The revolution will not be televised

It was like the emergence of a natural disaster, a lighted match that turns into a forest fire, a thundercloud that became a hurricane. A minor murmur that escalated in dramatic and unexpected ways. As Gary Waddock’s parody Twitter account put it; ‘Shit’.

Fans are always impatient for new signings at the end of the season, but what is frequently ignored is the fact that football goes on holiday in May and June so that it can be back ready for pre-season before most of us are contemplating what to pack for our fortnight in Magaluf.

But, as the weeks crept by, the silence around the club became increasingly eery. Danny Hylton signed, but then; nothing. Players signed to other clubs, names came onto our radar, but none were followed up. And it seemed to be more than that, the club was on hold.

And then, the distant rumble of a takeover bid. It made sense, an owner wanting to dispose of his club is not going to spend money on new players and a new prospective owner is not likely to wire in the cash until they’ve safely signed on the dotted line.

Then, there was more than one consortium, and people who wouldn’t otherwise use the word consortia kept saying ‘consortia’. One; a group of vagabonds and crooks, the other; a white-hatted band of fans. The former were silent and stealthy; the latter, headed by Charlie Methven, were vocal and popular. The fans sided with Methven.

Ian Lenagan remained silent, not a dignified silence, a great hermetically sealed silence; a chasmic void. We know all about Lenagan’s silences and the frustration it brings to fans and press alike. But while these things are, technically, none of our business, the silence is self-defeating. If people are saying that negotiations are ongoing and they’re not, that’s a fact that’s easy to correct. If you don’t say anything, then you’re effectively confirming them by your silence. It’s a PR gaff, another one, which breeds distrust. That’s completely unnecessary in my view because when he eventually talks Lenagan speaks well and clearly. But his habitual silences undermine the good he does.

The silence was broken with some irony; perhaps it was a situationist prank; the club tweeted a picture of an empty chair and tables, everything was set for a snap press conference. But there appeared to be no press, the radio wouldn’t or couldn’t broadcast it. It was a press conference without press, a communication which wasn’t communicated. All subsequent press reports are re-hashes of the statement on the website. I’m still not certain whether the physical press conference actually happened or not.

Unconvincingly, the statement opens with Lenagan claiming that the silence was due to them planning for the next stage of the development of the club. I say unconvincing, because Lenagan had previously said that Gary Waddock’s appointment had been ‘phase 3’ of his plan. If this is phase 4, then it’s hard to fathom quite what phase three was designed to yield. Is this a planned phase? Or just an unplanned response to happenstance? Is this controlled development, or are we making it up as we go along? I don’t have a problem with the idea of making things up as we go along; the only thing that experience teaches you is that we’re all ultimately winging it, all the time, I have a problem with people claiming that they are fully in control.

In comes, Darryl Eales, an investment specialist of some description; it’s not clear whether Eales brings with him more cash or is just saddling a greater proportion of the risk associated with the reported £6m of debt the club are in. Is our bank account larger, or are Lenagan’s bills smaller? I suspect it’s the latter.

Lenagan claims Eales share the same personal and business style which brings us onto the next phase of the revolution. The introduction of Mark Ashton as chief executive, a name which in recent weeks has brought the chill of Voldermort to many Oxford fans. It’s long been a concern that Lenagan has the skills, empathy or (more likely) time to run Oxford United, so Eales coming in as chairman should be welcomed. Ashton too fits the bill of having football experience, but while there are fragmented suggestions that his time at West Brom were highly regarded, there isn’t a lot online to support that assertion. His time at Watford and Wycombe, however, seemed little short of catastrophic.

It seems that Ashton’s problem is his desire to bring everything in-house and lock everything and everyone down; his time at Watford seems to be characterised by the external belief that something was wrong but there was no ‘smoking gun’ as to what it was. People were gagged and threatened with legal action if they tried to reveal the inner workings of Vicarage Road. If that’s his style, then are Lenagan, Eales and Ashton going to create a pyramid of silence? Possibly.

It speaks volumes that the statement is mostly about the inner workings of the club’s ownership – which is of prime interest to Lenagan and Eales, but the biggest news for the fans is tucked away at the bottom, almost as an aside. Gary Waddock has been sacked and in comes Michael Appleton. Waddock looked like a startled supply teacher ever since his debut on the touchline at Southend. He seemed bewildered by a club that on paper was succeeding but in his hands failed miserably. It was like a briefcase full of cash with one of those alarms which covers everything with paint when it’s in the wrong hands. The Wilder squad in Waddock’s hands simply imploded. I had no real empathy for Waddock, but the ruthlessness of his dismissal makes me feel more detached from the club; he seems the victim of an internal power struggle rather than the product of a genuine football decision.

