To most Oxford fans, the announcement that London Welsh would be packing their leeks and heading back to London was treated in the same way that Channel Islanders probably celebrated driving the Nazis out of Jersey in 1945.
To a tiny minority, there was bemusement at the level of vitriol, particularly amongst Welsh fans. So why were Oxford fans so vehemently against the Exiles?
If it’s not to state too obvious a point, Oxford is neither Wales or London, or indeed any intersection between the two. Club rugby hasn’t always been like it is today; just a couple of decades ago all rugby union was proudly amateur, rugby was what you played to let off steam from a working week. Even at the very top level, internationals would play in front of thousands in the, then, Five Nations, before returning to work as sheep farmers, RAF pilots and lawyers. Clubs, therefore, were clubs in the truest sense of the word. They represented the people within them rather than anything more broad than that. So, London Welsh was, in simple terms, for Welsh people in London. Club rugby was a very parochial affair.
Then Premier League football came along an invented a new way of making obscene amounts of money from sport through subscription TV. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon; products got polished up, competitions were invented and players professionalised as competition intensified. It happened in cricket, both codes of rugby, hockey, netball, even darts was given a make-over.
What football has that other sports tend not to have, is firstly, a huge audience, but more importantly, it already had the infrastructure already in place; the competitions had a hundred years and more of prestige, clubs represented not just those within the club, but cities, religions, class groups. People moved around the country, but were still defined by their football club.
In football location, history, fan loyalty are all important factors in defining that club. That doesn’t seem so important in other sports in the new era. So, London Welsh were a club for Welsh people in London, but someone thought abandoning that core value and setting up in Oxford was OK. Welsh aren’t the only ones; Wasps are in Coventry, London Irish in Reading, Saracens were in Watford. It wasn’t everywhere; Bath, Leicester and Gloucester all retain strong geographical identities; but frequently rugby – or maybe specifically the owners just seemed to treat these clubs as ‘brands’ they could move around to wherever they thought they could make the most money.
And that idea; abandoning your history, your fanbase to suit your ‘business model’ is a grotesque idea to any fan of a football club. You only have to see the vitriol aimed at MK Dons to see that. It strikes right at the heart of being a fan. To an Oxford fan, the idea of walking away from your own people is an intolerable treachery and that’s what it appears London Welsh did. It’s like the perverse rules you hear about in prisons; where everyone has killed someone, but the one that killed a child; well, in a sea of unforgivable wrongness, this is somehow more unforgivably wrong.
Now, we probably shouldn’t be too smug about this. Firstly, football is unusual in being so loyal to its location, most sports represent small groups of people, some, like cycling, represent almost nothing at all apart from the whims of millionaires and sponsors. And a recent report suggested that newer fans prefer football as events – big team playing other big teams rather than your team taking on the world. Club loyalty is on the slide; in 20 years clubs may move around seeking the best demographic for their brand. It happens in American Football.
The point stands, however, basically London Welsh was never going to work with Oxford United because it committed the ultimate sin by simply by making the move.
Judging another club by football’s standards is a bit arrogant; it assumes football is right. From my perspective, although the arrangement with Welsh was uncomfortable, it was also largely irrelevant. Apart from in one way; the pitch. Undoubtedly the pitch impacted our results. Chris Wilder gained a reputation for tedious football when he had to focus on pragmatic rather than attractive football, Alfie Potter’s form collapsed in the bog Michael Appleton didn’t seem to learn that his principles were an irrelevance when the ball doesn’t roll true.
Last season was the worst I can remember in terms of entertainment and a lot of that was down to the pitch; it couldn’t cope with overuse. The patches of mud and bog were synonymous with rugby, which is concentrates around certain areas. But, in a sense, aside from moving the club to capitalise on the money available to them, this particular aspect wasn’t Welsh’s fault. They needed a facility, Kassam had one and rented it out even though it wasn’t fit for purpose. Should we be surprised from a slum landlord? Perhaps not.
So in a sense, this isn’t London Welsh’s fault – insomuch it’s not the fault of their fans – it’s the fault of their hapless owners who sold the club’s soul in order to move, and Kassam’s poor service to his tenants. Now they’ve gone I hope they can return to what they originally were, serving Welsh exiles in London. I hope they thrive doing that, it’s a very noble cause, but also, I hope they learn never to do it again.