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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

You say it best, when you say nothing at all

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

So, if someone says that it's going to be hot in July - a particular favourite amongst newspapers - the opposite is that it's going to snow. Because the opposite is more surprising than the reality; the story is redundant.

Whether that holds in the world of 24-hour rolling news is highly debatable. Quite simply there are just not enough genuine news stories to fill up the all-day real-time media machine.

We become anaesthetised to this, wholly accepting that the news we are given is not in fact of much, or any, value. The Daily Mail have taken it to the extreme by apparently considering news to be factual descriptions of women wearing clothes in a place somewhere on earth. Given the opposite; naked women on the moon would be considered somewhat more surprising, the existence of women wearing clothes is not news. While there is a low muttering of disgust at the vacuousness of it all and the objectification of the women concerned, we are generally accepting of its existence.

As Mark Ashton appeared on Malcolm Boyden's Radio Oxford show on Wednesday, Twitter muttered a genuine appreciation of his performance. In a summer of silence, anything parping out of the top table at Oxford United must feel like a feast to some.

It was a cloying matey interview, Boyden knows Ashton from somewhere although it wasn't clear from where; both come from the same part of the country and appear to be lay West Brom fans, perhaps they boing boing'ed next to each other at the Hawthorns back in the day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

World Cup All Stars #7: John Aldridge

Let me try and paint a picture of football in the 1980s. Great emphasis was placed on your first team; so much emphasis that players wore shirts numbered 1-11 and there was just one substitute. Squads didn't exist, if you weren't in the first eleven, you were in the second eleven or the reserves.

Football wasn't strategic, it was tactical. I don't know if that made it better, but it meant that the action happened on the pitch not in the boardroom. It meant that things were more unpredictable, which probably made it more exciting.

Within your first eleven was a big fat goalkeeper, defenders with wonky noses, nippy little wingers and a star striker. Nowadays you have three or four strikers who are rotated; in the 1980s it was just one. The narrative was pure Roy of the Rovers and it had been like that for decades from Tom Finney and Johnny Haynes through Jack Charlton and into the 1980s.

Oxford always had a star striker; Joe Cook, Keith Cassells, Peter Foley, Mick Vinter, Neil Whatmore, Steve Biggins. Each had their moment, Cassells scored against Brighton in the FA Cup, Biggins scored against Manchester United in the League Cup win in 1984. To me, however, it was all building up to the ultimate star striker; John Aldridge.

Aldridge was signed from Newport in 1984 by Jim Smith. History plays tricks on your mind, but it seemed that there was inevitability surrounding his arrival. He started scoring instantly providing additional impetus to the third division title charge, he followed it up a year later with another bucketful to take us through the to the 2nd division title. It was as if a pre-written destiny was being fulfilled.

In the top flight Aldridge set about keeping us up almost single handedly. For all of the legend surrounding Shotton and Briggs, our defence was porous. Aldridge scored 23 league goals, which kept us up.

If the 1980s was the last embers of the football in its traditional image, modern football was being brewed elsewhere. Jack Charlton had become manager of the Republic of Ireland. He set about putting in place a master plan to make his obscure little island into something resembling a force. In short he put winning at the core of everything he wanted to do.

The first thing he did was employ a philosophy of 'route one' football; it was a template that was being adopted in domestic football and was working. Passing, possession and style was effete, balls forward and goals were the new thing; both Watford and Wimbledon had reached stratospheric heights with the philosophy.

Secondly, he used the Irish diaspora to widen his talent pool. Suddenly anyone with a vaguely Irish connection became eligible. Dave Langan - from more traditional Irish stock - was a notable victim, despite, according to his autobiography, introducing both Liverpool born Aldridge and Glaswegian Ray Houghton to the new regime.

In some senses, the new set up was prescient of modern football with teams full of foreign players. It almost didn't matter where you came from, or where spiritually your heart was, so long as you were winning. The Republic of Ireland was almost a franchise.

