Midweek Fixture: 2019/20 season preview

Maybe I’m getting older, but the summers seem to be shorter and shorter. Perhaps the season is getting longer and longer. Either way, the window in which club’s are supposed to refresh and renew seems to get smaller as time passes.

Last year, the World Cup truncated the summer into a few short hysterical weeks; signings seemed rushed, preparations lacking in preparation. We toured Ireland where friendlies were adjusted to accommodate England games, everything seemed to crash on top of each other.

There have been no such distractions this year, but the summer has been short and quiet. Signings have come slowly, but they seem solid, unlike the follies of Ricky Holmes or Sam Smith. There hasn’t been the panic, nor the hysteria, though the disquiet has ratcheted up with the news that Gavin Whyte is off to Cardiff (and then appeased by the signing of Ben Woodburn). Perhaps fans are settling to our status; too small to go up, too big to go down.

We can search for someone to blame, but we’re suffering the consequences of something out of our control – hyper-inflation in the Premier League. We’re a club with the turnover of a reasonably sized supermarket trying to retain players who interest clubs with huge cash resources. Whyte, Curtis Nelson, Marcus Browne and even Tsun Dai are all heading for clubs benefitting from Premier League cash.  

Promotion seasons like 2010 and 2016 were characterised by a relentless pursuit of signings throughout the summer. That hasn’t been the case this year, and if that’s an indication of intent; a promotion tilt is unlikely. 

Those spending sprees were partly about organisation – good scouting – but also money. A club that can release cash at a time when it’s scarcely available, is a club that is more likely to have a successful season – or so it seems.

It seems fairly obvious that the cash isn’t available, at least not enough to make signings quick and easy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the quickest way to do a deal is to overpay and the likes of Smith and Holmes should remind us of the impact of that mistake. 

Maybe the money doesn’t exist or is earmarked for other things. It’s possible that we have owners that are striking a balance between short term performance and long-term stability. Kassam starved the team of resource to fund his new stadium, Lenagan and Eales did the opposite (although admittedly there wasn’t a stadium to invest in). 

The Whyte situation has skewed the argument; we thought we’d keep him, and so losing has had a disproportionate impact on morale. But, looking at the squad, seven players that played more than 10 games last season have left including Smith and Holmes. Five (so far) have signed, with another couple coming back from injury. In terms of numbers, it’s not that different to the end of last year.

There are gaps, of course, it’s easy to pick a figure out of the sky as to the number of players we need and panic, but most obviously we lack a true striker (20 goals, 15 goals, whatever) and we still look thin at the back. We’re not robust enough to withstand the loss of senior players to long-term injury, but there remains a solid core, so we’re not quite as vulnerable as it might seem. Good seasons rely on luck, at the moment we would need more than our fair share. A couple more signings before the end of the month will help a lot.

The shape of the division has changed. Last year, there were one or two serious contenders and a raft of ‘others’. That was evident in our own performance, where we were able to sit at the bottom of the table throughout the year, and then, with a couple of wins suddenly find ourselves in mid-table.

This year, that top cabal has grown – Sunderland, Portsmouth and Ipswich look obvious contenders for promotion, Doncaster, Rotherham, Peterborough are well resourced and organised and should have enough to fight for the play-offs. The result will squeeze a team like us. At the bottom also, some of the positions appear to have been established – Bury are already 12 points in the hole and facing relegation or extinction, Bolton may follow. Who knows what will happen with Coventry? In addition, there’s a batch of teams – Wycombe, Rochdale, Wimbledon, perhaps Accrington who will eventually succumb to relegation due to a lack of resources and are probably on borrowed time. For football in general, this is not good, but for us and our prospects, it should act as the cushion we need.

What is left are teams like us – struggling to go up, with too much to go down. It’s probably a reflection of who were are, maybe who we’ve always been – a reasonable third-level club. 

Getting out of that trajectory is going to require effort and money, and perhaps that’s where the season’s focus lies. What Michael Appleton started to build was largely destroyed by Pep Clotet, Karl Robinson has wrestled to establish a platform – let’s not forget, this is only his third transfer window. Success next season might be about creating foundations.

But, while foundations are sensible, where are we going to get our kicks? In the league, perhaps we’ll be a disruptor, derailing a couple of promotion bids, sending a team down, that kind of thing. The odd last minute win, a couple of big away days. We should probably hope for a bit of a cup adventure to lighten the mood. Perhaps even a decent shot at the Checkatrade Trophy.

The immediate challenge will be establishing a decent start. Last year’s was a disaster and it took months to recover. The season is long, so a tricky start doesn’t mean catastrophe, but with Sunderland and Peterborough (twice) in the opening week, a poor start might tip the sense of acceptance into one of frustration. Karl Robinson doesn’t need that pressure again. 

