Midweek Fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United Survey Results (part 1) – Ratings

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the survey, and set myself a target of 100 responses or 1 month, whichever came sooner. That turned out to be quite conservative, there were 150 responses in the first 24 hours, and the survey ended with 297 over the three weeks it was available.

Is this a representative sample? Difficult to say, but many of the patterns were established early on and it’s reasonable to assume that there wouldn’t have been a significant shift had it been available longer, or had more responses. That said, we all operate within our own echo chamber so there may be unrepresented groups with wildly different views out there.

93.2% of those responding were men, which is predictable, although it seems a little high. If you look around the stadium on a match day, there are more than just a few hundred women. If the survey does represent our fan base, then you’d think attracting more women to the stadium would be an obvious focus. It would be interesting to know how that could be achieved – I suspect it’s not about making things pink or having somewhere to store your handbag.

Respondents were evenly split by age – nearly half were between 26-45 (24.7% in both the 26-35 and 36-45 age brackets), a quarter were 16-35 (19.3% 16-25, 16.2% 26-35) and by stand – East and South Stand being largely equal (43.6% and 36% respectively) with the North Stand (11.8%) much smaller. It probably goes without saying that the South Stand is, on average, older than the East Stand. The North Stand appears to be where the middle-aged prefer to sit.

What may be a little surprising is that if you sit in the South Stand, you are much more likely to go regularly home and away. 18% of East Stand supporters will go to 11-20 away games a season where for those in the South Stand it’s 23%. I suspect that this is principally down to practical issues like money and transport – if you’re younger, you probably have less access to both. Still, when you hear that the East Stand is where the most loyal and dedicated supporters are, you might want to think again. 

The first question aimed to establish an overall mark of satisfaction; on average people judged their mood to be 6.7 out of ten, with 7 being the most common response. With no benchmark, it’s tricky to draw conclusions although given the season we’d had, plus an apparent lack of signings, I thought that was quite positive.

Satisfaction by age showed a curious result – if you are young or old, then you tend to be happier than average, but there is a dip if you’re 36-45. Why? The differences aren’t huge, so it might just be an anomaly. Notionally, you’d expect happiness to be dictated by a benchmark, for example, if you experienced the glory years of the 80s or the Division 2 years of the 90s. My theory is that satisfaction is less influenced by the football, more by life in general as it’s well known that those in the age bracket are less likely to be happy.

The length of time you’ve been a fan doesn’t show any particular trend; the smallest group, and also the happiest are those who became fans in the last 10 years; the least happy are those who became fans in the 2000s (17.4% of respondents); which is strange given it was the lowest point for the club in living memory, so you would think, comparatively, that we’re on an upward curve. Most fans started supporting us in the 1980s (28%) and 1990s (23.5%), showing how important the Jim Smith years were to our ongoing support.

A really surprising result was that the largest proportion of respondents (34.6%) live over 50 miles from the stadium. Putting all this together; the bulk of older supporters and the distance people are travelling, it seems we rely heavily on a core of long standing supporters with enough money and desire to travel distances to games. It would appear young, local fans are not joining quickly enough to replace them. Potentially, that’s a bit of a timebomb for the club.

What was perhaps more interesting was what is driving the satisfaction. Karl Robinson and the squad polled almost identical results (6.1 and 6.2 respectively – although that doesn’t show just how close it was). Satisfaction with the board is clocking a decidedly middling 4.9.

Admittedly, the squad is in transition and it’s difficult to know how much that influenced the results, but Robinson – often maligned and criticised – seemed to come out of the assessment positively. Although the averages are identical, more people rated Robinson at 7 than any other score – the squad’s most common score was six.

What does it mean? Well, ‘moderates’ – discounting the most extreme views – rate Robinson more highly than the squad, but opinions on Robinson’s performance are much more varied. This perhaps illustrates how Robinson has his admirers, but at the same time maintains the ability to infuriate.

Given the Board’s performance over the last year, it’s perhaps no surprise to see the results of their relationship with the fans come out inconclusively. Overall, they rated on average 4.9, with most people rating it 5, although the curve seems to demonstrate a degree of uncertainty.

The relationship between the fans and board is similarly sceptical. The average rating was a solid 5 with most people rating the relationship six. There’s not enough data to prove this, but perhaps any judgement on the performances of the board is dictated wholly by the relationship it has with the fans, perhaps hotdogs are important after all.

What was remarkable was that there was virtually no difference of opinion between those who sit in the East Stand and those in the South Stand, so even though we might have a perception that the East Stand is full of the most fervent fans, with the South more sedate, we pretty much speak as one voice. 

I was a little surprised to see that nearly half of respondents thought we had progressed only a little (31%) or not at all (18%) in five years. In 2014 we were in League 2 and at the end of the Wilder/ Lenagan era with the wheels gently falling off; according to the results, there’s a feeling that our progress has been very limited despite being in a division higher with two trips to Wembley under our belt. Short memories? Maybe.

It looks like the fans are expecting no more than incremental improvements in the next five years. 39.8% didn’t expect any change, 34% only a small improvement. If the board are taking us on a great journey, the message hasn’t landed with the fans yet.

It seems a more trivial matter, but the new shirt seemed to get approval from fans rating it an average 7.0 although it’s considered only a little better than last season; perhaps a consequence of sticking with Puma and generally maintaining the same aesthetic.

Overall, the results came out more positively than I was expecting. The summer has been fairly quiet and last season was hardly great.

Midweek fixture: Should we sign Ched Evans?

