Chris Williams writes:
Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the lockdown began, I started writing a weekly feature because, well, I like writing and it seemed the right thing to do at the time.
I can rattle through 800 words on any subject (often no subject) but this week it seems the right time to offer a slightly more serious feature and look at where we actually are as a football club.
Let’s do it chronologically. The regular world of Oxford United ended on a Friday, the day before we were due to play MK Dons at home. The game was cancelled and the club was mothballed with people working from home where they could for the next week. There was one big meeting the following week where all of the Heads of Department were reunited and talked through how we could exist during the inevitable lockdown that was to follow.
Since then we have been in regular contact- having a Chairman in Thailand meant we were already well versed in modern communication methods so Zoom held no fears for us - the media team, incidentally remain big fans of Slack, our remote working tool of choice. There have been regular meetings online across the club and the only thing missing has been the banter and merriment that usually happens at the training ground- that Jamie Mackie ‘stay inside, test your eyes’ video seems an age ago, doesn’t it?
Furlough has been tough on a number of staff but typically they have found ways to channel their boundless energy, delivering food, working with the NHS, calling fans for fun in their own time. A special mention here for Peter Rhoades-Brown who has made thousands, and I mean thousands of calls to allow half of Oxfordshire to remind him, in person, that he is a Chelsea Reject. But it’s unfair to single out Rosie. All of the staff have been magnificent and credit to the club as well because there have been regular calls to check everyone is doing OK at what has been a very stressful time.
Personally, I have had different challenges but have not been on furlough. I’d always prefer to work and because I freelance I have been able to carry on communicating. Same with social media whizz kid Kath Faulkner but also the same with a number of key staff including secretary Mick Brown, accountant Pete Dunnill and of course, the extraordinary Karl Robinson.
You all know what Karl is like- he has a lot of energy. Some of it he has channeled into working with mental health organisations over the last few weeks but football managers never truly switch off and he has been absolutely incredible throughout lockdown.
From Week 1 the players were on zoom calls and able to go through their paces under Chris Short with Karl watching on. Once furloughed they were sent weekly exercise programmes, but also given some downtime because they have worked relentlessly since last July without a break and once it became clear that football wasn’t going to kick off for a while they were allowed a little recovery time.
While they rested Niall McWilliams and the Board went into overdrive to make sure the club was heard when the EFL met. Between us we spent countless hours sharing information and ideas, working closely with David Garth, who heads up the Commercial side of the club as a consultant and who ensured that WHEN we know what is happening then we will be ready with the best information possible to make decisions on everything from streaming to season tickets; look out for a second range of masks very soon.
The players have stepped up their fitness regime over the last two weeks, especially with the accompanying relaxation of the rules. Running on parkland resulted in a couple of twisted ankles plus people keep stopping the players and asking for selfies (seriously) so once travel restrictions were lifted they were given the option of using the training ground and most of them have taken advantage of that because Scott the groundsman has done amazing work to ensure the pitches are great, with help from his hilarious helper Toby- I may well give him his own series once we get back.
Both have worked throughout and have done so strictly under the correct guidelines while Andrew Harvey has maintained the buildings (and much more, another unsung hero at the club); the last thing you want is players to finally report back and catch a terrible disease because nobody has run the water through!
I popped in the other day to observe from a distance and psychologically it made such a difference to be back around my usual place of work and to see familiar (masked) faces. The only difference was some rascal haircuts and beards because nobody has been to a barber's. Yes Fordy, I’m looking at you…
It’s a big area but players could only come in for a booked time slot and had to be back in their cars and out of the gate before the next player arrived. No loitering, no small talk and entirely voluntary - if you weren’t comfortable with the idea then do the work remotely because everything from how far you run to how hard your heart was working is carefully monitored through assorted apps and equipment which I try very hard to avoid ever since I was a dummy for a blood pressure testing kit and demoed it for the youth team: “I think it’s broken” Les Taylor said, tapping the dial to move it from the red. I have been on daily pills ever since…
Karl was, of course, there, looking on safely and by the end of this week the plan is for all of us to have been tested and to be ready for a more structured return, again following all of the correct protocols. I’d go in to detail but it would be out of date by the time I clicked publish, such is the speed things are moving. Amy Cranston has produced a terrific document on what can and can’t be done and slowly, but surely, the club is stirring.
Don’t all come shouting at me if the season ends abruptly, but I suspect we will play again, whether that is to end the season or for play-offs. A decision isn’t expected this week so everything, on and off the pitch, will continue to tick over and move forward.
In the bigger scheme of things football really isn’t that important, but for some of us it remains everything and when the chance to be reunited properly happens then we will have learned lessons, we will have grown stronger, and trust me, we will be ready…
Chris Williams is the club's Communications Manager but the views expressed in this article are his own, other than the bit he nicked from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the club.