Graveside manor

Martin Brodetsky explains how a failed stadium scheme has pushed a club on the fringe of elite towards destruction

On Wednesday November 25th over 700 people crammed into Oxford Town Hall to attend a meeting organised by the pressure group FOUL (Fighting for Oxford United’s Life). The group was formed in November in response to the club’s dire situation: £13.5 million in debt; losing about £12,000 each week; a half-built stadium rusting away on the city outskirts (see WSC 140); and facing imminent receivership.

A lot has happened since the start of the season. John Gunn, a venture capitalist and the public face of Grenoble Investments, the consortium negotiating to purchase own­er Robin Herd’s 89.2 per cent shareholding, resigned his position after the Oxford Mail revealed he had been investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry in the wake of the £1.5 billion collapse of his British & Commonwealth finance group in 1990. United’s managing director Keith Cox blamed the Mail for Gunn’s withdrawal, although the article exonerated Gunn from any wrongdoing. Gunn himself was quoted as saying that his resignation was as a result of “studying the club’s accounts”, which gave an alarming insight into how much it would cost to keep the business afloat. This after he had been involved in negotiations for some months.

Gunn also cited the fact that the Oxford Local Plan contains a clause that no development will be allowed on the site of the Manor until a new venue is ready for the club to move to. The consortium claimed they were unable to guarantee the funding for the completion of the new stadium, so they decided it would be too risky to buy the Manor under those conditions. The whole fu­ture of the club was now suddenly thrown into doubt, as everything was contingent on this takeover succ­eeding (despite many fans’ concern that Grenoble’s only interest is the land value of the Manor and the new stadium at Minchery Farm).

The club held crisis talks with the remaining mem­bers of Grenoble (whose identities still remain un­known) and it appeared the deal had been rescued. Yet numerous potential sticking points remained, including the price to be paid for Herd’s shares, assurances required by Taylor Woodrow, the construction firm engaged to build Minchery Farm, over Grenoble’s ability to complete the stadium, and the anonymity of the consortium members. Or was it just that the con­sortium decided to hold out until the club went into administration so they could buy it for a cut-price fee?

Nobody outside the negotiations knows the truth, but if the deal is not concluded by the end of January the club will almost certainly have to call in the ad­ministrators. Non-playing staff, including manager Malcolm Shotton, had not been paid for two months, until the cut-price sale of goalkeeper Phil Whitehead to West Brom for just £250,000. The players received wages a week late at the end of October, and then only with the intervention of the PFA (who also had to help out the two previous months). They were paid in November out of the proceeds of Whitehead’s sale, but then the club needed to bring in another goalkeeper, which they were unable to do until the PFA had been repaid £50,000 owed by United.

The sale of England Under-21 left back Simon Marsh to Birmingham (also for £250,000) was in­ev­itable as the club’s other bills started to mount. It was at this point that another potential rescuer emerged, with the news that rugby union club London Irish were considering moving, having been denied planning permission to develop their ground at Sunbury on the outskirts of south-west London and were looking at the possibility of a ground-share. Oxford were mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea and Fulham, but the circumstances at Oxford would lead to London Irish paying for the construction of the Minchery Farm ground and running it as landlords. United would be tenants, which would mean losing ownership of their major asset.

A deal has to be struck by the end of January if there is to be football played at Minchery Farm next season, and we have been told there can be no football at the Manor in season 1999-2000. The terracing fails to conform to new safety standards and to repair, replace or convert to seats would all be prohibitively expensive. In the wake of Brighton’s problems in playing at Gillingham the Football League has introduced res­trictions on clubs sharing grounds outside their own conurbation, so a share with Wycombe, Reading or even Swindon is out of the question. Which means that for United it’s Minchery or bust.

Against this background, what can a supporters’ pressure group hope to achieve? The first aim of FOUL was to publicise the club’s plight and to ensure that if Oxford United dies it won’t be because of ignorance. This has so far been highly successful, with a lot of high-profile media coverage. The second aim of FOUL has also been partially achieved with the Town Hall meeting; that is to mobilise supporters so that FOUL can be truly representative.

The third and hardest aim is to move towards the creation of a community club, following the model pioneered by Bournemouth, should Oxford be put into administration. To this end FOUL has already held talks with the solicitor who acted for the supporters of Bournemouth, and aims to enter into meetings with the club’s creditors to see what deals might be made once the club enters into administration.

If United go under there is a real danger that it could trigger a domino effect with Ports­mouth, Tranmere, Chester, Mansfield, Hull and others in financial straits following suit. So we are aiming to turn the FOUL cam­paign into a national fight, not just for the future of Oxford United, but to try to unite fans of threatened clubs throughout the country into one powerful lobby group. Fantasy? Perhaps, but if we can save Oxford United then we will know that nothing is impossible.

From WSC 144 February 1999. What was happening this month