Wycombe wrap | Ashton leaves

Wycombe Wanderers 2 Oxford United 1

Nathan Cooper said it after the draw with Carlisle; going into the game against Wycombe having not lost in the League at Adams Park for a decade, was a concern. A decade unbeaten away from home is extraordinary, eventually there will be a point at which things start to become ordinary again.

There was the usual guff the game’s validity as a derby. Wycombe and Oxford are close to each other and there was a scramble for tickets – the first time I’ve missed out on a game I wanted to see since Leeds in 1994. The game was clearly keenly anticipated.

One person dismissed Wycombe as ‘irrelevant’; the football version of Marie-Anntoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake.’ It all started to sound a little bit like Swindon fans do when they play us, claiming  unconvincingly, that Bristol City are their real rivals. There was talk of that they were ‘tinpot’, all of which ignores the fact that Wycombe have spent more time than us above League 2 over the last 20 years.

Recent victories over Wycombe have had a backdrop of angst about them – last year we were threatened with relegation and they were flying high, the year before it was the last knockings of Chris Wilder’s tenure. There was a feeling of intensity, this time there was a degree of complacency.

Football isn’t like Christmas it doesn’t deliver goodwill to all men. Perhaps inevitably, for the second time this week we were League two’ed by a team who were strong and direct and good at set pieces. It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing style, but it does work.

We’re approaching the middle point of the season, we’ve played everyone, some think that the Wycombe result was the beginning of one of those characteristic Oxford United slumps. It is still too early to tell, but we won’t help ourselves by changing the way we, as fans approach games.

When the season starts you don’t really know whether you’re facing a good team or a bad one. Later in the season it’s fairly clear what type of team you’re facing. One of the things about Wycombe is we apparently know what we’re facing – a tinpot, irrelevant club – and that’s where the trouble starts because there was and expectation of victory.

We head into Christmas in third, it’s a good position from my point of view, but we need to be aware that the job is not even half complete. If this does turn out to be the start of the slump we’ll be asking why we can’t play like we did at the start of the season,  that’s a reasonable challenge, but we also need to support like we did at the start of the season.

Any other business – Eales leaves

The Christmas announcement nobody was expecting was that Mark Ashton was stepping down to allow Darryl Eales to become more hands on with the club. Coming after the defeat against Wycombe this created a murmur of uncertainty amongst fans.

It seems logical that this wasn’t a planned change given that it has happened mid-season with the club apparently on the up.

Ashton was on the radio a couple of hours after the announcement, which implies that either he has been paid off so handsomely he’s prepared to talk Eales and the club up, or he has genuinely been discussing this for a while. I suspect it’s the latter; why would Eales risk putting Ashton on the radio when it’s easier to put a statement on the club’s website and wait to the furore to blow over?

What is Ashton’s legacy? It’s difficult to tell at the moment, as good as our recent form has been, we were awful last year. It might be reasonably argued that he was prepared to act as a spokesperson for the club even when things were a mess and that any work he did put in place in the background is bearing fruit this season. I suspect it’s one of those things where we won’t know his true value until he’s gone; we probably won’t really know for a few months.

What’s impact will the change have on the club? It seems that the main role of a chief executive is to temper the worst excesses of your owner. Kelvin Thomas’ enthusiasm and positive nature counter-balanced Ian Lenagan’s natural conservatism. When Thomas left, the club was fully exposed to Lenagan’s cautiousness (which, it should be noted made him a very rich man and turned the club on its head, so it was not at all bad).

Eales, by everyone’s assertion, is a infectiously positive person. That has to be good for the club in the short term. He is clearly a successful man, but is it because he’s a good businessman or because he’s a gambler who has won big just enough times to make him rich? A gambler in a football club is not necessarily a good thing in the long term because it doesn’t take much to plunge a club into crisis.

There is another scenario worth considering; with Eales’ positivity, Lenagan’s natural conservatism and Firoz Kassam, effectively a still key shareholder in the club, it could be that Ashton’s presence muddies the water. If Eales can align the ambitions of all three men, then it could actually be the making of the club.  

