Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

Midweek fixture: Just how does Karl Robinson keep getting away with it?

Last week Karl Robinson was having one of his rants. Characteristically, the vexations came thick and fast; no, signings hadn’t been easy; yes, we do know the season’s coming; yes, we are about to lose our best player. It was a thinly veiled, probably unplanned attack on the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook who constantly demand instant success.

Twenty-four hours later, with Gavin Whyte leaving, he signed Ben Woodburn on loan, then a day after that, Anthony Forde joined, Rob Dickie signed a contract extension and, perhaps most surprisingly Karl Robinson himself signed a three year contract. The following day, Elliot Moore signed to fill the vacant centre-back role.

It’s difficult to know which is more surprising, that Robinson was offered a new contract, that he chose to sign one or that he’s still here at all. This is a man who led the team to a lengthy relegation scrap last year and who, on a regular basis, shoots his mouth off to the evident frustration of the fans. Put all that into the context of a distant owner who, if you believe a stereotype, will not tolerate humdrum performances, particularly from an English manager.

So how, despite everything, is he still getting away with it? 

Of course, the phrase ‘getting away with it’ implies that he’s managing to avoid the most logical conclusion that he shouldn’t be in post. This might be the heart of the issue, perhaps we need to challenge our norms to find an explanation.

Let’s start with our owners. It’s easy to paint a foreign owner as being untrustworthy and impatient. It’s easier still to paint our owners as conniving fraudsters given the problems they’ve had with paying bills and signing players.

But, perhaps they are doing things the right way, there has been investment in the training ground and the youth team set up. Results improved last season once the training ground was in a fit state. Signings, though slow this year, seem more sensible and robust.

The fans too are perhaps not as anti-Robinson as it may initially appear. The Absolute State of Oxford United survey rated him only a fraction behind the squad. In the main, the squad are considered positively, and so – according to the numbers – is the manager.

Then there’s Robinson himself; I’ve always said that he improved both MK Dons and Charlton in less-than-perfect circumstances. You might even argue that he has improved Oxford in a post-Clotet world where he had to shed the squad of the likes of Tiendelli and Mehmeti and deal with key players with itchy feet from the Michael Appleton era such as Ledson, Johnson, Rothwell and Nelson, while achieving, if not stunning progress, then stability.

There’s absolutely no doubting Robinson’s work ethic; his desire to succeed spills out in interviews, which doesn’t always serve him well. He’s barely gone a few days without talking to the press this summer and at times he’s looked exhausted. He understands the system – he knows that he can’t stop Nelson and Gavin Whyte pursuing their careers elsewhere – or Ledson or Rothwell – but he kept them all performing right up to the point they left. In addition, the signing of Woodburn – like Marcus Browne and Luke Garbutt last year – shows he has contacts in the right places. How much did his links to Liverpool secure the friendly with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers?

The Radio Oxford pre-season special with Robinson, Zaki Nuseibeh and Niall McWilliams saw the trio, if not finishing each others’ sentences, then at least starting them. What it seemed to show was a cohesive group with a shared vision of the future. Robinson’s signing of a new contract is perhaps the most telling; concepts of loyalty and ambition are probably over-stated in League 1, but Robinson evidently trusts the club to protect his reputation, which is critical to sustain his career long-term.

McWilliams, who I’ve been critical of, also made a tellng contribution. He said that when people asked him about the club’s strategy, he tells them about the ‘six pillars’ only for them to ask when they’re going to sign a new winger.

Which might be why Karl Robinson is ‘getting away with it’; because there is a shared long term vision for the club which will deliver its benefits more slowly than many fans (and many other managers) would want. That vision, alongside a robust, sensible, sustainable strategy, is more likely to deliver sustained success than the abilities, or otherwise, of a single individual. Perhaps Robinson is getting away with it, because he is not the genius with a gift of footballing alchemy, but because he understands his role in a bigger machine, a strategic thinker, which might be just what we need. 

Midweek fixture: The Absolute State of Oxford United (part 2) – Predictions

After last week’s revelations about how you rate Oxford United, let’s have a look at your predictions for the season. Like all good strategies, it’s important to have the end in mind right at the start. Notions of success – from promotion to avoiding relegation to remaining solvent will evolve over time, but where are the expectations now?

There was a lot of consensus about where we’ll finish next season; nearly half of respondents had us finishing anywhere from 8th and 10th, which feels like it has a dose of realism about it.

The cups too had a solid level of expectations; 49% expect us to make the third round of the FA Cup with 51% expecting us to make the second round of the League Cup. It’s fairly certain where the benchmarks are.