The impact was immediate, although Aldridge struggled to some extent. Ireland qualified for the European Championships in 1988, beating England and scaring the living daylights out of the Netherlands and the USSR. Aldridge, however, was being used as a target man rather than a goal poacher and goals were hard to find. Charlton would use battering rams such as Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino (who it eventually turned out wasn't even vaguely Irish).

The experience was intoxicating and Ireland went on to qualify for Italia 90 where they made the quarter-finals, even though they only scored two goals. In each game Aldridge ran around for an hour before being substituted. Against Romania he lasted 20 minutes.

According to all the autobiographies, the Irish experience was a blast for all concerned. By 1994, however, the empire was beginning to crumble as Charlton struggled to replacing his ageing first generation of imports. They qualified for USA '94, becoming almost a replacement England side, who had bowed out in qualifying.

Ireland started well, beating Italy in New York, but facing Mexico in stifling heat (something Charlton obsessed; over earning him a touchline ban) the Irish were found wanting. Aldridge, on the bench, was prepared to join the fray with 20 minutes to go and Mexico 2-0 up. With Norway waiting, the defeat could well have meant curtains for their campaign. Aldridge stood on the sidelines while a particularly fastidious official fussed over administrative technicalities. It took 6 minutes to make the substitution with Charlton and Aldridge screaming at the fourth official to let him on. The tirade, amidst plenty of rum language and finger pointing, was clearly audible on TV. It turned Aldridge into a worldwide legend.

He continued to remonstrate even while trotting onto the field. The fire in his belly helped him score his only World Cup goal, reducing the arrears to 2-1 (Ireland's 4th goal in their World Cup finals history). The goal was essential in reducing their goal difference and allowing them to progress into the second round where they were smited by the Netherlands.

That was the end of Aldridge's World Cup Finals career; more famous for his effin' and jeffin' than for his goals. He played for Ireland for a decade, scoring just 19 goals, although that still makes him the 4th joint top scorer for his country.

Well, I say his country...

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The revolution will not be televised

It was like the emergence of a natural disaster, a lighted match that turns into a forest fire, a thundercloud that became a hurricane. A minor murmur that escalated in dramatic and unexpected ways. As Gary Waddock’s parody Twitter account put it; ‘Shit’.

Fans are always impatient for new signings at the end of the season, but what is frequently ignored is the fact that football goes on holiday in May and June so that it can be back ready for pre-season before most of us are contemplating what to pack for our fortnight in Magaluf.

But, as the weeks crept by, the silence around the club became increasingly eery. Danny Hylton signed, but then; nothing. Players signed to other clubs, names came onto our radar, but none were followed up. And it seemed to be more than that, the club was on hold.

And then, the distant rumble of a takeover bid. It made sense, an owner wanting to dispose of his club is not going to spend money on new players and a new prospective owner is not likely to wire in the cash until they’ve safely signed on the dotted line.

Then, there was more than one consortium, and people who wouldn’t otherwise use the word consortia kept saying ‘consortia’. One; a group of vagabonds and crooks, the other; a white-hatted band of fans. The former were silent and stealthy; the latter, headed by Charlie Methven, were vocal and popular. The fans sided with Methven.

Ian Lenagan remained silent, not a dignified silence, a great hermetically sealed silence; a chasmic void. We know all about Lenagan’s silences and the frustration it brings to fans and press alike. But while these things are, technically, none of our business, the silence is self-defeating. If people are saying that negotiations are ongoing and they’re not, that’s a fact that’s easy to correct. If you don’t say anything, then you’re effectively confirming them by your silence. It’s a PR gaff, another one, which breeds distrust. That’s completely unnecessary in my view because when he eventually talks Lenagan speaks well and clearly. But his habitual silences undermine the good he does.

The silence was broken with some irony; perhaps it was a situationist prank; the club tweeted a picture of an empty chair and tables, everything was set for a snap press conference. But there appeared to be no press, the radio wouldn’t or couldn’t broadcast it. It was a press conference without press, a communication which wasn’t communicated. All subsequent press reports are re-hashes of the statement on the website. I’m still not certain whether the physical press conference actually happened or not.

