Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The glory in defeat

I’ve never seen a Premier League game. I’ve seen top flight football before it was re-branded in 1992 but nothing in the new era. One of the appeals of our League Cup tie at West Brom was the prospect of visiting a Premier League ground, and one I hadn’t been to before.

I still think there’s something slightly magical, when you get to a big stadium, about that first glance from under the stand out onto a pitch framed with the banks of unoccupied seats. You don’t really get that in the lower leagues; usually the stands are too small, or in our case, they don’t exist at all.

I came to realise that it’s been a decade since I was in a top flight stadium to see Oxford; I missed the West Ham game four years ago and before that it was our 2003 FA Cup tie at Highbury. We really have fallen far.

It’s clear from first contact that The Hawthorns drips with money; other peoples' money, Sky money, dirty money, who knows? Obviously not in the absurd scheme of Premier League things, but in terms of the normal world, the riches are obvious. The pitch is immaculate; a constant of green from end to end and corner to corner. The seats are uniform and shining, not faded by a decade of exposure to sunlight like at the Kassam. Advertising animates, videos play out. The sound system is crisp. The floolights, gleaming white, tower above the stadium. Even under the stand, around the toilets and snack bar, the floor is wood laminate. With the height of the stands with the corners filled-in, the stadium is complete and enclosed; a theatre with the world shut out. I can see it would be fun to watch football here on a regular basis. As ‘real’ as things might be in the lower leagues; you might also describe them as ‘a bit shit’.

The game gets going and quickly falls into a pattern; we’re organised, but they pass the ball crisply and with pace. It’s the pace that’s the difference. Everything moves a bit quicker. Before the game there’s a montage of nauseating video clips played on the big screen; positioned awkwardly so that only about 20% of the stadium can see it properly. Baggies fans give their predictions for 'fan cam' – 4-0, 5-0 – they disrespectfully ‘give all due respect’, but, they say, the Premier League class with surely tell. They are filmed self-consciously doing the ‘Baggies Boing’ like they're being threatened just off-camera by separatists from a terrorist operation.

But, we hold them, generally untroubled by both pace and style. There’s an inevitability, a pattern, emerging. We will compete as equals, but once minds and legs begin to tire, they will slowly euthanase us like a vet putting to sleep a suffering calf. That’s how this plan will play out.

That’s the Premier League philosophy; the quality will ooze out, ejaculating all over us, consuming and suffocating to the point extinction. Us, other sports, other forms of entertainment, football will consume us all in quality. It’s not exciting; it’s like a piece of precision engineering which mesmerises you with its intricate moving parts, even though it doesn’t really serve any real purpose.

On the touchline, is Alan Irvine, one of many Premier League managers whose agenda is one of survival. His own and his team's. He’s not paid to be exciting. Do the right things most of the time and they will survive another year to be fed by the Sky money machine like a zoo keeper rewarding a performing seal with a piece of fish. Being average amongst the elite is his target, staying the right side of average is more important than taking risks and winning games.

We concede, but we don’t lie down. Key moments pass, when you might expect us to lose concentration and crumble. Just before half-time and then just after. An hour ticks by and we pass the point of ‘not disgracing ourselves’. The massed bank of Oxford fans begin to get frustrated that we’re not taking the game on, not taking risks.

And then, we start taking them on and they don’t know what to do. We throw a punch and they flinch. We throw another and they seem to rock. Most importantly, they don’t hit back. The tired minds and legs don’t open up the chasm in class; as a result, they have no additional gear, no plan B, we’re not partaking in their set piece ballet, we take them on. They have no response; we were supposed to be long dead by this point.

While they flick frantically through their scripts trying to re-find their place and regain their composure; we attack again, where does it say that? And again. Eventually, a breakthrough, Hoskins nods down and Hylton bundles in. Delirium.

Then, each pass seems to bind the team together more; Appletonians, Wilderians, they’re beginning to trust each other, they’re working together. The fans too are bonding to this team; Riley – he’s one of ours now, Collins, him too, Hylton, Brown, Morris. We're starting to get them as a team. The confidence is transferred into a forward motion and we’re no longer holding them, we're attacking them; relentlessly.

