Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s finances

Oxford United have released their accounts for 2018/19. I’m no accountant so this isn’t a forensic assessment of the results, but there are some titbits which may give clues to the club’s ambitions and future.

Quite simply, football is a precarious business; the broad challenge for all clubs is to climb the divisions. That relies heavily on the resources available. On average, League 1 teams have revenues of £6m a year, at Championship level that jumps to £25m, at Premier League it climbs to £200m+. Each promotion presents a massive financial challenge.

There’s £7m in TV revenue when you get to the Championship; with the £6m of League 1 turnover there’s still a £12m shortfall. Even selling out every week would barely make a dent in that. So clubs need to generate more revenue or accept more debt. More debt effectively means betting a portion of any future Premier League riches – spending £20m-£30m now in the hope of making £200m in the future. But it’s more complicated than that, if you have ambition to make it to the Premier League, then you have to compete with the biggest Championship teams who are raking in around £60m, and if that’s not a big enough number, even those teams are going deep into debt to make the top flight.

It’s a big gamble; for every Brighton and Bournemouth who have bridged the gap, there are more Ipswich Towns and Sunderlands (and Boltons and Portsmouths and Barnsleys and Wigans).

So, why own a football club? Perhaps it’s the joy of playing real life Football Manager or maybe it’s to invest in the hope of returning a profit in the future – which only really happens when you make the Premier League. Or, you invest in order to sell on to a richer successor.

There are less noble reasons – reputation cleansing (so called sports washing) or to leverage another business venture such as a land deal. We don’t own our ground or any notable assets, so we’re quite insulated from that particular evil, something we were stung by it when Firoz Kassam sold The Manor to, well, himself.

Although our owners appear well resourced, it doesn’t seem enough for us to simply be a plaything for billionaires. If it were, we’d probably have seen some frivolous champagne signings over the last couple of years, instead the players we have signed seem to have genuine sell-on value.

So, that leaves us with two scenarios; invest for future profit or to sell on. Either way, the key is the ability to invest and for those investments to improve the value of the club.

The headlines show that we’ve been losing £80,000 a week and are £18m in debt. Clearly this isn’t a position anyone can sustain forever.

There are some positive signs – there appears to have been above average investment in players – £475k, as well as a £713k investment in fixed assets – presumably the training ground. According to The Price of Football, this is high for our level, which is hopefully a good sign.

£11m of our losses are underwritten by the club’s owners, which, presumably will only be repaid if there’s another investor with the money to clear the debt. What we don’t really know is whether the current owner’s resources are a house of cards ready to crumble or built on a pot of real money and assets. Superficially, the loans make this quite a soft debt for the club to accumulate. In addition, there are some costs which are hopefully one-offs such as the fees owed to Darryl Eales (£2.6m).

While the headlines look scary, the figures pre-date the sale of Gavin Whyte and apparently others. There’s a note which advises there’s £4.4m to be included in this year’s accounts which should see the club return to profit next year. This likely excludes Shandon Baptiste and Tariqe Fosu’s sales and doesn’t account for this season’s cup runs or increases in attendances. With the prospect of Rob Dickie and Cameron Brannagan going in the summer, which will be reflected in our 2020/21 results, we seem reasonably set up for the next couple of years. The trick is to have one or two players a year moving on for big money on a regular basis.

There has been a lot of criticism about player sales, but I’d argue the fact we are selling, rather than driving ourselves into the ground with blind ambition, is a good sign. It illustrates a balance between the ambition to move the club forward and the pragmatic need to sustain ourselves in the longer term.

No football club outside the Premier League is in a ‘good’ financial position, football needs a fundamental structural reorganisation for smaller clubs to be genuinely sustainable, but our finances suggest we’re neither spiralling out of control nor stagnating. In the modern game, that might just about be the best we can hope for.

Match wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

I’ve had a funny week, before the Southend game I met with The Fence End podcast to talk about the possibility of taking part in an episode. When they tweeted this, the response came as a bit of a surprise. Someone said that they didn’t want this blog to be run by a person, more a mysterious ‘thing’.