Unconvincingly, the statement opens with Lenagan claiming that the silence was due to them planning for the next stage of the development of the club. I say unconvincing, because Lenagan had previously said that Gary Waddock’s appointment had been ‘phase 3’ of his plan. If this is phase 4, then it’s hard to fathom quite what phase three was designed to yield. Is this a planned phase? Or just an unplanned response to happenstance? Is this controlled development, or are we making it up as we go along? I don’t have a problem with the idea of making things up as we go along; the only thing that experience teaches you is that we’re all ultimately winging it, all the time, I have a problem with people claiming that they are fully in control.

In comes, Darryl Eales, an investment specialist of some description; it’s not clear whether Eales brings with him more cash or is just saddling a greater proportion of the risk associated with the reported £6m of debt the club are in. Is our bank account larger, or are Lenagan’s bills smaller? I suspect it’s the latter.

Lenagan claims Eales share the same personal and business style which brings us onto the next phase of the revolution. The introduction of Mark Ashton as chief executive, a name which in recent weeks has brought the chill of Voldermort to many Oxford fans. It’s long been a concern that Lenagan has the skills, empathy or (more likely) time to run Oxford United, so Eales coming in as chairman should be welcomed. Ashton too fits the bill of having football experience, but while there are fragmented suggestions that his time at West Brom were highly regarded, there isn’t a lot online to support that assertion. His time at Watford and Wycombe, however, seemed little short of catastrophic.

It seems that Ashton’s problem is his desire to bring everything in-house and lock everything and everyone down; his time at Watford seems to be characterised by the external belief that something was wrong but there was no ‘smoking gun’ as to what it was. People were gagged and threatened with legal action if they tried to reveal the inner workings of Vicarage Road. If that's his style, then are Lenagan, Eales and Ashton going to create a pyramid of silence? Possibly.

It speaks volumes that the statement is mostly about the inner workings of the club’s ownership - which is of prime interest to Lenagan and Eales, but the biggest news for the fans is tucked away at the bottom, almost as an aside. Gary Waddock has been sacked and in comes Michael Appleton. Waddock looked like a startled supply teacher ever since his debut on the touchline at Southend. He seemed bewildered by a club that on paper was succeeding but in his hands failed miserably. It was like a briefcase full of cash with one of those alarms which covers everything with paint when it’s in the wrong hands. The Wilder squad in Waddock's hands simply imploded. I had no real empathy for Waddock, but the ruthlessness of his dismissal makes me feel more detached from the club; he seems the victim of an internal power struggle rather than the product of a genuine football decision.

The move, however, illustrates just how hard and fast Eales and Ashton plan to work. It might work, if the funds are there, but if the manager just becomes a sacrificial lamb to cloak the failings of the board, then we’re in for a gloomy time.

Appleton carries with him the label of ‘promising young coach’ which the likes of Graham Rix and Mark Wright previously carried into the club like a millstone around their necks. He counts the Venkys at Blackburn and Vladimir Anotov (currently under arrest for asset stripping) at Portsmouth amongst his former employers. No manager can hope to perform in such environments, and perhaps in a more positive environment he will thrive, but his track record - including his 3 managerial appointments in just over three months in 2012 - makes you wonder whether he is a just a stooge.

Eales doesn’t cover himself in glory in describing himself as not an owner but a ‘Custodian’ - it is this condescending management bullshit that drives suspicion; if he’s a tough ambitious business man who plans to move the club forward as fast as he can, then say it. Don’t paint the picture of being a homely father figure, when you're not.

The most interesting phrase in the statement has been somewhat lost; it’s the assertion of “the radical changes likely in the Planning Landscape for Oxford in the next 12 months”. The stadium remains at the heart of all our problems and this line implies that the loosening of planning regulations - presumably to help ease Oxford’s housing crisis - may allow perhaps, building on green belt or  on the Kassam plot or demolition of the stadium and a move. Either way, Lenagan seems keen to stick around, which is a good thing.