Looking at the Absolute State of Oxford United Survey and what fans are looking for from the season; we want financial stability; no more winding up orders, greater ownership from the board and a reduction of influence from Firoz Kassam. There were a number of comments about removing Karl Robinson, some want Michael Appleton back although not many saw Robinson’s sacking as a goal. A squad with a decent striker is a must with the aim of achieving somewhere between consistency and promotion, last year’s rollercoaster is not needed. However, above all this were two aims for the season – to sort the stadium out and have a clear achievable plan for the future, and, reignite lost passion for the club amongst fans. Both of these things are the hardest to achieve, but, if anything can be done on those fronts, then the club will have had a successful season.

Season preview 2018/2019

If there was anything to sum up our close-season it was this year’s kit launch. Last season we did that thing where we wore the new shirt on the last day of the previous season, it all seemed very professional and forward thinking. Even in less organised times, there was usually a time and place for such things – such as the family fun day.

This season the announcement dribbled out, apparently when the media team had a spare five minutes to knock up a gif to show it off. Most of the details had leaked out already – it would be made by Puma sponsored by Singha and with a new badge. When it finally arrived it looked good, although unlike recent seasons, it felt a like an off-the-peg template.

Then, someone pointed out that the trim looked decidedly black rather than blue. Those who had seen it strenuously assured everyone the trim was blue whilst simultaneously failing to produce a single photo to prove that fact. The Oxford shirt had become like that dress whose colours looked different to different people.

The gentle rumble of slightly missing the point typified the summer; the weather and World Cup were a distraction and it didn’t help that senior and U23 signings appeared to be treated similarly when announced. Rather than a slick rebuilding of the squad, everything felt effective, but slightly muddled and distracted.

In recent seasons there has been a distinct trend in who we signed – Michael Appleton’s template was young, talented under-23s from the Premier League, Pep Clotet signed a procession of exotic foreigners. Even Chris Wilder’s players were a type – dogged, professional, effective.

This year, Karl Robinson’s DNA has been less easy to define. To the surprise of nobody we lost Joe Rothwell and Ryan Ledson. To the surprise of everyone, Simon Eastwood signed a new contract. Luke Garbutt, Marcus Browne and Samir Carruthers are Appleton-style signings, Gavin Whyte and Cameron Norman – plucked from relative obscurity – are a brief stint playing for Malmo from being Clotet-esque. Experienced pros like Tony McMahon and Jamie Mackie are almost template Chris Wilder signings. Carutthers and Ricky Holmes actually are Chris Wilder signings.

In squad-building terms, perhaps the watchword should be ‘balance’. Even during the Appleton years, we sometimes lacked experience, Wilder’s signings were never going to command big fees. So having a bit of everything is welcome.

As fans wondered whether England would be bringing ‘home’ a trophy designed by an Italian for a tournament invented by the French and run by the Swiss we headed to Ireland for our annual tour. Unlike previous years, which were major PR coups, this year’s tour was more about preparing the players than revving the fans up. It was sort of like the past, while at the same time, not quite like the past.

So, how prepared are we? It’s hard to say, results seem to have gone well and we have no injuries. The signings of Sam Smith and Ricky Holmes represent a strong summer. Karl Robinson knows what he’s doing and he seems to have been allowed to prepare the squad in the was that he believes is right.

Behind the scenes, you get a sense the club is still trying to find its feet under the new owners – the new training ground is on its way, we’ve lined up a significant sponsor, but communications, as illustrated by the kit launch still seem disjointed, which is typically due to poor decision making rather than poor communications. It’s hard to say whether the players we’ve signed were on Robinson’s A-list, although he seemed to hint that approvals and money were, perhaps, not quite as available as he’d like. Although, perhaps all managers are like that.

How will we do? Despite their many problems (whilst also accepting they may not have hit rock bottom) it’s difficult to rule out Sunderland as challenging for promotion. Of the other teams relegated, neither Barnsley nor Burton seem likely to be more or less of a threat than the teams they replaced. Of the teams who came up; Accrington and Wycombe will probably be happy to stay up, Luton will share similar ambitions to us and, given all their problems, Coventry will probably be pleased to stay where they are. In simple terms, the new teams appear slightly weaker than those they replaced.

Of the remaining teams, all could finish anywhere in the table – Shrewsbury may continue where they left off last year, but could also get relegated, Plymouth, Southend, Bristol Rovers all fall into that bracket. Wimbledon are, perhaps, the only team who you feel are more likely to struggle than go up.

