Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Eales versus the world

For a such a happy go lucky man of the people, Darryl Eales seems to be picking a lot of fights at the moment.

First there was a bit of a to-do about flags, then the spat with the City Council over the development of Horspath as a potential training base for the club, then there was the scrap over the pace of the deal being forged between Oxvox and Firoz Kassam for the stadium.

The good news is that the club is focusing on the right things. Investing in the players is fun but its short term fun. If you’re losing £1m a year, success is short-term and eventually you’ll pay, and that’s no fun at all.

The club needs to invest in its infrastructure to build a sustainable future; increased focus on the stadium and training facilities cannot be more welcome.

The other good news is that there seems to be a growing realisation that sports provision in Oxford is inadequate. It’s a middle-class problem, but if there's going to be significant amounts of development in the city as part of the proposed "brain belt", then services need to keep up. For a city as thriving and affluent as Oxford; sports provision seems wanting.

Even Ian Hudspeth, the leader of the County Council seems to recognise this; quite a departure for a council bigwig to recognise that there is more to the city than students and academics. Sadly his City counterpart Bob Price is less ambitious given his apparent view that all this is really just a bit of a shame.

One of the surprising things about this, however, are the tactics that Darryl Eales is using to try and get things moving.

The club's response to the Horspath decision wasn't the best. It focussed on how important the facility would be to the club and its ambitions, ignoring the council's requirement to spend tax payers’ money wisely for the public's benefit. The council cited the club’s historical financial viability and lack of experience, both of which are quite reasonable points, but the club should also have made a much greater play on its potential for attracting others into the scheme as a community service.

Then, there was the statement around the speed of progress on the stadium purchase. On this, Eales is right, OxVox’s claim that it's going to take five months to get a heads of agreement signed is baffling. Why will it take so long? In simple terms, if you have a buyer and seller and a price, the rest is details. It shouldn’t take five months to reach an agreement in principle when negotiations have been going on for two months, at least, already.

So, do we have a buyer, seller and a price? Well, the buyer is notionally OxVox and they’re definitely keen. I’ve done the maths; 800 members paying about £3 each a year gives them about £2,400 to throw at the deal, which leaves them about £11.997m short of the supposed asking price. So who else is pitching up money? And more importantly, is this the problem?

And then there's the seller. Let’s make no bones about it; Firoz Kassam is a funny chap. He is extraordinarily successful which, of course, brings its own issues. People like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage point to their financial success as justification of being ‘right’ about the world. Success can do that to you. It’s not just looney right-wingers; look at Bono, Bill Gates and Richard Branson; all have unimaginable success which can, in their own heads, legitimise their view of the world.

There’s a psychopathy that goes along with extraordinary success. Without it, you wouldn’t take the actions, risks and decisions you might without a heightened sense of your own ability and, often, a reduced sense what impact it might have on others.

For example, Kassam made his money as a 'slum landlord', housing the homeless in his hotels; a ethically challenging line of work. But he has been able to justify it in terms of the money he has. The £6 million he personally made from the sale of The Manor was, in his view, deserved because he took risks that others wouldn’t. That’s true, but to hold that view you also have to dampen any moral opinion you might have that, perhaps, the club should also have benefited from the sale of the asset it had owned for over eighty years and he had owned for about two.

So, Kassam may be a money-grabbing bastard with no moral sense. However, outwardly he makes periodic claims he feels a moral obligation to protect the club. It’s not one to rule out completely. Even during the darkest times during his tenure he parked his green Bentley in front of the stadium on a match day. Not exactly the actions of someone who didn’t feel commitment to the club and was happy to hide. Or maybe it was the actions of a man with a rampant ego.

Is Kassam just toying with OxVox? Maybe, it fits with the convenient view that he is some kind of Dick Dastardly character. But a man who has made as much money as him doesn’t strike me as someone who wastes time playing games just for the sake of it.

Oxvox seem pretty adamant that a deal is being put together, and it might be just a question of finding meeting time with Kassam, other interested parties and the various experts they might need to progress things, Oxvox are doing all this stuff part-time, after all.

It is possible that Kassam has developed a god-complex over the club, that he believed only he knows truly what is good for it. It may also be the case that he’s simply looking for someone to truly recognise what he’s achieved with the stadium. Nothing he has done comes easily; it’s one of the things frequently overlooked about rich people – they can be odious and ostentatious and their moral compass may be constantly skewed, but it is rare that their money has been easy to come by. Look at it from Kassam’s perspective, he’s built a football stadium, something nobody had achieved in Oxford for nearly a century and yet he is painted as evil and an anchor to the club’s future success. Maybe trusting people associated with the club is more difficult for him because he feels taken for granted or that his legacy will be trashed once he has gone. It probably doesn't help that the club refer to the stadium as 'Grenoble Road' effectively wiping him from history.

