Conversations with Scott Walkinshaw (Oxford United)
In the third installment in our Conversations series, I speak to Scott Walkinshaw, Oxford supporter and curator of that fine Yellows blog, Oxblogger. It’s been a busy summer thus far for the Us, and we speak about their recent transfer activity, as well as drilling a little deeper into ownership issues, the role of the Supporters’ Trust and the ways in which a period out of the League can alter your thinking as a football supporter.
LL: As an outsider, it seems as though Oxford have been very cute in the transfer market, getting their deals done early so that the squad is more or less fixed up in time for the start of pre-season. Do you know whether the transfers of Tony Capaldi, Michael Duberry, Jon-Paul Pittman, Deane Smalley and Andrew Whing have been in the pipeline for a while?
SW: It’s likely that the work was being done some time ago given that it was clear from about April that we’d be staying in League 2. We know that Chris Wilder does his homework and there was talk of him making a beeline for Smalley when Chesterfield visited in May. There was also speculation about Chris Hackett and Clayton Donaldson signing, but I’m sure they came up because their names are familiar. I don’t think many correctly identified the players we’ve brought in.
This is how Oxford roll under Chris Wilder. He announces his list of released players quickly and has always got his deals done as soon as possible. Under the previous management, nothing was announced until the beginning of July when contracts expired and everyone was back from holiday. We always seemed a step behind everyone else. Under Wilder, though, we tend to make 4-5 signings before the beginning of June, a gap, and then some bits and pieces during pre-season. Nobody was surprised that the deals came quick and fast, although most have been impressed by the quality of the players coming in.
LL: I’d imagine that most fans of League 2 clubs will probably be envious. You say that most supporters have been impressed by the quality of Wilder’s new signings. Which have particularly caught the eye? And on the players leaving, were there any surprise departures?
SW: There’s still a lot of sentiment surrounding the players who were in the squad that got us back into the League. Four of those released or on the transfer list were on the pitch at the final whistle of the play-off final against York (five if you count Ben Purkiss, but he was playing for York!). A few clung onto the hope that Sam Deering and Jack Midson would come good, but despite Midson hitting and unlikely hat-trick against Torquay in the Miracle of Plainmoor there’s not much to suggest they were the ones who would push us on.
We look like we’re in for a complete remodelling of the back-four. We broke a club record for the number of games we went without keeping a clean sheet, so it’s not surprising to see new defenders coming in. The quality has surprised most; Duberry has played in the Champions League and was apparently being tracked by Celtic, Capaldi is a former international and has played in a Cup Final and Whing’s departure was greeted with reassuring disappointment at Leyton Orient. We’re impressed, but I, for one, am biting my lip as to how we might do. We’ve been here before and it’s gone horribly wrong.
LL: Here before? Care to expand? Living locally, I take a keen interest in affairs at Oxford, and I notice that Wilder is pretty outspoken. Do you think he’s capable of taking the club to the next step?
SW: We haven’t won a title in 27 years. In 1996 we finished second, but only after massive turn around in fortunes and a run-in of 14 wins, 3 draws and a defeat. In 2003-04 we lost one of our first 26 games and didn’t even make the play-offs. Our first year in the Conference we broke the record for an unbeaten start to the year, led the table at Christmas, and didn’t go up. When we were promoted from the Conference we fell apart for a period before recovering. The year we were relegated from the League we started with Brian Talbot promising back-to-back promotions. Hell, we’ve even failed under the ‘South American Alex Ferguson’ Ramon Diaz. We haven’t had a full season of consistent success for a long time.
However, it’s a bit different now. The Conference was sobering and I don’t think there’s the same feeling of entitlement any more. We enjoy being a football club now, whereas we used to be full of angst that we were performing below our ‘natural’ position. There’s absolute trust in Chris Wilder and chairman Kelvin Thomas being the team that can take us further; they certainly deserve the right to try, given what they’ve done for the club.
For me, Wilder’s biggest challenge is establishing consistency. There’s something in our DNA which means we find it really difficult. Wilder just hasn’t stopped signing players since the day he arrived. He goes through periods where the balance of the side is wrong – last year we went 12 games with two wins, whilst shipping out parts of the Conference squad and bringing in some frankly awful loans. The biggest single risk is that we have a similar period next season and he can’t find a new mix that works. I think, sometimes, he needs to stick when he’s desperate to twist.
LL: Tell us more about Kelvin Thomas and the set up behind the scenes, Scott. Is it a locally-based board? And whatever happened to Firoz Kassam?
SW: Firoz Kassam still owns the ground, making money from rent, catering and pitch-side advertising. Most people saw his motivation was to secure a massive land deal; I’m probably in a minority of one who thinks that’s too simplistic. He was too high profile for it to be a simple land-grab.
I think he originally bought into the myth of club ownership; pots of money and new found legitimacy amongst the business elite. His wealth was originally built on finding a guaranteed income (asylum seekers) and a product which could be delivered at minimum cost (accommodation). He couldn’t stomach the investment needed to satisfy a demanding customer. When mutual frustrations entrenched all sides, he went back to doing what he did best; making money.
The club is now owned by Woodstock Partners, a consortium lead by Ian Lenagan, who owns Harlequins RLFC. The consortium are local, but that’s more because it’s an attractive part of the world for rich people to live than any long term links to the club.
Chairman Kelvin Thomas is the catalyst behind the revival. I think he’s part of an emerging generation of new football business men, similar to, say, Huw Jenkins at Swansea City. He invests in the product (the first team), engages with the customer (the fans), and runs the club by normal business rules. Thomas makes sure the club maintains a positive public image – see the response to the ‘pink Ox’ incident last year, engages with the community (12th Man Fund), he’s developed an innovative shirt sponsorship deal that the club, fans and sponsor benefit from. Chris Wilder was the first manager in a generation to be appointed by interview. He’s even developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Kassam, negotiating profit share on some of Kassam’s earnings. This is a massive change from the previous incumbent, Nick Merry, who had a dream, a ‘passion’ and a mate (Jim Smith), but no viable plan. Thomas was Oxblogger’s ‘Player’ of the Year in 2009.