I like the anonymity of Oxblogger; it’s partly intentional but mostly just evolved. It’s never really been tested before, it’s not like there’s much of a prize in unveiling me; I’m not the owner of a creepy theme park in Scooby Doo. I’ve never thought about the impact it has, but it turns out that some people quite like it as well.

So the reality that Oxblogger is written by someone real and normal, to the person who is actually writing it, and not a omnipotent super computer is quite a curious thing. I’m not equating myself to a superhero, unless I’m Benign and Mildly Diverting Man, but it made me think that it’s one thing buying himself a Lycra morph suit with a spider’s web on it, quite something else to step out into the street and demand people call you ‘Spiderman’. The difference between giving myself a name and that being a thing is quite big.

In 1998, Tony Adams, then England captain, said that the expectation of achieving a semi-final place in the World Cup was quite different to the reality of achieving it. When you’re a fan, you look at players with ability and think it’s just a simple process of switching it on at the right time. What Adams was pointing out was that the mental, physical, technical and tactical efforts required to achieve your goal are some way beyond simply just going out and expressing yourself.

The win over Shrewsbury, coming back from 2-0 down, and more broadly moving from 11th to 3rd in five games, underlines a similar principle. Some fans had given up on us a few weeks ago, and after 34 minutes many had given up yesterday. But, if we are to be a promotion chasing side, then we’ve actually got to be a promotion chasing side. The physical effort and the psychological application to want to turn the game around and not simply give up, is not to be under-estimated.

Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, talks about how an elite athlete has to strike the balance between the confidence to perform and enough doubt to want to put the effort in to be able to do that. If I’m going to run a marathon, I’ve got to believe I can, but I’ve also got have enough doubt in my fitness to train to do it. Too much doubt or too much confidence will lead to failure. In a football season, that balance has to be struck for ten months.

We seem to have found that sweet spot; the last five games and the comeback against Shrewsbury illustrating that we feel we have a right to be fighting for promotion. I can’t say I shared that view, I thought the play-offs could only be considered an unexpected by-product of an overall improvement at the club, I didn’t really see promotion as a goal in itself.

But now, in the same way I may need to accept that I am ‘Oxblogger’ – whatever that means, we need to accept that we’re a team on a promotion hunt. When Karl Robinson is asked about his future beyond May, he’s right to dismiss it because these opportunities are rare and don’t simply take care of themselves. When Robinson talked about being ‘a big club’ in the transfer market, it transfers to the rest of the show. Playing well, not accepting defeats, but also filling the stands home and away and supporting the team even when they’re 2-0 down after half-an-hour. We need to match the mental fortitude the team have shown.

Which is the final point – when we were in the doldrums in the Conference, Chris Wilder instilled an expectation that we would not only talk like a club too big for that level, but with Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, James Constable and others, we would act like it. When Michael Appleton instilled a dedication to technical professionalism akin to teams in higher divisions it paid dividends. Now Karl Robinson has implemented a mental toughness that deserves success, and given the challenges he faced when arrived and whatever happens now, he deserves to be recognised for that.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Saturday afternoon takeaway

Saturday 29 February

Failure in the face of uncompromising hubris, blind self-belief and arrogant self-confidence. If only there were an analogy to describe Brexit Sol Campbell’s approach to managing Southend United. Henry James’ James Henry scored a penalty and Matty Taylor added a second to see us win 2-1 on Saturday.

Sunday 1 March

Brexit Sol wasn’t too upset by Saturday’s defeat, in fact, the footballing genius planned it that way. “Everyone stuck to the game plan” he said. Southend are now 17 points from safety; Southend by name, south end by nature. 