Teetering?

There was a moment on Saturday when Andy Whing received an simple ball, he mis-controlled and, over-reaching, stabbed it back along the back-four. There was an audibly sharp intake of breath – not for the first time this season – as the back line and Ryan Clarke moved the ball between them as if trying to get rid of a lump of a steaming poo.

It was 2-2 at the time and, fleetingly, I wanted us to concede. Or at least I was curious to see what would happen if we did. I’m not one of those who wants to see us lose in order for the manager to be fired, despite what people seem to think, but there was a moment where I wanted to do a laboratory test, away from the real world, which would establish how the club might respond.

And then we did concede; we’d lost two leads, at home, playing a team playing with 10 men for an hour, it could barely have been worse. Had we won, we could have debated whether the 10 men was a factor, had we drawn, we could have debated how difficult it is to play against 10 men, had we lost against 11 men, we could have debated the relative merits of our opponents. But this was beyond debate, we’d lost. Badly.

So, how do the club handle it? Will we get the relentless positive parping from Eales and Ashton? The steely look in the eye and the challenge to ‘judge us on our actions’. How do they defend it? Outwardly they will support Appleton, the media seem to think he’s as safe as houses. This might have been a transitional year, but they surely can’t have planned it like this.

There can only be two scenarios where this might not matter; the first is if they don’t care, the second is if they have unstinting belief in The Philosophy.

Let’s deal with the first bit; the land deal thesis – the idea that their investment in the club is simply a cover for some massive land deal; either at the Kassam or at Water Eaton; an opportunity to capitalise on the city’s housing crisis, for example.

While its feasible, I don’t believe that this is their sole focus. I’m fairly certain that it’s part of a wider investment plan but every owner from Robert Maxwell onwards has recognised how important stadium ownership is to the club’s future. But they’re trying way too hard off the pitch for them to be coldly killing the club off a la Kassam (although I don’t think even he planned that initially).

So, what about The Philosophy. Do they have the money to invest unquestionably in The Philosophy, the Plan A and the DNA and all that gubbins?  There’s not a lot of evidence that they have a bottomless pit of cash; after all they’re not investing heavily at the moment? People talk about signing players in the transfer window, but they ignore that we signed four before it even opened, and they’re not exactly looking like world beaters.

So, there has to be some limits; a point at which the situation becomes intolerable. I can’t believe they are looking at this and thinking it’s OK, because if they don’t improve things soon, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

The thing is, it’s not the fans they need to worry about, it’s the customers. We, the fans, will turn up pretty much whatever gets served up, customers – the casuals who only turn up if they’re going to be entertained – will make the difference. We may detest them, but they are the difference between a crowd of 4,000 and a crowd of 9,000, plus they pay more per head. They are much more discerning and selective than us. Turn them off and the club is really in trouble and for Ashton and Eales, things will get much, much more expensive. Even if they give up on the team, they’ve still got to pay the rent, at least Kassam could give up and not fear that.

How do they, with any credibility, defend their credibility when The Philosophy, which they’ve talked about with such confidence, disintegrates on first contact with the outside world? Do they smile it out or take action? If they’re teetering now, Saturday’s game against Exeter could be decisive.

You say it best, when you say nothing at all

There’s old journalistic lore which says that when something is presented to you as ‘newsworthy’ if the opposite of that thing is more surprising, then it isn’t news, and therefore isn’t worth writing about.

