Midweek fixture: The strange case of Damian Batt

On the pitch, Damian Batt was a machine. A completely different full-back to his doughty and disciplined predecessors. He was signed by Chris Wilder from Grays Athletic in 2009, a statement of intent about the team he was trying to build to get us back to the Football League. Days before the signing we’d been docked 5 points for fielding an ineligible player. The signing of Batt felt like we weren’t going to take it anymore. Wilder wanted players who would dominate the opposition, Batt fitted perfectly.

Where most full-backs need a winger to share the load, Batt could patrol the right flank on his own. He could attack with pace and track back to shore up a solid back four. He just didn’t seem to stop, a gazelle in a sea of clod hopping buffalo.

It was the early days of Twitter and Batt was an enthusiastic adopter. Clubs hadn’t woken up to its opportunities, or risks, so he was free to enjoy the attention, while we enjoyed the access.

Batt was integral to our march back to the Football League, there was one particular game against Altrincham where we needed the win but were labouring, we missed a penalty and it looked like we were destined for a single point. Batt cut through it all smashing the ball home for a crucial 1-0 win. Back in the Football League he played in three famous derby wins; our first away win in 38 years in 2011, an epic tussle the following March, and a JPT win, just for good measure. He left in 2013. Improbably, he announced that he was moving the Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS, but then he came back and promptly retired. Then he un-retired to play at the old folks home for Oxford United players; Eastleigh. Then he moved back to the Football League with Dagenham and Redbridge. Then, in 2015, he retired (again).

The Conference isn’t glamorous, many footballers had ways of supplementing their income, a hokum ‘health’ product called Herbalife was the business of choice. Poor, but fit young men promoting the health benefits of powders and shakes to desperate fat old men.

Batt was different, he launched Alexander Du’bel, an ambiguously positioned ‘lifestyle’ brand which had the strap line ‘Live Life Exclusively’.

There’s a character in the US sitcom Parks and Recreation, Tom Haverford, who sets up a business, Entertainment 720, as high-end, all-media entertainment conglomerate. It serves no obvious purpose, and has no income, bankrupting itself by spending lavishly on parties and marketing. On the face of it, Alexander Du’bel had a similar business model.

Even at the time, Alexander Du’bel seemed a bit lost, stuck somewhere between the tail end of lavish trend of bling Premier League footballers and the subtler, more aware and aspirational Instagram generation. For me, it was a bit too much, though I remained curious because of his Oxford connection.

How did he afford it? What did he do? His Conference salary couldn’t have funded it, whatever it was.

There was a lavish launch party, part of me thought it was ugly and gauche, part of me was a bit jealous. I didn’t ever want to live in that kind of world, but marketing is powerful so I still felt it wasn’t fair that others did.

I assumed that there was a business sitting behind the brand; as far as I could tell, it was some kind of service which offered discounts on luxury brands. Like Bicester Village? Except Alexander Du’bel didn’t mention which brands you could access through the service. His Twitter feed just became an endless feed of lavish photos. Eventually, I lost interest in Damian Batt.

Then, quite recently, I was idly googling something and stumbled across an article in The Telegraph which detailed how a charity – The Alexander Du’bel Wish Foundation – set up by ‘former football star’ Damian Batt had failed to deliver any of its promised charitable plans, or even set up properly as a charitable trust.

He was running a charity, that wasn’t a charity, which failed to do any charitable work. Little Mix were involved. Like, what? The article wasn’t particularly damning. The Charities Commission seemed to have procedural concerns about the foundation, but the article didn’t really go as far as implying that Batt was a deliberate fraudster. The implication was more that he was a bit of a lovable goon who had too many ideas, a slick line in chatter and no business sense. He had debts of £60,000, not insubstantial, but hardly a figure to deliver national headlines.

The article mentioned the wider Alexander Du’bel ‘empire’; several businesses, some of which had been liquidated, others which appeared dormant. There was a car financing business, something called ‘Celebration Gala Ltd’, a rights business, an operations business.