The move, however, illustrates just how hard and fast Eales and Ashton plan to work. It might work, if the funds are there, but if the manager just becomes a sacrificial lamb to cloak the failings of the board, then we’re in for a gloomy time.

Appleton carries with him the label of ‘promising young coach’ which the likes of Graham Rix and Mark Wright previously carried into the club like a millstone around their necks. He counts the Venkys at Blackburn and Vladimir Anotov (currently under arrest for asset stripping) at Portsmouth amongst his former employers. No manager can hope to perform in such environments, and perhaps in a more positive environment he will thrive, but his track record – including his 3 managerial appointments in just over three months in 2012 – makes you wonder whether he is a just a stooge.

Eales doesn’t cover himself in glory in describing himself as not an owner but a ‘Custodian’ – it is this condescending management bullshit that drives suspicion; if he’s a tough ambitious business man who plans to move the club forward as fast as he can, then say it. Don’t paint the picture of being a homely father figure, when you’re not.

The most interesting phrase in the statement has been somewhat lost; it’s the assertion of “the radical changes likely in the Planning Landscape for Oxford in the next 12 months”. The stadium remains at the heart of all our problems and this line implies that the loosening of planning regulations – presumably to help ease Oxford’s housing crisis – may allow perhaps, building on green belt or  on the Kassam plot or demolition of the stadium and a move. Either way, Lenagan seems keen to stick around, which is a good thing.

Structurally this change works, the personalities involved raise some serious questions. Certainly, we shouldn’t expect a new, open, media friendly, fan-driven club. Perhaps we would have got that with Methven, but perhaps too we might have had another Robin Herd on our hands. Ashton appears to run a closed shop which wraps his detractors in confidentiality agreements and legal threats. It’s not pleasant, but maybe it will be effective. Either way, lets make no bones about it, he’s got a tough job on his hands, the next couple of weeks and some much needed signings should give us an early indication of their intent.

What next? A revolution?

From the state funeral that was BBC Radio Oxford’s What Next?, to David Connolly’s moment of class, this weekend felt like something of a turning point.

There was an odd connotation to the title ‘What’s Next?’ – the name of the Radio Oxford post-Wilder special on Friday. It implied a sense of desolation and emptiness. It’s the ‘What’ bit; ‘Who’s next?’ suggests we’re talking about people, ‘Where next’ implies direction. ‘What next’ suggests there’s no obvious future, a void.

There was something of the state funeral about its positioning. In most clubs, the change of manager probably wouldn’t demand a clearing of the local radio schedules, but this is the first time we’ve been looking for a new manager for over half a decade. This is an eternity in football, so perhaps there is a degree of public service in providing a platform to share thoughts on the matter. For sure, I viewed the length of Chris Wilder’s tenure; the third longest in English football, with pride. After a decade or so of being the club that changed manager almost every year, to become a paragon of stability – what the ‘thinking’ football fraternity believe is missing from most clubs – was something to be proud of.

The sense of loss didn’t transfer into the programme itself. In reality, it was a group of polite gentlemen who didn’t really know what was going on punctuated by the hysterical rantings of buffoons on the phone who think they did. That was probably a fair reflection of the supporter profile of almost every club. It was a bit like any Radio Oxford post-match phone in, just without the distraction of a game to talk about.

Ian Lenagan seemed to speak with a degree of extra freedom, that’s not to suggest that he was in some way being shackled by Chris Wilder. There was just nothing to defend – managerial appointments, investment, player acquisitions, he simply had to explain what would happen next.

If Lenagan has appeared uncomfortable in the media, perhaps it’s not a surprise. The manager is usually the focal point of a football club. The owner is often portrayed as an evil overlord starving the team of funds.

Although benefitting from there being no manager/owner dynamic to defend, Lenagan seemed in complete control. He will take his time with his appointment, he has not panicked during the transfer window with Nicky Wroe and David Connolly filling positions that were identified as being weak from the outset. The Connolly signing on Friday is, in my view, a good one. People expecting a 20 goal a season striker with resale potential were living in a fantasy. What we needed was someone with the experience to know that 6-7 goals may be enough, who is prepared to fit in and not disrupt.

So, what next?

Brian Clough once said the relationship between manager and owner is the most important in a football club. He also, famously, described his man management style as “We talk about [an issue] for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right all along.” Which you might surmise to say that the owner and manager will get on so long as everyone agrees with the manager.

