The phoenix from the flames

Whilst things have been markedly worse than they are right now, both off the field and on it, in some ways it doesn’t feel that way. There is an alternative, of course, but it’s not one to be taken lightly.

A couple of days before our soul crushing defeat to Fleetwood, one tweeting wag made a suggestion, it’s a suggestion that has been tabled before. Sometimes it has been made casually, sometimes more forcibly. It was the suggestion that perhaps now was the time to unleash a new strategy, in fact to close one chapter and open up an entirely new one. Maybe it was time to form a ‘phoenix club’.

In the good old days when football didn’t have problems, there was no such thing as phoenix clubs. That was because clubs didn’t go bust (you see, there were no problems). As Denis Smith implies in his typo typhoon of an autobiography, the Bosman ruling changed all that. After that case it became much harder to liquidate your playing assets when money ran short. If you add the introduction of transfer window, cash-flow really becomes issue. As such, financial problems had a much more devastating effect on the future of a club.

Still, clubs tended not to go bust, although many, including us, ran themselves worryingly close. Maidstone went bust almost as soon as they were promoted to the football league, Aldershot closed down, although they had the good grace to hide in the backwaters of non-league to die. Scarborough also cashed their McCain chips. In 2003, the FA lost its moral compass entirely and moved Wimbledon to Milton Keynes all in the name of progress. Telford, a grand old non-league side with FA Cup traditions went bust employing Sam Ricketts while Chester and Halifax both limped along for years before finally falling to ash.

Most if not all of these clubs were replaced by, well, other clubs. It was only when Wimbledon and then Aldershot started to enjoy success that the idea of the ‘phoenix club’ emerged. This presented the idea that the new club could actually be better than the old club.

Manchester United fans took the concept on a step when they created FC United of Manchester after rejecting the takeover of the Glaziers in 2005. On one level I quite sympathise with those who object to the Glaziers; they are quite the ugliest group of people you could hope to meet and were far from the corporate dignity with which United were once associated. But, this was the first phoenix club to emerge from a club that hadn’t actually died. They were created due to the Glaziers breaking some arbitrary moral code where it suddenly seemed acceptable, in the name of ‘fan power’ and ‘keeping it real’, to reject your club and set up another one just because of something you disagree with.

There is a lot of attraction of forming a phoenix club. If your club has liquidated. It’s a way of getting a replacement which is almost the same. If your club does exist and you’ve become disengaged to the point where you can no longer support it, it releases you from the tyranny of the club’s owners.

But, with this comes its own quandaries. What, for example, do you take across with you? The club’s colours is an obvious one, Wimbledon reclaimed their royal blue and yellow when MK Dons abandoned all pretentions of being the Dons reincarnated. Wimbledon eventually got their FA Cup win in 1988 after a bit of a tussle. You do wonder whether anyone would really believe that MK Dons actually won it if they saw it in their trophy cabinet; so it wasn’t much to lose for them.

Could we justifiably take our Milk Cup win, if the original club continued to function? FC United can’t claim the 1999 Champions League title, can they? Lots of people would be happy to sacrifice the Kassam; which is the real source of all our problems, some would accept that our league position would be sacrificed, but so would James Constable and his goals, for example. What about Jim Smith, John Aldridge and the Glory Years? We’d want to keep them, but maybe not Robert Maxwell, who funded the whole thing.

And it gets more complicated; some will be relieved to write Deane Smalley out of our history; but are they happy scratching his goals from the away win at Portsmouth?

In short, unless your club has been completed destroyed, you can’t simply start up a new version of it. If you walk away from the bad stuff, then you have to walk away from the good stuff. And if you’re going to do that, why bother starting again? Why not just go and watch Oxford City or Brackley Town, or your local non-league team?

As frustrating as our current form, and this season, is and has been, and as attractive as starting again is; the reality is that, like nobody believes FC United are a reincarnation of a more pure version of Manchester United, you can’t simply start again when things get uncomfortable. We are products of history’s mistakes – we are both its victims and its beneficiaries. In the end you have a simple binary choice; support the team or you don’t.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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