The Alexander Du’bel website is little more than an email address which promises to deliver ‘bespoke tailoring’. It’s all a bit weird. It features a biography which describes, in some detail, the career of Damian Batt. Except it doesn’t refer to Damian Batt, the man it describes is Damian Alexander-Du’bel.

Written entirely in the third person; it describes not only his football career, but also his glamorous post-sports career in which he became a fashion model in Monaco for Pal Zileri. He gushes about being the first non-F1 sports person to model at the Amber Lounge Fashion Show. It’s written in that Americanised hyperbolic language premium brands use to express themselves, as though what they are doing is genuinely life changing.

I then found a WordPress website with one lengthy post from December 2017. The post is apparently written by Damian Alexander Du’bel.

It talks about being invited to an event by an organisation called Alexander Du’Bel Group – which isn’t one of his many businesses listed on Companies House. It describes a presentation by ‘Managing Director Damian Batt’. If I were cynical, I might think that it was Damian Batt talking about himself in the third person, using a different name, about his own company. And if I was being very critical, I would say that’s not normal.

Not only does it seem that Du’bel isn’t Batt’s real name, it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s real name. I couldn’t find a single person with the surname Du’bel apart from Alexander Damian. Translated from French it means ‘Of the beautiful’.

Dig deeper and there’s Fascinating People, Alexander Du’bel’s YouTube channel in which he interviews ‘famous and inspirational’ people. There are three videos, the main one has Batt interviewing someone called Simon Talling-Smith owner of Surf Air Europe on what appears to be his company’s private jet. Surf Air seem to be an American company that Forbes reported last year owed $2.4m to the IRS and had just been sued for $3.1m for unpaid bills. Talling-Smith’s Europe operation doesn’t come out favourably either. None of the three videos appear to feature anyone that you might describe as ‘famous’; Talling-Smith has 326 Twitter followers.

There’s a Blogger site (with a video), a Pinterest site, an Instagram site. Each one, presumably set up by Batt, he’s clearly been busy, but it’s hard to ascertain exactly why.

What is even more odd about all this is that none of the criticisms seem to go quite as far as inferring that Batt or Du’bel, or whoever, is acting in a deliberately deceitful way. The Charity Commission expressed their concern, but it remains unregistered and the link to their website returns a 404 error. Another abandoned endeavour.

Some footballers on retirement melt back into normal society; Steve Basham is an accountant, Anthony Tonkins a quantity surveyor. Others grimly cling onto the football world, like Mike Ford or Kevin Brock. It can’t be easy in the lower leagues, you live a dream, of sorts. Then, before you’re old, you retire knowing you’ve got years ahead of you which will never give you the same fulfilment. Perhaps hiding from that reality is the best option. Rather than deal with the realities of a post-football life, it seems that Damian Batt is destined to live his life exclusively in the curious world of Alexander Du’bel.

Midweek fixture: Naughty boys

On paper, Gavin Whyte is one of the best prospects to come out of Northern Ireland in years. When he scored 106 seconds into his international debut against Israel last year he was being hailed as the future of football in the country.

Gavin Whyte is also, at least on paper, a normal functioning human being. If normal functioning human beings pull their trousers down and pull their willies while someone films them on their phone.

Whyte’s antics were posted in Twitter shortly after he was handed the George Best Breakthrough Award at the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards. What precisely has ‘broken through’ is now subject to some speculation. Best would have been proud.

Whyte isn’t the first, and won’t be the last of the Oxford United naughty boys, here are a few more.

Ross Weatherstone

Ross Weatherstone was not even the best Weatherstone to play for Oxford in 2000. The younger brother of Simon was a solid, but unremarkable, full-back who made his debut in 1999. At the start of the 2000/01, Ross the Younger chose an odd way to upstage his brother when he was convicted for a racially aggravated assault on a taxi driver.