It feels like a recurring theme, what do you do when your team want to sign someone who is a wrong’un? Last season it was Nile Ranger, previously it was Luke McCormick and before that Adam Chapman, now it’s Ched Evans. Four players in ten years, and we still haven’t resolved the issue.

Let’s not pretend that Oxford fans are consistent and morally principled on the issue. Chapman, whose crime was dangerous driving resulting in the death of a pensioner, was supported almost without question. Reponse to McCormick’s signing – after killing two children while drunk driving – was generally hostile until he put in a series of solid performances covering for Ryan Clarke, he left at the end of the season with generally good will.

Ranger didn’t sign, of course, but given the state we were at the time there was the attitude of, well, if he can do a job…

Karl Robinson admitted this week that Ched Evans was a player that interested him. Rightly so, Evans is a decent player whose been seriously devalued due to his conviction for rape in 2012. That devaluation has brought the player into our price range when in normal circumstances we wouldn’t be able to afford him. In terms of a playing ‘asset’ Evans makes a lot of sense and Robinson is right to consider him an option.

The conviction was quashed in 2016, but the stench of the trial remains. Evans is free to work in whichever field he can find it. There’s a line of argument that says being a footballer is a privileged position and that players who do wrong shouldn’t be admitted back into the fold. That’s nonsense.

There’s also the argument that Evans is innocent (unlike the others), a victim of a malicious claim by his accuser. More than one professional footballer has openly empathised with the predatory dangers of women.

But Evans being found not guilty doesn’t prove his innocence. What his legal team achieved – with the aid of a substantial reward – was to convince a jury that the accusers previous behaviour – having sex with men while drunk – demonstrated a pattern which, while not proving Evans’ innocence, at least made the guilty verdict unsafe.

Evans’ innocence could only be proved if he could show he wasn’t there (he was), he didn’t have sex with the woman (he did, with a teammate present) or that she actively consented (difficult to prove, and not part of his defence). In essence Evans’ legal team didn’t prove his innocence, they undermined his accuser’s story.

That’s their right, it’s how the legal process works. But, most players don’t get themselves in a position where they risk being accused of rape. Plus, rape happens with frightening regularity and conviction rates are appallingly low. Rape is hard to prove, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and I’m generally of the opinion that failed cases are more likely to be the result from a lack of evidence than the maliciousness of the accuser. What is there to gain from having the intimate details of your sex life commited to public record? Unless you believe that women are genetically predisposed to this kind of thing, in which case, you are an ignoramous.

Despite the verdict, Evans’ story remains a grubby one, and one that he has been an active participant in. While he should be free to continue his career wherever he can find work, this is a story that I’d rather we weren’t a part of.

Midweek fixture – Robin Herd

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.

Midweek fixture: Home shirt 2019/2020 – a review

One of the greatest tragedies of the human condition is the realisation that your club’s kit is rarely, if ever, specifically designed for your club. I came to that realisation very late having believed for years that clubs dealt directly with manufacturers to tap into the essence of their existence to inspire a design which would emote to your very soul.

Nope, most football shirts, whether you are playing park or professional football, is simply a manufacturer’s template in a particular colourway with a badge and sponsor sewn on.

The new Oxford home shirt, revealed this week, puts that into greater contrast than ever before. Like countless other teams in the lower leagues, the shirt is manufactured by Puma, and is basically a yellow and blue version of Tranmere’s new shirt, Rotherham’s and, heaven forfend, Swindon’s.

The lower leagues are a good place for Puma to operate; away from the arms race between Adidas and Nike, they enjoy a reputation for being a premium brand without the budget of the big two. You could argue that League 1 is full of once premium brands working at a budget level as well.   

The strategy appears to be to hoover up as many clubs as possible to benefit from the aggregated audience they offer. Making money, however, means keeping costs low, which means there are limited options available and those that exist are universal, uncontroversial and perhaps a little bland.

The other cost saving is in marketing; rather than spend money on carefully crafted marketing whiffle, it is easier to issue a templated descriptions for threadbare club marketing departments to use. But, if you do that you should never use such supercilious wibble as ‘flux pattern sublimated into the shirt’ because that sort of phrase is a honeypot for stretched copywriters; it must mean something.

But does it? The simple answer is no, it is promotional boohockey of the first order. Of the many definitions of flux, the one which even remotely makes sense is not the ‘abnormal discharge of blood’ but a description of something that flows. ‘Sublimate’ is less clear and probably refers to the elevation of something, though perhaps not to a higher social plain as is its true definition. Distilled into something more digestible, it might be better to say there are textured wavy lines in the fabric.

That’s the new shirt’s defining motif; a nod to some of the more imaginative styles developed by Puma as they’ve courted emergent footballing nations from Africa, in particular. As well as the sublimated flux; the shirt has blue sleeves with a thick yellow cuff, similar to the 2016/2017 ‘Starter’ shirt although the overall effect is more towards the 2011/2012 Nike edition.

Thankfully, the club have reverted to blue shorts, which gives everyone hope that the world’s most complex problems can be resolved, along with yellow socks, of which I’ve always been a fan.

All in all, it’s OK, a bit derivative and obviously generic, but ultimately OK. I can see how people will like it, because there’s so little to be offended by. Perhaps my shattered illusions of a kit which is truly ours, plus the regimented annual reveal of yet another new shirt – which is necessarily limited in scope in terms of colour and layout – has made the whole thing less exciting than it once was.

It is what it is; so the club are rightly marketing it as an empty vessel whose meaning is derived from the moments that happen in it. These things only become classics if something memorable happens while wearing them – think promotions, cup or derby wins. Whether this becomes a classic remains to be seen.