Into extra time; during the break lactic acid fills the legs, they can feel like lead and we’re vulnerable again. But, we’re out of our corner at lightning speed, throwing punches putting them in trouble. This is beyond survival, we're outplaying them. Are the West Brom fans worried? Who knows? You can’t hear anything beyond the bedlam of the away end. They should be.

But, we can’t break through and they begin to regain composure. Composure but still no threat. Now we’re tiring. Brown overstretches a challenge and takes a second yellow card. It matters not; we’re deep into the epic now. The outcome, whatever it is, will see us victorious.

And finally penalties; on and on it goes, slugging away. Like a city under siege, we’re running out of men to fight, soon it’ll be just the children and cripples left to defend out honour. The old warrior, leaden legged Jake Wright, steps up, he’s never scored for us before and he doesn’t now; he swings a boot and the keeper parries.

The defeat, in some ways, is more glorious. Their reaction reveals much about what we’ve just done. They don’t celebrate their team’s success, for there is none; they mock our misfortune in callous revenge. It’s short lived; some celebrate like they’ve won the cup, most know that it should never have got to that point. Their players, far from piling on top of each other in a breathless orgy, simply turn to their opponents shake their hands and leave for the tunnel. The understatedness of their celebration at last revealing their Premier League class.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One does not simply walk into Oxford United

I feel a bit conflicted; I’ve long been an advocate of the long steady development of a football club. Less boom and bust, less hire and fire. I was proud of the fact we had a manager that was the third longest serving in professional football. I liked that we were committed to investing in local talent for the long term. What’s more, it worked, the steady progress saw us improve annually; albeit by decreasing margins in later years.

But, only five games into his reign, I am finding myself critical of Michael Appleton. He hasn’t benefited from a stellar start, like Chris Wilder did, but at the same time he’s yet to match Wilder’s seasonal winless streaks, although not by much. By the token that we should look to the long term, Appleton needs time. So why am I frustrated by him so soon?

Defenders of Appleton say his style of football is an improvement on what went before and that good will out; if we play the right way we will win games, we just need to be patient. The style has improved, chances were being created against Portsmouth, but another defeat and with it a drop to the bottom of the table shows that at the plan isn’t working in terms of results.

I struggle with the results/performance equation. I agree with the aesthetic of playing football the right way, but only if you get the right results. The best times I've had as an Oxford supporter at the Kassam were under the pragmatic tactics of Ian Atkins and Chris Wilder. The common factor was we won games.

I’m not sure, on reflection, that it is Appleton where my frustrations lie. During the summer, Ashton and Eales came piling into the club; all toothy smiles and promises of passion. The callous removal of Gary Waddock suggested that they had arrived with a sure-fire winning plan. But instead, they’ve installed a manager and starved him of resources. Or at least, struggled to get their act together. Time will tell as to whether they were unable or unwilling to invest in players, but at best it appears that they beyond a hectic PR schedule, they didn’t have a plan, certainly not on the playing side.

I’m not for a second suggesting that Waddock was the answer, but I’m guessing he did have a plan for the season and had that not worked, and we’d opened with four defeats, then the decision about his tenure would have been an easy one, given his performance at the end of last year.

Ashton pleaded for time; but the first shot in anger, the appointment of Appleton, showed that time wasn’t a key consideration. Waddock was gone within hours of them taking over. But what they replaced it with was a void rather than a another, better, manager.

Appleton may still come good once he’s found his feet and Ashton has found his phone book and chequebook amongst the packing boxes in his office. Will Hoskins is an interesting signing, which could be the game-changer, but also could be another Peter Leven. In the meantime we’re relying on passion, talent, hope and other immeasurables.

It’s probably fair to say that we’re not far off; each game to date has been lost by the odd goal to teams who are currently first, second and fourth, but we’re relying on the law of averages to pick up points; currently we’re slightly on the wrong side of average, presumably over the season we’ll come out on the right side. But, by that token, ultimately, we’ll end up average.

The concern, of course, is that this isn’t a concern to Eales and Ashton because buying into the club is just the latest move in a big land deal. And that for them this isn’t a results game. Promotion, relegation or mid table doesn’t impact the value of the land they’re hoping to acquire, so why invest? It’s possible that Appleton is a stooge; he seems a reasonable chap who is probably happy to have any job given where he's been previously. Plus, he is wealthy enough not to work. Unlike, say, Wilder or Atkins, who needed to be successful to pay the mortgage, Appleton may just be the passive front man Eales and Ashton need. It would explain why Waddock was ousted so quickly.