But broadsiding everyone as Eales has been doing is a strange thing to do when there is such a delicate game of politics to play. So, what is he playing at?

It seems unlikely that after a successful career making lots of money and a couple of years turning the club around, that he has suddenly lost his mind. One of his great strengths is his emotional intelligence and empathy towards fans. He too may be frustrated that despite everything he’s done for the club he still can’t get himself a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the future of sport in the city. It’s that god complex again, but it's understandable, the university boat crew aside, Oxford United is the biggest sports name in town and we seem to have a minority say in what happens in the city. It's difficult to imagine the university not having a say in the development of higher education in Oxford or BMW not having a place at the table when talking about employment and economic development. Why are the club being left out when it comes to sport?

Or, maybe it’s cleverer than that and he’s putting pressure on OxVox to pull their finger out; Ian Hudspeth implied last week that developing a world class facility at Water Eaton is something that should be pursued. Eales needs to know which bus to hop on and farting around may not work for him in terms of making that decision.

Perhaps, even, Eales is acting as the unofficial mouthpiece for a frustrated OxVox. It seems very unlikely that they haven’t spoken informally about the future of the ground and relations between the trust and club are supposed to be good. The trust are keeping schtum, which doesn't mean anything, either way, but they've got a lot to lose if they're seen as causing problems, maybe a grumpy tenant threatening to walk away is something that will move things along.

What seems unlikely is that Eales is ready to simply torpedo Oxvox out of the negotiations out of sheer frustration, things are likely to be more complicated than that. One thing is certain in that it seems like the opportunity has never been greater for the club and the city more generally to resolve the issue once and for all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Rotherham wrap - Rotherham 2 Oxford United 3

Stuart Massey, Simon Clist, Scott Rendell; great moments have unsung heroes.

In 1996, with Chris Allen going all starry eyed at Nottingham Forest, Stuart Massey – his less thrilling more battle worn replacement - started demanding the ball on the ground so he could put quality crosses in. Suddenly we stopped lumping balls forward. It was decisive in us winning promotion even though history has largely forgotten him.

In 2010, Simon Clist did simple things well giving Adam Murphy and Adam Chapman licence to create things for James Constable, Jack Midson and Matt Green. It took us all the way to Wembley and all that.

Scott Rendell’s performance against Swindon in 2012 will also be forgotten by many, but his immense shift after James Constable had been sent off at the Kassam was key to a famous win.

In a squad that has many songs sung about it, Ryan Taylor is, quite literally, unsung. Since returning to the side as sub against Walsall, he has been integral to back-to-back away wins. A goal and much more against Rotherham on Saturday demonstrated what a key asset he can be.

Taylor is frequently overlooked when it comes to our successes. He isn’t irreplaceable or even a guaranteed starter, but he offers something others don’t; quality on the ball and a presence up front.

I’ve always felt that Michael Appleton’s preferred system is one which uses a big forward with a good touch to bring attacking midfielders into the game rather than one that necessarily scores 25 goals a year himself. Taylor, if he stays fit, could be that man.

Being an unsung hero requires a special kind of dedication. It’s a necessary job, but one that, by definition, is seldom recognised. There is a certain satisfaction in completing something successfully but Taylor plays a role that requires you to be battered around continuously and made to look like an oaf, he can be hauled off after an hour exhausted and not having had a shot on goal, but that’s not to say he hasn’t done his job. Watch what Kane Hemmings did for the last goal on Saturday – Taylor laid the groundwork for that.

Watch also, for example, Kemar Roofe’s first goal against Swansea last year. It’s Taylor who brings the ball down and lays it off to Roofe, but having laid it off he heads into the box pulling defenders with him giving Roofe the space to get his shot away. Look also at Taylor’s immediate reaction; while Roofe heads of in celebration, Taylor jogs on head down as if he knows he’s done a good job, but that he also knows nobody will remember his contribution.

Few fans really appreciate the work of people like Taylor when they’re at the club, it’s only when they leave and you truly see what’s missing do you start to pine. I guess it’s just the way of the unsung hero.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Michael Appleton - England Manager?