Midweek fixture: 2010 play-off winners – where are they now?

Ryan Clarke

A goalkeeper who saved his team more times than any other player is ironically most well known for dropping the ball into his own net with the score at 2-0. Clarke went on to play more than 200 times for the club before moving to Northampton Town. His career stalled a bit and he failed to make a single appearance, later admitting to depression. After a brief spell at Wimbledon he moved to Eastleigh and Torquay and is currently at Bath City.

Damian Batt

A full-back with pace and a prodigious engine, Batt played on for three more years before briefly claiming a move to Vancouver Whitecaps. It came to nothing and he announced his retirement allowing him to focus on his business Alexander Du’Bel. He made a brief return at Eastleigh and then Dagenham and Redbridge before fully retiring in 2015. In 2017, the Telegraph raised a series of concerns about his dubious claims to be raising money for charity.

Mark Creighton

The Beast who kick started the season with a last minute winner over York was a wall of a central defender. Almost as soon as the following season started Creighton was loaned out to Wrexham, before moving to Kidderminster Harriers permanently. After two years he retired due to injury and set up his tattoo business Raw Ink Studios.

Jake Wright

Signed midway through the season to replace Luke Foster, Wright evolved into a formidable centre-back and leader. Wright steered the club through the League 2 years and into the Appleton era where he captained the team to promotion in 2016. He signed for Sheffield United, rejoining Chris Wilder during that summer and promptly won promotion with them to The Championship.

Anthony Tonkin

A sanguine full-back signed in the January before the play-off final. Tonkin drifted out of the team after promotion, but had a moment in the sun against Swindon Town. In 2012 he moved to Aldershot Town before moving onto Frome Town. A business graduate, he had a sideline as a property developer during his playing days. He became a Financial Advisor on retiring before becoming a Quantity Surveyor.

Dannie Bulman

Bulman was signed at the start of the promotion season after leaving Crawley Town. He had already played over 350 games for Wycombe, Stevenage and Crawley. Bulman was quickly moved on back to Crawley following promotion; Chris Wilder’s biggest mistake. After that he moves to Wimbledon where he was the Football League’s oldest player in 2018. Currently back at Crawley.

Adam Chapman

Signed from Sheffield United, Chapman took over from the injured Adam Murray as the creative force in midfield. Immediately before the final it was announced that Chapman was set to stand trial for killing someone in car accident. He was convicted and spent a year away in a young offenders institute. He returned and played spasmodically before moving on, at one playing a game against Wycombe with a burnt his nipple from baby milk. He now plays for Sheffield FC.

Simon Clist

An invaluable water-carrier in the middle of midfield. Clist became our unlikely first goalscorer on our return to the Football League. In 2012 Clist moved to Hereford on loan and then permanently. The trail runs cold at this point, although he reappeared as guest of honour at the club in 2018.

Jack Midson

A player with a deft touch and great poise; Midson was another player who undeservedly was moved out of the club by Chris Wilder following promotion. He eventually settled with Wimbledon, taking them back to the Football League and having the honour of scoring against the Dons’ nemesis MK Dons. Following a number of moves he became assistant manager at Concord Rangers. He’s also a director of M&M Sports Coaching with his team mate Sammy Moore. Recently appointed manager at Hemel Hempstead Town.

James Constable

A bona fide club legend. Constable scored over 100 goals and just one short of the club’s goalscoring record left for Eastleigh. After four years he moved to Poole Town one loan, recently announcing his semi-retirement and became a patron of Oxford United in the Community. Left Eastleigh permanently in May 2019.

Matt Green

A peculiar career which started at Cardiff, he had a brief loan spell at Oxford before controversially moving to Torquay. He came back in 2010 and became part of a formidable three pronged attack. Another player who was moved on a little too quickly, in 2013 he scored a bucketload at Mansfield earning him a move to The Championship and Birmingham City. Injury stalled his career and he moved back to Mansfield before moving to Lincoln and Salford.

Subs:

Billy Turley

A character and a dying breed, Turley lost his place to Ryan Clarke at the beginning of the season. He was released immediately after the final before spending some time at Brackley Town.

Kevin Sandwith

An early Chris Wilder Signing, he lost his place to Anthony Tonkin at Christmas. Released after the final he went to Mansfield before drifting around the non-league and disappearing.

Alfie Potter

Potter came on to score the iconic third goal at Wembley. He played on until 2015 enjoying moments in the sun such as a winner over Swindon and a leading part in a 4-1 win over Portsmouth. Joined Chris Wilder at Northampton in 2015 before moving to Mansfield and Billericay Town.

Rhys Day

Day came on with three minutes to go and won the header which set up the breakaway for the third goal. Another player who played briefly for Mansfield before popping up at Hyde. Currently an Operations Manager in Manchester.

Sam Deering

A diminutive forward who set up Alfie Potter for the third goal. Deering drifted in and out of the team until 2011 before moving to Barnet. Enjoyed an FA Cup giant killing with Whitehawk before ending up at Billericay.

Manager: Chris Wilder

Battled on with the club until everyone forgot what a remarkable job he had done. Left acrimoniously in 2014 for Northampton who were, at the time, bottom of League 2. He saved them by beating us on the last game of the season. He followed it up by winning the title while we came second. Shortly after, he moved to Sheffield United where he won promotion to the Championship and then, in 2019, The Premier League.

Midweek fixture: Chris Wilder – Premier League manager

When Oxford United appointed Chris Wilder I thought we’d given up. We’d tried the ‘been there, done that’ appointments (Atkins, Talbot), the emerging talent (Wright, Rix), the messiah (Jim Smith) and even the South American Alex Ferguson (Diaz). None had worked, and so in 2009, with finances biting, this nondescript appointment seemed like a sign we were hunkering down for a long dark winter of simply being a non-league club.