Structurally this change works, the personalities involved raise some serious questions. Certainly, we shouldn’t expect a new, open, media friendly, fan-driven club. Perhaps we would have got that with Methven, but perhaps too we might have had another Robin Herd on our hands. Ashton appears to run a closed shop which wraps his detractors in confidentiality agreements and legal threats. It’s not pleasant, but maybe it will be effective. Either way, lets make no bones about it, he’s got a tough job on his hands, the next couple of weeks and some much needed signings should give us an early indication of their intent.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

World Cup All-Stars #6 - Mark Wright

Mark Wright holds a special place in my family folklore. During his league debut as a gangly teenager against Bristol City at the Manor in 1981, my dad made a bold prediction: the boy would one day play for England.

Growing up I assumed everyone would have at least one moment of such prescience; to the degree that around the mid-90s I predicted that Paul Powell would do the same. Dad, it turns out, was as right as I was wrong.

Wright was certainly different to what we'd seen before at the Manor. He was a young and slender ball player, which was unusual in Division 3 defences which tended to comprise of players who looked like they'd been rejected from the Vietnam War.

However, it was some surprise, at least to my unsophisticated eye, when Wright was picked up by Southampton alongside resident United goal machine Keith Cassells. My dad, clearly in a purple patch when it came to predicting the fate of players, scoffed at the Cassells signing saying he'd be no good at that level.

He had a point, Southampton at the time had former World Cup winner Alan Ball, England internationals David Armstrong, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan, Danny Wallace and Dave Watson, Under 21 Steve Moran and Justin Fashanu and Northern Ireland international Chris Nicholl on their roster. They would also add two England captain's Peter Shilton and Mick Mills to a squad that would eventually end up runners-up to Liverpool in the League Championship.

For Oxford, the move shaped much of our history. The duo were swapped for Trevor Hebberd and George Lawrence, who would become key to the Oxford glory years. Although Wright played only a handful of games for Oxford, he played an important role in helping to bring the good times in.

Cassells did well to bag 4 goals in his 17 games for the Saints, but he was always likely to find the company a bit too hot to handle. Wright, on the other hand, seemed completely comfortable playing 46 times in the 1982/3 season. Fulfilling my dad's prophecy he made his England debut at the end of the 83/84 season and then made regular appearances thereafter despite Bobby Robson's preference for Terry Butcher and Alvin Martin at centre-back.

He seemed all set to join the England 22 that had qualified for the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but he failed to make the squad after breaking his leg. The following year he joined Derby County.

Always a class act, he seemed the complete opposite to the blood and thunder of Terry Butcher. When interviewed, his light Oxfordshire accent gave the impression that he was a naive country boy.

Off the field, however, things were different. My uncle was a police inspector in Derby around the time of Wright's arrival at the Baseball Ground. He would later report that despite being a elegant player on the field and an innocent voice off it - if there was trouble in the area, Wright, and his mate Ted McMinn would often be at the heart of it. I don't know how true that is, but there were echos of truth in that years later when the duo were in charge at Oxford.

In 1990, Wright was selected as part of the England's Italia 90 squad as an understudy to Butcher and Des Walker. England's campaign opened in a dreary fashion as they wheezed their way through a 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland.

Five days later Wright would become a central figure in something that would change football forever. Robson had stuck resolutely to a very English 4-4-2 for the Ireland game, but against the Dutch he made a subtle, but profound, change by bringing in Wright as a sweeper.

The sweeper was considered a very European concept, part of a system designed to kill games. Robson, who would later go on to be a key influence across European management - not least in the schooling of Jose Mourinho. What Robson did was introduced a tactical innovation which was largely unheard of in the domestic game.

Perhaps the change was made to simply to man the barricades in the prospect of facing the likes of Gullit, Van Basten, Koeman and Rikjard who had humiliated Robson and England at the 1988 European Championships. But, the move had an unexpected by-product.

The back five provided a defensive platform that released the midfield from their defensive duties, specifically this freed up Paul Gasgoine to release some of his magic. Against the Dutch it nearly worked; with England coming closest to breaking the deadlock in a tight game.