Amongst some idle speculation about players coming into the club, news emerged this week that Michael Appleton had been installed as favourite for the England Under-21 job. This picked up momentum in the echo-chamber of social media to the point of people dissecting his every word to try and figure out the truth. However, if you step out of the Oxford United hashtag, there is very little coverage of the story.

Being a bookies’ favourite is often seen as a sign of increased certainty, but in fact it’s a reflection of the betting market. If a few people start putting money on a particular option, the odds narrow to reduce the betting company’s risk of having to pay out big money. If an option is being ignored, the odds widen to encourage people to take a punt in the event of a big pay-out. It’s just maths with a tangential relationship to reality. In a small market, which this is, it doesn’t take much to tip the odds.

The reality is that in many ways a progressive young coach like Appleton being England Under-21 manager seems to make sense. You can see how it fits. On paper it’s a role that develops the best talent in England, but only a few times a year and only for a few days at a time.

In an interview with Appleton he said that, in principle, he would be interested in a senior role with England, but that no approach had been made. That was re-edited by paranoid Oxford fans into a message that he would go, all the FA had to do was call.

You’re 40 years old and have (theoretically) the opportunity to take a significant coaching role with the national team. Regardless of the likelihood of it happening, why would you risk putting them off by saying you weren’t interested? What Appleton said was hardly him flashing his pretty ankles to catch the eye of his potential suitors, it was him answering a broadly hypothetical question. If he’d said no comment he’d have set more hares running, if he said he wanted it, he would have been seen as being presumptive and arrogant. Saying ‘maybe’ was his only option.

All of this combined to legitimise the story, although it was triggered by Bet Victor, the only company actually taking money on this. You would think that if there was money to be made, others would be on it, but no.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the story, would Michael Appleton want the job? Well, if you look at people like Gareth Southgate, Stuart Pearce and Roy Hodgson, a job with the FA offers significant job security. If you don’t do a Sam Allardyce and you keep your nose clean, you can expect a lucrative job which, on average, lasts about 3 years (Pearce stayed for 6 years without any obvious glory). A club manager’s life expectancy is just 1.2 years. Also, the money is good, Gareth Southgate was on £500,000 a year, significantly more than Appleton will be earning at Oxford. I imagine, given the governance surrounding the FA, the terms of the contract are likely to be pretty favourable in comparison to more punitive club arrangements with pay-outs and the like.

But there is a consequence; Southgate may have fallen on his feet getting the England job, although this is more by default than anything and I don’t think anyone is expecting him to drive the country to World Cup glory. But, otherwise, England Under 21 manager is a dead-end job. Stuart Pearce, Peter Taylor and David Platt followed up their stints in the lukewarm seat, with bumbling careers in the Football League before disappearing into some backroom or other. Most former managers end up taking up short-term roles in football backwaters in India or Thailand, probably on reputation alone.

The problem is there’s no glory in the role. There is only one cup to win, the Under-21 European Championship, and we haven’t won that in over 30 years. If you do win it, then it’s celebrated in the context of what a future full squad might achieve (e.g. nothing). The Young Crop of Talented English Players are the product of the Premier League glory train not the England coaching set up. You get to work with young players, but only those not quite good enough for the full squad. And, of course, you’re not really working with them at all, you have them for a few days here and there before they disappear off to parade around Premier League substitute benches to impress girls. Nobody leaves the Under-21 job with their reputation enhanced, apart from amongst FA suits, who are broadly impressed by your ability to not cause too much bother. Naysayers will point to Gareth Southgate; who’s key redeeming feature is his politeness. His management career beyond England is to get Middlesborough relegated.

Also, the general stock of international football falls by each passing year; it’s hardly on its knees, but the World Cup’s reputation is gently falling apart and we’ve got five more years of the stench of FIFA corruption to pass before it might begin to redeem itself. Who knows how much people will really care, particularly in England, by the time the 2026 World Cup comes around?

We can’t offer Appleton the money that he might get with England, and although he’s at a club which offers much greater job security than average, it’s not likely to be as safe as a job nobody really cares about.

Appleton’s stock has risen significantly in the last year at Oxford – the glories of promotion, Wembley, derby wins and cup upsets have seen to that. He may get us into the Championship, or perhaps attract a club from a higher division to take a punt on him in which case his salary is likely to jump towards what he might earn with the Under 21s. There’s little doubt, however that the England job though safe, would be a cul-de-sac for someone with a bit of ambition.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Gillingham wrap - Gillingham 0 Oxford United 1

I might sound like a wizened old farmer, but if you weren’t around during the great goal-drought of 1996 then you don’t know what a goal-drought is. This was when we managed to go through six whole games without scoring.

