The end of an era

4.50pm on Saturday saw the end of the season. Some people thought it would be the end of Chris Wilder. It certainly felt like the end of something.

In the end we were just four points off, or, if you like, the margin of seeing out the game and not conceding at home to Morecambe and scoring rather than hitting both posts in the last minute at Barnet. And other moments, of course, but let’s not think too much about it.

We’re two points closer to the play-offs than last year, but three less in total, but with a 3 goal improvement in goal difference, but still falling short of our target of play-offs or promotion. We can ague endlessly, and probably pointlessly, as to whether that represents an improvement or not because there are also circumstances to consider. Those circumstances. I think it’s fair to say that even if we had sneaked into the play-offs it would have been a success that ultimately papered over the cracks.

Saturday’s 3-0 win over Accrington represented the end of an era. Not, as of Thursday, the Wilder era, because he’s still here. Nope, Ian Lenagan’s speech at the press conference that announced his new contract effectively acted as the eulogy to the end of the Kelvin Thomas era.

What Thomas did for the club was absolutely necessary, we wallowed waiting for success, so he relentlessly signed the best of the rest of the Conference; Midson, Green, Crieghton, Tonkin, Clarke and Bulman. It allowed us to capitalise on our key asset – our comparative size. The strategy continued for two more years after we were promoted.

While it smacks of cripplingly poor planning, it’s no accident that we have 16 players out of contract this summer. This represents the slowing down of Thomas’ overheating machine. In our first season back in the Football League, we aggressively signed up players in the same manner we had in the last season of the Conference. Players like Heslop and Worley, on three year contracts. The following year; we went for marquee signings on shorter, 2 year, contracts; Leven and Duberry, for example. Along the way, corners were cut with medicals and the like. The long term, even the mid-term was sacrificed for the short term. Now all those contracts have expired in one heap all at the same time.

Thomas’ strategy relied on one thing; it had to work. Imagine if we’d gone to Wembley and frozen, or if Isiah Rankine hadn’t skewed his shot past the wrong side of the post at 2-1? If we hadn’t been promoted, then the following season would have introduced new pressures – the perception that we had a team of chokers, the need to rebuild – and the emergence of Crawley Town and then Fleetwood. We may well have still been struggling to get up, Chris Wilder would surely have gone, along with Thomas. Not only that, our finances would have been drained by failed ‘big name’ conference players.

So many teams try to accelerate their progress through the same strategy and find themselves in an appalling state. Leeds United’s spending was predicated on numbers that were never going to add up. Portsmouth’s ambitions seemed reliant on moving to a new stadium – and then attaining super club status – to balance the books after years of insane spending which saw them, at least, pick up the FA Cup in 2008. Plymouth were relying on Premier League football and the 2010 World Cup bid after they jettisoned themselves up the divisions with heavy investment. We’ll play Portsmouth and Plymouth next season as equals, and there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest they’ve hit the bottom yet.

The most difficult thing about this strategy is knowing when to stop; Portsmouth are so deeply in the crap that they’re still throwing anchors out to slow themselves down. For us, the breaks were slammed on last summer when Sean Rigg became the only meaningful signing of the summer. Thomas must have known the game was up when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be able to make 5-6 significant signings so he threw in the towel. Ian Lenagan had switched off the machine, the flow of cash. It’s just taken 12 months to finally come to a halt.

There’s no doubt that the Thomas-era has not only been necessary, it’s been memorable; there was Wembley, of course and beating Swindon three times alongside individual moments such as Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale. But Thomas was the bloke in the pub who gets the rounds in has loads of great stories, but ultimately gets himself into pointless arguments that can leave a bad taste in the mouth at the end of the night. Great for a night out, not someone who will do the washing up if he lived with you.

As spectacular as it was, Thomas wasn’t planning on hanging around long enough to go through the painstaking process of finding consistency. When a problem came along, the answer was to sign players, often on loan, until the problem went away. The problem usually went away when the permanent players that were originally the problem came back into form. What he didn’t do was learn from the experience and rectify the underlying systemic issues.

