FORGET Arsenal, Chelsea or even their namesakes from Manchester.
Ask Oxford manager Chris Wilder to take his pick of FA Cup opponents and he would choose Sheffield United every time.
With Keith Houchen and Matt Hanlan granting his wish by pairing the two clubs together in last month’s first-round draw, the former Bramall Lane defender has spent the past fortnight preparing to lock horns with the team he not only served with distinction as a player but also passionately supported since childhood.
“My chairman might not agree but, from a personal point of view, it couldn’t have been any better,” Wilder told The Star. “In any case, he’s a West Ham fan and he had his day when we went there in the Carling Cup last season so I’m sure he won’t begrudge me mine.
“Sheffield United has been a massive part of my life. From growing up in a house on a hill overlooking the ground, being a ball boy, signing terms when my dad didn’t want me to because we were in the lower leagues at the time, promotions, relegations and even wearing the captain’s armband on one occasion.
“Then there’s off the pitch too. Standing on The Kop as a youngster and supporting the team in cup semi-finals and at Wembley.”
Having first risen to prominence in coaching circles by leading Halifax Town - a team so beset by financial problems that they trained on the local park - to the 2006 Conference Play-off Final, Wilder cemented his reputation as one of the technical area’s sharpest young minds when he helped end Oxford’s exile from Football League competition courtesy of a 3-1 victory over York at Wembley four years later. With tomorrow’s visitors to South Yorkshire now established as one of the division’s heavyweight teams, Wilder nevertheless accepts United will be favourites to knock out the 1986 Milk Cup winners.
But, by a strange twist of fate, he will use methods employed by one of Danny Wilson’s illustrious predecessors to try and upset the odds.
“When Harry (Dave Bassett) was here, we were always the ones who were fighting against the odds,” Wilder said. “At least that’s how other people looked at us anyway.
“But, do you know what, I think that probably worked in our favour because we enjoyed trying to prove them all wrong. We were the team that was never expected to get promoted or reach the Premier League and then, when that did happen, were immediately tipped to go straight back down.
“I think Sheffield United showed people back then that you can beat the odds, that anything is possible and that it’s great to prove people wrong.”
Despite being steeped in United history, Wilder insisted he will have no problem separating his personal feelings and professional obligations tomorrow. A little over a year after giving West Ham one almighty scare under the Upton Park floodlights – Scott Parker’s 93rd-minute goal proving the difference be
tween the two sides – Oxford arrive in the Steel City this afternoon dead set on heaping yet more pressure on Wilson’s side following Tuesday JP Trophy defeat by Bradford City.
“Barring four months after I packed in playing, I’ve been in a professional environment since I was 16,” Wilder said. “If I wasn’t totally professional about what I do then I don’t think I’d have been able to say that.
“Oxford is a smashing club, brilliant people behind the scenes, and the support I’ve had from the fans has been absolutely magnificent.
“Of course I’m coming here to win. People shouldn’t be under any illusions about that - and the game is about Oxford United, not me.”
Wilder played over 100 league games in two spells (1986-1992 and 1998-99) for United. Alan Hodgkinson, Oxford’s goalkeeping coach, achieved nearly 600.
“Alan is a proper United legend,” said Wilder. “Few have made bigger contributions to United than him.”
Teams and ref
United (possible): Simonsen, Lowton, Maguire, Collins, Williams, Montgomery, McDonald, Williamson, Quinn, Evans, Cresswell (4-4-2).
Oxford (possible): Clarke, Batt, Wright, Whing, Worley, Heslop, Leven, Kinniburgh, Smalley, Constable, Potter (4-4-2).
Carl Boyeson: Based in East Yorkshire, Boyeson averages less than three cautions per game this season. Two of the four red cards he has produced came during Rotherham’s 3-2 defeat at Swindon in September.
Oxford won their last visit to Bramall Lane – Friday, March 26 1999 – but were beaten by Sheffield United earlier that season. These teams have met a total of 25 times in competitive action with 11 of those games ending in the South Yorkshire club’s favour.
One to watch
James Constable has been a prolific goalscorer for Oxford United since arriving from Shrewsbury Town, initially on loan, three years ago. Has netted seven times in League Two action this season.