We weren’t short of creativity or firepower, we just couldn’t score; Paul Moody was going through one of his lumbering oaf phases, Nigel Jemson was skulking around like a teenager who’d had his Commodore 64 confiscated. By the time we got to the seventh game, against Stoke City, people were genuinely asking what would happen if we never scored again. Like, EVER?

The deadlock was broken by human crab and sideways pass specialist Martin Gray, the first of just four goals he scored in 128 appearances for the club. It’s fair to say that nobody was looking to Gray to break the deadlock.

It didn’t stop there, we actually went on to win 4-1 and having gone 6 games without a goal, the next 6 produced spunked 13.

It was almost as if the only thing that would knock us out of the deep rut we were in was something unexpected. Chey Dunkley’s goal against Gillingham, not his first, but his first with his feet, may just help kick us out of the mini-rut we were threatening to fall into.

It’s been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we can’t score after we drew blanks against Walsall and Northampton, but it’s easy to forget that we’d scored six in the two games before that.

It’s easy to forget that we don’t have Wes Thomas or that Joe Skarz is only just coming back from injury meaning Marvin Johnson can’t move further up the field. Or that Liam Sercombe, often a source of attacking drive, isn’t available. Or that, in terms of goals scored last season, we lost no less than 67% of our fire power over the summer, 84% if you include Sercombe. Or that the transfer rules have changed making signing new players outside the transfer window nearly impossible.

With Sercombe and Skarz coming back, offering more firepower from midfield and freeing up Marvin Johnson then we should become much more threatening going forward. This might even give more supply to Kane Hemmings, but if we can add a striker, then we’re going to be just fine.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Walsall wrap - Oxford United 0 Walsall 0

Years ago having a minute’s silence at football was the reserve of rare and profound events; even Remembrance Day wasn’t routinely recognised like it is today. Gradually the number increased; not because of a significant increase in deaths but more that the overall attitude towards these things changed. Suddenly everything was worthy of a tribute from the death of life long fans to the recognition of unrelated world events.

I don’t know what other clubs do, but we seem to have taken the idea of a minute’s silence to new, mawkish levels. Before the Walsall game the club organised a minute’s silence to remember everyone associated with the club who had died in 2016. I think I’ve read that there will be another one at the start of the season to mop up everyone who had died over the summer.

Lots of people die, it happens all the time. It has a profound impact on those close to that person, but in the main, for most of us, life continues regardless. Death is part of everyday life. It’s like we’re being forced to feel something that we almost have no right to feel – the deep sense of loss of a turnstile operator or season ticket holder from Wantage who followed us home and away for 30 years.

Of course, it’s not asking a lot to stand in silence for a minute, but that’s the whole problem; to do it as a job-lot is generic and impersonal. To do it at every possible event renders it completely pointless, belittles the moments of genuine grief that sometimes engulf clubs whether it’s the death of Martin Aldridge or the Bradford fire.

The death of Lewis Mangan aside, who was just 20 when he was killed in a car crash in September, it’s not like the club have had a particularly tragic year. That’s not to belittle the passing of anyone else related to the club over the last year. The club rightly organised a tribute to Mangan and there’s a permanent tribute to him on the halfway line in front of the North Stand. Beyond this, as uncomfortable as this might sound, it’s been a fairly routine year.

I don’t think I’m in the majority when I say that the approach is peculiar but we have developed a sense of groupthink about such things. When the actions become subconscious and routine, they also become thoughtless and meaningless, which is a shame because when there is meaning behind the act the effect is truly moving.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Northampton wrap - Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1

Christmas is a great roosting of families. People gathering to spend a day in an enclosed space veiled in an unnaturally consistent, artificially heated, climate. At first, there’s the gathering of the flock, a sense of togetherness, a sense of fellowship and well-being. But then, there is a point, usually signalled by the first sprouty burp of Christmas dinner, where you crave for the fug to be blown away by a chill wind, the increasing need to re-engage with the world beyond your living room, away from the constant call of food and drink. That release, for many, comes through football on Boxing Day.

As a result, the crowd at Boxing Day football is an unusual one; young women in those wooly hats with oversized fluffy bobbles neutrally coloured with matching gloves, the older brother back from London comparing the Kassam to when he watched a game from a box at Stamford Bridge, visiting friends in wonder at the novelty of it all, over-excited children suffering separation anxiety from their new X-Boxes. It is the only day of the season where you will see middle-aged women handing round a pocketful of Celebrations swiped from the bowl in the living room before leaving.