In fact, there was one recruitment tactic we hadn’t tried – advertising the role; applications, interviews, a selection criteria. Where his predecessors were heavily networked into the footballing establishment, Wilder was a hidden gem. He’d taken Halifax to the brink returning to the Football League against a backdrop of crippling financial problems, then working alongside Alan Knill at Bury to win them promotion. What he needed was a chance to get into the system; it came via Kelvin Thomas and Ian Lenagan and a dose of good practice.

Wilder’s first move was to create a siege mentality around the club; he declared Sam Deering – who broke his leg in his first game – to be our best player. Deering wasn’t, but the sense of injustice was galvanising. This was immediately followed by the revelation that the club was being deducted five points for not registering Eddie Hutchinson as a player. Hutchinson had been with the club for three years, but was on his way out and unregistered, then played due to injuries. It was a harsh punishment for an admin error, made all the worse by the fact we missed out on the play-offs by those five points. Wilder’s parting shot for the season was about his desire to get out of ‘this poxy league’ – the club and fans were as one on that.

Wilder’s ‘poxy league’ comment would be repeated countless time because it encapsulated both him as a person and the team he wanted to create – scratchy, awkward, aggressively ambitious and strangely relatable. Wilder knew we didn’t belong in the Conference, but he also knew getting out of it had to be earned.

The following season’s promotion will always be remembered as nothing but glorious, but it wasn’t without issues. Wilder was apoplectic at the apparent apathy after we’d raced to a 4-0 win over Chester in an unbeaten start to the season which saw us topping the table. He ranted about the club being backward looking, wallowing in its Milk Cup glory, much to the considerable chagrin of many fans – a rift that, for some, never healed.

He was right, we’d spent too long expecting a revival, like success would come from the push of a button – a different manager, new player or just some kind of natural justice. What was really needed was culture change, a reality check of who we were. The culture shift came in the form of players who would thrive in the environment, not freeze in it – Dannie Bulman, Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, Ryan Clarke, Jake Wright, James Constable. All players who shared a mindset, the relentless pursuit of success.

The coup de grace was the 3-1 win over York in the play-off final at Wembley. In many ways, a greater achievement than the Milk Cup Final win of 1986, certainly more important in terms of our survival as a club. It should have cemented Wilder as sitting alongside Jim Smith as one of the club’s great managers.

One of my lasting memories of that win was not so much the elation of winning, but the relief that Wilder’s efforts hadn’t gone unrewarded; in many ways the fear of failure, even when things were going well, drove him forward.

Back in the Football League, his elevated flight instinct – running away from failure – seemed to get the better of him. Fans interviewed coming out of Wembley were already talking about back-to-back promotions, so expectations were high. Wilder’s impatience to progress caused him to break up the promotion team – Jack Midson and Matt Green were loaned out, along with Mark Creighton and Dannie Bulman. The dumping of the heroes of Wembley – the spine of the team – didn’t do much for Wilder’s stock with the fans.

To some extent it killed our momentum, steadying the ship took time. The bi-product of the stall was a first league meeting with Swindon Town for 10 years the following season. It was perfect for Wilder; who got  under the skin of the more celebrated Paolo DiCanio. A home and away double was as much about outfoxing DiCanio as it was a footballing victory.

The success wasn’t without collateral damage. A proposed move to Swindon for James Constable dragged on for much of that season, damaging the relationship between manager and his on-the-field talisman.

There was another win over Swindon the following season in the JPT Trophy, but after an underwhelming campaign, with promotion missed and financial constraints biting, Ian Lenagan presented a new vision for the club; of homegrown players leading the club’s future. There was a short term contract extension for Wilder, barely an endorsement. Wilder looked haunted, subservient to his owner’s will, constrained by a triple lock of promotion expectations, a falling budget and the burning platform of a short-term contract.  

Time was running out; like many managers who have got teams promoted from the Conference Wilder remained a decent bet for any struggling team. Portsmouth were first to bite, and Lenagan barely blinked allowing him to speak to them, he didn’t get the job, but it was the clearest indication yet that Wilder wasn’t wanted.

Then Northampton came sniffing; they were bottom of the league and heading for the Conference, any manager would have been mad to take it on. But, for Wilder, it was perfect; an opportunity to get angry, invigorate and agitate, to shake them out of their slumber, no excuses. At Oxford, his fight had gone, he could please nobody. But also, things were running themselves, Wilder couldn’t be a hands-off manager strategically shaping the club, he needed a problem to solve. The impact was instant; Wilder sparked an astonishing revival, they went into the final game of the season within a win of saving themselves from relegation. Their opponents? Oxford United.

It goes without saying that Northampton swept to safety with a 3-1 win, it was such a Wilder thing to do.

As Wilder steadied Northampton, Michael Appleton arrived to transform Oxford. Appleton was the anti-Wilder – a theoretician and strategist – process, not results. Very modern.

Over the next year Appleton remodelled the he inherited from Wilder; jettisoning many of his players. Ryan Clarke, Alfie Potter and Danny Rose all eventually reconnected Wilder with his Oxford past.

With both managers battleplans fully in place; 2015/16 put Wilder’s resurgent Northampton side in direct opposition to his previous club. For once, we were the progressive modern affectation, they were the rugged survivors. The Cobblers task made all the more difficult in a backdrop of implied corruption and near bankruptcy. No Oxford fan would trade Michael Appleton, but it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Wilder rounded on those who were putting the club in jeopardy, imploring them to accept an offer for the club from his former Oxford boss Kelvin Thomas.

