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.

Radio Review: Thames Valley Royals – The team that never was

The early 80s saw Oxford in the doldrums up until the arrival of Robert Maxwell. The first thing he managed to do was to oust Ian Greaves and bring in Jim Smith, it didn’t take long for him to implement phase 2 of his master plan – a grand merger of Reading and Oxford to make a superteam capable of competing with the biggest teams in the country. Radio Oxford took up the story in their recent radio documentary.

The story of the Thames Valley Royals is not one to scare your children with as the BBC Radio Oxford documentary; The Team That Never Was suggests. That said, it’s a really worthwhile listen. It didn’t really appeal to me originally, I thought I’d heard the story, and what more can be said about a something that appeared momentarily 30 years ago. Rather than a simple re-hashing of old material, the station managed to get many of the key names from the story to contribute – an impressive piece of work, and assuming that the link is still working, you can listen to it here.

It opens in March 1983 and a 1-0 win over Doncaster; Robert Maxwell had been at the club for just over a year. Jim Smith’s revolution was taking shape, building a team capable of challenging for promotion from Division 3. But Maxwell wasn’t really into building slowly, he wanted to make giant leaps forward and with the council continuing to stall over a new stadium, he decided the only way forward was to merge Oxford with Reading to form a new team playing in a vomitus combination of yellow, blue and cerise; they’d be called the Thames Valley Royals and be based in Didcot.

Maxwell’s justification was that businesses that aren’t sustainable can only survive if they merge. He was sort of right on that; consolidation is an inevitability in almost all industries, even though most mergers fail due to insurmountable cultural and operational challenges. It was certainly true that Oxford couldn’t sustain their development while they wallowed at the Manor and Reading were in an even worse state, threatened with relegation at the rotting Elm Park.

The aftermath of the announcement was predictable. Maxwell continued to force the rational economic argument; threatening to close the club if he doesn’t get his way. The fans response is predictably emotional. These were two irreconcilable positions; as we later learned from Firoz Kassam, you can’t turn a ruthless business man with winsome stories of belonging, spirit and nebulous concepts of right and wrong.

Jim Smith and the players scrambled to cover their own backs. Smith announced the news to his team as ‘great news’. Manager’s do that; 20 years later by Sir Alex Ferguson reversed his position to support of the Glazers when they eventually became his boss at Manchester United. Mark Jones and Alan Judge’s responses are muted, Jones; on the margins at Oxford feared for his future, Judge, who was at struggling Reading and couldn’t see a future for himself in the new set up.

The documentary threatens initially to follow a audience appeasing line about the mighty strength of Oxford United fans’ spirit in overturning the tyrannical Maxwell. It’s clear that the ramshackle amateurs who opposed the move were nothing against the megalomaniac. Despite a peaceful sit-in during a game against Wigan, the general consensus was that most of the fans were intimidated by Maxwell’s presence and despite attempts at fighting him, generally they came off second best.

The story quickly turns, it becomes apparent that the failure of the merger was not down to the fans or even Oxford United, it was due to the Reading board and some technical misdoings from Maxwell acolytes at Elm Park. The second part of the documentary goes into this in some detail, which is necessary, if a little turgid. There are no dead bodies, which is a surprise given just how underhanded the Read board had been. As a brooding drama it would probably benefit from some moody lighting, Benedict Cumberbatch and a sexy, but brilliant, female lawyer in dark rimmed glasses to give it a bit more punch.

In the absence of such luxury, Radio Oxford drafted in self-styled Oxford United novelist Peter Tickler to speculate as to what might have happened had the merger been successful. It’s not a bad idea, but I would say that. But this quickly becomes irritating; Tickler’s lyricism makes him sounds disconcertingly like Stuart Hall and his wild, presumably tongue in cheek predictions of a 12 year old Joey Beauchamp playing in the first Royals game and then them winning of the FA Cup against Manchester United makes the whole thing as irritating as it is pointless.

As a counterbalance, however, there’s a twist in the telling of the story that’s so good I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t got round to listening to it. It leads to the most interesting part of the story; the aftermath and in particular a completely different complexion on one particular aspect of the saga.

In a sense, the whole episode is prescient, Maxwell was right that clubs needed to change to succeed, but the merger approach was never going to work. In some senses, he eventually did merge some parts of Reading with Oxford; Maurice Evans – manager at Reading – was pivotal in our later success and Judge, of course, was in goal at Wembley. MK Dons found out that franchising is difficult without significant collateral damage, but Manchester City and Chelsea’s owners have found that buying up a bankrupt brand and create a new club behind it is the only way forward.

Thames Valley Royals was a test case; for the future of football and, some say for Maxwell to test the resolve of the local council in wanting a football club in their city. The story, if not quite as terrifying as it was portrayed is none-the-less a salutary tale.