I should say, that I’m not convinced the real story is quite so linear. I doubt anyone wants to fail, presumably the duo want to impress the masses (and I mean masses) of people who now occupy the executive box at home games. However, I can see that in a world of competing priorities; some things are more important than others. If Eales is going to spend, say, £100,000 - there’s a far greater, and more certain, return on investment paying for legal fees on a land purchase than on a 27 year old, fit, proven goalscorer. It probably wouldn’t be a one-or-other option; but if his resources are limited, it seems to me that the allocation is likely to go on the land deal, not the player.

As an aside, I like Danny Hylton more than I thought I would; stuck amongst Wilderian players and Appletonians, it seemed he was destined to become the Sansa Stark* of the club; stuck between the houses of former and emerging kingdoms while being part of neither. But, he ran himself ragged on Saturday and seems to have thrown himself at the challenge like no one else.

I feel for Morris; he seems keen to get on the ball, with players preferring to pass rather than put the ball in places for him to attack, he keeps dropping deep and out of position. At one point in the first half, the pattern of play suddenly presented itself with an opportunity. A quick cross to the edge of the box, where a gap had opened up, and Morris would have been in. Then I realised that Morris was the man on the ball and the space in the box was the result of him not being there. Another time he was tussling with Portsmouth’s deep lying midfielders leaving the back four as an untroubled final defence.

On the hour, Morris suddenly seemed to be going backwards. He’s a hulk of a player, but nearly a decade from his physical prime, spending an hour dropping deep and looking for the ball had taken its toll. At that point the game became a war of attrition, and it was likely to be a survival of the fittest. Experience will eventually teach him to take his time, but it would also be nice to think that his habit of looking for the ball might be coached out of him.

Neither side really looked like they were going to win it at that point. Both teams were likely to get a chance or two, less through talent, more by virtue of the fact that eventually the ball is going to end up near one or the other goal. They bundled in their chance and Junior Brown headed ours over the Oxford Mail stand. As I say, we’re relying on the law of averages. At some point Eales and Ashton need to tip the odds more in Appleton’s favour; this week’s activities are likely to be telling.

 * A character from Game of Thrones whose family is all but wiped out by a powerful, ruling, family during a bitter civil war. By this time she is promised to marry the king; a member of her family's killers. A deal she is unable, now on her own, to renege on. She subsequently finds herself neither a member of her own family - all of whom are dead or on the run - nor that of that which she is expected to marry into. Like Danny Hylton. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

What's the difference between a coach and a manager?

What’s the difference between a manager and a coach? In the chaotic world of professional football, it’s probably little more than semantics, certainly the definitions seem to have been blurred since he good old days when the manager wore a sheepskin coat and the coach was a wiry bald man in a tight tracksuit.

The concept of the ‘head coach’ is an affectation of the modern game. A reaction against the omnipotent management tradition styled by the likes of Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a message from the owners that says; ‘you may be the one in the limelight, but I run this schizzle’.

The head coach is quite exotic, a hipster move, something foreigners do. But, like many things adopted by Britain from abroad, it’s not taken on wholesale. Much as we admire the German approach, we’re still fond of our despotic owners. When things are going wrong, fans call for ‘someone’ to come in spend money - it’s rare you hear them calling for the club to be run as a not-for-profit democracy.

So, there is almost certainly no consensus on the difference between the two and perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps, but perhaps not, because if you do confuse the two, then how do you know you’ve got the right people running your team in the right way?

By definition, the coach is there to develop players. It is a positive, nurturing role; taking players to their full potential. As such, it’s fairly easy to be the good guy. In fact, it’s pretty important that you are the good guy if the players are going to respond to the things you want them to do.

The manager, however, is almost the opposite. Within his arsenal has to be the ability to be the bad guy, he has to make decisions which are not always popular - scratch that, no decision is popular. Every decision will upset someone; players, fans, owners or media. He has to earn empathy and respect, but he needs mental robustness to resist criticism and the emotional detachment to remain objective. In a world where ex-players continually lament the banter and camaraderie of the dressing room over almost everything else the game offers, the idea that you might want to move into a role where you are almost always going to be disliked by someone can’t be for many.