Thomas eventually took over, and Wilder took Northampton on a long undefeated streak to the top of the league. We weren’t doing bad ourselves, but were burdened by cup runs in the JPT and FA Cup. While we took plaudits from the media, they streaked to the title, inflicting a typically Wilder-esque defeat at the Kassam in February. We secured the second promotion spot, with Michael Appleton claiming we were the best footballing team in the division. Wilder raged, but it showed the difference between the two managers – Appleton the scientist and theoretician, Wilder, a results man through and through.

Inevitably, Wilder’s success brought the attention of others, and finally a club he couldn’t resist – Sheffield United. There’d been talk, even at Oxford, about how they just had to ask and Wilder would go, but now was his opportunity. Like his two previous clubs, The Blades needed organising, shaking out of their slumber; perfect for Wilder. The only question was whether he could scale his skills to a club of their size.

Yes. He took them to the League 1 title in his first season, swatting us out the way, yet again. Mirroring his Northampton days; he acquired Oxford captain Jake Wright. Following a period of consolidation in The Championship, George Baldock and Jon Lundstram – a chunk of the best footballing team in League 2 were now gunning for the Premier League. Marvin Johnson was added, albeit on loan and not really playing.

While it is likely that maybe only Baldock will expect to play in the Premier League, it is telling that no less than four former Michael Appleton players were in Wilder’s promotion squad. Appleton found the players, Wilder got them winning. If there wasn’t animosity between the two of them, they’d probably be a dream team.

So, Wilder is now one of the elite managers in the country, fourth or fifth in line for the England job, you might argue. Weirdly, the Premier League might suit him. Nobody will fancy his team to stay up so he’ll have plenty to rail against, he can create the siege mentality and rage against the uneven playing field as he did in his first season with us in the Conference, he can get under the skin of the suave European managers like he did with Paolo DiCanio.

And yet, his time at Oxford, which started it all has left a stain with all parties. You only have to see Wilder celebrating promotion; middle aged spread, a weak lager in his hand frothing over to tell you everything you need to know about how Oxford fans should feel towards him. Should we be proud of what he’s achieved, and wish him well in the future? Yes. Is he a bit of a tit? Yes also. When it comes to Oxford’s relationship with Wilder, that’s probably about as good as it will get.

Midweek fixture: Why you should be an Oxford fan

The season is nearly over, our form is good, but why should you buy a season ticket or even be an Oxford United fan? Here’s a handy guide:

Because anything is possible

You are joining an institution which is 125 years old and has experienced everything there is to experience in professional football from national honours to the ignominy of falling out of the Football League altogether. Only one other club has done that, Luton, and, well, have you ever been to Luton?

Because it’s good for you

Life can be pretty overwhelming sometimes. School, college, work and home can get quite chaotic and become hard to process. But, there’s always a game on Saturday and the objective is always to win. You need this, because sometimes it gets you through the day.

Because you’re only truly alive if you mean something

Have you ever listened to people talk about the Premier League? It’s Ozil this and Aguero that, regurgitated opinions that have been replayed a thousand times on TV. Did you know Harry Kane is a good player? Opinions become worn out by relentless media coverage. When you’re not in the media spotlight and you talk about your football club, your opinion is yours, not that of some saggy ex-pro or wizened old hack with a deadline to hit. You mean something because it means something.

Because when you know, you know

You’re part of an undercover movement. If you see someone in a Spurs or Manchester United shirt, you don’t know whether they’re going to football or to Westfield shopping centre. See someone in an Oxford shirt and you know they’re part of the secret society. If you see someone in, say, a Rochdale shirt – preferably their away shirt from 1994 – you know they’re also part of the resistance network, a counter-culture people don’t understand.

Because you’re always on a secret mission

Let’s face it, people don’t care about your club; at best they’ll ask what division you’re in and shut down before you finish telling them. But they don’t know that your Saturdays are spent screaming for an undeserved away point at Scunthorpe courtesy of Jamie Mackie. They don’t even know what a Jamie Mackie is, and they are less of a person because of it.

Because you’re not just watching history, you are history

If you do get to Wembley, draw a big team in the cup, get promoted or have a moment in a game which makes national headlines, people suddenly want to know: were you there? You can say, heroically, that you were because you’ve invested the time and deserved to be part of that moment in a way they haven’t. Then you can watch the sadness in their eyes as they cower in the dawn of their meaningless existence.

Because they’ll never understand  

Sometimes you’ll draw a big team away in the cup and join an armada of 3,000 or more on a pilgrimage across the country. When you arrive, watch as the opposition fans – mere extras in the Premier League media product – look at you like you’re an exotic, beguiling creature. And that’s because you are. They think you’re there for the day out, they don’t know you’re there for the win, and if not the win, then a glorious death trying, a death we don’t fear. They can’t figure you out, they don’t know why you do it, but they’re jealous that you do.

Because it puts everything else into perspective

You go to a game on a Tuesday night when you’ve got work or school in the morning and the world is fixated on the Bake Off quarter-finals. The next day, your colleagues talk about under-cooked macarons as though they’ve got a purpose in life. You have a meeting with your boss where you thank them for trebling your workload because you ‘thrive on the pressure’. Secretly, you don’t give a crap about their meaningless existence and hierarchy because last night’s point means you’re eight points clear of the relegation zone and that is life.

