Welcome to our long-awaited League 1 meeting with Swindon Town.
My first taste of the rivalry between the two sides was in last season’s JPT game and I am sure today the atmosphere will be just as electric. Accordingly, it is a great pleasure to welcome fans, players and officials from Swindon. Let’s hope the game justifies the occasion and is a great advert for football in general, and local derbies in particular.
Local rivalry in football and achieving ‘bragging rights’ is part of the fabric of football. It is this partisanship which makes football the fantastic game it is but let’s remember, we all have a responsibility to support our team, respect the opposition, and most of all, ensure that all our energies are channelled positively and without excess. We aspire to be a ‘Community Club’ – let’s put that into practice today!
I discuss below two main themes which are uppermost in my thinking – our squad and our activity in the transfer windows – and some initial thoughts on the ‘Whole Game Solution’ which is currently in the consultation stage.
We are now six games into the season. Our performances may best be described as a ‘curate’s egg’ – good in parts! I think it is clear that there is a perceptible increase in quality in League 1 but at the same time, we have nothing to fear and can look forward to an exciting season.
Without doubt, defensively, our plans have been disrupted by injury, which has meant that, so far, Michael has been unable to play an unchanged side – a vital ingredient, in my view, in achieving the consistency required to consolidate first and foremost, and then see where we are at around the half-way stage of the season.
What I can say is that I am delighted with our squad and, indeed, our overall success in the transfer window. We have a robust, structured and planned approach to recruitment and we managed to secure virtually all our of our key targets identified at the beginning of the window, albeit somewhat later than we had anticipated, but, as is often the case, timing is not always within our control.
As well as Michael and Faz, I would like to mention the roles of Craig Dean and Mark Thomas in identifying, analysing and performing due diligence on players. It really is a labour of love and both deserve great credit.
In my view, we have strengthened both the quality and depth of the squad, as well as having excellent balance once we are injury free! It is overall a young squad, with highly talented group of players, many of whom can go onto play at higher levels – hopefully at Oxford United!
We believe we have built wisely, both in terms of investment through transfer fees and a significant but judicious increase in the playing budget. We are very fortunate to have a manager who understands the realities of football and who seeks to build for the future through investment in talent, while also recognising the need to try and balance the books.
I have always said, whether it is business or sport, it is ‘people before plans’. If you get the people right, and the culture right, and focus on the how and a consistently high level of performance, both on and off the pitch, then the results will come. This, in my view, is the only way to build sustainable long-term success.
Under Michael’s stewardship and with Greig now settled into his new role, I believe we are developing a highly capable, increasingly professional set up, based on a community-orientated team-based ethic and putting the interests of Oxford United Football Club first.
Turning next to the very outline proposals for a ‘Whole Game Solution’.
First of all, I would stress that this is a complex issue with many conflicting perspectives. Resolution will be achieved only by open and transparent debate and full engagement with all key stakeholders, especially fans.
All of us, myself included, need to ensure we don’t adopt a slightly self-righteous, superior position, as I believe we are all fans who love the game of football and want to do our best to ensure the sport prospers over the long term, while also protecting the traditions which have served the game so well and ensure the game stays true to its heritage.
Based on the above, it is premature, at this stage, to make any detailed response to the ‘Whole Game Solution’ proposals because there is simply not enough substance to the proposals at this stage, especially in terms of what is the issue we are solving, what are the real benefits, what alternatives have been considered and, of course, what are the financial implications.
Many fans believe that there is a hidden agenda and, as part of the proposals, there is an intention to introduce ‘B’ teams into the League structure. This is not my view - I may be wrong! But I do not doubt the honourable intentions of the Football League.
However, I do think the process of publication of the ‘Whole Game Solution’ proposals so far have created a climate of suspicion. There has been inadequate consultation, a seeming lack of transparency and poor communication, and this must change if any proposals are to have legitimacy. This must include appropriate engagement with fans!
At this stage, I have focused my attention on considering what issue we are seeking to resolve, especially from the point of view of a League 1 professional club:
- Is there really fixture congestion outside the Premier League necessitating a change to league structure, including a 5th division and additional teams?
- If the answer above is yes, is the answer a wholesale reorganisation of the League structure?
- If the answer again to this is yes, and there are additional teams, it must be clear from the outset that any new League teams earn the right to be in league structure, which means promotion from the National League, subject, of course, to the National League being happy with this.
On other important issues such as a winter break or regionalisation, I speak as a fan and am wholly against both for Football League clubs.
What I can say, unequivocally, is that we will form a structured OUFC response to the fully formed ‘Whole Game Proposal’ and this will be done after full consultation with our fans. We have already had a preliminary meeting with OxVox and, in the interests of expediency and efficiency, I would recommend that all fans views are diverted to OxVox so that they can get a fairer picture of the overall ‘fan’ perspective.
I hope I do not come across as against change. For me, change is essential and perpetual, but there is no point in change for the sake of change.
I welcome the commitment by the FA, Premier League and Football League to look at better solutions and I look forward to a constructive and lively discussion over the ensuing months and, ultimately, large-scale agreement to a solution which safeguards the game at all levels.