For season ticket regulars, we host the party. When I’ve taken friends to a game on Boxing Day, I become the font of all knowledge. Can I get tickets? What time to leave? Where might we park? Do we have time for a drink before the game? In return, I display Jedi-like knowledge of every movement and twitch around the ground – “There’s Martin Brodetsky” I’ll say with a flamboyant wave in his general direction. My guests respond with a deferential nod as though I have accurately identified a rare sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

I wouldn’t swap it for anything, but football without context is just a really erratic sub-genre of the entertainment industry. The families who come as much for the fresh air as anything expect a win. But football doesn’t work like that; it’s like watching an over of a test match and expecting it to decide the result of all five-days’ play.

Last year I came with a friend who purred at what he was watching; Baldock, Roofe, Lundstram, Sercombe and an Exeter team in abject form being thrashed around like a whale killing a seal. This year’s game against Northampton was never going to be like that, no team in League 1 is going to be turned over like that, at least not by us, not at the moment.

As the minutes ticked on and the game petered out, people began to drift away. Even at half-time there seemed to be a glut of vacant blue seats that weren’t there in the first 45 minutes. It was clear the ‘show’ wasn’t delivering what was expected. But, this isn’t pantomime, you can’t guarantee that the Aladdin with marry a princess. When they scuffed in their last minute winner, it signalled a cue for a great exit and within seconds the stadium looked like it did at a mundane fixture during the barren League 2 years. Only the regulars remained.

Inevitably, some conflated the rumblings about stewarding and flags and Darryl Eales’ ‘hard-hitting’ programme notes with an evident downturn in form. In truth, they were pretty average but got a lucky break. None of this was helped by the fact it was Northampton; the target of Michael Appleton’s hilariously indefensible statements on us being ‘statistically’ the best team in the division last year. He’s wrong, of course, not that I would trade anything we achieved last year for what they achieved. It just made it a more galling defeat, but it was no more signal of our imminent collapse as the previous eight games undefeated was a signal we were going up.

Boxing Day football blows away the cobwebs of a Christmas party hangover. It feels like 2016 has been one long party at the club. Everyone has got a bit tired and emotional and the hangovers are kicking in; perhaps we just need 2017 to come to start afresh.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Weekly wrap - Oxford United 1 Oldham Athletic 1, Oxford United 3 Macclesfield Town 0, Bury 2 Oxford United 3

It’s been a good week on the whole; two wins and a draw soured, to some degree, by flag-related acrimony off the pitch.

I’ve always felt that it would be difficult to truly judge the team this season until Christmas; so the Bury win gives us the opportunity to take stock of where we’re at and where we’re heading.

This week’s events did seem to confirm what emerged over the last few weeks – this is a year of transition but we’ll be OK. We’re only 5 points from the play-offs, but our goal difference is probably more telling; for most of the season its sat at zero with the odd variant either way. That says we’re competitive without being truly outstanding.

It’s not that much of a surprise; it’s wrong to say that last year was fortunate, but it was unusual to have the amount of talent we had playing in a League 2 side. Roofe and O’Dowda alone were worth £4.5 million. In addition, there was the curious case of Danny Hylton, signed by Gary Waddock, Jake Wright; a stalwart of the Chris Wilder years and the likes of George Baldock, who played in the Championship, and John-Joe Kenny who was on the bench in the Merseyside Derby on Monday.

It was almost a perfect combination, it still needed focussing and organising, but we had the assets to exceed our objectives. We went into this season playing in a higher division with most of that golden squad gone. The key question was; could the club’s core infrastructure re-build and sustain the level of success?

Thankfully, the answer appears to be yes. We’re not as breathtaking as we were last year, but the opposition is generally better and people are quick to forget that players like Jon Lundstram, Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald and Liam Sercombe have all played a huge number of games in the last 12-18 months. We tend to think players are completely re-set at the beginning of each season but it’s the same (slightly rested) bodies and minds that finished last season. Maintaining the physical and mental intensity is always difficult so it’s probably not a surprise that their form has dipped slightly at times and they’ve been more prone to injuries.

As I say, last season’s squad was worth at least £4.5 million from Roofe and O’Dowda alone. Look at the whole squad and that figure could have been pushed certainly over £5 million, perhaps six. It’s been years since the club had playing assets of that nature in the squad. In essence we had a £6 million-plus squad assembled for virtually nothing.

