Around this time of year I’m often asked by fellow bloggers to provide some kind of season preview for our club. The ask all the usual questions; best signing, prospects for the season, that kind of thing. They never ask the most important question; just who are Oxford United in 2014?
Richard Starkey, in his book Crown and Country, nails in the space of the opening few pages, a pro-monarchy argument I’ve been trying, and failing, to formulate for years. He argues that anti-monarchists are pre-occupied with the Royal Family. They believe them to be too rich, privileged, unaccountable and detached from mainstream society. But that supposes the family have any real choice in their role within the wider monarchic institution. In actuality, the Royal Family subscribe to their cosseted world, not because they see the riches it brings, but because they legally and constitutionally have no other choice. The monarchy is a corporation of which the family is its ‘brand’.
The monarchy, he argues, rightly in my view, is the organisation which holds the ideas and concepts that make us British; the keeper of our rambling evolving, and hugely robust cultural constitution. Take marriage, for example, the British concept of marriage is a melting pot of the French idea of romance, the old English idea of it being a way of dealing with practical issues like having babies and acquiring and protecting land and Germanic concepts of class – that we typically marry within our own ‘status’. The monarchy is where these concepts actually met and formed. If it hadn’t, then marriage in Britain today would be predominantly loveless, practical and arranged – a very un-British thing.
So, while we obsess over the royal family and its supposed riches, its actual purpose is frequently overlooked.
As we sit on the brink of a new season, we might well question what Oxford United is in 2014. It is too simple to say that Oxford are just a football club; early in the close season, after a turgid end to the last campaign, there was much hand-wringing as to why we should all leap to renew our season tickets. I renewed mine primarily out of habit; I knew when it came to it, i would regret it if I didn’t; but ultimately it wasn’t a rational or considered decision.
Others didn’t feel the same; some of the most loyal and thoughtful fans chose not to renew; not reactionary types or Johnny go-lightly’s; rational, intelligent and loyal people. Could I muster a rational and intelligent idea as to why they should? I eventually concluded that the only argument that I could muster was that this is a football club and that your season ticket is your membership subscription.
Of course, that argument only holds water to some degree. Yes, we’re a club because we’re only as strong as our ‘members’. But our membership doesn’t give us any rights. That’s because football club’s gave up on being traditional ‘clubs’ decades ago. I can almost pinpoint when Oxford United ceased being a club; I have a club handbook from 1982/3, possibly the last of its kind to be produced. It is full of clubby type news, like the state of the club’s finances. Within months Robert Maxwell had taken over at which point we ceased being a club, we were part of a rich man’s investment portfolio.
It’s difficult to fully understand Robert Maxwell’s motivation for taking over Oxford United; perhaps he was being genuinely altruistic towards a local institution in peril; supporting it as he might a charitable trust protecting an old church. But Maxwell would have struggled to resist his natural business urges. He foresaw football’s attractiveness to TV a decade before the Premier League came into being. He also fought hard, without success, to re-home the club because there was money to be made from new facilities. What he did exploit, however, was the power of a football club as a vehicle for advertising.
Maxwell bought up Oxford just as shirt sponsorship became fashionable; and he used the new liberalisation of rules around that to publicise a number of his businesses; Pergamon Press, BPCC and the Sunday People were all in Maxwell’s stable. It seems unlikely that any cash exchanged hands for their logos to appear on our shirts. Even in the 1st Division, with the club at their most marketable, the fabled Wang sponsor was, in fact, a contra arrangement where The Mirror Group got a discount from the computing firm in return for some in-kind shirt promotion. When people ask what happened to the money we earned during the Glory Years, the answer is probably that there wasn’t any.
Some thirty years later and we see the same coming again. Last year the yellow shirt was adorned with the legend Animalates; a start-up or franchise owned by Ian Lenagan. There appeared to be no cash involved; it was just that the club offered a national and local platform to promote another of Lenagan’s businesses. And now, the dubiously entitled ‘Round n Black’ will be blazoned across this season’s shirt. This is a company which currently doesn’t even appear to operate, but which lists Darryl Eales as a director. I am probably over simplifying things; but essentially the club gains nothing from this deal but Eales earns some free national advertising. And in essence, football is simply a platform for people to advertise their wares. And Oxford specifically quite often has just been a billboard to promote its owners other business interests.