So, ultimately we sit in a significant bunch of teams equally capable of pushing for the play-offs or getting it horribly wrong and being dragged into relegation. Karl Robinson’s experience, our (hopefully) financial security and a solid set of new signings should all play to our advantage. In our first season in League 1 it felt like we were in an elephants’ graveyard of big clubs who had fallen on hard times. Though it was never supposed to be, last year was a transition. This year feels like we’re part of League 1 – able to compete as equals. If we’ve ditched any feeling of insecurity, and we’re prepared and able to compete, we’ve got a very good chance of making the play-offs.

2017/18 season preview

Where are we? If 2015/16 was the start of a passionate romance with a new and refreshed Oxford United and last season was the warm contentment of early marriage, who knows where next season will take us? Some are still seeking that buzz of those early days and anything other than complete satisfaction is a compromise with the only solution being divorce. Others are happy to settle into our new role making steady, positive progress; a lifetime of commitment and togetherness.

This summer has been one of soul searching. There was the brief glimmer of hope that we might be fast tracked to the Premier League via the billions from Juan Satori only to see it dashed, then just as we settled into the idea that this wasn’t going to happen Michael Appleton was plucked from our grasp and now we have Pep Clotet in charge.

Having started the summer with a great English owner and a great English manager, we might have ended with a Uruguayan giving Russian money to a Spaniard to propel us forward. How strangely modern.

What is perhaps most perplexing about this is the fans’ reaction to these things. To date, our English success story has been something that many have been proud of. But these same people are suddenly devastated that the club’s progress appears to have been checked because we haven’t sold out to foreigners. More oddly, the villain in all of this is Darryl Eales, the man who drinks with fans in pubs and watches away games in the away end and was, a few months ago, considered the best owner you could hope for.

League 1 is an elephant’s graveyard of team’s whose ambition and greed have overwhelmed them; last year we had Coventry and Bolton – who headed off in different directions – this year it’s Wigan, Charlton, Blackburn, Blackpool and Portsmouth. All teams who have hit the peak of the Premier League before collapsing under the strain.

Having consolidated our place in League 1 last year and sniffed the feint whiff of the Championship, an impatience to progress not only to the division above, but beyond has started to eat away. Eales, himself impatient to progress, has in some eyes, become the block, first by not accepting Sartori’s money, then by allowing Appleton to leave and finally, by not splurging a bottomless pit of money on players.

To some extent, this is fair enough; all clubs in our position are standing on a burning platform – Chris Maguire, Liam Sercombe, John Lundstram and Joe Skarz have all gone. Marvin Johnson could well join them before the end of August. We have to keep replenishing the stocks with at least equal to what we have to survive, let alone move forward.

But the truth around Sartori and Appleton, I suspect, is far more simple than Eales activating some long dormant masterplan of destruction. Sartori’s offer, if there was one, was not an improvement on what Eales could offer and Appleton saw a rare opportunity to progress his career and simply took it. We are a club that is strong enough to not become distracted by a billionaire’s bank balance, but not strong enough to withstand the lure of a Premier League club. To me, that feels a decent summary of our current position.

The club’s summer plans were slowed by Sartori’s advances and then by Appleton’s departure. Its infrastructure simply isn’t big enough to continue unabated, but nor is it going to be destroyed by such things. Pep Clotet appears a solid appointment as does the signings we’ve made to date. Far from going backwards, we’re probably about where we were on the last day of last season, just behind where we wanted to be and a long way behind the vision that some fans have as a result of their rampant and unreasonable imaginations. 

The problem, therefore, is that we don’t currently have a shared vision for the club, some remain happy that we’re a League 1 club and will consider a similar season to last year as a success, others  want us squaring up against Paris St Germain in the Champions League by 2020.

Had we been able to hold onto Michael Appleton, then we might be a couple of signings ahead of where we are today, one of those could have been Chris Maguire and most fans would have been happy with that. I suspect the Lundstram deal would have been a no brainer either way. If that had been the case, then I would have set our sights at promotion next year. Given that we have been hit unexpectedly by delaying, but not destroying factors, then something steadier might be more realistic. If, come May, we have finish in the play-offs, then I think we should consider that a good season.

Season preview 2016/17

When the Referendum result was announced and the country descended into a turmoil, a friend of mine predicted that things would probably settle down once the new season started. It’s true, football isn’t the most important thing in the world, but it’s the most important of the least important things and its regularity provides a reassurance that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So we welcome back the new season this weekend with a slightly tighter hug than we might otherwise do. But, even on planet Oxford the summer has been both familiar and strange at the same time. Obviously there was the immediate but unfamiliar euphoria of promotion and the prospect of being in a higher division; this was quickly off-set by a slew of departures and, initially, few signings. And then there was a trip to Spain, a new kit and some premium friendlies. All the things you expect from a summer, but just, in some way, different.

