The managers: Jim Smith (2006-present)

In the first of an ocassional series of space fillers giving you an overview of the managers, players, games and stuff that makes Oxford what it is, we open with Jim Smith…

There are few, if any, who have made a greater contribution to Oxford United than Jim Smith. A manager who improves every team he’s involved with. During the 80’s Smith improved Oxford beyond any fans’ comprehension.

It’s important to understand the context of Oxford’s success in those days. During the 1980’s football was in the doldrums, hooliganism had seen the game’s stock drop dramatically. It was a great leveller and gave smaller clubs the opportunity to lord it with the big boys; Swansea City, Watford, Wimbledon, Luton Town and Oxford all made it to the top (Aberdeen and Dundee United did the same in Scotland).

Alongside this, Oxford had Robert Maxwell, a media tycoon with an arrogant disregard for the rule of law. Money flowed in and out of the club, much of it went into his pocket, some went into other clubs (Derby County most notably), some of it went on the players that made the team.

Smith mixed experienced old pros like Bobby McDonald, Billy Hamilton and Colin Todd with choice finds like John Aldridge. He inherited a bedrock of local talent – Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas and a couple of lumps of concrete – Shotton and Briggs. The team played fast, attacking, free flowing football, a style which, to this day, is synonymously the ‘Oxford way’; a millstone around many managers’ neck.

Two consecutive championships (along with a couple of exhilarating League Cup runs) saw the club catapulted into the 1st Division. During the summer of ’85 Smith and Maxwell fell out over money and the manager left for QPR. Ironically the following April, Smith lead out his QPR team against Oxford in the Milk Cup Final. Oxford won 3-0 and that, was pretty much that.

Until this year, that is, when new owner Nick Merry brought Smith back to the club. His first game was a tumultuous 1-0 win over Peterborough in front of an ecstatic crowd. However, he simply wasn’t able to sustain the revival and relegation to the Conference was confirmed with the last kick of the season.

Whether Smith can recreate the magic he did during the 80’s remains to be seen. Whilst he brings immense experience and an undoubted feel-good factor to the club, he is 65. Whether he still has the guile and energy to revive Oxford like he did in the 80’s is still very much under consideration.

No news is, well a bit dull actually

It’s hardly unexpected, but it’s a been quiet week at the U’s this week. The official site has been scratching around for stories managing little better than something about Billy Beechers going to the World Cup with his mates (thankfully the Oxford Mail didn’t copy the story and claim it as their own this time). Apart from that it’s all commercial stuff. Interesting that the fans are prepared to tolerate Nick Merry‘s evident marketing panache over Firoz Kassam‘s more monotone bluster. Merry’s message hardly differs from that of Kassam; both are bludgeoning the fans about how important it is to show commitment by buying season tickets. If anything Merry is more commercially minded than his predecessor; promoting the great advertising opportunities on the U’s website and those horrible plastic wristbands which were popular a couple of years ago. Coupled with the fact Merry dresses like an American car salesman, is ambiguously affluent (as opposed to Kassam’s more obvious wealth) and, to date, has a poor on-the-pitch record it is curious how the fans have taken to him.

Of course, two key factors are Jim Smith and the fact he’s not Firoz Kassam, but the feel good factor he’s instilling has to be applauded. Given that there’s been little substance to his takeover so far, it just goes to show the power a good brand can give you.

Like a slumbering beast, the transfer market twitched briefly; the (not so) super Johnny Ashton has signed for Rushden, Tim Sills may not be going to Exeter as a result of a change in manager at the Grecians and the purchase of Adam Stansfield from Hereford. Sills may not be welcomed back with open arms if the rumour about Steve Guinan signing is anything to go by. This would be quite a coup should he come, Guinan is only 30 and played 33 times for the promotion winning Robins last season. He would like to stay in League football, but money, and contract duration does talk in the lower leagues.

Tickets please

Having originally stalled on buying my new season ticket, I’ve been engulfed by a sense of positivity about the forthcoming campaign. In part, it’ll be nice to have a season where the championship is a realistic prospect. But more than this it’s down to the fact that if you look at football as a fun thing to do rather than something that defines your status in society; there’s a lot of fun to be had next season. There’s a whole ‘Old School’ vibe about The Conference, The FA Trophy, qualifying for the FA Cup, players wearing 1-11 on the pitch, visiting Burton (where I was born) and Tamworth (by brother-in-law’s team) and being a Big Club albeit in a relatively small pond. If approached with the right frame of mind, next season could be OK.

It’s not arrogance that leads me to conclude we’ll be a big club. It doesn’t presume we’re going to walk the league, or question the worthiness of others in the division. We will be a big club and teams will look to their visit to the Kassam and the U’s visit as a highlight of their season. During our Division 1 days, the visits of Manchester City, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest were always exciting, it will be like that for other clubs.

The club are claiming that we’ve sold 1000 season tickets in a fortnight, which prompted me to see what Conference average attendances are like. Our season ticket sales outstrip Altrinham and Forest Green‘s season average alone. Last season we were 7th best supported team in League 2 (5,442) some 1,652 more than Exeter; the biggest team in the Conference. With the current bonhomie around the club and some good early season form it’s unlikely attendance at the Kassam will drop dramatically.