In the final group game, Robson reverted to a back-four with Butcher rather than Wright dropping to the bench. England failed to inspire, but around the hour Wright connected with a Gasgoine cross for his only goal in an England shirt. More importantly it proved to be the winner in a group where every other game was drawn. England were through to the knockout stages.

With the stakes rising, Robson again switched Wright to the sweeper role and reintroduced Butcher for the next game against Belgium. Again, Gasgoigne thrived in the new formation with ever growing confidence freeing him to use his prodigious talent to pull the Belgians from one side of the pitch to another. But, again, the game ticked gently through the 90 minutes and then deep, deep, deep into extra-time.

England had yet to realise the penalty hoodoo it now wears around its neck like a millstone, but the tension grew. Not only was a place in the quarter-finals at stake, both teams knew that Cameroon, the rank outsiders, were waiting. It was reasonable to assume that England, if they could snatch a winner, would be odds-on favourites for a place in the semi-final and then, who knows?

Into the 119th minute and Gasgoigne stood over the ball awaiting to take a free-kick. He floated a 40 yard pass out to the back-post where David Platt was standing. Platt watched the ball drop over his shoulder and, with his eyes bulging through concentration, hooked it across the face of 'keeper Michel Preud'Homme's goal and into the net.

With that moment, England were alive. The country was swamped with optimism. New Order soundtracked the summer, Acid House historians will have you believe that everyone was on ecstasy. I'd just finished my A levels; it was a summer of parties - football followed by raving into the early hours. A golden time.

The Cameroon game came as a shock; Platt scored early, but the Africans hit back with two goals around the hour mark. With the world wishing the indomitable Lions safe passage through to the semi-finals, it seemed like England might buckle. A combination of pressure and naivety saved England as Linekar put away 2 penalties for a 3-2 win after extra-time.

Onto the semi-final and West Germany; England had momentum and confidence and launched into the game with seldom seen panache. Chris Waddle hit the crossbar from near the half-way line before the Germans scored with an improbable deflection off Paul Parker. Linekar hit back and the game went to extra-time, then penalties and then... catastrophe. We sat in an empty pub in utter silence, like we'd been thrown out of the best party in the world, or even that it had never happened at all. 

The legacy of that summer is astonishing. Wright's performances, alongside Des Walker's provided a template for future centre-backs who could play and pass as well as tackle and head. In addition, Wright's playing as a sweeper provided Gasgoigne with the freedom to release his genius. This alone saw England march to the semi-final, making football cool again. With Gasgoigne as its poster boy, Italia 90 triggered a chain of events which would lead to the formation of the Premier League and ultiamtely the creation of modern football. And at the b of the bang was Mark Wright former Oxford United centre-back.

Back into club football, Wright signed for Liverpool in 1992 at the precise moment their once great empire began to crumble. He would complete his first season by winning the FA Cup, captaining the side and lifting the cup while audibly shouting 'You fucking beauty' in front of a national TV audience and procession of dignitaries. It was his only trophy in seven years at Anfield where he eventually retired after a persistent knee injury.

Wright continued to play for England through to 1992 at which point he fell out of favour under Terry Venables. He remained out of the squad before a brief surprise return just before Euro 96 when he was injured and failed to make the squad, meaning he missed 3 tournaments through injury.

After disappearing for a while Wright re-surfaced at Southport and then Chester as a manager of some promise. Firoz Kassam appointed him manager of Oxford as the club embarked on a new era at the Kassam Stadium. It seemed like the perfect formula for a return to the big time. Despite spending heavily, the club struggled to get their season going, and Wright quickly found himself under pressure. Things came to a head when he was accused of racially abusing referee Joe Ross during a game against Scunthorpe on, ironically, race awareness day. 

Whether Kassam was acting out of a sense of ethics, or convenience, who knows, but Wright was fired and so left the club under a cloud. It largely put paid to his managerial career, which limped on for a few more years before apparently petering out.