Last year, the summer started at breakneck speed. The club announced that season tickets would be credit cards and we thought we’d been thrust into the future. Then we changed the pitch, jettisoned London Welsh and signed Kemar Roofe. And it just kept going, to Austria and Wembley and promotion and beyond. 

Things haven’t felt quite as pioneering this year, the trip to Spain was like a new Stone Roses album, it had all the familiar elements, but it was less spontaneous and instinctive, a little bit too knowing. That’s OK, only good can come from a ‘club holiday’ in terms of PR and simply having a good time, but it will never quite be the same as the original.

An honourable mention should also go to OxVox’s One of our Own campaign. I’ve always wondered what the real purpose of a supporter’s trust is, they might represent the fans, but that only means something when someone is listening. Otherwise, it’s just a group of fans convincing each other that things would be better if the bar served proper real ale. To take on a campaign to provide season tickets for less-fortunate children and their carers is beyond admirable. If the trust’s roles is to retain the conceptual ‘heart’ of the club, then this is a perfect demonstration of what the club should stand for.

The club seemed to struggle last year with arranging the manufacture of their own kit, so this year’s early release feels like a step forward. Both home and away are excellent designs feels like a big step forward in every sense. Talking of big steps forward, here’s one tiny step back; with three days to go until the new season, we have no season tickets, hmm.

The signings were slow coming, but that ignores three things. The first is that all managers want to get their business done early (because the alternative is to get it done late) so that’s no measure of success, it also ignores that football goes on holiday in May and many contracts don’t run out until the end of June, the other thing is that fans have a tendency to compare our activity to the accumulated activity of every other club in the country, so it will always look like your less active than everyone else put together.

When the first signing did come, it was underwhelming. One commented that he hoped Simon Eastwood would be better second time around, which is pretty mean spirited given that he was a teenager and didn’t play a single game for us in his first spell. We were, and still are, overburdened with goalkeepers, none of which are fully The Solution,

After that the signings picked up in frequency and quality. Culminating, perhaps, with the signing of Curtis Davies, which caused Kemar Roofe levels of hysteria.

The departures were more gut-wrenching, they always are after a promotion. It seems so unfair to lose the very players who you were lauding a few weeks earlier. Johnny Mullins was released, which felt harsh but was understandable. Danny Hylton rejected a contract to go to Luton, not for the money, ahem. My guess is that his new offer was probably half-hearted. Both the Roofe and O’Dowda deals looked to favour us and the loss of Jake Wright was similarly surprising but understandable given how overloaded we became with central defenders.

The net result is a fundamentally different squad to the one we had in May, but at the same time, it feels like the core-DNA has been retained. The relationship between club and fans remains strong; the signings retain the core qualities of previous successes.

Should we read anything into friendlies? Where we were once a decent draw for non-league teams, we’re now a good run-out for the top teams. Playing the champions of England and Brighton, who were nearly promoted to the Premier League hardly represents a benchmark for League 1. That said, with so many new players, it seems likely that we may get off to a slower start this season.

What should we be expecting from the season? Last year promotion was a requirement, it was a new regime, but we’d waited too long for progress and we lost a year to complete turmoil. This year I’m more relaxed, look at the division and you’ll see a smattering very large teams which should occupy the promotion slots – Sheffield United, MK Dons, Bolton, Coventry, Millwall and so on. I would be happy if we were nestled in behind that group, either just in or out of the play-off slots.

Season preview: And now… The Football

Amidst a blizzard of announcements, improvements and launches, Mark Ashton’s assertion that he was creating an ‘no-excuse environment’ at Oxford United was a little lost in the noise. This is classic Ashton management-speak but for me it is slightly different to talking about ‘DNAs’ and getting unknown executives to write options papers about smoking around the ground; this time it means something.

Management is the art of removing excuses for failure. The job is to create the environment – the objectives, the funding and the autonomy that allows individuals to succeed in what they do. If you tell a team to go on the attack when 1-0 up with five minutes to go, there is a ready-made excuse for when you’re caught on the break. If you have a bad pitch, there’s an excuse for not passing the ball properly. If you remove that and assume everyone does their job properly, success should be assured.

Michael Appleton has been given the funding for players, a pitch to play on and an infrastructure to support him. Tickets have been reduced and are easier than ever to buy. The excuses for failure from a fan, player and management perspective are being systematically removed.

This is all good stuff; great stuff even. I wouldn’t say we were in our best pre-season shape since coming back to the Football League – the year we signed Peter Leven, Michael Duberry and Andy Whing has to be up there; but we’re close. Now, it’s time to deliver.

The bookies are convinced; in some quarters we’re favourites for the title. But, then again, Portsmouth are also up there despite a woeful couple of seasons and little evidence that they have yet to recover from the shock of the last few years.

