Eales versus the world

For a such a happy go lucky man of the people, Darryl Eales seems to be picking a lot of fights at the moment.

First there was a bit of a to-do about flags, then the spat with the City Council over the development of Horspath as a potential training base for the club, then there was the scrap over the pace of the deal being forged between Oxvox and Firoz Kassam for the stadium.

The good news is that the club is focusing on the right things. Investing in the players is fun but its short term fun. If you’re losing £1m a year, success is short-term and eventually you’ll pay, and that’s no fun at all.

The club needs to invest in its infrastructure to build a sustainable future; increased focus on the stadium and training facilities cannot be more welcome.

The other good news is that there seems to be a growing realisation that sports provision in Oxford is inadequate. It’s a middle-class problem, but if there’s going to be significant amounts of development in the city as part of the proposed “brain belt”, then services need to keep up. For a city as thriving and affluent as Oxford; sports provision seems wanting.

Even Ian Hudspeth, the leader of the County Council seems to recognise this; quite a departure for a council bigwig to recognise that there is more to the city than students and academics. Sadly his City counterpart Bob Price is less ambitious given his apparent view that all this is really just a bit of a shame.

One of the surprising things about this, however, are the tactics that Darryl Eales is using to try and get things moving.

The club’s response to the Horspath decision wasn’t the best. It focussed on how important the facility would be to the club and its ambitions, ignoring the council’s requirement to spend tax payers’ money wisely for the public’s benefit. The council cited the club’s historical financial viability and lack of experience, both of which are quite reasonable points, but the club should also have made a much greater play on its potential for attracting others into the scheme as a community service.

Then, there was the statement around the speed of progress on the stadium purchase. On this, Eales is right, OxVox’s claim that it’s going to take five months to get a heads of agreement signed is baffling. Why will it take so long? In simple terms, if you have a buyer and seller and a price, the rest is details. It shouldn’t take five months to reach an agreement in principle when negotiations have been going on for two months, at least, already.

So, do we have a buyer, seller and a price? Well, the buyer is notionally OxVox and they’re definitely keen. I’ve done the maths; 800 members paying about £3 each a year gives them about £2,400 to throw at the deal, which leaves them about £11.997m short of the supposed asking price. So who else is pitching up money? And more importantly, is this the problem?

And then there’s the seller. Let’s make no bones about it; Firoz Kassam is a funny chap. He is extraordinarily successful which, of course, brings its own issues. People like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage point to their financial success as justification of being ‘right’ about the world. Success can do that to you. It’s not just looney right-wingers; look at Bono, Bill Gates and Richard Branson; all have unimaginable success which can, in their own heads, legitimise their view of the world.

There’s a psychopathy that goes along with extraordinary success. Without it, you wouldn’t take the actions, risks and decisions you might without a heightened sense of your own ability and, often, a reduced sense what impact it might have on others.

For example, Kassam made his money as a ‘slum landlord’, housing the homeless in his hotels; a ethically challenging line of work. But he has been able to justify it in terms of the money he has. The £6 million he personally made from the sale of The Manor was, in his view, deserved because he took risks that others wouldn’t. That’s true, but to hold that view you also have to dampen any moral opinion you might have that, perhaps, the club should also have benefited from the sale of the asset it had owned for over eighty years and he had owned for about two.

So, Kassam may be a money-grabbing bastard with no moral sense. However, outwardly he makes periodic claims he feels a moral obligation to protect the club. It’s not one to rule out completely. Even during the darkest times during his tenure he parked his green Bentley in front of the stadium on a match day. Not exactly the actions of someone who didn’t feel commitment to the club and was happy to hide. Or maybe it was the actions of a man with a rampant ego.

Is Kassam just toying with OxVox? Maybe, it fits with the convenient view that he is some kind of Dick Dastardly character. But a man who has made as much money as him doesn’t strike me as someone who wastes time playing games just for the sake of it.

Oxvox seem pretty adamant that a deal is being put together, and it might be just a question of finding meeting time with Kassam, other interested parties and the various experts they might need to progress things, Oxvox are doing all this stuff part-time, after all.

It is possible that Kassam has developed a god-complex over the club, that he believed only he knows truly what is good for it. It may also be the case that he’s simply looking for someone to truly recognise what he’s achieved with the stadium. Nothing he has done comes easily; it’s one of the things frequently overlooked about rich people – they can be odious and ostentatious and their moral compass may be constantly skewed, but it is rare that their money has been easy to come by. Look at it from Kassam’s perspective, he’s built a football stadium, something nobody had achieved in Oxford for nearly a century and yet he is painted as evil and an anchor to the club’s future success. Maybe trusting people associated with the club is more difficult for him because he feels taken for granted or that his legacy will be trashed once he has gone. It probably doesn’t help that the club refer to the stadium as ‘Grenoble Road’ effectively wiping him from history.

But broadsiding everyone as Eales has been doing is a strange thing to do when there is such a delicate game of politics to play. So, what is he playing at?

It seems unlikely that after a successful career making lots of money and a couple of years turning the club around, that he has suddenly lost his mind. One of his great strengths is his emotional intelligence and empathy towards fans. He too may be frustrated that despite everything he’s done for the club he still can’t get himself a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the future of sport in the city. It’s that god complex again, but it’s understandable, the university boat crew aside, Oxford United is the biggest sports name in town and we seem to have a minority say in what happens in the city. It’s difficult to imagine the university not having a say in the development of higher education in Oxford or BMW not having a place at the table when talking about employment and economic development. Why are the club being left out when it comes to sport?

Or, maybe it’s cleverer than that and he’s putting pressure on OxVox to pull their finger out; Ian Hudspeth implied last week that developing a world class facility at Water Eaton is something that should be pursued. Eales needs to know which bus to hop on and farting around may not work for him in terms of making that decision.

Perhaps, even, Eales is acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for a frustrated OxVox. It seems very unlikely that they haven’t spoken informally about the future of the ground and relations between the trust and club are supposed to be good. The trust are keeping schtum, which doesn’t mean anything, either way, but they’ve got a lot to lose if they’re seen as causing problems, maybe a grumpy tenant threatening to walk away is something that will move things along.

What seems unlikely is that Eales is ready to simply torpedo Oxvox out of the negotiations out of sheer frustration, things are likely to be more complicated than that. One thing is certain in that it seems like the opportunity has never been greater for the club and the city more generally to resolve the issue once and for all.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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