While there was clearly investment in the squad, it’s not like we needed to buy big last season so the club could focus on building value elsewhere. Essentially this meant building relations with the fans – organising club holidays, embracing the enthusiasm of the Oxford Ultras, improving merchandise, strengthening branding, actively working on social media, improving the match day experience and innovating with tactical marketing campaigns to get more people through the gates.

Most, if not all of it worked; crowds grew and I suspect merchandise sales did too. But it all comes at a financial cost there needs to be an increase in revenue to match it. The Roofe and O’Dowda money should still be there to some extent, some has been invested in the squad, more will be servicing debt, so it’s not infinite. Assuming that Darryl Eales doesn’t have barrow loads of cash, if the club is to progress onto the Championship – the level at which it is most likely to have sustainable future - it needs to find new ways of making or saving money.

This is the constant balancing act for all football clubs, a few weeks ago I was at the Etihad, they have banners which say ‘The only club in Manchester’ – implying their parochial roots of being the club of the people of the city. On the other side is a banner which say ‘Thank you Sheik Mansour’ acknowledging that it is not the people, but oil from the Arabian peninsula which has paid for their success.

All clubs have the same problem – they need to retain their core values because that’s what fans buy into, but they also need to find new ways of funding success.

The podcast The Fence End Pod recently tweeted some Pathe News footage of our 1964 FA Cup tie against Blackburn as part of a Christmas advent thing. Footage showed no advertising boards around the Manor, no sponsors on the shirt, not even a kit manufacturer’s logo. This is football at its very purest, played, run and funded by The People with no part compromised in the name of money. Most fans would hanker for such a thing now.

But it won’t work now; attitudes have changed and the stakes are higher and more expensive. Clubs have to sell off bits of the equity they have in order to fund themselves, in more emotive footballing terms, they need to sell bits of their soul.

We generally accept that a bit of the sacred club shirt can be sold to a sponsor or manufacturer, or that your home ground can be festooned with adverts of companies trying to make money from your success. But it is a challenge to know when you’ve crossed the line.

Take, for example, the flag issue. Flags and displays have become a key part of Oxford United fan culture over the last few years. It has filled a void resulting from the move to the more sterile Kassam where people have to sit more passively in rows to watch a game.

But flags get in peoples’ way, they obscure the view; it’s why the club have agreed certain rules about when the larger ones can and can’t be waved. In essence, you apply those rules in order to try and give more people a comfortable and consistent viewing experience in the hope that they will keep spending money to keep coming to games. So, we compromise some of the fan culture of the club – sell it off – for extra ticket sales.

There is nothing wrong with this in essence; it’s generally accepted that if you go to the cinema or theatre you will be expected to behave in a certain way so that everyone enjoys the same experience. But in football, when does a comfortable fan experience turn into one which is sterile and meaningless?

It’s a judgement call, but I think the club have got this one wrong in trying to apply restrictions to the use of flags during games. Each area of a football stadium needs to develop its own culture. When I started going, I would go onto the safe, and not too expensive, Osler Road with my dad. As I got older, I wanted to be in the more fevered atmosphere of the London Road – that was where all the noise and action came from. When we moved to the Kassam, I went into the Oxford Mail Stand but started to realise that those around me were getting younger as I got older. I became distracted by horny teenagers trying to impress girls, or the games of giving each other wet willies or simply the banal abuse of players and games. I found that I wasn’t really enjoying being part of that experience so about 7 years ago I moved to the South Stand Upper because the overall experience suited what I wanted from a game.

The East Stand needs to be as fevered as it’s possible to get; flags and singing are part of that, they are the engine room of the atmosphere. So long as people aren’t getting hurt (and they’re not, despite what Health and Safety zealots tell you), the more fevered it gets the better. If you don’t like what comes with that – flags getting in the way or people falling over the top of you after a goal celebration, then there’s the North Stand. If you get to an age where even that’s too much, then the South Stand is a much calmer experience.

While the response from the Ultras seemed a bit over the top, it revealed a level of hurt that people haven’t really talked about. The argument is not about whether a flag should be waved, it’s whether the effort those fans put into the club is valued more or less than the commercial aspects of providing a consistent fan experience. If you think that there seems to be a core of 4,000 supporters who will follow the club whatever state it’s in, there are currently another 4,000 per game on average who are more casual. The atmosphere in the ground and performance on the pitch are the two key influencing factors as to whether those 4,000 attend or not. That’s £80,000 per game minimum, or £1.8m a year. I would rather we protected that than the odd fan who finds themselves in the wrong area of the ground and is distracted by a flag in their face. I say; let the flags fly.