In his book Them, Jon Ronson interviews extremists from all sides of the political spectrum and concludes that they are bound by the single idea that the world is controlled by a nefarious central entity i.e. ‘Them’. He suggests, however, that there is no ‘Them’ and the world is made up of billions of people making trillions of decisions – some good and many bad and that we muddle through dealing with the consequences of both.
This could describe the legacy of Robin Herd, who died last week, towards Oxford United. Having made his name as an engineer, first working on Concorde, then in Formula 1 racing, he became chairman in 1995 owning 89.2% of the club shares. Oxford educated, he was unusual in that rather than becoming wholly ensconced in the insular world of university life, he became a genuine fan of the club.
At the time we were still reeling from the aftermath of the Maxwell era; clinging to a sheer rock face; somehow holding on, but gradually losing our grip. The best we could hope was to hang on as long as possible, even if the end was both inevitable and catastrophic.
Herd’s arrival injected some enthusiasm and energy into the club that it hadn’t seen for a decade. Having a genuine fan leading the club gave a reassurance it was finally in good hands. He was a charismatic showman, fresh from the glamorous world of Formula 1. He had contacts, in particular the Agnelli family, who owned Juventus. Herd announced a strategic alliance between the two clubs, suggesting that there would be a swapping of talent and ideas, they’d get Matt Murphy, we’d get Alessandro Del Piero. There was even talk of having our second kit styled in Juventus’ black and white stripes. The Italians rapidly played down the link up and it ultimately fizzled to nothing; even Oxford officials described it as ‘talks about talks’.
In 1994, after a decade in the top two divisions, we’d finally lost our footing and dropped to the Third Division; it’s wrong to say Herd stimulated an immediate return to the second tier – that work was already underway even in the year we were relegated with the arrival of Denis Smith. But, time was running out financially; we had a solid core of a squad but it couldn’t be maintained forever. The stability Herd offered gave Smith the opportunity to build on what he had, keeping saleable assets such as Matt Elliot, Phil Gilchrist, Joey Beauchamp, Phil Whitehead and Paul Moody. In 1996, that stability allowed us to survive a poor opening to the season before gaining a head of steam, and a thrilling late season run, which saw us snatching promotion on the last day of the season against Peterborough.
It was a good time for Herd to get involved in football. The Premier League was finding its feet, football was becoming a political asset under New Labour not the societal burden promoted by the ailing Tories. Steve Gibson had started to transform Middlesbrough by building a new stadium, Jack Walker had already made waves at Blackburn; with a bit of ambition, moderate clubs could start making progress in a way it never could before.
Oxford’s search for a new stadium had been going on for over thirty years and nobody had cracked it. Even at the peak of our powers with a rich and unctuous owner in Maxwell, we hadn’t managed to budge the combined forces of the local council and university. Sites and plans came and went, it was Robin Herd who broke the cycle.
The conditions were right; the idea of stimulating economic growth by developing out of town greenfield sites for shopping centres and supermarkets was evolving. Football stadiums became a political lever to allow that to happen. Finally the council crumbled and Herd’s greatest project – a brand new Oxford United stadium at Minchery Farm – was underway.
Things progressed rapidly, a four stand design with a conference centre was adopted with plans to fill in the corners when budget allowed. Iron girders went up and the new ground started to take shape. Then rumours started, contractors weren’t on site, bills hadn’t been paid. The club fell silent, I would drive past from time to time, progress seemed to be slow, but I wanted to believe it was just how these things worked.
According to Herd, he planned to buy up commercial land around the stadium, but when the council blocked him, the money dried up. A Bermudan investor, John Gunn, pulled out after ‘studying the club’s accounts’, though it was also revealed he was being investigated by the DTI regarding the £1.6bn collapse of a finance company. With pressure growing to hand over to someone with the cash to complete the job, Herd conceded defeat.
The contractors, Taylor Woodrow, were gone, Herd’s dream had backfired spectacularly on the club he supported, we had all the same problems as before plus the additional burden of rent on a rotting carcass of a new stadium. The debt was reported to be as high as £18 million.
The blow-back was hideous; Matt Elliot was sold for £1.6 million, Phils Gilchrist and Whitehead went for cut priced deals to Leicester and West Brom, Simon Marsh went to Birmingham. Even as we ran out of playing assets to cash in on, bills and wages weren’t paid and the club descended further, losing £12,000 a week. Then Firoz Kassam appeared to bail Herd and the club out.
If life is a series of decisions, some good, many bad, then judging Robin Herd’s legacy should be judged in that context. He achieved something that nobody else had by securing a new site for a stadium – it drove us to the verge of oblivion and into the hands of an owner who took us to the Conference. But, had we not moved, what would have happened? Perhaps the conditions would have become more favourable and we’d have had a new ground to thrive in, or we could still be at a dilapidated Manor Ground wallowing in the Conference with little prospect of getting out.
Perhaps we needed a fan with an audacious vision to modernise the club; perhaps the blow-up was inevitable but needed. A more objective, rational owner may not have taken the same risk, and not got as far as a result. The brief period of his reign – he left in 1998 – included a famous promotion and the foundations of a new ground, plus a big dose of glamorous lunacy. In isolation, it was as good as it got in the 1990s. The decisions taken after his brief reign shouldn’t cloud what he achieved. Even though the aftermath was painful, Herd’s legacy should be measured more about what he did while he was in charge and less about what impact it ultimately had.