Monday 2 March

Facing his first blank week since before humanity was threatened by virulent killer diseases and cataclysmic weather conditions, KRob’s looking forward to sitting in his pants watching back-to-back Come Dine With Me on More4

He can’t rest on his laurels though; The Football League website have spent up to 8 seconds dreaming up an arbitrary evaluation Cameron Brannagain. The midfielder, who is interesting Leeds, is worth between £3-5m. So expect a bid of £75 and a bar of Toblerone to be accepted in May. 

Meanwhile, CoventryLive have plugged all their data into their ‘supercomputer’ – a Vic20 with added RAM pack – to predict that Coventry City will win League 1 with Oxford finishing 5th.

Tuesday 3 March

Sulky sixth former Rob Dickie has become Head Boy at Oxford after KRob gave him the captain’s armband for the rest of the season. The role affords him a lot of responsibility including a weekly evening hot chocolate in KRob’s office after his violin lesson. KRob’s promising to teach him how to play his oboe.

Wednesday 4 March

The chisel faced Ant and Dec, Sam Ricketts and Dean Whitehead have been talking about their lifelong friendship, which has now become a managerial partnership at Shrewsbury. Deano thinks players today are pampered and that his time at Oxford under Ian Atkins, with the likes of Julian Allsop around, made him the man he is today. “Pah” he might have said dismissively “Bananas weren’t for eating in them days, I can tell you.”

Thursday 5 March

Professional broomhandle, Niall, don’t call me Niall, it’s Niall McWilliams was the man in the hot seat for the Five Minute* Fans Forum on Radio Oxford. Talking in that controlled seething headmasterly way which makes Jerome Sale feel like he’s been caught spray painting a phallus on the wall of the science block, Coronavirus is at the top of the fans’ concerns. McWilliams confirmed that the club are working closely with Uncle Firoz to provide basic sanitary conditions at the stadium. 

There was also a question about the sold-out Wycombe game in a couple of weeks. Fans who have missed out have been up in arms after the club instigated a deeply unfair ‘first come, first served’ system. Some fans the club should allocate tickets to fans who can’t get organised to buy them, but really really want them anyway.

* and six seconds

Friday 6 March

It’s a light entertainment derby tomorrow as the chisel faced Ant and Dec come up against the marshmallow faced James Corden tomorrow. Sam Ricketts is trying to solve a goalscoring crisis which sees The Shrews second lowest scorers in the division. He’s planning to play with three strikers, Ian Atkins will be appalled

Meanwhile, Oxford council have announced their latest step fighting climate change, pandemics, Brexit and the rise of extremism. They’re putting new listening benches in Headington which will have wind up, solar powered listening devices featuring, amongst other things, a brief history of Oxford United. The benches will sooth people when the giant fireball that’s probably coming our way rips through humanity.

Midweek fixtures: Away days

A few weeks ago, out of curiosity, I started looking at some stuff about our away games. I got a bit carried away and disappeared down a ridiculously deep wormhole. I mean, I only looked at the last 20 years and only in the league, I’m not insane. This is what I found.

If you were mad enough to go to every Oxford United away game in the last 20 years then you’ve travelled 57,700 miles to league games (one way, double all of this for the return journey) with another 7,300 miles in the cups (OK, I looked at the cups a bit). On average that’s 2,700 miles a year in the league with 350 miles in the cup.

In the league we’ve played 102 different opponents, AFC Wimbledon being the most frequent – 16 times.

The worst year for travel was in 2002/3 when we ate up no less than 3,400 miles, compared to 2000/01 when we just travelled just 2,221 miles, anyone around during that season will agree that it was probably the best thing about it.

Most travelled

Devon is a lovely place to go on holiday, we’ve chomped up more miles travelling to Torquay United than any other club; 2006.

  1. Torquay United 2006
  2. Rochdale 1958
  3. York City 1840
  4. Plymouth Argyle 1634
  5. Bury 1577
  6. Accrington Stanley 1528
  7. Scunthorpe United 1523
  8. Morecambe 1463
  9. Southend United 1359
  10. Carlisle United 1340

Least travelled

Our single trip to Hayes and Yeading in the league puts them at the top of the least number of accumulated league miles we’ve travelled (or bottom of the most number of miles, depending how you look at it).