Although its interesting to note that five teams in the Conference have better averages than League 2, all of them are recent League clubs, there’s a clear cabal of League wannabes all desperate for promotion. We’re going to be the biggest of the lot and clearly the ones to be there to be shot at. The up side, of course, is that the wage cap that operates in the Conference means that we should have considerable spending power in comparison to others. In short, there’s no excuse but to make a good fist of the season.

Transfer window: Sills

Looks like Tim Sills is on his way to Exeter, not, it has to be said, the kind of news which will cause Steven-Gerrard-to-Chelsea type apoplexy. The little we’ve seen of Sills suggests he is a classic non-league type footballer; whereby his eloquence in front of the world’s media Radio Oxford far out strips his abilities on the pitch; though there is no doubting the effort and endeavour in his play. For me at least, I prefer watching those players playing for plucky non-league clubs on FA Cup Match of the Day.

Those beneficiaries or victims (depending on how you look at it) of the January asset strip have been in the news; Lee Bradbury has signed a 2 year contract at Southend, Chris Hackett could be on his way to Carlisle, whilst Craig Davies is on the look-out for a new club after Verona told him to get on his bike. Not that any of this goes to further illustrate the nub of last season’s problems, of course.

I reckon we’re down to 10 experienced pros including two goalkeepers and three who are out of contract at the end of the month. I’m not yet advocating a few fan-placating panic buys just yet, but a couple of credible rumours would be nice.

The others

To be honest, I can’t work out who is still in contract and who isn’t, so instead, here’s the rest of the squad as it currently stands.

Billy Turley
He is out of contract but has been offered a new one. Brash, noisy occasionally brilliant (as most of his performance against Leyton Orient proved), also capable of being a supreme dipstick and poor communicator (as the other bits of his performance against Leyton Orient proved).

Chris Tardif
Time And Relative Dimensions In Football… Another one out of contract with an offer on the table. utterly baffling player on all sorts of levels. A great shot stopper, never out of his depth in League 2, never really did anything wrong. Then why did both Brian Talbot and Jim Smith insist on signing keepers to replace him as soon as they arrived. In a league with a wage cap, you’d suspect that either Turley or Tardif next season. Both is a luxury.

Lee Mansell
Scuttles around like he’s terribly busy. His industriousness and enthusiasm won him supporters player of the year last year not his crossing. Difficult to know where to play him.

Barry Quinn
Steady, unspectacular and hard as nails. A good man to have in your team. The third player who has been offered another contract but good enough to find another league club.

Chris Willmott
Built like a brick shit house, sometimes plays like one, but generally looks like a player in control of his surrounds.

Yemi Odubade
A classic panic buy from Eastbourne Borough. Really quick, scares defenders, doesn’t score much, which is what he’s paid to do.

Steve Basham
Scores regularly if not prolifically. As skillful as anyone in the squad, plays with his brain and speaks eloquently when interviewed. Doesn’t have the speed to excite but the team is generally more controlled when he’s playing.

Chris Hargreaves
All action midfielder, lunges in where others fear to lunge. Always chases down the second ball, usually because it’s him whose scuffed the first ball into the path of the oncoming attacker.

Tim Sills
Like Yemi, a panic buy. Seemed a bit soft for a target man given some of the bruts occupying the centre back positions in League 2. Not really up to league standard on his performances so far, although he’s desperate to prove he is.

John Dempster
Showed very little of what he’s got so far due to injury and suspension.

Andy Burgess
Supposed to provide creativity in the middle of the park and clearly is more cultured than most. Provided more quality on set plays but was signed when he’d just recovering from a broken leg and appeared to shirk the odd tackle. Difficult to know whether he’s just a big softy or not.

Tom Winters, Ben Weeden, Tom Franklin
Youth teamers mostly, all probably destined to play in the Premiership… or not… who knows?

Little oxlets

We’ve made our first signing of the close season, albeit professional contracts for some youth teamers. Now, I’d love to be one of those people who can say they spotted Josh Kennett, Andrew Gunn and Billy Beechers when they were in the academy, but to tell you the truth I can’t tell the difference between one youth team player and another.

Bringing on local lads from the mythologised Oxford United Youth System has to be a good thing; it bonds the fans to the players, it’s far less likely that they’ll be cremated on their debut never to be forgiven just for mis-queing a free kick. However one must remain sceptical, a typical youth teamer makes a handful of late substitute appearances, looks quick and direct, and then disappears into obscurity.

Oxford have a history of catapulting players to the top level; John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, Matt Elliot et al all graced The Manor before they moved up to collect pots of silverware and play for their countries, but they were never products of the youth team system. The most successful youth teamers in recent years; Dean Whitehead and Sam Ricketts have both succeeded in spite of the system, not because of it. Whitehead only became the player he was because of the much-maligned Ian Atkins, Ricketts was jettisoned by the U’s before being picked up by Telford, Swansea and then the Welsh national side.

Most youth teamers burn brightly before fading; even the likes of Joey Beauchamp, Bobby Ford and Chris Allen were all great players at Oxford who quickly burned up when they left the fold. In truth most U’s youth players are simply not built for the outside world. Let’s hope these three don’t follow the trend.