Adam Chapman

Days before our pivotal Conference Play-Off final, it was announced that midfielder Adam Chapman was due to face trial for causing death by dangerous driving. The conviction pivoted around the fact he was texting before ploughing into 77 year-old Tom Bryan. Chapman put in a virtuoso display at Wembley winning man-of-the-match and left the field in tears. He was sentenced to 30 months in a young offenders institute. Chris Wilder re-signed him on release and he periodically returned to the first team, making more headlines when he missed a game after scolding his nipple on baby milk.

Luke McCormick

Chris Wilder was never one to let a conviction get in the way of a decent signing. He signed Luke McCormick in 2013 when Ryan Clarke’s season was ended by injury. To be fair to everyone, McCormick was a free man having been released from prison following his conviction for causing death by dangerous driving which resulted in the death of two children. Driving while over the limit and without insurance he was sentenced to seven years in prison. After his release, Wilder needed an experienced keeper he could sign outside the transfer window; McCormick was playing for Truro City meaning he was free to sign.

Firoz Kassam

The shadow that has hung over Oxford United for nearly 20 years is Firoz Kassam. Kassam was never one to avoid a fight if he could help it. In 2002 he used a spurious technicality to get out of a speeding fine. Which is just the kind of upstanding guy he is.

Joey Beauchamp

Joey Beauchamp is a bona fide club legend, voted The Oxford United Player of the 90s. The following decade didn’t treat him so kindly. In 2009 he was convicted of being three times over the drink drive limit while driving along The Banbury Road. In mitigation, Beauchamp said that his life had gone down hill and he’d turned to drink after ‘an incident over an MFI kitchen’. The mind boggles.

Mark Wright

Mark Wright was an Oxford boy done good. Making his debut in 1981 he was sold to Southampton before moving on to Liverpool where he lifted the FA Cup screaming ‘You fucking beauty’ live on television in front of the grimacing dignitaries. After playing a pivotal role in England’s fabled 1990 World Cup campaign he became Oxford manager as the club moved to the Kassam Stadium in 2001. In the October, he was accused of racially abusing a linesman, Joe Ross in a game against Scunthorpe. An act made more unedifying in that it was ‘Kick Racism Out of Football’ day. Shortly after he was sacked.

Jefferson Louis

There’s little doubting Jefferson Louis’ conviction… for dangerous driving while disqualified. After his release, Ian Atkins signed him from Aylesbury United in 2001 where he became a cult hero almost before he’d made his debut. All arms and legs, his legend was cemented when he scored the winner in a 1-0 FA Cup tie over Swindon before he was seen, live on TV, flashing his bare arse while celebrating being drawn against Arsenal in the next round. Louis is still playing for Chesham United, his 37th (THIRTY-SEVENTH) club.

Steve Anthrobus

One thing Steve Anthrobus wasn’t known for was scoring, in 69 hopeless games he managed a total of four goals. It was something of a surprise, then, to find Anthrobus scoring in a very different way when he was caught having sex, on a picnic blanket indeed, with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He was convicted in 2007 for ‘outraging public dignity’.

Julian Alsop

Julian Alsop was a great steaming lummox. A footballing Hagrid, part-striker, part-Wookie. He was signed by Ian Atkins as a target man in his team of long-ball merchants. In 2004, while already on his way out of the club, Alsop was fired for unprofessional conduct. Legend has it, he was caught engaged in some harmless banter, shoving a banana up the arse of a young apprentice.

Graham Rix

Graham Rix was one of the finest coaches in the country. That’s what Firoz Kassam said, and who are we to judge a man with such impeccable judgement? One of the finest in the country and perhaps THE finest to have been convicted for sex with a minor. In 1999, Rix was literally forty-one years old when he was arrested for having sex with a fifteen year old girl in a hotel. Rix’s defence was that she made no ‘strong’ protest to his advance. Which is to suggest there were some weak protests. But they don’t count, do they Graham?

