Following a tumultuous week, a reassuringly dull draw.
Let’s start at the top. There will be few club owners held in higher regard by fans than Darryl Eales. He affected a revolution at Oxford which dragged us into the 21st Century and left a legacy of promotion, Wembley, derby wins and giant killings. Perhaps even more.
There were significant barriers to overcome including fan suspicion (including my own) and the perpetual challenge of Firoz Kassam, but he did so, successfully and with integrity. And that’s not something you hear related to owners of football clubs very often.
I suppose the reality is that most owners have limited capacity to improve a club. Ian Lenegan could get us out of the Conference, but not out of League 2. Darry Eales got us out of League 2, but not out of League 1. If you can move us forward 20 places or so, then you’re doing well. The trick is to hand over to someone with similar values, but also the resources to take us on.
Enter Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth and the least surprising takeover in modern history. Several months ago, when Tiger started to appear in the directors’ box at the Kassam, the Oxford Mail ‘investigated’ foreign ownership. They concluded that sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad. It’s almost as if the foreignness of any owner is not what defines their success.
The suspicion of foreigners is something the new owner will have to overcome. Fans were quick to jump on his accent and his sometimes confused rambling during Monday’s press conference. There have been some pretty grim stories of foreign owners – Portsmouth, Blackburn – and some obvious successes – Bournemouth, Leicester City – but, there is an underlying mistrust. Any wobbles we might have will be looked at, by some, as a sign of the owners nefarious intentions in a way that it may not be with a British owner, even though there have been plenty of catastrophes created by British owners. Positioning himself, as Eales did, as a benign benefactor rather than an all-controlling overlord will certainly help win the trust of fans.
His immediate challenge, of course, is the manager, although if he does announce Craig Bellamy, it will be the second least surprising announcement of the season. Bellamy will come with the baggage of his playing days and unless he affects an immediate upturn in form, that may be a tough barrier to break down.
Then, if Tiger is going to hit the ground running; a focus on putting in place plans for next year has to be a priority. This is, perhaps, the easiest bit – a lot of the infrastructure already exists, it’s a question of how much more money you shovel in.
Onto the big stuff; every owner since Firoz Kassam has put the stadium purchase at the heart of their plans. It still seems the most obvious way of moving the club on from relying on an increasingly rich series of benefactors who will bring success through deep pockets and boundless energy.
The question is, can it be purchased? Nick Merry, Ian Lenegan, Darryl Eales and OxVox have all tried and failed. Kassam keeps playing the barely credible ‘for the good of the club’ card when it comes to who he might sell to. Is a Thai billionaire with few roots in the club, city or country more credible than those who have passed through previously? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Kassam appears completely happy to sit on the asset – perhaps as punishment for the club, but more because it’s probably worth more as a brownfield site fit for development than it is as a football stadium. The only real option for Tiger is to offer him an eye-watering amount of money to leave.
Option 2 is to move elsewhere. It took 30 years to move from the Manor to the Kassam, so that’s no easy feat. That said, football is good for politicians in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, and there’s an increasingly established business model about using stadiums to stimulate investment, so finding a site is likely to be less problematic than in the past. But still, it’s starting from scratch and that’s an expensive and slow process.
And then there’s the ‘other’ option – whatever that might be. Plenty of clubs outside the UK rent rather than own their stadium, and perhaps there’s another way forward to put the club on a sustainable footing. Tiger’s first press conference implied that there was another way, but there’s little doubt he failed in all aspects to articulate what that was.
The initial impression of Tiger wasn’t great, but he’d literally walked off the train to his first day in a new role and he was speaking in a language which isn’t his first. Early attempts to write him off are unreasonable, he needs time to formulate and fully implement any plan. His subsequent, calmer, considered interview with Radio Oxford shows there is substance behind the bow tie. Writing him off as some chaotic, eccentric outsider is unlikely to bring success.
Oh Sol, amigo
One consolation for the protracted search for a new manager has been the bizarre sideshow of Sol Campbell’s application. In the tiny betting market for the Oxford United manager’s position, the mere mention that Campbell was in talks with the club served to shoot him up the list of favourites.
It was, of course, way off the mark. Despite their silence, the club are probably dealing with agents and applicants constantly. Being ‘in talks’ may just have been a courtesy call.
Campbell appears bamboozled by the mechanics of the job market and because he doesn’t understand how getting a job works, he’s reverted to his playing record and chutzpar as ‘one of the best brains in world football’ as a battering ram to get people to take a chance on him. It’s such a childishly crass way to operate he’s simply doing himself more damage. It is a curious bargaining position to suggest that lower league clubs should take a punt because it’s not difficult and what harm can it do? The reality is that smaller football clubs lose more through bad decision making – at the top it might be losing out on a place in Europe, further down you risk losing your very existence.
What he fails to see is that the best managers start at the bottom and work their way up – Jose Mourinho was Bobby Robson’s interpreter long before he started winning Champions League titles, but we tend to err on the idea that there is some innate genius, a gene that Sol Campbell claims to have.
More than ever, club coaches are following career paths not dictated by their playing reputation, but Campbell doesn’t seem to be bothered with all that and just views the lower-leagues as an easy version of the Premier League. A stepping stone to immediate success.
Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and they do need a bit of luck to get that start, but empathy, which Campbell seems to spectacularly lack, is at the heart of all success.