  1. Hayes and Yeading 44
  2. Reading 50
  3. St Albans 55
  4. Swindon Town 92
  5. Brentford 107
  6. Lewes 111
  7. Cardiff City 118
  8. Kettering 124
  9. Ipswich Town 139 
  10. Sheffield United 143

Lowest miles per point

It has long been debated (and largely rejected) that Wycombe Wanderers is a derby, but it is the shortest distance (sorry, Swindon is 30 miles away from the Kassam, seven more than Wycombe). By some distance, Wycombe is the most efficient place to travel in terms of miles per point; we only have to travel 1.5 miles for every point gained.

  1. 1.5 Wycombe Wanderers
  2. 3.7 Cheltenham Town
  3. 4.3 AFC Wimbledon
  4. 4.7 Bristol Rovers
  5. 5.1 Swindon Town
  6. 5.6 Northampton Town
  7. 5.7 Dagenham & Redbridge
  8. 6.3 Forest Green Rovers
  9. 6.4 Burton Albion
  10. 6.8 Kidderminster Harriers

Lowest miles per point (+100 miles)

If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and fancy a game more than 100 miles away, you’d do worse than head for our bogey team Southend United. Despite some terrible results, we only need to travel 8 miles for every point we’ve won.  

  1. 8 miles per point Southend United
  2. 10.3 Notts County
  3. 11 Bury
  4. 11.7 Mansfield Town
  5. 12 Plymouth Argyle
  6. 12.3 York City
  7. 13.2 Lincoln City
  8. 14 Gillingham
  9. 14 Torquay United
  10. 14.3 Ebbsfleet United

Highest miles per point

You’d do well to avoid a trip to Barrow; just two trips north, taking one point means that it’ll cost you 251.6 miles for every point gained. Of course, lots of this is skewed by a lack of frequency. Among teams we’ve played five or more times, Fleetwood Town is the bogey team, costing a mammoth 101.9 miles for every point. 

  1. 251.6 miles per point Barrow
  2. 125.8 Sunderland
  3. 191.4 Hull City
  4. 165.4 Huddersfield Town
  5. 117.7 Cardiff City
  6. 100.8 Lewes
  7. 110.8 Yeovil Town
  8. 101.9 Fleetwood Town
  9. 94 Bournemouth
  10. 89.3 Carlisle United

All of which is very interesting, but not as interesting as hitting the road in hope and expectation, screaming yourself horse and praying for for three points.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Southend United 1

In 1987 Terence Trent D’Arby released his debut album Introducing The Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby. It was a tightly produced record borrowing heavily from the funk and soul classics of James Brown and Stevie Wonder. D’Arby himself was a phenomenal presence with a sensational voice; the tight rhythms gave him the platform to perform. It was an instant classic, selling 1 million copies in three days and winning a Grammy and Brit Award.

Two years later, emboldened by his success, D’Arby released his follow-up opus; Neither Fish Nor Flesh. He produced and wrote the record himself, unhindered by his previous production team. It was a sprawling mess of pretentious diarrhoea. To illustrate his indulgence; D’Arby appeared in three different guises – as himself, the Incredible E.G. O’Reilly and Ecneret Tnert Ybra’D, the latter accredited with providing ‘vocals and kazoo’. It bombed, and D’Arby’s career was largely over.

I was reminded of this sobering tale as we laboured to three points against Southend. In the past, having seen us fall apart against poor sides too many times, I would worry about our complacency in this kind of game. Now, I have such confidence in the side, I’m the one who risks being complacent. Such has been our desire to entertain and score goals, I expected us to sweep them aside.

From the get-go, something was up; but it wasn’t just our obvious fatigue or the fact we were playing into a headwind. We were untroubled by the clock with little sense of urgency. This isn’t that unusual, our patience at the start of games must be a deliberate tactic; we’ve come unstuck with it a few times this year when teams have started quickly.