We shouldn’t get too carried away with this; this is part guesswork and part maths – larger clubs will tend to attract more interest and bookies will reduce their price to encourage a wider range of bets to reduce risk. Once the Oxford bandwagon started – particularly with a lot of high profile early signings – the bets were likely to come in forcing the odds to shorten. The bookies are frequently viewed as great soothsayers and very much ‘in the know’, but their businesses are built on more than the football equivalent of water divining.

Pre-season is supposed to give some indication; we’ve had a good pre-season, but the benchmark – that is who we’ve played and the results we’ve gained – is a difficult gauge. We comfortably beat Eastleigh, a decent Conference team who you might expect to be upping their game when playing a league team. We drew with and outplayed Coventry, a team above us, but nothing like the force their name might suggest. For all we know we could have been playing teams destined for relegation, who knows?

And then there are the subjective assessments – what does the squad look like? I don’t think we’ve lost anyone last season that we wouldn’t want to lose. Ryan Clarke, yes, but he has been replaced and Andy Whing, although by everyone’s admission, that would be more the Andy Whing of 2-3 years ago.

Sercombe, Roofe, Slocombe and Taylor have come in with solid pedigree, and join what was the best of last year’s squad. There’s no doubt, in my mind, on average we have better players than we did at this time last year.

But, will they gel and are there enough of them? Those are big unknowns. My gut feeling is that we’re lacking numbers; although I couldn’t tell you where – midfield probably – I can name our strongest back five, and a number of capable combinations up front. Could I say with confidence that we have a capable midfield with options? I can’t name it, so no.

The gelling has to come from Michael Appleton and he remains the biggest unknown of the lot. Clearly a lot of people believe in him, although the evidence is heavily stacked against him, not just at Oxford, but everywhere he’s been. A theoretician and a student of the game, yes. But does that always win games? Evidently, no. I’ve said before that we’ve no choice but to back him, but I’m not convinced, yet, that he’ll deliver what we want.

And what do we want? It has to be promotion – via the play-offs or automatically; there’s just no point in putting all this effort in and going for a marginal improvement on last year. We effectively lost a year last season; it’s 5 years since we returned to League 2 and 14 since we were last in League 1. There’s a point where we have to make the breakthrough. Under Ian Lenagan, we were more cautious and long term incremental growth seemed a reasonable, if unremarkable, ambition. But this is a different strategy – it’s aggressive and fast moving. I’ve said before, if you come in aggressively, you’ve got to succeed aggressively. Being charitable, we can write last year off as transitional; this year, there are no excuses.

Oxford United 2014: Who are we?

Around this time of year I’m often asked by fellow bloggers to provide some kind of season preview for our club. The ask all the usual questions; best signing, prospects for the season, that kind of thing. They never ask the most important question; just who are Oxford United in 2014?

Richard Starkey, in his book Crown and Country, nails in the space of the opening few pages, a pro-monarchy argument I’ve been trying, and failing, to formulate for years. He argues that anti-monarchists are pre-occupied with the Royal Family. They believe them to be too rich, privileged, unaccountable and detached from mainstream society. But that supposes the family have any real choice in their role within the wider monarchic institution. In actuality, the Royal Family subscribe to their cosseted world, not because they see the riches it brings, but because they legally and constitutionally have no other choice. The monarchy is a corporation of which the family is its ‘brand’.

The monarchy, he argues, rightly in my view, is the organisation which holds the ideas and concepts that make us British; the keeper of our rambling evolving, and hugely robust cultural constitution. Take marriage, for example, the British concept of marriage is a melting pot of the French idea of romance, the old English idea of it being a way of dealing with practical issues like having babies and acquiring and protecting land and Germanic concepts of class – that we typically marry within our own ‘status’. The monarchy is where these concepts actually met and formed. If it hadn’t, then marriage in Britain today would be predominantly loveless, practical and arranged – a very un-British thing.

So, while we obsess over the royal family and its supposed riches, its actual purpose is frequently overlooked.

As we sit on the brink of a new season, we might well question what Oxford United is in 2014. It is too simple to say that Oxford are just a football club; early in the close season, after a turgid end to the last campaign, there was much hand-wringing as to why we should all leap to renew our season tickets. I renewed mine primarily out of habit; I knew when it came to it, i would regret it if I didn’t; but ultimately it wasn’t a rational or considered decision.

Others didn’t feel the same; some of the most loyal and thoughtful fans chose not to renew; not reactionary types or Johnny go-lightly’s; rational, intelligent and loyal people. Could I muster a rational and intelligent idea as to why they should? I eventually concluded that the only argument that I could muster was that this is a football club and that your season ticket is your membership subscription.