I’ve also heard is said that ‘if you all agree with everything, then at least one of you is redundant’. So, if the manager and owner must be ‘as-one’, and that makes one of you redundant, does this mean the  traditional way of managing a football club is fundamentally flawed?

This brings us onto an interesting question. Do we even want a manager? Or are we looking for a coach with a director of football? Naysayers will reject the notion on the basis it is simply ‘too foreign’. But, Lenagan isn’t afraid of going against tradition; the model he’s working to he founded at Wigan Warriors, he stuck with the manager for longer than most and he’s investing in our youth set-up as others pull out of theirs.

I don’t have a problem with that; it’s how British Cycling and Team Sky work – Tim Kerrison, the mastermind behind Team Sky’s two Tour de France wins is applying principles he developed at Australian Swimming. Stealing with pride. It’s entirely logical; if we all do the same thing then the only differentiator between success and failure is budget. If you can’t be rich, then you need to be different.

It’s certainly true that Chris Wilder needed support in recent months. By his own admission the club seemed to be driving itself. It was difficult to see it changing dramatically from what it has become. And while some bemoaned Wilder’s competence, he was navigating unchartered waters with only Paul Tidsdale – who also appears to be stagnating at Exeter now – having any comparable experience.

So perhaps a director of football with a head coach is a way forward. That would give the club the long term strategy, with the short term impetus. Not relying on a manager’s ability to constantly change and develop in a chameleon like way – the only person who has successfully done this in the modern era is Sir Alex Ferguson. It seems that short of finding a genius to manage us, a different approach may be the future.

Wilder in

So it’s settled then, Chris Wilder is going staying. Not the scenario that anyone foresaw. But the statement about Wilder and the club’s future says a lot about the club going forward.

Well, I don’t think anyone expected that, as someone said on Twitter, you don’t call press conferences to say that managers are staying.

It says quite something that they did; one thing they teach you at journalism school is that something isn’t news if opposite is a surprise. So, the news that a man stays in his job shouldn’t be news because the opposite (that he’s been fired) is the surprise.

I don’t think anyone expected to hear Wilder was staying. If nothing else, the economic argument; that him staying would impact season ticket sales, seemed to be enough to see him go. I’ve been challenged on this. Say we have 3000 season ticket holders (I don’t know if that’s right, but just say) how many would renew out of habit? I would, and pretty much everyone that sits around me would. I reckon as many as 80% would renew regardless of who was the manager. That leaves, perhaps, £70,000 which could be lost to ‘floating’ season ticket holders. Firing Wilder and recruiting a replacement could be a costly business – research suggests as much as 150% of that person’s salary. So the simple equation is one of lost revenue versus recruitment costs. Perhaps the financial argument isn’t so strong.

Which brings us onto football. The statement on the club website admits the ‘upward curve’ has ‘flattened out’. Sure enough, we’re 10 points behind where we were last season. Some of which might reasonably be explained by injuries and the appalling state of our pitch. Our poor home form does appear to be at the core of this season’s problem and it does appear that the one of the key factors behind the poor state of the pitch – London Welsh – may soon disappear.

Another factor to consider is that in the past people have compared our comparative lack of success to those who have also recently ascended from the Conference. Many have enjoyed continued success after their promotion, but we haven’t rampaged in the same way. But of the 12 teams promoted from the Conference since 2006, five go into Saturday’s final round of fixtures facing the prospect of being relegated back to the Conference. And we’re not one of them. It’s not a definitive argument supporting Wilder, but if we’re benchmarking our success against our peers, then we could be in a significantly worse position.

The reason why this is important is that it highlights that those focussed on long term steady growth tend to prosper more than those who enjoy fluctuations in success. In the end, what goes up, usually comes down and you can argue that we’ve now left our former Conference brethren for the establishment of the football league. There is strong evidence that steadier clubs are beginning to see dividends in the current economic climate. Why is German football coming to the fore? Because the Spanish and English leagues are one a downward slope after a period of booming success. The German’s have just continued to be German.

This is tortoise and hare stuff; in the economy is penalising the hares who have boomed in boom times and dived in the dip, the tortoises are coming through to steal the prizes.

What is interesting about the statement is that Lenagan appears to have generally reduced Wilder’s influence within the club. There’s some dispute as to whether he was on a rolling contract or still had 12 months to go (I’m fairly sure that BBC Radio Oxford said he was still under contract beyond the end of the season). The statement says he’s been ‘re-appointed’ on a contract which the club were at pains to say is fixed term with options in favour of the club. Everything about it suggests that the new deal puts control much more into the hands of Lenagan and the board.

