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Wilder aspires to get Oxford dreaming

First division is a distant memory but a wily Yorkshireman has university town heading back towards the League

The Oxford United team bus pulled into Carrington, Manchester United's state-of-the-art training complex, to be met by a groundsman. "Who's the manager?" he enquired. Step forward Chris Wilder, who was promptly whisked off on a golf buggy to a pristine, full-sized pitch and asked whether it would suit their purposes. For one afternoon at least, Oxford were back in the big time.

Sir Alex Ferguson, who allowed the runaway Blue Square Premier leaders to use United's facilities to prepare for a match at Wrexham while the champions headed for Tottenham, remembers only too well the last time they were there. In November 1986, barely 48 hours after he arrived at Old Trafford from Aberdeen, United lost 2-0 at Oxford's former Manor Ground home.

While United embarked on a quest for global domination, Oxford tumbled down the divisions until, three years ago, they crashed back into the non-League world they thought they had escaped forever in 1962. Under the 42-year-old Wilder, who played 400 League games for 11 clubs yet is "driven by a feeling of under-achievement", they now look ready to begin climbing again.

The models to which Oxford aspire, explained Wilder, are Doncaster's charge from Conference to Championship and the successive promotions he shared in at Sheffield United, his boyhood heroes. His manager there, Dave Bassett, remains a close confidant, as does his fellow Sheffielder Jim Smith, who led Oxford into what is now the Premier League by winning consecutive titles during Robert Maxwell's extraordinary reign as owner.

Not that Wilder is taking promotion for granted, even after the start his team have enjoyed. In their first season out of the League, with Smith back at the helm, Oxford led the table with 50 points from 25 games before 11 matches without a win ruined their chances. When they reached last December in mid-table, the chairman, Kelvin Thomas, invited Wilder down for an interview.

"I'd been No 2 at Bury for six months to a superb manager, Alan Knill, but what interested Oxford was my six years at Halifax," Wilder said. "When I arrived as player-manager they were broke, had no kit, no balls, no pre-season friendlies. Despite my loyalty being tested with bounced cheques and so on, we built it up and in 2006 we were 10 minutes away from promotion back to the League before losing the play-off final to Hereford.

"When I saw the Kassam Stadium, and the infrastructure of the club, I realised Oxford weren't a Conference club – except that's where we were and we had to deal with it. We did well in the second half of the season and nearly made the play-offs, even though we had a five-point penalty for fielding an ineligible player before I came.

"But I had a big decision in the summer. Yes, the players had done well but you should raise the quality of the squad when you can. There were some changes which provoked raised eyebrows, but so far, so good.

"In the first game we beat York 2-1 after being 1-0 down in the 88th minute. We didn't deserve it, but it gave us momentum. When we finally lost, at Mansfield, the reaction was back-to-back wins."

Along the way, Wilder let the players know his exacting standards by interrupting the celebrations after a 4-0 win over Eastbourne because he was "raging" over their "sloppiness".

Following his chairman's logic, Wilder's summer signings were steeped in non-League. Ryan Clarke moved from Northwich and is thriving on the coaching of Alan Hodgkinson, the former England goalkeeper who, incredibly, is in his 56th season in professional football; Jamie Cook, a striker who left Oxford nine years ago, rejoined from Crawley, the £5,000 fee being paid by supporters through the "12th Man" initiative.

"I'm a prudent Yorkshireman who won't pay over the odds," Wilder grinned, "but some people think we can chuck money around because of the crowds we get." The average of 6,500 was boosted by 10,700 for Luton's visit ("a match that had everything, from a delayed kick-off to a missed penalty and a sending-off"), while half the 1,100 at Gateshead last weekend had made a 255-mile trek to support Oxford. "If we do go up, there will be a lot of disappointed chairmen because of the revenue we generate."

The same is true of Luton, First Division foes at the Manor 20 years ago. Wilder viewed Thursday's departure of their manager, Mick Harford, as a cautionary tale. "It's only six months since Mick led them to a trophy at Wembley," he said. "It shows how fast things change." For Oxford and their ambitious young manager, a change in status cannot come quickly enough.