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Opinion: It’s Time to Get Over Gavin as Cartoon Villain

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Portland Timbers v Seattle Sounders Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Gavin Wilkinson.

No two words in the PTFC lexicon evoke a stronger reaction in a great many people. For some it’s a viscerally negative response to the man that they believe has been holding the Timbers back for a decade or more. For others it’s the dread of a harbinger that whatever conversation is taking place is about to take a turn for the absurd.

Wilkinson is, in short, the cartoon villain of the club.

How did we get here? For some it’s stupid things Wilkinson said to the media in 2007 about the conduct and language of the Timbers Army. Some have neither forgotten nor forgiven. For others it’s a personal slight (perceived or real), the allure of hashtag outrage during down times, or the simple scapegoating of the club’s least visible and least charismatic major figure.

Whatever the reason, though, Wilkinson is the club’s cartoon villain. Not really, of course. But that’s how he’s portrayed.

By objective measures, Wilkinson’s time with the club has been a reasonable success. As a manager he posted a 53-37-45 record (1.51 points per game). Exclude his interim appointment as a caretaker manager after John Spencer was fired (and during which results were – at best – secondary), and Wilkinson’s record as a second-division full manager is 50-29-39, or 1.60 points per game. That’s respectable under any circumstances.

Now watch the qualifications roll in.

As general manager of the MLS Timbers (seven years) and NWSL Thorns (five years), Wilkinson’s teams have racked up three league championship cups, a regular-season shield, and two regular-season conference triumphs. In those seven years, at least one of Wilkinson’s teams has won a major trophy is more years (four) than not (three). Again, that’s respectable under any circumstances. And, if we’re being honest, probably better than respectable.

Now — again — watch the qualifications roll in.

Is Wilkinson perfect or some sort of technical savant? Goodness gracious, of course not. That’s as absurd as his cartoon villain portrayal. Does Wilkinson deserve all the credit for the club’s success over his tenure? Give me a break. Any rational observer, however, would have to conclude that he’s not the club-killing, coach-eating executive that some make him out to be.

Here’s why this matters to the broader PTFC discourse: It’s impossible to have an honest conversation about Wilkinson (or – indeed – many other aspects of the club) without it devolving into anti-Wilkinson nonsense. As a result those conversations simply don’t take place in many quarters, creating the inaccurate impression that there are many for whom Wilkinson is above reproach.

There are, of course, grounds for criticism large and small. It’s wholly reasonable to discuss Wilkinson’s involvement in, among other things, giving Liam Ridgewell a two-year guaranteed extension after a season in which he played only 22 games. Or a disappointing two-year run for the Thorns under Paul Riley, a coach who has done well virtually everywhere else he has gone. Or the slow start for the Timbers Academy. Or any number of other matters in the club’s modern history.

Any discussion of these types of things, however, very quickly turns into evidence-free rants about how Wilkinson is a domineering technical director who routinely forces players on his coaches (nope) or drove Caleb Porter out of town by mandating that he keep Wilkinson’s hand-picked assistant coaches (also nope) or organizes the Timbers Academy for his own profit (OMG, LOL nope). Anything Wilkinson says is interpreted in the most devious way imaginable, regardless how strained or unfair that interpretation may be. And — perhaps most of all — anybody who tries to place any Wilkinson stumble in the context of other successes or drive the conversation back to reality is labelled a shill.

So for many — often including me — it’s just not even worth starting. And that’s really not a helpful or healthy dynamic.

It’s time, then, to get rid of the lazy narrative of Gavin as cartoon villain. Because doing so is the only way to have a real conversation about one of the most influential figures in our beloved club.