But, then it started to feel like a cup game against a non-league side. Us, not quite able to muster the energy to really take the game to them, them providing a confusing mix of ability and ineptitude. As the game progressed, we got bundled up in their ball of confusion like a pair of trousers becoming entwined with a duvet cover in a tumble drier.

Terence Trent D’Arby openly declared his genius to anyone who’d listen, and many who wouldn’t. He surrounded himself with people who agreed with him, which provided no compulsion to compromise. He claimed (to some degree justifiably) the failure of Neither Fish Nor Flesh to be the result of institutional racism at his record company, when to most of the paying public, it was just a terrible record and he was an arrogant arse.

Did someone say Sol Campbell? Aside from the weather and the tiredness, what was particularly difficult to deal with on Saturday was the apparent lack of any tactical underpinning in the Southend team. They looked physically tiny; when fighting relegation its normal to at least establish a physical presence, but Campbell doesn’t seem concerned with that. Neither were they fast, nor did they press, but at the same time, they weren’t awful.

Where was the song? Amidst a mess of ideas and endeavours, there was no recognisable pattern. There was nothing for us to dance, sing or cry to, we seemed bemused, unable to engage. What resulted was a game of jazz noodling and meandering experimentation. Perhaps there was genius in there somewhere, but the nine minute kazoo solo ensured we couldn’t hear it.

In the end, it took Marcus Browne’s brutish physicality to break through the garbage, like a drummer hammering out a standard four-four beat to bring the other musicians into line. Like D’Arby’s original production team, sometimes you need someone to step in and drag everyone back to what you’re supposed to be achieving.

Browne chased across the field to rectify his own mistake and then swung the ball into the box for Matty Taylor to fire home. While others celebrated, Browne lay on the turf like a dying bumble bee having fulfilled its biological compulsion to protect its fellow bees after a sting. At that moment we needed that discipline and simplicity.

And that was all we needed, to get out of February with three points and a place in the play-offs. Sometimes it’s OK to have a staccato syncopated rhythms inspired North Africa, sometimes you just need a groove and a decent hook.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Karlito’s away

Saturday 22 February 2020

The big back wheels fell off The Tractor Boys’ promotion hopes on Saturday as Oxford strolled to a win 1-0 at Ipswich Town. Matty Taylor and James Henry combined to harvest the winner just before half-time.  

Sunday 23 Feb February 2020

Shandon The Baptiste has been talking about his step up to the Championship. ‘It’s the intensity that’s different’, said Baptiste reading from his Beginners Guide To Things To Say When Stepping Up A Division. The mind boggles when KRob’s ‘low intensity’ is like having colonic irrigation from a Karcher jet washer.

Monday 24 February 2020

Accrington are in town tomorrow and we’ve got some injury woes. Nathan Holland, Jedward Orphan Mark Sykes and Anthony Forde are all doubts. As a result Rob Atkinson has been recalled from Eastleigh. If Oxford United do throw away their chances of promotion, it’ll probably hit one of our midfielders and put them out of the game for six months.

Tuesday 25 February 2020

Accrington, a team that was formed solely for the purpose of being a punchline to a milk advert, were semi-skimmed alive on Tuesday in a 3-0 win. Matty Taylor delivered the first before James Henry had the bottle to add a second, Taylor gold-topped it off with the third. We are now in such great form only a global pandemic can stop us.

The game was marred by the news that the club have turned down a move from Blackpool for KRob. It was the most unwelcome proposition in Blackpool since Rear View Rita, the landlady of the Seafront Vista B&B, suggestively offered GLS an extra special donkey ride on holiday last year.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

The club have acted quickly to quash those Blackpool rumours as KRob stood by smiling awkwardly like a Tory MP’s wife after he’d been caught in a flat in Streatham wearing a nappy and snorting talcum powder. 

Elsewhere, Shandon The Baptiste has continued his goalscoring form at Brentford neatly slotting past his own goalkeeper after nine minutes against Luton Town.