So, like anyone in a senior role, a football manager, to be successful, has to be a sociopath. And this could be after a career where the idea of the individual is beaten out of you. Of course, many coaches are considered for managerial roles because they are amiable and they do the right things playing football the right way. They follow the textbook, which sounds just great if you’re an owner.

We’ve had a few managers who were good coaches; by all accounts Graham Rix was an excellent coach, David Kemp’s career in the Premier League shows that he was a much better coach than manager. Ian Atkins and Chris Wilder were very good managers, as was Jim Smith who always needed a very good coach to make things work. It doesn’t stand to reason that a good coach makes a good manager, or that a good manager makes a good coach. So you interchange them at your peril.

When Danny Hylton slotted home the equaliser at Mansfield on Saturday, it seemed like we might have escaped with a barely-deserved draw. The first reaction of the players was to get the ball from the back of the net in order to hurry up the restart. We did the right thing by the fans, and the spirit of football, and we went for the three points.

But, having suffered a home defeat on the opening day and with a gift of an away point eleven minutes away, is going for the win the right thing to do? Or, given the nervousness that comes with being one of the handful of teams without a point, should it be time to shut up shop?

His decision was a coach’s decision, not a managerial one. The coach goes for the win; sticks to the principles of the game, does the right thing. The manager recognises the value of an away point which settles everyone and puts us amongst the pack.

Perhaps it illustrates an inability to operate in the managerial role. We don’t know whether that’s a permanent thing or whether he will gain a managerial mindset. Let’s face it, his previous roles have hardly given him scope to spread his wings. Securing points by any means is one of his easier decisions. As the season progresses, things get harder - there will be decisions about playing injured players, rushing them back to do a short-term job, he may look at fixtures and decide they’re worthy of sacrifice because of more significant jobs coming up. Then there are the habits, bad or otherwise, that players begin to adopt. He will need to develop some of those habits, but he will need to suppress others. He may also need to make decisions about players who are good and decent people - players he perhaps brought in - who will need replacing. In short, the job will get dirtier.

Partly, this is about Appleton’s ability, but it’s also about the strategy of the football club. Is Appleton’s role to be the manager? To make tough and unpleasant decisions? Or is he the coach? To develop players’ technical ability? Do we know what a head coach is supposed to do? To date, it’s not clear. While the single point of failure concept that operated for most of Chris Wilder’s reign is not desirable, we currently have a gap in ability which needs filling, or developing, quickly.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A refreshing change

The first round of the League Cup is perhaps the weirdest game of the season. Few clubs involved harbour genuine ambition of going far in the competition and you have to go fairly deep into it (or get very lucky) before you draw a genuine money-spinning tie. So, in that sense, it seems obvious to rest first-teamers and give fringe players a leg stretcher.

On the other hand, we’re just three days into the new season and players are still looking for rhythm and sharpness. With just one competitive game under their belts its also difficult to know whether you’re on or off form.

The manager doesn’t have the benefit of half a season to assess under what kind of threat their job might be under. Cup runs can offer a respite from the pressure of the league and sustain, if not save, people’s jobs. But the manager can’t tell after one game whether what he has at his disposal is a team shooting for promotion or fighting relegation. This, ultimately, defines how important or otherwise the cups are.

Then, of course, there’s your opponent, who is in much the same position. Bristol City, for example, had a good opening away win in the league and stand 5th in League 1 after just one game. They are in the promotion race but by next Sunday could be in the relegation zone, by the end of the season they could be facing League 2 football and we will face them as peers. That’s what happened with Bristol Rovers in 2010.

So, it's difficult to know just how good a League Cup win is. Particularly if you add the conundrum about whether or not they are taking the competition seriously and playing a full-strength team.

What is of little doubt, however, is that we really needed that win. We are on a venture into the unknown, with a new manager and several new players, plus some brow beaten and skeptical fans. The league hasn’t been kind to us with few games coming up that you might confidently hope for some points. A few barren weeks could be catastrophic to morale. As they say, you may not be able to win the league at this stage in the season, but you can lose it. While winning the league might be beyond us, we surely need some early success if we’re going to have a good season - however that might be defined.