LL: It’s good to hear that things are looking rosy, Scott, but how successful do you think the club can be while Kassam is skimming off the profits? Also, I’m guessing that the answer would be no, but would there be any way that the club might look to buy the ground back, possibly with Oxford City Council’s help?
Finally, I’ve heard good things about the Supporters’ Trust at Oxford. Where do they fit in to all of this?
SW: Our mid to long-term prospects are totally constrained by Kassam owning the ground. It’s not just the match day income; the attached conference centre, executive boxes and even the car park are potential income earners for the club on non-match days, but they see nothing of this. There will be a tipping point at which good management and match day income won’t be enough. I think the middle of League 1 is a reasonable target in the current situation. After that, new sources of revenue will be needed to keep momentum bubbling away.
The situation in terms of purchasing the ground is described by the club as being ‘fluid’. I understand one of the sticking points is that Kassam isn’t budging on the price despite the ground being 10 years old with no noticeable investment since it was built. The other issue is the club finding the money; I don’t know much about Oxford City Council, but as far as I can tell they seem to be in a constant state of being virtually bankrupt.
I don’t think about it much, but OxVox have done a really good job. They acted with admirable constraint and not a little political nous in maintaining a channel of communication through to Kassam during a period in which it would have been easy to sit back and sling mud at him. Some, I think, would like to have seen them being more aggressive and vocal, but they saw a longer-term picture which helped navigate the club to calmer waters.
Last year, they were involved in the launch of the 12th Man Fund, which raised money specifically to invest in players. This worked well in the Conference, but I think there’s a realisation that the fans’ fundraising capacity is unlikely to make a significant impact on player acquisition in the League.
Their biggest challenge now, I think, is that now the club are in a period of relative stability, so what role does it play? There seems to be a working assumption that Trusts are needed to protect clubs from peril. If no peril exists, how does it stay relevant to fans? I suppose the next crisis is never far away!
LL: This is illuminating stuff, Scott, and just goes to show the perils of separating club and ground. Plymouth and Stockport supporters for one may want to look away now. Knowing that there’s perhaps a glass ceiling that could curtail your ambitions, then, does Kassam’s spectre leave a bitter taste or do you go on following the team in the same way as you always have? I guess what I’m trying to get at is that, as a Plymouth fan, I’m finding it difficult to support my club in the way I used to given the continued involvement of asset-stripping individuals that I’d really prefer to have nothing to do with. I find myself worrying constantly about the gap that is emerging between ourselves and those clubs that we formerly shared Championship status with, let alone the teams in the top flight.
On a slightly brighter note, though, I see that Oxblogger recently had its 5th birthday which confirms its status as one of the more established club sites in the blogosphere. Tell us more about your aims and objectives upon starting up the website and how these have developed over the last half-decade.
SW: I’m more cynical about the club. I realise players want contracts over glory and not losing is as important as winning for managers. Although I praise Kelvin Thomas, part of me still expects the club to plunge into yet another crisis.
In professional cycling, when someone wins you think; ‘is he on drugs?’ Post-Kassam, when something good happens, I think ‘what’s the bad thing that allowed that to happen’.
So, do Oxford fans need to accept that our glory years in the mid-80s were directly or indirectly funded by stolen money from the Mirror Group pension fund? It’s not how I grew up remembering those years.
The positive side is that fan-culture has thrived. As the ‘business’ of football has become more evident, the ‘club’ concept has grown amongst the fans. By 2006 Kassam was isolated and pursuing his business goals; we were bored and bewildered. We played Rochdale in a tedious draw when the fans started slamming their seats and chanting. It was nothing to do with what was happening on the pitch, it wasn’t a protest against Kassam. It was a spontaneous display that a club still existed within the fans; even without a team, owner, manager or ground. After that people started bringing flags and an ‘ultra’ movement developed.
At Wembley there was a banner: ‘Destiny Awaits You’. That says we decide what defines the club. We don’t sit back passively waiting for success, which for years we did.
Our ambitions have been curtailed, though. We had a perception of having a ‘natural’ position as a Championship club. The angst of failing to attain that has gone. I’m not that bothered with ever being in the Premier League again; I don’t want us to start foregoing pre-season friendlies with Brackley and Thame to go on brand building tours in Thailand. We’re more comfortable in our own skin – we’re not defined by our league position, but by our fans. Shedding the false ambition is a painful process but there’s a lot to be said for being a lower league club.
When I started Oxblogger we’d just been relegated. Losing your League place – which I thought was a birthright – makes you realise that life isn’t linear. I wanted to keep track of the journey we were taking. I like the idea that whatever the destination, legends are created (like the origin of Jamie Cook, The True Carrier of Hope). I wanted to capture those memories, because they get lost otherwise. I avoid match reports and transfer gossip. I have no agenda; I’m really inconsistent with my views, but I think it would be wrong not to be. I’m just a fan and that’s all I want to be.
I’d like to invite others to contribute (I’d love some posts from opposition fans about our games next season). I’m thinking about publishing an eBook at the end of the season, just for the hell of it. A season is rambling and inconsistent, which is what I want to capture. Then again, I’ll probably not get round to any of it!
Our thanks to Scott for an enjoyable Conversation on a club we’ve failed to cover as often as we’d have liked. If you’d like to help Scott out by providing a guest post for Oxblogger, then you can contact him on twitter.