Thursday 27 February 2020

It was the Six Minute Forty One Second Fans Forum with KRob on Thursday, who at the time of writing is the manager of Oxford United. In it he removed all doubts about his future saying that the board hadn’t given him any reassurances and he didn’t want a new contract. He also reminded us how he walked out on Charlton mid-season. He’ll be on holiday when the club have their pre-season training camp in Spain and if we end up playing Swindon next season getting a good result it’ll be ‘nothing to do with him’. So that’s quashed that one.

Friday 28 February 2020

The greatest mind in football, Brexit Sol Campbell brings his Southend side to the Kassam on Saturday. Brexit Sol is on a different paradigm to us mortals, he joined the Shrimpers with the explicit intention of getting them out of the division as quickly as possible. So, while everyone else tries to get out via the top, Sol’s found a secret exit at the other end nobody else has thought of. Genius. He reckons with the application of his great intellect, he’ll be out of there by March.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Accrington Stanley 0

Brinyhoof and I were talking about the Conference Play-Off semi-final against Rushden during our win over Accrington. He couldn’t remember whether he was at the game, what the score was or who scored. I can’t distinguish between George Thorne and Anthony Forde, so I can forgive him his forgetfulness.

My summary of the Rushden game was that it was a big game which went entirely to plan. In a sense, the Accrington game was similar; nobody saw it as a big game in terms of crowd or anticipation, but a comfortable three points was expected. And it delivered; a non-event of the highest quality.

The texture for the evening came from the news the club have turned down an approach from Blackpool for Karl Robinson. It had been mentioned a few days ago, but was given added credibility by Jacqui Oakley who was covering the game for Sky. 

Robinson claimed ignorance and the club were quick to confirm both the rumour and why Robinson seemed so blindsided.

For some, Robinson’s post-Accrington interview was a broadside at the board about what happened in January; a hand crafted threat to back him or he’ll walk. 

But, Robinson is not usually the most considered interviewee and the board are prone to its own missteps. So, the idea that everyone was suddenly hardballing in a game of high stakes nine dimensional chess seems unlikely.

The club’s claim that the offer came in before the Accrington game leaving no time to discuss it with Robinson is entirely logical. It’s certainly more logical than the conspiracy theories being hatched on Twitter.

But, it did raise an important point; Accrington are a team built to survive League 1; big, strong and organised and we showed ourselves to be a class apart from that. I genuinely think we’re capable of making the play-offs and even getting promoted, our weakness being the depth we have in the squad to sustain the form we need over a long period. With things beginning to fall our way at the right time, a play-off spot is not out of the question.

But, this summer our loans will return to their host clubs and we’ll probably lose a couple of players to high spending Championship sides. This will make us weaker than we are currently are, even with promotion. Pep Clotet faced similar blight losing John Lundstram and Marvin Johnson, along with Chris Maguire and Conor McAnely in 2017. The small but solid squad he inherited suddenly had gaping holes in it. 

This summer, the club will have to work hard to maintain its current position, harder still to move on from it. If we are in the Championship, we’d have to bridge, or at least narrow the financial gap between League 1 (with teams turning over around £6m a year) and the division above (around £25m).

For Karl Robinson there’s a decision take as to whether he feels able to recover from any losses he might sustain in the squad over the summer, and whether there’s any prospect of moving beyond the status quo to the fabled ‘next level’. If there are other clubs out there more readily able to meet those needs, we’re naturally vulnerable. Whether Blackpool offers that specifically, I don’t know, but someone out there will. 

For the board, it’s a question of whether they are willing or able to step beyond our current comfort zone. That’s no demand that they should, the club’s future is more important, but pragmatically, the club will eventually have to keep pace with the growing ambition of those who are making it the success it currently is.

As we get to the end of February, things are falling into place for a genuine charge towards the play-offs and beyond. It’s time to enjoy the ride and see where it takes us, but that shouldn’t prevent us, and Robinson from thinking… and then what?