Wright was one of the finest players ever to play for Oxford and undoubtedly one of the most successful. He was pivotal in changing perceptions of the game with his performances at Italia 90. That he'll always be remembered more for his departure from Oxford as manager than his achievements at a player is really quite sad.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The takeover rumour mill begins to grind

I know nobbyd and I've got no reason not to believe what he says about the club being up for sale. In fact the reports on BBC all but confirmed the fact this morning. Nobby certainly has a tangental connection into the club and he was the one who broke the Gary Waddock story (albeit via a different source). Yes, it's golf club talk ultimately and you can never wholly trust anything that isn't official, but I can say for certain that it's not what you might call a first degree lie in the mould of Joe Cole to Oxford.

But, we probably should be careful by the definition of the term 'For Sale'. In a sense the club is always for sale, it would seem somewhat absurd to think that Ian Lenagan values the club beyond all financial measure and the report on the radio confirmed that he has always said he'd welcome extra investment. Why wouldn't he? While I doubt he'd ever put his personal situation at risk funding the club, there is a ceiling beyond which he won't go in terms of financial support. Any extra investment could come from a partner or a complete buyout.

What this means, in reality, is that Lenagan is not going to wildly spend his way to success. But that's been part of the strategy for the last year with the new focus on home grown youth. The threat, of course, is that this proves not to be good enough and the club fails as a result.

One of the reasons that nobbyd gives for Lenagan's willingness to sell up is the club's spiralling debt, which has apparently grown to £6 million. Again, we need to consider the nature of that debt. 

If we're to believe the Lenagan (and I do) then that debt is 'soft' which I understand to mean that the club effectively owes most of its money to Lenagan himself. There are few creditors, such as the bank or Inland Revenue, who could move to put the club into administration. Which means he's unable to simply walk away from the problem (unless he is prepared to write off the debt, of course). More likely is that he will factor the debt into the asking price of the club. That's certainly what Lenagan did when he bought the club, and what Firoz Kassam did before that.

His dilemma is that he can't stop spending completely because if the club's fortunes do plummet, the asking price (i.e. the £6million debt) would be beyond most reason. However, the more money he does sink into the club without a return on the pitch effectively puts the price of the club up as the debt grows.

It seems unlikely that Lenagan will spend his way out of the situation even if he were able. There has to be a point, after eight years of ownership, in which he must realise the immovable limitations being placed upon the club.

The most interesting of all the possible exit strategies for Lenagan is perhaps the most innovative. The idea is that Lenagan engineers the sale of the club and the Kassam Stadium to a developer who demolishes the Kassam and re-develops the land whilst relocating the club to a new home.

With that scenario Kassam wins because he's rid himself of the heartache of running the stadium company, cinema and so on. The extra revenue available from the site must be moderate (for a multimillionaire); the club is unlikely to be in a position to grow revenues in the short term and the Bowlplex, cinema and the like are hardly teeming the customers themselves. But this is valuable land in the right hands; with housing prices booming, particularly in Oxford, this land could be very attractive for development.

Lenagan wins because he gets out, and the club wins because it gets a new home and its debt cleared - and hopefully benefits from the seven day a week modern football business model that others in new stadiums have enjoyed. All of which should have happened when we left The Manor.

It might leave the club at risk of becoming homeless if the new investor isn't prepared to re-home the club, but that should be covered by planning regulations. I'm no expert in such things, but the council are unlikely to entertain changing the planning use for the stadium without getting some assurances that the club will be secure, they couldn't handle that PR disaster.

Can it all fall into place? Well I'd have thought chances were less than 50:50, more likely is that a takeover will be like-for-like with the current arrangement, but it could be the dream ticket. Because, rather like people complaining about Roy Hodgson or the players for their abject World Cup performances whilst ignoring the corrosive impact of the Premier League, for every complaint about Lenagan or Waddock or the players, the real villain of the piece is, and always has been, the stadium.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

World Cup Wonder #5 - Ed McIlvenny

If you think that the run up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been shambolic, that’s got nothing on the first time they hosted the tournament in 1950.

Granted, the everyone was still recovering from World War II and football was probably a secondary consideration. None-the-less the teams who ended up in the tournament were almost there by default of being the only teams who were willing or able to participate.

