The appointment of a big-name Argentine manager has created rare excitement at Oxford, though Martin Brodetsky is not sure that he will entirely enjoy the ride

It was arguably the most surprising managerial appointment of the season so far. Ramón Díaz has a CV that would put most Premiership managers’ to shame: five times Argentine champions with River Plate, plus a Copa Libertadores win thrown in, after a very impressive playing record. Indeed, one some­what spurious web site ( ranked him the third best coach in the world (after compatriot Carlos Bianchi and Louis van Gaal), so it’s no wonder that the football world raised its collective eyebrows when news broke of his appointment as Oxford manager on December 9.

The deal seemed bizarre. In addition to bringing in his own back-room team, consisting of two coaches, a doctor, a physio and two translators (Díaz speaks no English), it transpired that Díaz wasn’t actually being paid for his time. Although the actual facts are, typically for anything involving United chairman Firoz Kassam, somewhat hazy, it would appear that Díaz will receive ten per cent of the club’s shares should he guide them to promotion at the end of his six-month tenure.

Díaz, who was being tipped to become Argen­tina coach just a couple of years ago, resigned as River Plate coach in 2002 in protest at club president David Pintado’s austerity drive following the collapse of the Argentine economy. So why did he decide to come out of self-imposed retirement to manage a club fifth from bottom of the fourth division, for no salary, when he could have gone to coach Lazio instead? According to Kassam, it was to “help me out of a hole”, although it would be surprising if Díaz’s motives were quite so philanthropical.

The answer, it would seem, lies with Jean-Marc Goiran, the Monaco-based mutual friend of Kassam and Díaz, who introduced the pair and who is acting as one of Díaz’s translators. Goiran is involved with Barnaby Holdings (also based in Monaco), a consortium that includes former Brazil star Dunga and that bought a ten per cent stake in QPR at the start of the season. At that time Díaz was reportedly being lined up to replace Ian Holloway, but the Rangers manager’s popularity put paid to that idea and he continued to twiddle his thumbs in Monaco, where Kassam happens to be based for tax reasons.

There are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding the affair. What happens at the end of six months, whether or not United are promoted, when Díaz’s contract runs out? Will he stick around if he’s got his ten per cent, or will he use his experience as leverage to gain a position with a Premiership or Cham­p­ionship outfit? What use is this ten per cent anyway, with Kassam owning 70 per cent of the club? Or is this the first tentative step towards a takeover?

Oxford’s supporters are, understandably, more con­cerned with seeing the club rise out of the basement division and if Díaz can achieve that then they won’t be too troubled by these other considerations, although there is a healthy amount of scepticism about the motives of all those involved.

The initial signs on the pitch are promising, with the team showing an attacking flair that has been lacking for a long time and is in strong contrast to the dour style of Ian Atkins that was suffered for two-and-a-half seasons. Díaz looks to be trying to bring in a number of over­seas players, with his son Emiliano, a former River Plate midfielder, and Bas­tia striker Bruno Rodriguez already hav­ing had trials at United, which bodes well for the new year.

If nothing else, Díaz’s appointment was a publicity coup for Kassam, with United being the focus of several articles in the national press, and it certainly took everyone by surprise. On the morning of the announcement that Díaz was to be the new manager, the Oxford Mail, a local tabloid not particularly enamoured of Kassam, trumpeted It’s Chris Turner! – a headline that Kassam obliquely referred to when starting the press conference by saying: “Shall we wait for Chris Turner to arrive?”

Oxford supporters are used to a bumpy ride and this latest turn of events is seen by many as just another chapter in a seemingly endless soap opera whose script would be rejected by Dream Team as being unrealistic. Whatever else, the next six months (and possibly beyond) should be very interesting for United fans and the third best coach in the world.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month

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