This season we’ve seen the youth team become much more than a page in the programme that you glance after conceding the second goal. The woman’s team is now a real part of the club with named players and people tracking their progress. They look set to prosper now they’ve been accepted into the Women’s Super League 2. The new era is set to be less spectacular, but perhaps more interesting. The thing is, I like interesting, I find it interesting. Not everyone does, of course, what the more considered approach is designed to provide is consistency over a long term. And that consistency, we hope will bring real success.

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.

Oxford United Dreaming Spires beat Mass United 2-zip

Promising to build a team to be proud of, as Firoz Kassam famously announced on our last night at The Manor, sounds a really generous thing to do.

Consider it a little further and it starts to sound self-indulgent, for what it says is that he will transact to us, using his wealth and power, a team for our enjoyment.

This fundamentally misunderstands being a fan; we don’t want to be given a team, we want to be part of a (extended) team. It’s a club, after all, clubs have members and we want to be members.

When it was revealed that Kelvin Thomas was at the controls of Oxford’s official Twitter feed during our 2-0 win against Mass United it was great. Here was the chairman of the club chatting with fans, in-game, about the game as an equal. It was warm and opinionated (his nan could have scored a chance that Dean Smalley spurned from five yards) and not at all corporate. Firoz Kassam once sat with the fans in the Oxford Mail stand, but that was to find out what the catering services were like.

John Lewis is known for its high levels of staff retention and dedication. Central to this is the limit they place on the difference between the highest and lowest paid staff members. The whole organisation is drawn closer together because they legislate against an ‘us and them’ culture.

The gap between the chairman and the fans (and therefore, the players and manager) is shrinking all the time. Thomas is not imparting his genius unto us mere mortals. He’s just a bloke doing the role he’s paid to do, and as part of the deal, we’ll do the job we’re expected to do. As a result there’s no ‘us and them’ (or us and him), there’s just ‘us’. A proper football club.

Yellows 2 Rushden and Diamonds 1

I know a bloke who knows a bloke who plays down the same golf club as Ian Lenegan. I also once spent a night at my sister’s wedding drinking with Mickey Lewis – a night I vowed that, as funny and charming a bloke as Mickey is, I would never befriend an ex-professional footballer. I may have done these things; but I’m not part of any Oxford United in-crowd, still, why didn’t anyone tell me that we don’t like Nick Merry anymore?

The response to Nick Merry’s resignation as chairman – even from those you would expect to have been more supportive (new chairman Kelvin Thomas and Darren Patterson) has been surprisingly negative.

Merry’s legacy will be the revitalisation of Oxford United ‘the club’- a group of people with a similar focus. Its been shaken on a number of occasions; but in comparison to the fractured culture under Firoz Kassam, Merry’s contribution should be recognised.

The business and the team, of course, are in a worse position. The biggest criticism one might level at Merry was to do with his wide-eyed optimism. His were the decisions of a fan – bring back Jim Smith, save us from relegation, buy stadium, enjoy back-to-back promotions like the good old days. Plan A was based wholly on Jim Smith; there was no plan B.

Firoz Kassam is a stubborn and ruthless businessman and it would appear, from corporatehospitalityfood-gate, that Merry does not command the respect needed to resolve the stadium purchase problems. Kassam is probably not really into Merry’s sports jacket, car salesman, slightly Americanised burr style. Let’s hope that Kelvin Thomas is, if not an equal to Kassam at the negotiating table, a credible adversary.

So, there’s been a lot of negativity around the club of late. The talk going into yesterday’s 2-1 win over Rushden and Diamonds was about how Darren Patterson was a defeat from the sack (again). But looking at the performance, it’s clear to me that Patterson has the ability to do well – subject to the finances being such that we can bring in extra players when needed.

We shouldn’t be going into games worrying about failure; I suspect Histon, in fifth, aren’t yet panicking that they’re only 8 points off relegation. Which demonstrates just how tight this division is, so you can look at us being 1 point off the relegation zone or 7 points off the play-offs. Three years ago the gap at the end of September from play-offs to relegation was 12 points, two years ago it was 11, and Morecambe, who ended up promoted, had 16 points, just one more than us.

We are not alone in having financial problems, we’re a small squad, but a good team. If Nick Merry’s legacy is to mean anything, we should be looking at the season as a challenge to be excited about, not a series of disasters waiting to happen.