Edwards, his United counterpart.
Maxwell is long gone and the Manor Ground too, yet almost three decades after Smith led Oxford into the top flight on the back of two successive promotions – a rise culminating in their 1986 Milk Cup triumph under Maurice Evans – optimism is in the air again. Saturday marks five years since manager Chris Wilder took over at the Kassam Stadium. In that time, they have risen from 16th in the Conference to top of League Two.
It has been slow but steady under Wilder, whose team returned to the Football League via a Wembley play-off win in 2010 and ended the last two seasons ninth in League Two. "In five years we have gradually moved forward, sometimes not at a pace some would want – people always wants success in an instant," Wilder told The Independent. "There is big expectation because of the history but we have to handle that and I think we've handled it pretty well."
Wilder, 46, had managed at non-league Alfreton Town and Halifax Town, leading the latter to a Conference play-off final, before he became Oxford's 11th manager this century. "Part of me getting the job was I'd had to deal with tight budgets and we're still in that situation where we get value for money."
They may have been a top-flight club but Oxford are only tenants at the Kassam Stadium, the ground still rented to them by former owner Firoz Kassam, who sold the Manor Ground and left in 2006 just weeks before they lost their Football League place. Money must be spent wisely yet there have been steps in the right direction, including a move to the excellent facilities at Oxford's BMW Mini plant. "We were at a one-pitch training ground five years ago," said Wilder.
With the support of chairman Ian Lenagan, also owner of Wigan Warriors, the club have invested £200,000 in a new sports science department, and another £150,000 on creating a development squad for first-year professionals. "The club have always produced a lot of young players but when they went out of the Football League, that was the first aspect that suffered," said Wilder, noting that five home-grown teenagers having already played for the first team this season.
It is not all about the young ones, though. "We've got a good group of senior players that are battle-hardened," said Wilder, whose team have the only unbeaten away record in the Football League. Their experienced spine runs from Ryan Clarke, who has conceded fewer goals than any other League Two keeper, to former Premier League striker Dave Kitson, 33, who joined last summer.
"Dave's desire is first-class for a player who, in his own words, is in the twilight of his career. He is a selfless player and has created numerous goals." There is spirit too. Kitson's 90th-minute winner against Dagenham & Redbridge last Saturday was the sixth time they have scored a result-changing goal in the final 10 minutes.
Wilder's contract ends in the summer and though talks are planned for the new year, he spoke to Portsmouth when their manager's job was vacant. Yet his focus is on winning promotion with Oxford. "I understand the club want to be successful and so do I," he said. It underlines the benefits of long-term planning.
"[League Managers' Association chief executive] Richard Bevan said three of the top four mangers in their respective leagues are the longest-serving ones – myself, Russell Slade at Leyton Orient and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. Managers need time to get their ideas in. I have had time which I am thankful of and still know we have to produce but we feel we are doing that."