If there is an expectation of promotion – 4 punters had us going up as champions – then it’s clear who people think who we need to beat. Over a third of respondents saw Portsmouth as favourites, with Ipswich just ahead of Sunderland. If those prophecies come true, breaking into the automatic promotion spots looks a tall order.

At the other end, Bury’s troubles look set to catch up with them, nearly a third expect them to go down. Wycombe Wanderers got 18% of the vote, although that might be just being a bit vitriolic, Bolton had 11%, just ahead of Rochdale.

Putting the two together sees us finishing 6th with the table looking like this:

Portsmouth92092
Ipswich 85085
Sunderland79376
Peterborough 12111
Rotherham404
Oxford 404
Doncaster202
Blackpool 211
Gillingham12-1
Lincoln 46-2
Fleetwood13-2
Coventry35-2
Burton13-2
Bristol Rovers24-2
Shrewsbury03-3
MK Dons05-5
Southend08-8
Tranmere012-12
Accrington017-17
Wimbledon020-20
Rochdale029-29
Bolton131-30
Wycombe046-46
Bury089-89

It’s not a prediction, but if anyone is in any doubt, feelings towards the Checkatrade Trophy haven’t mellowed; fans rated it somewhere between an irrelevance and a threat to smaller clubs. Only a couple of pragmatists admitted that if we did make it to Wembley, then it would be a good day out.

We asked for a prediction, and perhaps predictably when getting responses from nearly 300 people, while there were common themes; all eventualities are possible.

Board

Winding up orders were a major theme with many predicting more next season – one predicted there would be two (another four), with one by Christmas. One person predicted a change of chairman when Tiger (who will wear a bow tie) becomes Thailand’s new prime minister – or is embroiled in a scandal resulting in financial catastrophe. Will Stewart Donald take over? One person thinks so. It wasn’t all doom and gloom with a handful of people still optimistic that the board will show their worth and bring stability to the club.

There will be ‘three comments’ from either Kassam or the board about the other party not being true to their word, with a few expecting a winding up order, and a court case win, for Uncle Firoz.

Eric Thohir was mentioned by a couple of people – one predicting him to be a damp squib another expecting him to leave. Someone is expecting more ‘high worth individuals’, although isn’t optimistic they’ll bring much to the party. One thinks the club will be sold with another thinking there will be a new board of directors.

Stadium

We will either make progress on a new stadium or things will remain broadly the same. We could buy the stadium or there will be a new agreement to stay at the Kassam (with the rent going up). Also, Kassam will promise a fourth stand, which won’t be built. Or nothing will change and there will still be bird poop on the seats.

Manager

The fate of Karl Robinson is in the balance; will he be sacked by Christmas (or in October)? Or perhaps he’ll get some credit – maybe even be given the freedom of the city. He’ll sign some players he’s worked with before (hello, Tariqe Fosu). Perhaps he’ll punch the fourth official, blame the referee or just generally talk too much nonsense. Meanwhile, one person thinks that Derek Fazackerly will announce his retirement.

Players

Cameron Brannagan will be sold in January, and Rob Dickie, but who will be the player we sell ‘for peanuts’? To compensate we’ll also sell Mark Sykes for more money than we could have predicted.

Recruitment will improve, our top scorer will be a loan player and one of the top five goalscorers in the country with at least 20 goals, but we won’t have enough firepower up front at the start of the season – or we will sign a striker who’ll be rubbish. We’ll concede too many goals because we haven’t replaced Curtis Nelson – or at least not before we’ve played six games – meaning the team will take too long to gel.

We will sign loan players who will return in January, and have an injury crisis for no obvious reason.

Gavin Whyte will be gone in January for £5m (or double his current value). Alternatively, we’ll hold onto him and he’ll have a blinder and end as top scorer. Rob Hall won’t play more than 10 games, but will be a super-sub. We will be promised big signings which will never come and make our record signing; perhaps a pacey forward. Shandon Baptiste will ‘like’ every 21-year old he sees on Twitter (can someone keep an eye on that)?

Results

We’ll be champions, get promoted, make the play-offs, not bother either end of the table and struggle abjectly. It’ll be exciting, average and disappointing. There will be a points deduction with a poor Christmas. We won’t win any games in international breaks and lose at home to Bristol Rovers (obviously), but we will win at Sunderland.

And other things…

Fans will moan all season, we’ll draw Swindon in a cup competition that will be live on TV, an Oxford legend will pass away, there will be a dog on the pitch and Ollie and Olivia Ox will have a baby called Oswald. Blimey.

We’ll keep an eye on all this, and perhaps revisit it throughout the season.

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.