Because it’s the lows that make the highs

Don’t do it for the wins, do it for the mission, do it for the journey, not the destination. Week in, week out, you’ll be cold, you’ll be bored, you’ll be frustrated. Then sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll be deep into stoppage time, 100 miles from home in a game nobody else gives a damn about. All seems lost, when a final, desperate ball is launched forward, their full-back slips and suddenly your striker – four goals in thirty-six games and a contract that expires in four months – is bearing down on goal. He looks terrified, he can’t feel his feet, he scuffs his shot and it squirms under their keeper and rolls into the net. Suddenly he transforms into a god. And you? You’re tumbling down the terrace, arm in arm with a 64-year-old retired gas fitter from Wantage, careering into a steward like he’s a luminous crash mat in a gym. Your world becomes blurred and muffled because your face is embedded in the armpit of an overweight ginger teenager. Someone has their hand on your backside, and you can’t be certain that you’ve still got your phone. You gasp for clean air. When you surface all you can see is Sheila, a South Stand regular, whose been going to away games on the London Road coach for 30 years and insists Billy Whitehurst was a lovely polite boy, claps hysterically and waves the scarf she bought when Ron Atkinson was a boy. It’s a blissful momentary release from her sciatica. When you do finally extract yourself from the bundle and the final whistle goes, you want to tell everyone what happened, but the convenient faceless industrial estate where you’ve parked your car is empty. You go onto Twitter and share the moment with hundreds of others until the feeling fades and all that’s left is a vague sense of needing that moment again, and more. And so, despite the rain, despite the misery, despite the fact Saturday is your only chance to fix the broken guttering which threatens to wreck your house, you make a silent pact that you’ll do it all again next week.

Midweek fixture: A defence of Karl Robinson

Karl Robinson is not always easy to love; he’s an ebullient character who loves to talk. Like the bloke in the pub who is really fun to be around at first, but then tries to instigate games of strip Monopoly at 4 in the morning when you’re trying to get to sleep on the sofa.

A typical Liverpudlian, he wears his heart on his sleeve and wants people to know how much he cares. I don’t have the same aversion to Liverpool that other Oxford United fans have and their the faux outrage of missing out on a UEFA Cup campaign in 1986. But, I can see how the scouse character grates with some Oxford fans, looking back we’ve always preferred the more considered, cerebral managers like Maurice Evans or Michael Appleton.

But, incompetent he is not; put aside the toxicity of the MK Dons brand and you see a lot of success – promotion to the Championship and a League Cup win over Manchester United – then at Charlton in a difficult environment, he steered them to the edge of the play-offs. In that sense, he’s not dissimilar to Michael Appleton; cutting his teeth on difficult jobs before arriving here.

Appleton fell on his feet at Oxford; he was given time, money and support to turn the club around. Robinson has not had the same stable platform to work from, but assuming we do secure a mid-table finish; he’s still delivered a reasonable result despite, not because of the environment he’s in.

I think there is another layer to Robinson that peeks out from time to time and which is a rare quality in a football person. There are many football autobiographies which reveal how being in the game destroys any love for it. Politics, rivalry and jealousy overwhelms people, extinguishes the joy of the game. It turns people into mercenaries. Robinson, despite the batterings he’s received from the game, not only does he recognises that as unpleasant as it is inside football, for fans on the outside it, the appeal remains.  

Robinson has been at pains to impress his responsibility in managing the club. He’s under no illusions about how long he might stay, or that he’ll ultimately be another grain of sand in the beach of Oxford’s history. But while he is in position, he has a responsibility to protect the history of the club and, hopefully, improve it in preparation for the next incumbent.

I’ve not heard a manager talk like that before. Typically, managers want to be recognised for what they achieve, respected for the work they do, they need their own brand to be enhanced. It makes them less interested in their host club. Robinson recognises a responsibility to something bigger than him that will last much longer. I said back during the celebrations for the 125th anniversary, the maintenance of the club’s spirit is crucial. If you let it die, you’ll never get it back. Robinson seems to understand that.

Furthermore, he’s keen to see that philosophy promoted to the players in his charge. The idea to invite James Constable and Joey Beauchamp to train with the first team was a masterstroke. It can be more than a flaccid PR stunt, it promotes the idea that if you work hard and play well for the club, then not only can you progress into higher leagues, you can leave a legacy in the way Beauchamp and Constable have. That might not be important when you’re virile and in your early 20s, but there will be a time when you’re not; leaving your mark when you can gains value when your body won’t deliver any more and ambition is replaced by realism.

Robinson isn’t as refined as Michael Appleton; if we lose a game, he’s prone to reflecting on what went wrong – which is perceived as laying blame. Appleton, looked at what went wrong and projected them forward as things to improve on. Robinson might say ‘We weren’t ruthless enough’ where Appleton would say ‘We need to be more ruthless’. The switch to from past tense to future tense, changes everything.

But Robinson is too quick, words tumble from his mouth. He’s at pains to support the club he’s at, to protect not only its reputation, but the people in it. He’s been protective of the owners and Niall McWilliams when he’d have every right to not be. He seems very conscious of the impact that the non-payment of salaries had on the staff at the club. In short, I think he genuinely cares for the club and people in it. And that’s all you can ask for.

As infuriating as he can be, underneath is a capable and compassionate man. It’s still questionable as to whether the club will find the stability it needs, and it’s possible that Robinson will not survive as it does, but I genuinely hope that isn’t the case. I appreciate his philosophy and work he puts in, accept he has flaws as we all do, but ultimately I hope he succeeds for himself as well as for us.   

Midweek fixture: What’s Firoz Kassam’s problem with Oxford United?

