"Owning a football club is not an easy enterprise"
Merry Christmas to all and best wishes for a healthy and fulfilling 2017.
Today, we welcome Northampton Town for the traditional and much anticipated Boxing Day fixture which should attract a sell-out crowd with atmosphere to match.
Players, fans and officials of Northampton are especially welcome as we meet for the first time in League 1 following both our promotions last season. The transformation of Northampton’s fortunes since Kelvin Thomas took over has been remarkable. Kelvin was very helpful and supportive of me when I first took over at Oxford United two-and-a-half years ago and I am delighted that he is at the helm at Northampton.
This is naturally a time of year which encourages reflection on the year past and anticipation of the year ahead. Today is an opportunity for me to give some of my own reflections and thoughts as we reach the half-way point in the season.
As mentioned earlier, it is near enough two-and-a-half years since I became Chairman and major shareholder. My overarching sentiments are satisfaction with the progress we have made since then and the exciting times we have already enjoyed together, allied to a recognition that there is still much to do in the months and years ahead.
Owning a football club is not an easy enterprise and the highs and lows are like no other! Those that know me best know that I am no good at the status quo and my driver is to build sustainable success and seek to achieve as much as possible as soon as possible, but on sound foundations.
So, after two-and-a-half years, the major highlights for me are threefold:
1) Without doubt, our progress on the pitch has been outstanding under Michael’s leadership and aided by a highly professional coaching and backroom staff. We have a young and very talented squad of players which will continue to improve, auguring well for the future.
2) Equally as important to me and, in many ways, crucial to achieving success on the pitch, has been building the togetherness and a feel-good factor across the club but especially between fans, players and management. Starting in Austria, throughout last season, over the summer in Spain and continuing in earnest in the season to date, the camaraderie and mutual support across the large majority of the club is fantastic and I am sure will carry us forward together, whatever the future holds.
3) Our progress in developing OUFC in the community has also been commendable. Started by Caroline Robbins, and now continuing under the leadership of Kate Longworth, the Trust is really beginning to take shape. My own passion is education and I am delighted with our partnership with the Oxford Academy and I hope that we can continue to expand our activities with a view to helping make a positive difference across our communities.
Having said the above, there are a couple of ‘elephants in the room’ that continue to hamper the development of the club and our journey to build sustainable success.
Without question, the two key issues are owning and operating the stadium and finding a long-term solution for the location of our training ground for both first team and academy.
To be frank, I would have hoped to have made more progress on both of these issues and am frustrated, to say the least, that insufficient progress has been made.
Although I am a natural optimist, I feel that without resolution of these issues, the club cannot be built sustainably, even if success is achieved on the pitch.
My biggest disappointment has been my failure to get alignment between the council and Firoz Kassam to provide tangible help to this club. Oxford United is the only professional club in Oxfordshire and if the club is important to the city and to the county, I think the time has come for the relevant councils to play a more proactive and supportive role to ensure that the long-term ownership and operation of both ground and training ground are resolved in favour of the club.
Without resolution, the club, whatever success is built on this pitch, will always be handicapped in terms of building infrastructure, building revenue, and ultimately building sustainability.
I am delighted that OxVox and Firoz Kassam are discussing potential solutions to the stadium but, following the public announcement in early October that a deal is achievable, I have heard little since and I am not sure what would hold up what is in essence a simple transaction if, indeed, there is a willing buyer and a willing seller.
I have stressed previously that I have made what I believe to be a generous offer for the stadium. It appears that Firoz has said that he will not sell to me, although I am not clear why this is the case. It is true that we are negotiating on the service charge but this is a simple commercial negotiation based on what is a fair charge for the club to use the stadium on match days.
I must admit to being somewhat confused by Firoz’s motivation as he consistently says he wants to help the football club but there is little evidence, certainly during my two-and-a-half years, of real tangible help being delivered.
I would prefer that we start 2017 with generosity of spirit and a desire to secure the future for the club and that there is much more of a partnership approach – win/win for all.
It is clear that the biggest single element of support that Firoz could give to the club would be to allow Oxford United to own and operate the stadium. This would be the ultimate legacy.
Too often, too much of the discussion surrounding the stadium is acrimonious. We need to look forward and not back. To this end, I am seeking to arrange an open meeting in January to which I will invite both city and county councils, OxVox, fans in general, the club and Firoz Kassam so that we can have an open discussion about the future of the stadium, especially to consider all options, including building a new stadium.
Surely the club is more important than the stadium being regarded just as a commercial property asset? The stadium is the heart of any club and needs to be the vibrant hub around which all club activities are based.
If Firoz, the councils, OxVox and all other stakeholders want this, then let’s make it happen. I have no doubt that if all parties are reasonable and want to help the football club, then such a transaction can easily be concluded.
I would urge all fans to get behind a positive campaign to realise the dream of the stadium ownership for the long term as soon as possible. In this way, we can then truly begin to build for the future – indeed, this is the only way.
As we look towards 2017, this is my overarching objective. This is a wonderful club and for too long now the issue of stadium and club being separate has not been resolved. I would like everyone: Firoz, councils, OxVox, fans and club to come together to make this happen.
Beyond this, we have much to anticipate. We are in the third round of the FA Cup, the last 16 of the Checkatrade Trophy, and are handily placed in the league, with an improving squad.
So back to optimistic mood – wouldn’t it be fantastic if 2017 could be the year we secure the long-term future of the club and challenge at the top end of League 1 – that would be real progress!
Get behind the club and the team today and for the remainder of the season, both on and off the pitch.