Of course, that argument only holds water to some degree. Yes, we’re a club because we’re only as strong as our ‘members’. But our membership doesn’t give us any rights. That’s because football club’s gave up on being traditional ‘clubs’ decades ago. I can almost pinpoint when Oxford United ceased being a club; I have a club handbook from 1982/3, possibly the last of its kind to be produced. It is full of clubby type news, like the state of the club’s finances. Within months Robert Maxwell had taken over at which point we ceased being a club, we were part of a rich man’s investment portfolio.

It’s difficult to fully understand Robert Maxwell’s motivation for taking over Oxford United; perhaps he was being genuinely altruistic towards a local institution in peril; supporting it as he might a charitable trust protecting an old church. But Maxwell would have struggled to resist his natural business urges. He foresaw football’s attractiveness to TV a decade before the Premier League came into being. He also fought hard, without success, to re-home the club because there was money to be made from new facilities. What he did exploit, however, was the power of a football club as a vehicle for advertising.

Maxwell bought up Oxford just as shirt sponsorship became fashionable; and he used the new liberalisation of rules around that to publicise a number of his businesses; Pergamon Press, BPCC and the Sunday People were all in Maxwell’s stable. It seems unlikely that any cash exchanged hands for their logos to appear on our shirts. Even in the 1st Division, with the club at their most marketable, the fabled Wang sponsor was, in fact, a contra arrangement where The Mirror Group got a discount from the computing firm in return for some in-kind shirt promotion. When people ask what happened to the money we earned during the Glory Years, the answer is probably that there wasn’t any.

Some thirty years later and we see the same coming again. Last year the yellow shirt was adorned with the legend Animalates; a start-up or franchise owned by Ian Lenagan. There appeared to be no cash involved; it was just that the club offered a national and local platform to promote another of Lenagan’s businesses. And now, the dubiously entitled ‘Round n Black’ will be blazoned across this season’s shirt. This is a company which currently doesn’t even appear to operate, but which lists Darryl Eales as a director. I am probably over simplifying things; but essentially the club gains nothing from this deal but Eales earns some free national advertising. And in essence, football is simply a platform for people to advertise their wares. And Oxford specifically quite often has just been a billboard to promote its owners other business interests.

It’s not all bad; United in Business and United We Achieve are two initiatives which, in concept at least, seem to position the club at the centre of local Oxford society; which is where the club should be, in my view. It is a rare institution which brings together the professional and working classes on an equal footing, but football club’s can do just that.

But, in 2014, Oxford United’s real purpose in life is as a pawn in a land deal; a position it has held, more or less, for more than a decade. Firoz Kassam, of course, profited hugely from buying up the bankrupt club and more importantly its valuable real-estate and selling it on for a healthy profit. There are few businesses that can survive the hardships that football clubs survive, particularly when there is a bankable asset available to be liquidated, as The Manor was. Had this been a conventional business, it would have been wound up and its assets sold off years before Kassam got hold of it and years before the Manor was worth so much. So Kassam was lucky enough, or wise enough, to spot that a bankrupt business sitting on a pot of gold that the banks and other creditors feared to close. He then used the self-same power of the Oxford brand to bully through planning permission for the stadium releasing the value of The Manor and making him an increasingly rich man.His argument at the time was that he was the man with the balls to do the deal, so he should profit. Unarguable in some senses, but you could run the same argument about people who get rich human trafficking, drug dealing or tricking old ladies out of their life savings – if you’ve got the balls, then why shouldn’t you get the spoils. But is it right?

For a period, it felt like we might actually become a sporting institution again; Ian Lenagan may or may not have been a ‘football man’ but he was certainly a sporting one. He never managed to do the big land deal at the heart of the club; either because it wasn’t a priority or because he simply couldn’t raise the funds to do it. But the benefit was that football became the focus of attention. That was particularly true during Kelvin Thomas’ time, when the players and fans seemed, literally, united behind a single, footballing cause. It’s why I’m a Lenagan fan and, therefore, a Wilder fan. But, you know, move on.

Even latterly, however, football has come first with the investment in the youth system which has paid some dividends.

This summer has seen the emphasis shift again; Eales and Ashton are in place, and the land deal is back on; and currently the club exists as a key part in the execution of that. I may be wrong; but I don’t think I am. I’m not suggesting that Eales wishes for the club to perish, in the same way that I don’t believe Kassam set out for it to either; it’s just that football is not the priority. There have been some good signs; Ashton for all his reputation is dedicated full-time to the job, which Lenagan wasn’t, and he has a football background – if that counts for anything. Appleton, I can’t pass judgement on, he could be a knowing or unknowing stooge in the whole thing or he could be the next bright young thing – although we’ve had a few of them over the years. Derek Fazackerly’s appointment does appear to be a positive in the summer’s maelstrom; although it was Kassam who brought in Ray Harford and Joe Kinnear as respected names in the game whose impact came to nought. Some of the signs are good, no doubt, but what Eales wants to achieve with the football side of things remains unclear; player investment to date has been under-whelming or at least on a par with the previous regime. There have been view clear statement on the playing strategy going forward.