In particular, a goal for Morris seemed essential. He has no experience or track record and a barren spell is likely to be damaging to his confidence. For all his outward confidence, he doesn't know whether he can cut it in senior football and going out on loan must be unnerving; it doesn't exactly scream confidence from your manager that your breakthrough is imminent. He also looks like a player who needs confidence to perform. Historically big target men like Paul Moody and Steve Anthrobus need good and plentiful supply to get goals. They don’t create goals themselves (Paul Moody’s solo goal against Cardiff in 94 aside, perhaps). So if the supply dries up, then so do the goals and confidence. And then to complete the vicious cycle, players around him lose confidence and try to work around the target man, not through him, to find success. If you add in the weight of expectation that might occur given that he’s wearing James Constable’s shirt, an early goal of whatever nature, seems essential.

One swallow doesn't make a summer, but a win is a win. While the context is difficult to judge, whether we’re playing a full-strength team destined for promotion to the Championship or an understrength team in free fall to League 2; or any combination of those two extremes, there can be few that will argue that we needed that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

The new season often looks unfamiliar. Fans look refreshed, new shirts are worn, people are in shorts. Pitches are a lush, deep, green colour; benefiting from a couple of months loving preparation rather than the usual 48 hours of intense forking and watering.

There is a buzz of anticipation because months of football deprivation play tricks on the mind. We begin to believe that we cannot fail, forgetting that every other team is similarly preparing and determined to succeed.

In the stands, the singing area worked to a point; I suppose when you put yourself in a singing area there is an obligation, of sorts, to sing. During the first half it was noisy and vocal, although it couldn't be sustained. Expected, given the energy needed to sustain 90 minutes of noise and the result on the day.

On the pitch, players look leaner; hair cuts are sharp, Alfie Potter's beard seems to have become more proportionate to his face. Danny Rose looks like he's been taking some miracle dietary substitute you see advertised on Facebook, his tan looks like he's been attacked by a creosote spray. The players who last year looked like children, look like men, like they'd grown into proper footballers over the summer. The football is technically better - at least for a little bit. And, of course, there are new signings which I can't tell one from another.

On the touchline the familiar questionable tracksuits of Chris Wilder (frankly, I can't remember what Gary Waddock wore) were replaced by the suited Michael Appleton. Mickey Lewis was barely visible barreling around the technical area.

Nothing was more different than in the executive box. It was rammed full of suits wearing those garish yellow club ties. Some people I recognised, most I didn't. There were wives, girlfriends  looking like a lost wedding party. Some were self-consciously wearing Oxford scarfs which you suspect had been hastily purchased for the occasion. Were they investors? Officials? Or were they simply the family and friends of new regime offering moral support and coming to admire the owners' new toy? Where did they all come from? And, will they still be here in November?

The area was so full that when Burton rolled in their winner just before half time, the phalanx Burton suits rose as one in their seats, not on the front row of the box as is usually the case, but about 20 seats to the left towards the open end. They seemed to have been ousted by the hangers on.

Nathan Cooper reinforced the sense of renewal by announcing the arrival of the players with a bellow of 'A new era'.  Things were different, of that there's no doubt.

Different until a ball was kicked, that is. Then there was a distinct familiarity about it all - decent shape, good passing, no urgency and no goal threat. As a bloke near me said 'we won't concede many, but we'll score even less' which, by any measure, is a withering assessment.

Even after we fell behind and the game ticked past the hour there was no change of plan. We remained pathologically averse to crossing the ball.

Channel 4 once briefly ran a series called the Sex Inspectors where a couple of self-styled er, 'sex inspectors' would try solve the problems of couples whose sex lives were damaging their wider relationship. In one episode a couple had become consumed with role play, sex toys and dressing up. 

The programme's hook was for the experts to watch the couple in action and commentate on what was going on. If that sounds like fun, believe me it wasn't. In this one episode, the bloke spent 25 minutes meticulously lacing up his girlfriend's corset. It was all part of their 'game'. She was pulled and yanked about and told off for not standing still until she got bored and cold. His obsession with dressing her up in 'the right way' meant he completely overlooked the objective of actually having sex with her.