It’s not all bad; United in Business and United We Achieve are two initiatives which, in concept at least, seem to position the club at the centre of local Oxford society; which is where the club should be, in my view. It is a rare institution which brings together the professional and working classes on an equal footing, but football club’s can do just that.
But, in 2014, Oxford United’s real purpose in life is as a pawn in a land deal; a position it has held, more or less, for more than a decade. Firoz Kassam, of course, profited hugely from buying up the bankrupt club and more importantly its valuable real-estate and selling it on for a healthy profit. There are few businesses that can survive the hardships that football clubs survive, particularly when there is a bankable asset available to be liquidated, as The Manor was. Had this been a conventional business, it would have been wound up and its assets sold off years before Kassam got hold of it and years before the Manor was worth so much. So Kassam was lucky enough, or wise enough, to spot that a bankrupt business sitting on a pot of gold that the banks and other creditors feared to close. He then used the self-same power of the Oxford brand to bully through planning permission for the stadium releasing the value of The Manor and making him an increasingly rich man.His argument at the time was that he was the man with the balls to do the deal, so he should profit. Unarguable in some senses, but you could run the same argument about people who get rich human trafficking, drug dealing or tricking old ladies out of their life savings – if you’ve got the balls, then why shouldn’t you get the spoils. But is it right?
For a period, it felt like we might actually become a sporting institution again; Ian Lenagan may or may not have been a ‘football man’ but he was certainly a sporting one. He never managed to do the big land deal at the heart of the club; either because it wasn’t a priority or because he simply couldn’t raise the funds to do it. But the benefit was that football became the focus of attention. That was particularly true during Kelvin Thomas’ time, when the players and fans seemed, literally, united behind a single, footballing cause. It’s why I’m a Lenagan fan and, therefore, a Wilder fan. But, you know, move on.
Even latterly, however, football has come first with the investment in the youth system which has paid some dividends.
This summer has seen the emphasis shift again; Eales and Ashton are in place, and the land deal is back on; and currently the club exists as a key part in the execution of that. I may be wrong; but I don’t think I am. I’m not suggesting that Eales wishes for the club to perish, in the same way that I don’t believe Kassam set out for it to either; it’s just that football is not the priority. There have been some good signs; Ashton for all his reputation is dedicated full-time to the job, which Lenagan wasn’t, and he has a football background – if that counts for anything. Appleton, I can’t pass judgement on, he could be a knowing or unknowing stooge in the whole thing or he could be the next bright young thing – although we’ve had a few of them over the years. Derek Fazackerly’s appointment does appear to be a positive in the summer’s maelstrom; although it was Kassam who brought in Ray Harford and Joe Kinnear as respected names in the game whose impact came to nought. Some of the signs are good, no doubt, but what Eales wants to achieve with the football side of things remains unclear; player investment to date has been under-whelming or at least on a par with the previous regime. There have been view clear statement on the playing strategy going forward.
The suggestion that the club may be about to issue a million non-voting shares is a good one, overdue and also welcome. Granted, there’s no rational reason to buy such stock in a football club. Essentially a non-voting share is an investment in a company’s future profit which is paid as a dividend to the investor. The idea that Oxford might one day return a healthy enough profit to pay a dividend to its shareholders seems remote. But even if the investment case is not a strong one, the availability of shares allows the fans the opportunity to feel they are investing in the club as members rather than just buying merchandise and tickets as customers is a good thing.
So there we have it; on the brink of another season and the club exists again, primarily to secure land and secondary; to play football. Maybe I need some actual football to distract me, but it makes me wonder whether this blog has actually helped me figure out the purpose of the club, and in fact, any football club. I have a friend who loves films; after a while he worked out that there was a formulae to the stories told in films, at which point he became interested in what went into stories; the storyboarding, the structure, the technology, the logistics and the economics. When he figured out that formulae he began to realise that the magic of films had been lost to him. Film making was, like everything else; a business driving out risk by formalising its practice. Perhaps ultimately I’m beginning to realise that at the top end of the game, football is about advertising and at the bottom end it’s about land. It is rarely about football. So, will we see some footballing magic in the next 12 months? Will we reignite a long lost fire? Or will we slowly realise that football barely registers as the primary reason that Oxford United exists at all.