It was like the emergence of a natural disaster, a lighted match that turns into a forest fire, a thundercloud that became a hurricane. A minor murmur that escalated in dramatic and unexpected ways. As Gary Waddock’s parody Twitter account put it; ‘Shit’.
Fans are always impatient for new signings at the end of the season, but what is frequently ignored is the fact that football goes on holiday in May and June so that it can be back ready for pre-season before most of us are contemplating what to pack for our fortnight in Magaluf.
But, as the weeks crept by, the silence around the club became increasingly eery. Danny Hylton signed, but then; nothing. Players signed to other clubs, names came onto our radar, but none were followed up. And it seemed to be more than that, the club was on hold.
And then, the distant rumble of a takeover bid. It made sense, an owner wanting to dispose of his club is not going to spend money on new players and a new prospective owner is not likely to wire in the cash until they’ve safely signed on the dotted line.
Then, there was more than one consortium, and people who wouldn’t otherwise use the word consortia kept saying ‘consortia’. One; a group of vagabonds and crooks, the other; a white-hatted band of fans. The former were silent and stealthy; the latter, headed by Charlie Methven, were vocal and popular. The fans sided with Methven.
Ian Lenagan remained silent, not a dignified silence, a great hermetically sealed silence; a chasmic void. We know all about Lenagan’s silences and the frustration it brings to fans and press alike. But while these things are, technically, none of our business, the silence is self-defeating. If people are saying that negotiations are ongoing and they’re not, that’s a fact that’s easy to correct. If you don’t say anything, then you’re effectively confirming them by your silence. It’s a PR gaff, another one, which breeds distrust. That’s completely unnecessary in my view because when he eventually talks Lenagan speaks well and clearly. But his habitual silences undermine the good he does.
The silence was broken with some irony; perhaps it was a situationist prank; the club tweeted a picture of an empty chair and tables, everything was set for a snap press conference. But there appeared to be no press, the radio wouldn’t or couldn’t broadcast it. It was a press conference without press, a communication which wasn’t communicated. All subsequent press reports are re-hashes of the statement on the website. I’m still not certain whether the physical press conference actually happened or not.
Unconvincingly, the statement opens with Lenagan claiming that the silence was due to them planning for the next stage of the development of the club. I say unconvincing, because Lenagan had previously said that Gary Waddock’s appointment had been ‘phase 3’ of his plan. If this is phase 4, then it’s hard to fathom quite what phase three was designed to yield. Is this a planned phase? Or just an unplanned response to happenstance? Is this controlled development, or are we making it up as we go along? I don’t have a problem with the idea of making things up as we go along; the only thing that experience teaches you is that we’re all ultimately winging it, all the time, I have a problem with people claiming that they are fully in control.
In comes, Darryl Eales, an investment specialist of some description; it’s not clear whether Eales brings with him more cash or is just saddling a greater proportion of the risk associated with the reported £6m of debt the club are in. Is our bank account larger, or are Lenagan’s bills smaller? I suspect it’s the latter.
Lenagan claims Eales share the same personal and business style which brings us onto the next phase of the revolution. The introduction of Mark Ashton as chief executive, a name which in recent weeks has brought the chill of Voldermort to many Oxford fans. It’s long been a concern that Lenagan has the skills, empathy or (more likely) time to run Oxford United, so Eales coming in as chairman should be welcomed. Ashton too fits the bill of having football experience, but while there are fragmented suggestions that his time at West Brom were highly regarded, there isn’t a lot online to support that assertion. His time at Watford and Wycombe, however, seemed little short of catastrophic.
It seems that Ashton’s problem is his desire to bring everything in-house and lock everything and everyone down; his time at Watford seems to be characterised by the external belief that something was wrong but there was no ‘smoking gun’ as to what it was. People were gagged and threatened with legal action if they tried to reveal the inner workings of Vicarage Road. If that’s his style, then are Lenagan, Eales and Ashton going to create a pyramid of silence? Possibly.
It speaks volumes that the statement is mostly about the inner workings of the club’s ownership – which is of prime interest to Lenagan and Eales, but the biggest news for the fans is tucked away at the bottom, almost as an aside. Gary Waddock has been sacked and in comes Michael Appleton. Waddock looked like a startled supply teacher ever since his debut on the touchline at Southend. He seemed bewildered by a club that on paper was succeeding but in his hands failed miserably. It was like a briefcase full of cash with one of those alarms which covers everything with paint when it’s in the wrong hands. The Wilder squad in Waddock’s hands simply imploded. I had no real empathy for Waddock, but the ruthlessness of his dismissal makes me feel more detached from the club; he seems the victim of an internal power struggle rather than the product of a genuine football decision.
The move, however, illustrates just how hard and fast Eales and Ashton plan to work. It might work, if the funds are there, but if the manager just becomes a sacrificial lamb to cloak the failings of the board, then we’re in for a gloomy time.
Appleton carries with him the label of ‘promising young coach’ which the likes of Graham Rix and Mark Wright previously carried into the club like a millstone around their necks. He counts the Venkys at Blackburn and Vladimir Anotov (currently under arrest for asset stripping) at Portsmouth amongst his former employers. No manager can hope to perform in such environments, and perhaps in a more positive environment he will thrive, but his track record – including his 3 managerial appointments in just over three months in 2012 – makes you wonder whether he is a just a stooge.
Eales doesn’t cover himself in glory in describing himself as not an owner but a ‘Custodian’ – it is this condescending management bullshit that drives suspicion; if he’s a tough ambitious business man who plans to move the club forward as fast as he can, then say it. Don’t paint the picture of being a homely father figure, when you’re not.
The most interesting phrase in the statement has been somewhat lost; it’s the assertion of “the radical changes likely in the Planning Landscape for Oxford in the next 12 months”. The stadium remains at the heart of all our problems and this line implies that the loosening of planning regulations – presumably to help ease Oxford’s housing crisis – may allow perhaps, building on green belt or on the Kassam plot or demolition of the stadium and a move. Either way, Lenagan seems keen to stick around, which is a good thing.
Structurally this change works, the personalities involved raise some serious questions. Certainly, we shouldn’t expect a new, open, media friendly, fan-driven club. Perhaps we would have got that with Methven, but perhaps too we might have had another Robin Herd on our hands. Ashton appears to run a closed shop which wraps his detractors in confidentiality agreements and legal threats. It’s not pleasant, but maybe it will be effective. Either way, lets make no bones about it, he’s got a tough job on his hands, the next couple of weeks and some much needed signings should give us an early indication of their intent.