That was us on Saturday; we were so obsessed with shape and technique that we'd forgotten to score any goals. Even into injury-time nobody was prepared to launch the ball into the box in one last attempt to salvage something. I don't remember if the bloke and his girlfriend ended up launching the ball into the box to salvage something.

But, fans on the phone-in purred with appreciative sympathy. The ubiquitous 'Dougie', who might be one person, or perhaps, like Dr Who, lots of different people being a single character, carefully re-wrote history by claiming that Wilder and Lenagan would have come on and given excuses. To my mind Appleton's assessment of us dominating was way off the mark, not an excuse, but misleading nonetheless. We were just compliant in failure.

Some of this is politeness towards the new regime, and nobody is suggesting that Appleton shouldn't be given time, but a tame home defeat to Burton is not honourable in the way a cup defeat to a Premier League team might be. If you have ambitions of success, you don't want to lose any more than 3 or 4 home defeats in a season. The first game is very early to be giving away one of your lives and to do it so cheaply has to be a worry.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Farewell Dave Kitson, you very strange chap

In many ways, Dave Kitson at Oxford made more sense to Dave Kitson than it did to Oxford United. Signed during the First Summer of Austerity, Kitson didn’t fit Ian Lenagan’s vision of a squad of young players with the robustness to last a whole season of League 2 action.

For Kitson, on the otherhand, there was the opportunity to add a couple of years to his dwindling career in an area close to where he lived. He was still being paid an obscene amount of money by Portsmouth although his (alleged) book suggests that, due to excessive spending and some poor financial planning, he wasn’t necessarily as cash-rich as many would have perceived. Above all, in Oxford he had an environment that, to a certain extent, meant that he could still play out his big-time footballer fantasies.

But, as we’ve seen time and again, when once big-time players end up at Oxford there's usually a good reason for it. The pattern; as seen with the likes of Gilchrist or Duberry, is that you typically get a good first season and a second season blighted by injury as the player finally falls apart. With Kitson, his first season was more like a second season and he didn’t even get to his second season announcing his retirement after a couple of sprints up sand dunes or whatever it is they do for pre-season nowadays.

As fleeting moments of genius go, Kitson barely registered on the Leven Scale. For a period he seemed to be the key to unlocking goals for James Constable who was his willing workhorse up front, but the odd threaded through-ball and masterful take-down aside he generally seemed to dally around the field in vague disgust at the inferiority happening around him.

There was something not quite right about Kitson. Perhaps it was that he was a square peg in a round hole; one of the lads, but the one with all the best stories and the best Ford Mondeo - or whatever it is footballers drive nowadays. Perhaps it was the opaque insight we had into his life and views as The Secret Footballer. Perhaps it was that he did genuinely seem to come across as a footballer like no other in terms of erudition and intelligence.

But, there was something else. His disciplinary record was atrocious; particularly for an experienced player who had played at the top level. It revealed a strangely narcissistic streak where he was prepared to aggressively criticise the officials as the ‘worst ever’ – demonstrating almost a perverse desire to deliberately get into trouble with the authorities. Perhaps he was the only player in League 2 whose comments would register with the FA, and that’s what he liked.

Even more darkly, and perhaps this is just a sign of the times, there was something even more cynical in what he did. He seemed to draw bookings or injuries almost, it appeared, deliberately, as if he just wanted to give himself the week off. Even worse, one particular incident – inexplicably conceding of a penalty against Plymouth – an act so oddly deliberately and his protest so strangely contrived made me, for the first time ever, question a player’s integrity. Perhaps it was just the toll of injuries meant that he just couldn’t do it anymore, perhaps (as suggested in the book) it was his mental state. This seems most likely to me, but perhaps it was something else.

He just never really seemed that committed, in a team that needed direction, experience and a bit of class, he drifted in and out at will. When he was on his game it looked like he was the key to unlocking success, but for much of the time it was like he was just mucking around.

How will Kitson be remembered? Well, he probably won’t, in truth. He’ll be filed alongside people like Colin Todd and Steve Perryman, former Oxford players who will forever be associated with  things than us. In the short term he leaves us with a gap in class and just a couple of weeks to fill it - thanks Dave.