The statement develops this further; emphasising the focus on sports science within the club and developing talent. Everything points to a steadier, long term development of the club, more corporate, more cohesive, more German, if you like. This is not a bad thing for Chris Wilder. It takes the emphasis away from the English obsession with the cult of the manager as being the only thing that influences results. It steps away from the nihilistic strategies of signing ‘big names’ on big wages in the hope of gaining short term success.

The criticism I have of Lenagan is that he’s allowed this to go on too long. If Chris Wilder knew he was staying; he been showing no evidence at all to suggest that this was the case. His body language smacked of someone whose days were numbered. In short, he’s been treated abysmally.

But, I like the vision, Lenagan the chairman frustrates me with his poor PR skills. His statements are good, but they’re slow, poorly timed and patchy leaving chasms of silence into which speculation grows. As an owner, I like him. It appeals to me that we might see success in 2-3 years at Oxford United with 6-7 players playing regularly for the first team developed from the youth scheme. Most fans love this as a concept, there’s nothing they like supporting a team of local players. Sadly, few clubs are brave enough to see the strategy through. Could we actually be the one to do it?

Jim Rosenthal, what’s your secret?

As Andy Murray started his quest to win the US Open, the kangaroo court on Yellow Forum was well and truly in session over the surprise announcement that Jim Rosenthal had resigned from the Oxford board. About four comments down in the discussion was a link to a little exchange of tweets involving me.

‘Curious’ said the contributor.

I’d been implicated in the gossip and speculation surrounding Rosenthal’s resignation. There was perhaps even a suggestion I knew something. What I said, however, was not in any way ‘curious’. I was merely pointing out the tautological nature of Rosenthal’s announcement. He said he’d resigned because he’d felt it necessary to. Well, you’d be surprised if he’d said that he’d resigned because he felt it was not necessary to. There may be subtext in his statement, but Rosenthal doesn’t use emoticons to express emotions.

The statement said it was not in the interest of the club to give a reason, which, on the face of it, suggests that there is something sensitive going on or that he’s done something that is not in the interest of the club. If he felt strongly that something has gone wrong, then it is in the interests of the club to let people know about it – because if he can’t change it, perhaps others can. There is no evidence that this is the case.

The vacuum left by Rosenthal’s reticence and the club’s eerie silence has been filled with plenty of idle speculation. Some of it has a degree of plausibility – for example, the takeover (or at least, investor) thesis is one. The Lenagan family monopoly around the board table making Rosenthal’s role redundant is another.

The most common theme, however, is that Ian Lenagan is now some kind of evil. Demonstrating classic symptoms of an oedipus complex, Lenegan represents the father-figure we now want to kill. One sinister speculation was that “you get the feeling that he’s one of those people that gets angry if things aren’t done the way he wants them to be”. Christ, cross him and you’ll have Tony Capaldi’s severed head in your bed.

He has even been assimilated to Firoz Kassam; which is the Oxford United version of that point in an argument when you shout ‘Well, if we all thought like that, we’d be living in Nazi Germany by now’.

One example of his meanness was the hard line he supposedly took in the programme on Saturday towards the fans who threw a smoke bomb during the Swindon game. Lenagan is obliged to condemn such behaviour. Moreover, the incident will have a direct impact on future policing and stewarding costs. That’s a few thousand less to be spent on players, if you will. Although, apparently one or two seem to think that throwing smoke bombs can be defended:

“That was a obviously bit close for your comfort zone ..but like it or no Mr.IL that’s the way its bin re the Scum for quite a few years here now so don’t try to re-write history and sanitise the whole thing to the point of a fixture against Barnet (no disrespect meant Bees fans). Personally I still don’t think you get it …at all!”

We have no idea why Rosenthal has resigned. In terms of what impact it will have, we need to think about what he brought to the director’s table. His core skill set has to be his media experience. In recent years the club have managed their public image well with the Chapman incident, the 12th Man, the pink ox and the James Constable saga all being handled impeccably. If Rosenthal had a hand in that, then he’s provided good input there, although you could argue that your media profile is a relatively small part of a lower league football club which needs to focus on funds and results.

He has also been the club’s conscience, our man on the inside. That’s certainly how some fans see him. However, the yellow shirt aside, is there much from Oxford’s recent past that is beyond replacement, improvement or amendment? Can we genuinely say that there is something about the ‘Oxford way’ which is so valuable that it is worth defending? It strikes me that a successful sports club is a successful sports club, and someone protecting the old ways of doing things could easily become a drain on progress.

