Of Oxford’s triumvirate of success – Wilder, Constable and Thomas – the departure of Kelvin Thomas, announced on Friday, was probably the most surprising and potentially most destabilising one of all. Had Wilder stepped down, some would have welcomed the move, others would have, at least, understood how it came about. The Constable transfer sagas, meanwhile, have grown tiresome; nobody wants him to go but it would be something of a relief if we could finally stop having to obsess over the impact his departure might have.
Almost immediately the rumours as to why Thomas is stepping down began to circulate. Apparently he’s going to West Ham and/or he’s had a fall out with Ian Lenagan. And, by extrapolation Lenagan has become spooked by the club’s stated ambitions to buy the stadium and get into the Championship. The view is that Thomas’ departure is a symptom of a rapidly unravelling facade.
Now, wait a cotton pickin’ minute. Thomas is a young man and the chief executive of a small successful company in Oxford. The implication is that he has flounced off in a huff to Millionaires Row to take up his passion for abstract sculpture with Harry Redknapp. The more likely scenario is that he’s got a new job or that he fancies doing something different. We all leave jobs at some point, we may do it because it’s not quite what we want but how often is it because of some massive barney about ‘principles’? People need jobs and rarely have the luxury of debating such ephemera. So Thomas’ departure is likely to be far less dramatic than has been painted. It just feels that way because the first time we heard about it was the when it happened.
But does this show that the club lacks ambition? The idea that Lenagan can adopt a strategy to keep us in League 2 is nonsensical. In practical terms, keeping a club in a division is as difficult, if not more difficult, than gaining promotion. Sure, you can starve a club of its resources, but to starve it of just enough resources to stay down without going down requires an level of precision management – signing players and manager with only just the right amount of ability – that would probably be so expensive to administer, you might as well use the money to go for promotion anyway.
Granted, Lenegan may be conscious of over-cooking the club’s finances trying to get into League 1 and beyond. Certainly the change of transfer policy this summer would suggest that he is reassessing his priorities. This doesn’t mean that he’s given up on the Championship, more that he recognises the need to get some fundamentals in place rather than continuing to invest in front line playing staff. If you’re going to sign a Michael Duberry, it is only ever going to be short term and even then, you need the right infrastructure in place to keep him on the pitch and out of the treatment room.
Lenagan and Thomas are not stupid and Friday’s press conference delivered the proverbial shit sandwich, the bad news of Thomas’ departure, wrapped around the good news of his replacement (Lenagan) and the investment in the infrastructure that seemed lacking last season. The announcements seemed to stabilise things amongst those following the news on Twitter.
Lenagan’s more hands on approach is not without its risks; being closer to the business will reveal to him precisely how his money is spent. This may lead to a more risk averse approach to developing the club. It is his money, after all. He will inevitably be stretched to dedicate enough time to his various projects. And with this comes the ability to resist the more reactive amongst the Oxford faithful. This may be tested early; Chris Wilder’s stock fell last season and we face a tough opening month in the forthcoming campaign. Thomas was good at looking beyond immediate blips to the more long term development of the club. With Lenagan’s stretched priorities, he will have to rely increasingly on his media profile to maintain the trust of the fans. We’re far less likely to see him at games or at social and PR events if he’s got a similar role to play at Wigan Warriors. A so-so start to the season will inevitably see renewed calls for a change, will Lenagan be available to face the press or Yellow Player to calm the hoards? If not, then Lenagan’s fortitude will be thoroughly tested.
But, Thomas leaves the club in excellent health, and his successor has a far easier job as a result. The biggest mistake that anyone taking over a successful operation can make is to make dramatic changes just for to make a mark or for the sake of it. The fact Lenagan and Thomas share a similar philosophy of measured, business like growth – a rare quality in football – we can be hopeful that the club’s successful formulae won’t be packed away with Thomas’ executive desk toys.