Was there significance in Firoz Kassam serving a winding up order on Oxford United 20 years to the day after he bought it? I remember his first game, walking around the perimeter of The Manor followed by a phalanx of photographers half way through a 2-2 draw with Tranmere in 1999, an Oxford scarf held above his head. He was interviewed on the pitch and seemed shy and unassuming.

It’s hard to believe now, but when Firoz Kassam first bought the club he was considered a hero. The club had nose-dived due to the collapse of Robin Herd’s new stadium project, a fire sale of players was on, Dean Windass had been bought and then sold in a matter of months; a folly at a time of crisis.

FOUL – Fighting for Oxford United’s Life – the group set up to save the club, supported the purchase. There was no Plan B, a friend and FOUL activist reminds me regularly. Martin Brodetsky, writing in When Saturday Comes in 2000 said that most fans trusted Kassam’s integrity.

More than that, Firoz Kassam was eye wateringly rich. The Premier League was forging an unbreakable bond between the game, money and success. With one of the richest people in the country at the helm, there was a hope that he many not just save the club, but catapult it forward.

It wasn’t all positive. I fell out with someone on the This is United forum because they described Kassam as ‘Ayatollah’; an apparent reference to his skin colour. Plus, there was the source of his riches – some referred to him as a hotelier, others; a slum landlord.

Kassam’s money came from providing accommodation for asylum seekers and other vulnerable people. The authorities paid him tens of thousands of pounds a week to keep them in such poor conditions; they – some of the most needy people in the country – eventually rebelled.

Kassam’s first battle was with the clubs creditors. He forced a Company Voluntary Agreement on those who the club owed money to, reducing the club’s (more specifically Kassam’s) debts to a fraction of what they were. Then he fought a brutal war with everyone who stood in between him and the completion of the stadium build. He won, which softened the blow of the most abject season which saw us leave The Manor heading for the bottom division for the first time in 34 years.

While suspicions grew about Kassam’s intentions, there were signs that he was interested in the football. During our relegation season he bought Andy Scott, leading goalscorer for Brentford, in an attempt to stem our slide. When we got to the Kassam, he invested heavily in the team, including bringing back Paul Moody.

He was a presence at the stadium, his green Bentley parked prominently outside the South Stand, he even went to some away games. If his initial plans were about land deals and making money; he didn’t immediately show it.

But, there were worrying developments too; he sold The Manor to his own company, used the money to pay off the club’s creditors and then sold the ground for a massive personal profit. After 76 years sitting on prime Oxford real estate, the club didn’t make a penny from its sale. When challenged about the morality of it, Kassam simply stated that it was his right because of the risks he took in buying the club.

What Kassam struggled with, however, was the fact that despite putting money into the club, he wasn’t rewarded with success on the pitch. There were moments; a full house against Aston Villa, a derby win over Swindon, a trip to Arsenal. But there were more problems; Mark Wright racially abusing a referee, Ian Atkins resigning when the club were threatening promotion, players being bought, but not performing. Above all, there was a torrent of criticism from fans.

If Kassam wanted a successful club, and I think initially he did, he simply couldn’t make it happen. Inevitably, it caused a rift between fans and the owner. Despite pumping millions into the team, the fans wanted more.

The farce of Ramon Diaz’s brief reign at the club followed by the relegation from the Football League, mostly under Brian Talbot destroyed any remaining faith. Kassam sold up to Nick Merry and became the club’s landlord.

In the intervening years he’s fallen out with successive owners, his intentions towards the club are increasingly opaque – sometimes he talks about protecting it while simultaneously charging rent the club can barely afford. He’s sitting on a pile of money and has spent the last twenty years fighting an obscure little football club. What the hell is wrong with him?

The first thing is that being rich is hard work, there’s an idea that somehow rich people haven’t worked for what they have whereas poor people work hard and get nothing. When you work hard, you usually feel you deserve something for it; a beer, a million pounds, your bodyweight in chocolate. Firoz Kassam undoubtedly thinks he deserves reward for his financial success. But, hard work alone does not make you rich. Lots of people work hard and don’t get rich. There are lots of other factors, many out of your control, which help you get rich.

It is easy to believe that being rich makes you right. After all, rich people are seen to be ‘successful’, they have won at life. They could have drug and alcohol problems, broken marriages, children who hate them, but because they have money they are successful.

Somewhere along the line, Kassam’s wealth has welded him to the notion that he is ‘right’ and that he deserves things. It is easy to psychoanalyse why this is, his mother dying when he was a child, moving from Tanzania as a teenager, his home in Monaco; perhaps Kassam doesn’t have the roots others have and seeks to define himself by what he accumulates.

My feeling is that Kassam bought Oxford because he thought it would be something to define him beyond being a slum landlord. The stadium, in his name, was his legacy. But the club betrayed him, his money came to nothing. Now he’s turned on the club and takes a peverse pleasure in seeing it suffer. After a 20 year abusive relationship, and Kassam’s legacy almost universally negative, something has to give. If Kassam gifted the stadium to the club, or a trust, it would barely make a dent in his vast wealth or the club needs to move, because he’s not likely to change. If the two parties did go their separate ways, it would probably benefit Firoz Kassam as much as it would us.

Midweek Fixture: The 2016 JPT Final team – where are they now?

Before it was infested by Under 23 Premier League teams, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was a half decent tournament. At least when you got to the final. The last to maintain its integrity was 2016 where we faced Barnsley in the final. It was a joyous affair, despite the 3-2 defeat. Where are those brave men now?