Even the tournament format was cackhanded; it contrived to avoid a showpiece final with the winners being decided in a final round robin mini-league. Thankfully, the last game of the tournament; in which Uruguay beat Brazil turned out to be a winner-takes-all affair and therefore a de facto final, but still, it was a mess.

West Germany and Japan remained under nationwide house arrest following the war and were banned from competing while East Germany were too busy unpacking the boxes following their annexation. The Soviet Union led Hungary and Czechoslovakia out of qualification while Argentina, Ecuador and Peru refused to take part in South America for reasons largely unknown. Scotland were given the opportunity to participate, but refused because they’d come second in the Home Nations. Miserable sods.

Even after the draw was made teams pulled out, the French, citing logistics of travelling around a vast country and India blaming cost - although it was more likely due to a ban on barefoot players.

England, presumably buoyed by being crowned World War Champions in 1945, were making their debut in the World Cup having previously exiled themselves from FIFA over a dispute around the payment of amateurs. At the time, England generally made their assessments on situations based on things which were, and weren’t cricket. The World Cup wasn’t cricket.

It was a shame, because it seems very likely that England would have won one of the earlier World Cups as the dominant force in world football. The squad was a who’s who of 1950s football; Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Jackie Milburn, Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright all featured while Bill Nicholson and Alf Ramsey would become better known as great managers. England had only lost 3 internationals at that point, and hopes were high.

Things started well enough with a 2-0 win over Chile; four days later they faced USA, a group of amateurs cobbled together for the tournament with only seven international matches under their belt and an aggregate score of 2-45.

Matthews, at 35, was rested in preparation for tougher tests later in the tournament but the team, including Finney, Mortensen and Wright, were still 3-1 on favourites with the USA 500-1 no-hopes. The American team was captained by Ed McIlvenny, who had been drafted in just before the tournament, making his debut in their 3-1 defeat to Spain. McIlvenny wasn’t even American, he was a Scot who lived with his sister. He was only eligible to play because he said he intended to take American citizenship, although he never did. McIlvenny was made captain simply because he was British, Walter Bahr skippered the other two games in the group.

The game started as expected, England bombarded the Americans, hitting the post twice in the opening 25 minutes. In the 38th minute, Bahr got a shot away, with reports suggesting the move started with a Mcilvenny throw-in. Bert Williams, the England keeper came to collect, but Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian also on a promise to become a US citizen, dived in to wrong foot the keeper and put the ball in the net.

As England withered in the heat and despite a couple of close calls, the Americans became increasingly comfortable and even had a goal bound shot cleared from the line five minutes from the end. The Americans had pulled off the greatest shock of the age, in fact amongst the greatest shocks of all time.

In England, papers reported the result initially as a 10-1 victory, assuming that the 0-1 defeat was a simple typo. But some general snootiness around the tournament meant that much of the coverage was overshadowed by a test match defeat by the West Indies. In the US it was barely reported at all with the Americans having little context with which to judge the result - presumably those who were aware just assumed it happened all the time. It only came onto the US radar nearly forty years later when the US hosted the tournament, which inspired an academic Geoffrey Douglas to write The Game of Their Lives, the story of the win.

Which is all very nice, but what about the Oxford United connection?

Well, McIlvenny aborted his plans for US citizenship when Matt Busby of all people offered him a contract at Manchester United. He lasted just two games before heading for the Waterford in the League of Ireland; four years later he headed back to England and to Headington United, where he spent just over a year and 39 games in Harry Thompson’s Southern League side. It was a moderate season in which Headington finished 9th.

It seems odd that the captain of the team who created the greatest upset in the history of the biggest sport in the world seems so unsung. Film coverage of the game is understandably scratchy with the ‘goal’ evidently contrived from bits of generic reportage footage. The Game of The Lives was turned into a film in 2005 with McIlvenny being played by former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder, and American, John Harkes. History is re-written with Baur (played by Wes Bentley) being made captain. McIlvenny seems destined to be put into the margins of football history. We should claim him as our own.