Comment: Nelson’s column

Some transfers run smoothly, with fans wishing players well as they move onto the next stage of their career – think Ryan Ledson or Kemar Roofe. Some transfers are messier – Callum O’Dowda or Marvin Johnson. Some are just plain weird, as anyone who remembers the protracted saga of Mark Watson’s vanishing act in 2000 will confirm.

Curtis Nelson’s departure from the club is threatening to get messy. It should come as no surprise to hear that Nelson is likely to go either in January or at the end of the season. He’s an outstanding player with potential to play at a level beyond that of avoiding relegation from League 1.

At 25, his next contract will define his career and unless he’s offered eye-watering amounts of money or has developed such a bond with the club that he’s happy to be remembered as a loyal, if under-achieving servant – Joey Beauchamp? – it seems Oxford is unlikely to fulfil his needs.

No one should deny Nelson’s right to pursue his ambition, even at the short-term expense of the club. Fans will regularly remind you that no player is bigger than the club, but the quid pro quo is that no player should be naive enough to trust a club which may use its size and stature to retain or discard its assets as it chooses. Fans might pay today’s wages, but players must control their own future.

The question is not whether he should leave, but more how that might happen.

There’s been plenty of finger-pointing following Nelson’s uncomfortable interview after the defeat to Plymouth; some say he was being unprofessional and disrespectful, others say it was a calculated attempt by Karl Robinson to humiliate him and/or turn him against the fans.

Let’s start with that. The Nelson affair has been going on for some time. He was ‘stripped’ of the captaincy for the Wycombe game in September and even when John Mousinho wasn’t available he didn’t get it back.

At the time Karl Robinson said it was to give Nelson some breathing space to decide his future. I think it was more a crude attempt to force him to sign a new deal. Crude rather than manipulative. Clubs with a player like Nelson – a saleable asset coming to the end of his contract – have little room for manoeuvre, so perhaps the club thought removing the captaincy might expedite his decision.

Was Tuesday’s interview stage two in a calculated plan? If Robinson was such an arch schemer, I suspect we wouldn’t have had some of his more bizarre outbursts this year, for example giving Shandon Baptiste the captaincy or claiming that Jamie Hanson wasn’t his signing. I think it’s more that Nelson is usually a good man to put in front of the media and Robinson, under pressure, didn’t think through the circumstances or consequences.

A shrewder move would have been to keep Nelson away from the media and present him as a settled, happy player. That way any interested clubs might feel they need to spend more to prize him out of our hands. An unhappy Nelson is more likely to encourage clubs to offer lower fees knowing the player is more likely to want out of his existing situation.

Was Nelson disrespectful? It wasn’t a great interview, but he’d just come off a heavy defeat to his old team at a time when speculation around him was intensifying. Presumably some dialogue is going on now and perhaps has been for some time. In the short term, the club hold the key to his immediate future, so it must be frustrating to have to bite his lip while it all plays out. It’s reasonable to think that it’s consuming a lot of his headspace. Someone asking him about his future when everyone knows the media friendly answer is a non-committal ‘I’m focussed on Oxford until someone tells me differently’ must be intensely frustrating. In the circumstances, the frustration boiled over.

Despite the loss of the captaincy, there’s been no sign that he lacks motivation or commitment on the pitch. No player is completely impervious to external pressures or lapses in form, but if you were to list our weaknesses, Nelson wouldn’t be high on that list.

Ultimately, I don’t think either party is playing a particularly calculated game. What I think we’re seeing is another example of poor organisation within the club. I don’t know how post-match communications are handled; whether it’s the player, manager or someone else who decides who steps up, but it was clearly a mistake to put Nelson in front of the microphone given the position he was in. Everyone could have handled it better.

The problem is that with each new screw-up or wobble comes more questions and assumptions. You end up in a confrontational situation that no party intended or wanted.

Some managers handle these situations better than others, Robinson might wear his heart on his sleeve, but sometimes he needs to use his head to get the best outcome.