Benji Büchel

Likeable weak link in an otherwise relentlessly effective team. Shared glove-based responsibilities with Sam Slocombe for most of the season. Replaced by Simon Eastwood once promotion was confirmed. Eventually went to Barnet on loan where he was briefly announced as playing for their ladies team. Now at FC Vaduz, he’s been capped by Lichenstein over 20 times and recently played against Italy.

Jonjoe Kenny

More than capable right-back signed on loan from Everton filling a not inconsiderable hole left by George Baldock. Slotted seamlessly into the team under the tutelage of Alex MacDonald. Headed back to Everton, playing the final game of the 2015/16 season. He was part of the England team which won the Under 20 World Cup in 2017. Has spent most of his time since in and out of their starting eleven at The Toffees.

Johnny Mullins (captain)

Started the season as a first choice centre-back before falling down the pecking order. Captained the side due to Jake Wright not being fully fit. Headed for Luton at the end of the promotion season where he won promotion, before joining Cheltenham.

Chey Dunkley

Cheyenne Amarni Keanu Roma Dunkley cemented a place in Oxford United folklore at Wembley by doing a Cruyff turn in his own box. Also managed to score Barnsley’s first goal. Spent most of the season overcoming Johnny Mullins in the centre of defence. Scored a decisive goal against Wycombe to seal promotion, dominant in our first year in League 1 before signing for Wigan Athletic. Won promotion to The Championship the following season.

Jordan Evans

Signed on loan from Fulham in January 2016, played only nine games before heading back. Started due to an injury to Joe Skarz. A Welsh Under-21 international, his professional career petered out, playing for Wrexham and Bala Town before ending up at Cefn Druids, A man with hidden talents, Evans is a qualified hairdresser and plays in the band Faded Strangers.

Alex MacDonald

Lovable tireless winger signed from Burton at Michael Appleton’s lowest ebb. Boundless enthusiasm for the game dragged us out of the fug and into the 2015/16 season. A regular through the promotion year before being unceremoniously sold to Mansfield Town.

Josh Ruffels

Oxford United survivor originally signed by Chris Wilder from Coventry City. Made the starting eleven due to a lunging John Lundstram tackle which gained a red card and a ban. Players came and went, as did managers, but Ruffels stayed. Mostly played in midfield, but converted to full-back under Karl Robinson, became a specialist in spectacular last minute goals.

Liam Sercombe

Wide shouldered marauding midfielder whose goals from midfield were critical to pretty much everything we did well that season. Scored a decisive goal at Carlisle at the end of the season. The following season in League One he continued his good form until he fell out with Michael Appleton, possibly over his reaction to only being a substitute in the JPT Final against Coventry the following season, where he also scored. Signed for Bristol Rovers in the summer.

Callum O’Dowda

Career-minded local boy flitted in and out of the team throughout the promotion season. Scored the opener in the final to wild celebration. Also scored the last goal of the season against Wycombe before flouncing off to Bristol City in the summer. A Republic of Ireland international.

Kemar Roofe

Ethereal goal machine who initially joined on loan from West Brom. Heralded a new era when he was announced as a permanent signing the following summer, smashed in over 20 goals before joining Leeds United for £4m.

Danny Hylton

Precise, analytical, focussed – everything that Michael Appleton was, Danny Hylton wasn’t. Signed by Gary Waddock weeks before the Darryl Eales revolution took hold. Stuck to the first team like chewing gum on your shoe. Scored the second goal which briefly raised hopes of a revival. At the end of the season, he headed for Luton Town where he won promotion. More recently spent most of his time cheerleading from the sidelines as Luton head for the Championship.

Substitutes:

Sam Slocombe

Initially signed to replace Ryan Clarke, Slocombe’s patchy form saw him chopping and changing with Benji Buchel throughout the season. Missed out on Wembley, but played in our 3-2 giant killing over Swansea. The signing of Simon Eastwood pushed him out the door to Blackpool. Lasted a year before going to Bristol Rovers. Loaned to Lincoln in 2019.

Jake Wright

A leader of men who was signed by Chris Wilder in 2010. Won promotion to the Football League at the end of that year. Injury meant he missed out on being the first Oxford United player to play at Wembley twice. Led the team to promotion, but re-joined Chris Wilder at Sheffield United in a defensive re-shuffle when Curtis Nelson arrived. Won promotion with the Blades where he still is, albeit now sidelined by injury.

Sam Long

A player who seemed to be so frequently injured, successive managers didn’t have the heart to release him. Survived Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and became a regular in Karl Robinson’s starting eleven.

Josh Ashby

Once heralded as the future of the football club; Ashby achieved just seven appearances before being released. Signed for Oxford City.

George Waring (replaced Callum O’Dowda)

A proper unit signed on loan from Stoke City, flitted in and out of the team scoring once. Following a series of loan moves he headed for Tranmere before joining Chester in 2019.

Chris Maguire (replaced Alex MacDonald)

Enigmatic magician signed on loan from Rotherham. Sulked from one club to another, disgusted by the mediocrity around him. At Oxford, however, he bloomed and signed permanently in 2016. Scored twice in a derby win over Swindon and generally oozed genius. Appleton’s departure scuppered chances of a renewed contract where he made a disasterous move to Bury. Following their relegation he was signed by Sunderland where he initially regained form. Slipped out of the reckoning as the season progressed.

Jordan Bowery (replaced Danny Hylton)

One of numerous target men that Michael Appleton signed. Unlike most of the others, he weighed in with seven goals during his time with the club including a critical winner at Portsmouth. Dropped to the Conference with Leyton Orient where he failed to find any form. Signed on loan with Crewe before being made permanent, scoring twenty goals for the club.