Something has definitely changed within the club in recent months. If I were to speculate, I would say the strategy has shifted to a greater focus on building a sustainable infrastructure rather than continuing to make short term front line investments like the signing of people like Michael Duberry. Duberry is a hell of a signing, but how much longer can he keep it up?

This change  might be driven by changes in the situation regarding the purchase of the stadium. That is, there’s little prospect of releasing the revenue potential that will come from owning the stadium, so investment is better focussed on the long term sustainability of the club. Perhaps Rosenthal and Lenagan don’t agree on that strategy going forward. If he is looking for longer term success, which has not seen a bad outcome at Lenagan’s other club, Wigan Warriors, then perhaps Rosenthal’s resignation is not quite the end of the world.

Is Kelvin Thomas’ departure less Hollywood than some portray?

Of Oxford’s triumvirate of success – Wilder, Constable and Thomas – the departure of Kelvin Thomas, announced on Friday, was probably the most surprising and potentially most destabilising one of all. Had Wilder stepped down, some would have welcomed the move, others would have, at least, understood how it came about. The Constable transfer sagas, meanwhile, have grown tiresome; nobody wants him to go but it would be something of a relief if we could finally stop having to obsess over the impact his departure might have.

Almost immediately the rumours as to why Thomas is stepping down began to circulate. Apparently he’s going to West Ham and/or he’s had a fall out with Ian Lenagan. And, by extrapolation Lenagan has become spooked by the club’s stated ambitions to buy the stadium and get into the Championship. The view is that Thomas’ departure is a symptom of a rapidly unravelling facade.

Now, wait a cotton pickin’ minute. Thomas is a young man and the chief executive of a small successful company in Oxford. The implication is that he has flounced off in a huff to Millionaires Row to take up his passion for abstract sculpture with Harry Redknapp. The more likely scenario is that he’s got a new job or that he fancies doing something different. We all leave jobs at some point, we may do it because it’s not quite what we want but how often is it because of some massive barney about ‘principles’? People need jobs and rarely have the luxury of debating such ephemera. So Thomas’ departure is likely to be far less dramatic than has been painted. It just feels that way because the first time we heard about it was the when it happened.

But does this show that the club lacks ambition? The idea that Lenagan can adopt a strategy to keep us in League 2 is nonsensical. In practical terms, keeping a club in a division is as difficult, if not more difficult, than gaining promotion. Sure, you can starve a club of its resources, but to starve it of just enough resources to stay down without going down requires an level of precision management – signing players and manager with only just the right amount of ability – that would probably be so expensive to administer, you might as well use the money to go for promotion anyway.

Granted, Lenegan may be conscious of over-cooking the club’s finances trying to get into League 1 and beyond. Certainly the change of transfer policy this summer would suggest that he is reassessing his priorities. This doesn’t mean that he’s given up on the Championship, more that he recognises the need to get some fundamentals in place rather than continuing to invest in front line playing staff. If you’re going to sign a Michael Duberry, it is only ever going to be short term and even then, you need the right infrastructure in place to keep him on the pitch and out of the treatment room.

Lenagan and Thomas are not stupid and Friday’s press conference delivered the proverbial shit sandwich, the bad news of Thomas’ departure, wrapped around the good news of his replacement (Lenagan) and the investment in the infrastructure that seemed lacking last season. The announcements seemed to stabilise things amongst those following the news on Twitter.

Lenagan’s more hands on approach is not without its risks; being closer to the business will reveal to him precisely how his money is spent. This may lead to a more risk averse approach to developing the club. It is his money, after all. He will inevitably be stretched to dedicate enough time to his various projects. And with this comes the ability to resist the more reactive amongst the Oxford faithful. This may be tested early; Chris Wilder’s stock fell last season and we face a tough opening month in the forthcoming campaign. Thomas was good at looking beyond immediate blips to the more long term development of the club. With Lenagan’s stretched priorities, he will have to rely increasingly on his media profile to maintain the trust of the fans. We’re far less likely to see him at games or at social and PR events if he’s got a similar role to play at Wigan Warriors. A so-so start to the season will inevitably see renewed calls for a change, will Lenagan be available to face the press or Yellow Player to calm the hoards? If not, then Lenagan’s fortitude will be thoroughly tested.

But, Thomas leaves the club in excellent health, and his successor has a far easier job as a result. The biggest mistake that anyone taking over a successful operation can make is to make dramatic changes just for to make a mark or for the sake of it. The fact Lenagan and Thomas share a similar philosophy of measured, business like growth – a rare quality in football – we can be hopeful that the club’s successful formulae won’t be packed away with Thomas’ executive desk toys.