Firoz Kassam was in a quandary in November 2004. Of all the managers he’d appointed since buying Oxford United for £1 five years previously, the latest, Graham Rix, was arguably the worst. Since his arrival in March that year, Rix had managed to torpedo the side’s promotion campaign, guiding a team in the play-off places when he took over to a ninth place finish. Then, despite bringing in numerous new players over the summer, he seemed to be plotting the coordinates for relegation to the Conference. A run of just one win in 11 games in September and October (taking in a 6-1 humping at Yeovil and a 4-0 battering by Southend) had The Us looking nervously over their shoulders, while they were dumped out of the FA Cup in the first round.
Further damage to the club’s image was done following an unsavoury incident involving striker Julian Alsop, a young trainee and a banana, for which Alsop was sacked. Morale was low, and in November, with the club fifth from bottom, Kassam brought Rix’s reign to an end. But who to appoint? Never the most popular chap in OX4, the hotelier had a voracious appetite for hiring and firing managers, but few of the six he’d got through at that point, be they experienced old stagers (Malcolm Shotton, Denis Smith) or up and comers (Mark Wright) had been able to arrest the club’s prolonged decline. Caretaker Darren Patterson didn’t seem the man for the job either. So Kassam surveyed the options and did what any self-respecting owner of a basement club would do. He appointed the third best manager in the world…
While the credibility of website www.world-coach.com, which bestowed the global bronze of football management on Ramon Dìaz, was perhaps somewhat dubious, his credentials could not be disputed. The one-time golden boy of Argentinian football and a pivotal player for Internazionale during the late 80s, as a manager he’d racked up no less than five Argentinean league titles and one Copa Libertadores with River Plate. It was with astonishment, then, that his appointment was met when Kassam unveiled him to assorted hacks expecting the announcement of former Hartlepool boss Chris Turner as the new man.
It’s still not entirely clear why Dìaz was tempted to take the job. The deal was supposedly brokered by one Jean-Marc Goiran, a ‘mutual friend’ of Dìaz and Kassam who also counted Prince Albert of Monaco among his acquaintances and joined the club as assistant manager. Dìaz insisted that he had always wanted to manage in English football: “I like English football and I wanted to get first-hand experience of it…I’d seen plenty of it on television…It’s also very interesting to work at this level, because it’s completely different from football at the top” he said. Kassam, for his part, merely stated that the Argentine was “here to get me out of a hole”.
The waters were further muddied by suggestions that Dìaz and his entourage would not be receiving a salary over the course of their initial six-month deal, and that Dìaz would receive a 10% stake in the club. This was later refuted by Kassam.
Despite barely speaking a word of English between them, the South Americans made an instant impact. Kicking off with a vital win in his first match in charge against rivals Cambridge, ‘the Dìaz effect’ saw Oxford lose just one of their next 10 games. By the end of his first full month, they’d risen from relegation fodder to play-off contenders, and Dìaz scooped League 2’s manager of the month award.
This was ironic given that, to all intents and purposes, Ramon Dìaz was merely a figurehead. He was rarely in attendance at away games and missed plenty of home matches too, spending most of his time in Monaco. Tactics and team selection were left to head coach Horacio Rodriguez.
Whoever was in charge though, the difference they made – initially at least – was mesmeric. Oxford were suddenly playing fast, attacking football and were involved in some thrilling games, including a 3-3 draw with Rushden and Diamonds and a great 3-2 win over former manager Ian Atkins’ Bristol Rovers side.
The exotic names recruited under the Dìaz/Goiran/Rodriguez regime proved a mixed bag. The manager’s sons, Emiliano and Michael Dìaz, almost invariably come up in fans’ discussions about the worst player ever to pull on a yellow shirt. Lucas Cominelli, at one time on Newcastle’s books, took time to settle but gradually began to show his tenacity in a midfield partnership with Barry Quinn. Though lightweight, the skills of attacking midfielder Juan Pablo Raponi earned him cult status, while former Barnsley left back Mateo Corbo’s hardman stylings similarly endeared him to the faithful at the Kassam Stadium.
More impressive was the effect the new management team had on the club’s existing players. Tommy Mooney earned himself the nickname ‘Moonaldo’ as he and Steve Basham got themselves regularly among the goals. Young forward Craig Davies found his feet during the Dìaz era and was soon being linked to clubs higher up the pyramid. 22-year-old winger Chris Hackett’s form put him on Marseille’s radar. Even Jamie Brooks made a short-lived comeback. A teen prodigy, Brooks had been about to sign for Arsenal when he was struck down by Guillain–Barré syndrome and left fighting for his life. Doctors told his parents more than once that they didn’t expect him to live through the night, yet just two years later he was back and scoring goals for the Us. A feelgood factor emerged, and even the language barrier was proving no barrier to success. “English and Spanish aren’t that different. We all know what tranquilo means,” Mooney unconvincingly told The Daily Telegraph at the time.
However, no sooner had that momentum developed than it began to fizzle. After that award-winning introduction in December and January, Oxford won just five of their final 17 games. Behind the scenes there was uncertainty; the relationship between Kassam and the Argentines was deteriorating, and negotiations over extending their contracts beyond their six-month tenure were faltering. Both Dìaz and Rodriguez missed the team’s Easter weekend games, ostensibly due to visa problems, and the ongoing tumult appeared to affect the players: “Somebody needs to step up and talk and tell us what’s happening,” said Basham in an interview with The Oxford Mail that March. “It’s unsettling, but we have to get on with it”.
The team still had their moments, losing just once in March, with exciting wins over Mansfield and Boston along the way; leaders Southend were beaten 2-1 in April. But the play-off dream proved all too fleeting. Ultimately, having missed a 5-1 tonking at Rochdale while contract talks continued, Dìaz, Rodriguez and co left the club before the final game of the season, at home to Chester, having failed to reach an agreement.
There was, naturally, still a twist in the tale however. Dìaz and his entourage, having made many friends in Oxford, turned up at the Chester game anyway, despite Kassam – piqued, supposedly, at the South Americans announcing their departure to the players before him – telling them to stay away. What followed was the infamous ‘storming of the Kassam’. Oxford fan and blogger Scott Walkinshaw takes up the story:
‘The Dìaz entourage tried, unsuccessfully, to gain entry to the ground via a number of entrances. They kept appearing in the gaps between the stands with a steward ushering them away. This led to the bizarre spectacle of the Oxford Mail (home) stand facing away from the pitch and out of the ground chanting ‘let them in’ as the game went on…it was the most bizarre experience I’ve had at a football ground’
Oxford finished 15th in 2004-05, 13 points off the play-offs and 21 away from the drop zone. The Argentines had indeed got Kassam “out of a hole”, but the owner later claimed they had cost him over £300,000 and that extending their deal would have cost over £500,000 – money, he argued, the club couldn’t afford. Dìaz returned to Argentina and within two years had won yet another league title, this time with San Lorenzo. He’s now back with his first love, River Plate. Oxford, meanwhile, would only have to wait another year to be rid of Kassam, when he sold up to a consortium fronted by US-based businessman (and Us fan) Nick Merry. But things would have to get worse, courtesy of a four-year spell in the Conference, before they could get better.
The brief injection of Albiceleste into Oxford is but a bizarre footnote in the history of a famous old club, and in the end the excitement and intrigue off the pitch far overshadowed and outlasted that which occurred on it. Yet the flair and promise displayed in that Buenos Aires-flavoured false dawn is fondly remembered by many Us fans. There will always be a glass of Malbec waiting in Oxford for Ramon Dìaz and his friends.