The suggestion that the club may be about to issue a million non-voting shares is a good one, overdue and also welcome. Granted, there’s no rational reason to buy such stock in a football club. Essentially a non-voting share is an investment in a company’s future profit which is paid as a dividend to the investor. The idea that Oxford might one day return a healthy enough profit to pay a dividend to its shareholders seems remote. But even if the investment case is not a strong one, the availability of shares allows the fans the opportunity to feel they are investing in the club as members rather than just buying merchandise and tickets as customers is a good thing.

So there we have it; on the brink of another season and the club exists again, primarily to secure land and secondary; to play football. Maybe I need some actual football to distract me, but it makes me wonder whether this blog has actually helped me figure out the purpose of the club, and in fact, any football club. I have a friend who loves films; after a while he worked out that there was a formulae to the stories told in films, at which point he became interested in what went into stories; the storyboarding, the structure, the technology, the logistics and the economics. When he figured out that formulae he began to realise that the magic of films had been lost to him. Film making was, like everything else; a business driving out risk by formalising its practice. Perhaps ultimately I’m beginning to realise that at the top end of the game, football is about advertising and at the bottom end it’s about land. It is rarely about football. So, will we see some footballing magic in the next 12 months? Will we reignite a long lost fire? Or will we slowly realise that football barely registers as the primary reason that Oxford United exists at all.

Season Preview – Part Three

So, here we are, the dawn of another season. May feels a long way off, so Oxblogger has decided to get into his patented time machine and travel through the year to find out what’s going to happen…

The season opens in glorious sunshine with a win, and the messageboards light up hailing the performance of one of the new signings. A tough draw at Cambridge is followed by defeat at Burton. The messageboards light up again; pointing out, rather obviously, that we didn’t lose for the first 19 games last season. There are dark rumblings about relegation, seven days after the season starts.

By the time the leaves on the trees start to turn brown we’re nestled in 5th, the messageboards are swarming with jubilant Droysden fans who are sitting top of the tree after winning their first nine games. One irritant calling himself “DFC4ever” posts 900 times in a week.

Early winter sees little improvement; home form is OK, but away form is patchy. Messageboards light up with rumours that Jim Smith is alcoholic/has his favourite players who are all rubbish/was seen buying paper down his local newsagent when he should have been scouting for talent or something.

Nick Merry goes onto Radio Oxford to tell fans that things are progressing with the stadium purchase. He means that he’s found the scrap of paper with Firoz’s phone number on. Still, most fans stare at the radios in awe at the news before heading for the messageboards. Somebody does a very detailed analysis of the potential purchase of the ground, but nobody replies because they don’t understand it.

A week before the transfer window opens the messageboards light up with news that ageing an Premiership striker (Ian Rush according to some) is in talks. A bloke down the pub works closely with someone whose wife cleans the ticket office. It turns out that it was Malcolm Christie and he’s been lined up for the next Sportsman’s Dinner.

The transfer window opens, a day later the messageboards are alight with complaints that we haven’t signed anyone. Then someone announces that Paul Powell is in talks. Salisbury sign someone somebody has vaguely heard of and the messageboards melt with questions as to why we can’t sign anyone like that. Christmas sees a big double-header against Crawley. Two wins sees us up to third taking over from Droylsden who haven’t taken a point in 14 games. We sign someone Jim Smith worked with at Portsmouth (though not Harry Redknapp).

Play in Setanta Shield, go out of Setanta Shield, play in FA Trophy, go out of FA Trophy. Draw Walsall in the Cup and sell out our end at the Bescott; a late equaliser from Rob Duffy takes us back to the Kassam where amongst great expectation (and a potential home draw against Leeds) we go down 1-4. Chris Tardif goes on record to say he’s happy to bide his time waiting for another club to come in.

Things are looking up in the league. Undefeated throughout January and February, including a 6-0 drubbing of Droylsden (sending them into the relegation zone) we’re now in second behind Torquay. In early April we head down to the English Riviera for a top v second clash transmitted live on Setanta. As a result the game has been moved to the Thursday night. But Saturday’s scheduled game with Farsley has been moved to back to the same time to accommodate our live game at Woking, which has been moved to Sunday. Farsley fans, who weren’t told about the change, turn up to find the Kassam empty so they go and watch the 9th instalment of a 90’s blockbuster at Vue cinema.

We outplay Torquay and romp home 3-0, 1200 fans have made the trip, although 8,500 people are claiming to have been there on the messageboards the next day. During the game, in which we play in blue, fans sing ‘Are we Chelsea in disguise’ to which some wag shouts ‘Not much of a disguise’. We’re up to our ankles in bonhomie.

