Some transfers run smoothly, with fans wishing players well as they move onto the next stage of their career – think Ryan Ledson or Kemar Roofe. Some transfers are messier – Callum O’Dowda or Marvin Johnson. Some are just plain weird, as anyone who remembers the protracted saga of Mark Watson’s vanishing act in 2000 will confirm.
Curtis Nelson’s departure from the club is threatening to get messy. It should come as no surprise to hear that Nelson is likely to go either in January or at the end of the season. He’s an outstanding player with potential to play at a level beyond that of avoiding relegation from League 1.
At 25, his next contract will define his career and unless he’s offered eye-watering amounts of money or has developed such a bond with the club that he’s happy to be remembered as a loyal, if under-achieving servant – Joey Beauchamp? – it seems Oxford is unlikely to fulfil his needs.
No one should deny Nelson’s right to pursue his ambition, even at the short-term expense of the club. Fans will regularly remind you that no player is bigger than the club, but the quid pro quo is that no player should be naive enough to trust a club which may use its size and stature to retain or discard its assets as it chooses. Fans might pay today’s wages, but players must control their own future.
The question is not whether he should leave, but more how that might happen.
There’s been plenty of finger-pointing following Nelson’s uncomfortable interview after the defeat to Plymouth; some say he was being unprofessional and disrespectful, others say it was a calculated attempt by Karl Robinson to humiliate him and/or turn him against the fans.
Let’s start with that. The Nelson affair has been going on for some time. He was ‘stripped’ of the captaincy for the Wycombe game in September and even when John Mousinho wasn’t available he didn’t get it back.
At the time Karl Robinson said it was to give Nelson some breathing space to decide his future. I think it was more a crude attempt to force him to sign a new deal. Crude rather than manipulative. Clubs with a player like Nelson – a saleable asset coming to the end of his contract – have little room for manoeuvre, so perhaps the club thought removing the captaincy might expedite his decision.
Was Tuesday’s interview stage two in a calculated plan? If Robinson was such an arch schemer, I suspect we wouldn’t have had some of his more bizarre outbursts this year, for example giving Shandon Baptiste the captaincy or claiming that Jamie Hanson wasn’t his signing. I think it’s more that Nelson is usually a good man to put in front of the media and Robinson, under pressure, didn’t think through the circumstances or consequences.
A shrewder move would have been to keep Nelson away from the media and present him as a settled, happy player. That way any interested clubs might feel they need to spend more to prize him out of our hands. An unhappy Nelson is more likely to encourage clubs to offer lower fees knowing the player is more likely to want out of his existing situation.
Was Nelson disrespectful? It wasn’t a great interview, but he’d just come off a heavy defeat to his old team at a time when speculation around him was intensifying. Presumably some dialogue is going on now and perhaps has been for some time. In the short term, the club hold the key to his immediate future, so it must be frustrating to have to bite his lip while it all plays out. It’s reasonable to think that it’s consuming a lot of his headspace. Someone asking him about his future when everyone knows the media friendly answer is a non-committal ‘I’m focussed on Oxford until someone tells me differently’ must be intensely frustrating. In the circumstances, the frustration boiled over.
Despite the loss of the captaincy, there’s been no sign that he lacks motivation or commitment on the pitch. No player is completely impervious to external pressures or lapses in form, but if you were to list our weaknesses, Nelson wouldn’t be high on that list.
Ultimately, I don’t think either party is playing a particularly calculated game. What I think we’re seeing is another example of poor organisation within the club. I don’t know how post-match communications are handled; whether it’s the player, manager or someone else who decides who steps up, but it was clearly a mistake to put Nelson in front of the microphone given the position he was in. Everyone could have handled it better.
The problem is that with each new screw-up or wobble comes more questions and assumptions. You end up in a confrontational situation that no party intended or wanted.
Some managers handle these situations better than others, Robinson might wear his heart on his sleeve, but sometimes he needs to use his head to get the best outcome.