So, if someone says that it’s going to be hot in July – a particular favourite amongst newspapers – the opposite is that it’s going to snow. Because the opposite is more surprising than the reality; the story is redundant.
Whether that holds in the world of 24-hour rolling news is highly debatable. Quite simply there are just not enough genuine news stories to fill up the all-day real-time media machine.
We become anaesthetised to this, wholly accepting that the news we are given is not in fact of much, or any, value. The Daily Mail have taken it to the extreme by apparently considering news to be factual descriptions of women wearing clothes in a place somewhere on earth. Given the opposite; naked women on the moon would be considered somewhat more surprising, the existence of women wearing clothes is not news. While there is a low muttering of disgust at the vacuousness of it all and the objectification of the women concerned, we are generally accepting of its existence.
As Mark Ashton appeared on Malcolm Boyden’s Radio Oxford show on Wednesday, Twitter muttered a genuine appreciation of his performance. In a summer of silence, anything parping out of the top table at Oxford United must feel like a feast to some.
It was a cloying matey interview, Boyden knows Ashton from somewhere although it wasn’t clear from where; both come from the same part of the country and appear to be lay West Brom fans, perhaps they boing boing’ed next to each other at the Hawthorns back in the day.

Ashton was allowed to remain deep within his comfort zone; ladling on thick, heavy globs of media-grease throughout the 20 minute grilling simmer. He talked of Oxford being ‘something special’, and creating ‘something special’, about the community work being ‘a passion’. Boyden echoed him back, almost hypnotised, ‘You’re really passionate about this aren’t you’. ‘Yes I am’ said Ashton in the tone of a man who had just been asked the challenging question of confirming his own name.

Amidst the matey-ness, he also talked in a faintly sinister collective tense; ‘The way we do things…’, ‘What we do…’ it gave the impression of a masked cabal rolling into town to get whatever they want  before everything all falls apart or they get bored or they run out of money. This is something I’ve yet to resolve in my head; what is the motivation for them buying into the club? It might be success on the pitch, but there are other motivations in buying football clubs, not all of them in the long term interest of club.

Perhaps the ‘we’ was his family, who are apparently as ‘passionately’ committed to the club as everyone else. On the face of it Ashton has got himself a new job; but he gave the impression that this was akin to his family converting wholesale to Mormonism. There was a frankly improbably anecdote, set up by Boyden apropos of nothing, of Ashton’s son switching allegiance from West Brom to Oxford on FIFA, and how he now looked at Oxford’s results above all others (of both of our pre-season friendlies, presumably).

Basically, Ashton didn’t say anything at all, certainly nothing that passes the old journalistic test. There was nothing that would allow you to pass any judgement – good or bad. The club needs players, but the right ones, we need firm financial footing, the club needs to own it’s ground, it needs to engage with the community. We know all this, Lenagan said it, Kassam said it, Herd said it, Maxwell said it. Some of them delivered some of it, nobody did it all. Effective strategy is not about coming up with a list of ideas, it’s about prioritising them and funding their delivery.

Talking of strategy; there are basically two questions that need answering when talking to the Chief Executive of Oxford United in 2014. In the short term; how much money is now available to invest in the team to help it move beyond its current position? The club cannot move forward much beyond its existing position within its existing business model, the only immediate opportunity is the unlocking of extra funds from outside that model.

And secondly, for its long term, how are the club going to own its own ground? Owning the ground is the new business model; whether that be at the Kassam or elsewhere. Without those two issues addressed, the latter in particular, Oxford are set to bob around the upper reaches of League 2 for the foreseeable future regardless of the owners or the level of passion they’re prepared to invest in it. Neither question has even come close to being answered in the last two weeks. They’ve talked about ‘the passion’ to do all these things, they’ve not talked about ‘the how’.

I don’t blame Boyden for soft peddleing; local radio needs football. Senior bean counters at the BBC must be constantly questioning the value of signing cheques to pay for another documentary on the thriving West Oxfordshire jazz scene of the 1950s. Local football is a rare ‘killer app’ and a protective forcefield that almost justifies the existence of regionalised radio and TV. If you’re Radio Oxford, you don’t come out fighting against the owners of your local club. If the shop does shut, then the station’s access to club news and interviews will dry up and that weakens its viability in the media landscape.

But, the fans listening in soporific stupor would do well not the be drawn into the mythical powers of ‘passion’ that Ashton is currently using as his magical staff. It is not so much his intentions that concern me; few people come into a club with the deliberately intention of it failing, but it is his competence and priorities which have yet to come to the fore.

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.