The Farsley game is eventually played in front of the biggest crowd in the season. Everyone is expecting a jubilant romp, but we labour and go down to a near post corner scored by the fattest man ever to have played at the Kassam. He runs, best he can, in front of the Oxford Mail Stand with one fist in the air. Something appears to be moving in the North Stand; it might be the away fans, but it could also be an escaped cat. The stewards pile in regardless.

After Farsley, in which all fan-sites including this one, refer to it as Farce-ly, things get back on track with a couple of wins on the bounce. The messageboards light up saying that Jim Smith was seen falling out of a pub in Woodstock. Everyone says he deserves it because he’s a genius.

We go to Ebbsfleet needing a draw for the championship. Wild predictions from the messageboards say that we’ll score between 9 and 13 because everyone has forgotten that Ebbsfleet were Gravesend and Northfleet last season and think they’re some village team. We go a goal down in the first half. But then so do Torquay just before half time. If it stays like this we’ll be champions. We get bogged down early in the second half until Yemi is brought on. He runs riot scoring two, the second one he weaves his way through the Ebbsfleet back line, slots the ball home and keeps weaving off into the travelling faithful. He’s immediately substituted because someone has stuffed him up his jumper as a momentum and legged it. The final whistle goes and we’re champions. Nick Harris, giddy with the excitement, announces that he and Jerome Sale are happily living as a gay couple. Nick Merry throws his hair into the crowd and Billy Turley does an unimaginative Elvis dance in front of the fans. Great days.

Season Preview – Part Two

The end of last season deflated me; I never expected it to be an easy ride, but nor did I expect to be a Conference team for more than a season. I didn’t think we had a God given right to promotion, when you’ve supported a league club for so long – it’s difficult to get that idea out of your system in 12 months. We are a league club; we’re just in the wrong league. As daft as that concept sounds, its how I feel.

This is not arrogance; hopefully it keeps us on our toes. A league club in the Conference is failing. The point at which we start aspiring to be a league club (rather than requiring the status) is the point at which our standards drop.

The squad has been amended rather than overhauled, there’s been evolution not revolution. This is a good thing; it also looks more solid now the Premiership has-beens have gone and Burgess, the fanciest of all the Dans, has departed to misplace raking cross-field passes elsewhere.

There’s much to look forward to; we are still the powerhouse of the division and we should expect to be battling it out at the top. The season crescendo should involve either promotion or at least the play-offs. It seems inconceivable that we will finish below 5th.

I’m quite looking forward to Aldershot’s return; who offered as much of a carnival atmosphere as the Conference can muster. That and the St Albans game were probably the two most enjoyable games of the season. Generally speaking the games last season were a refreshing change from the slow death tedium of our last few league years.

The other thing to look forward to is ConfGuide, which offers a flood of statistics and information, which can be analysed and cut in any way you want. What’s more, we always look good on it; especially when it comes to attendances.

It’s not likely to be all good; the league has sold its soul to Setanta and we’re the biggest of all its victims so far. We’re already had something like 8 games changed because of them – that’s 20% of our season fiddled around with and we haven’t even started. We’re being tossed around like a rag doll. What’s more, we’re expected to play in the Setanta Shield – which is designed to fill airtime, but just adds games and expense with little or no value.

And, above all for all the enjoyment that we might get in the coming season, we’re still a conference team, non-league. For all the wins and pushing for promotion, we’re still in ‘fail’ mode and that’s just depressing.

Season Preview – Part One

In the Good Old Days – the days that you don’t remember clearly – the close season was very different to how it is now. News emanating from the club was virtually nil; the odd by-line in the local press about a signing or where our latest golden boy was heading, but not much else. The summer was spent playing cricket and generally mucking about.

My family used to travel around Europe during the summer; the only contact we had with home was the World Service. The chances of Oxford news coming through that was next to nothing (apart from the second half of our Division 1 debut versus West Brom, which was listened to on the beach at Lake Trasimeno).

The silence made the heart grow fonder. The opening game of the new season was exciting because everything was refreshed; the team, the kits, even the existing players had a tanned sheen from an exotic holiday in Magaluf.

Even giants of the Blue Square like ourselves are now subject to wall-to-wall, hour-by-hour close season news. New signings don’t arrive like mysterious wonders, we watch them from the first bung payment through the humiliation of being ‘on-trial’ to signature. Not being able to escape means that the new season arrives when you’re still looking trying to get away from supporting the club and all the horrors this entails.

Still, it’s been a quieter close season than normal and with promising friendly results following tonight’s 1-0 win against Birmingham, means, for the first time I’m approaching Saturday’s curtain raiser with a renewed sense of vigour.