Update of recent discussions

15th Oct 2018

Statement issued by OxVox on 15 October 2018

This report is written following recent discussions with the football club about a number of matters on and off the field. We write following a number of meetings and conversations with Club Owner Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth (Tiger), Club MD Niall McWilliams (NMcW) and Club Director Zaki Nuseibah (ZN). We hope the information that follows will help relieve some of the frustrations felt by many supporters regarding club communications, and to some extent OxVox communications, and can assure you all that, as supporters ourselves, we fully understand this and have (and will continue to) always push to provide good quality information as promptly as possible.

Any misunderstandings and inaccuracies in the comments below are ours.

 First team management

It is normally outside the remit of a supporters’ trust to comment directly on matters on the pitch, for fairly obvious reasons. Fans will differ in their views, which is one of the pleasures of following a football team, and there won’t be general agreement on many issues.

However, it is apparent that many fans are concerned about the team’s poor start to the season and its current position near the foot of the table. We thought it right to share those concerns with Tiger. You would no doubt expect us to do so.

We can report that the manager retains the full backing of the board at this time, and he also has the full support of the playing staff. We hope that Karl Robinson can turn things round: changes of manager are no guarantee of improved results.

Stadium

The idea of moving to a new stadium in the medium term was made public by Tiger at the recent fans’ forum. We think it is promising to see the recent news that the City and County Councils are engaging with the Club with regard to possible future alternatives to the Kassam Stadium. At this stage we are aware that the five point plan mentioned at the forum means that there are five sites in and around Oxford which are being considered for feasibility, in addition to remaining at an enhanced Kassam Stadium, should a suitable agreement be reached. The locations of these sites are at this stage commercially confidential. A planning advisor/consultant has been appointed by the Club, which is evidence of some serious intent to explore the options. Our view is that the issues with new sites are fundamental and must not be underestimated.

The issue of the stadium is not a new one and upon election of the new Chairman and Committee, OxVox decided to create a working group to deal with this issue in more detail. The group have some specific experience that we felt could be put to use including a property lawyer, a property developer and a Chairman with experience of working on several stadia designs whilst also being involved in previous stadium related work with OxVox.

It is important to point out that as a new Committee we started, and still remain, open to all possibilities that would end what is ultimately an unsustainable situation for the Club and every new Chairman that inherits it.

To that end OxVox have been looking into various ways in which the Club could move forward. The obvious, and perhaps the simplest solution, would be to renegotiate the licence on the stadium to a more sustainable one that included the Club receiving all revenues created from the stadium while being responsible for upkeep, maintenance and development of the stadium. Although possibly carrying a higher outlay, it would provide important revenue streams and would free the Club up to improve and develop the ground as was required. It is our understanding that the Club initially favoured this approach. Discussions were held and, while details remain confidential, we understand the two parties were close to an agreement but could not come to a full agreement.

During our discussions with Tiger and NMcW, OxVox became aware the Club were struggling to negotiate with Firoz Kassam in an effective manner. The discussions then developed toward the possibility of the Club finding a site to build a new stadium. While OxVox were fully consulted on this possibility it is important to point out that the Club asked for the details of these dealings to be kept confidential. While we believe our primary role is to represent the wishes of our members and report back to them with any information we have, we accept that making details of proposed land sales public could jeopardise what are sensitive negotiations. Bearing this in mind we have kept this part of our discussions private. We have however pushed the Club on all aspects of its communication with the fans and did so with the stadium issue.

We are aware of the sites the Club are looking at and have given our opinion on what we feel our members would want. An example of this was when the idea of ground sharing outside the county was mooted. It was our strong belief that if any such arrangement were undertaken that it could only be done as an absolutely temporary measure, in a situation where an alternative venue in the county was being prepared, and only for a relatively short and defined period. The Club accepted that view and moved forward.

Of the potential venues, as previously said, some are located outside the city though most are within. In an ideal world we would favour keeping the Club within the city, but we understand the Club looking at the alternatives. Of those in the city there are some we feel, based on our knowledge to date, have a much higher chance of success than others. We will work with the Club to explore all of the venues available.

While backing the Club in looking at all options available we do understand the frustrations felt by many supporters in respect of wishing to know all of the details, in what is a potential landmark period for our Club, and we will always make members aware of whatever information we are able at the first opportunity, and will continue to prompt the Club to do the same.

Arbitration

We asked for an update on progress in the arbitration dispute with Firoka and what the next steps were. NMcW was unable to provide any substantive comment but said that they are hoping for some resolution by Christmas, but there is no guarantee of that timescale being achieved. We are aware of the adverse effects on the first team match day preparations due to the stadium company’s restrictions on use, and hope that some of these issues can be resolved between the two parties.

Board makeup, shareholdings, and debt

We have discussed the makeup of the Club Board and shareholdings in future, following the planned additions to the Board. Fans should expect a Club announcement, shortly, which will clarify things. Speculation in certain sections of the media that the Club is up for sale are wide of the mark. We can confirm that Oxford Investment Holding Pte Ltd (OIH) (the vehicle created to enable the Club’s purchase by Tiger) will be the entity that new “investors” take shares in, and not Oxford United Football Club. This is what ZN has done. There is no debt attached to the Club by these transactions. ZN outlined that each of the new “investors” has sufficient wealth to fund the Club at its current level, and on to the next and that they are here for what they see as a long-term venture. His view is very much that they have a duty of charge to look after a long-standing institution and improve its position. When asked if this was a “money making venture” he confirmed that it was not and that there were much easier ways of making money than acquiring a third-tier football club that doesn’t own its stadium! The new board have not yet defined their exact roles (this will happen shortly, when the new board is complete) but ZN confirmed that, due to being based in the UK, he will take an active role in the running of the Club. It is felt that the expertise of the new board will cover many of the areas that the Club need: finance experience, football experience, and construction experience. We were re-assured that the current structure of the Club would become stronger.

A new financial director starts at the Club this week and we expect to meet them once they have settled in and gain further clarity on the day to day financial situation at the Club. The accounts to 30 June 2018 have to be filed at Companies House by 31 March 2019 and NMcW feels that there is no reason why this date would not be met and that there would be no change to the accountants and auditors used to prepare the accounts. He confirmed that the Club is up to date with HMRC and other payments.

We asked about the level of continued involvement of Darryl Eales. We can confirm that he’s no longer a Director (as is well known) and no longer involved other than as a 9.99% shareholder and there is no obligation to sell his shares. The Club continues to have a very good ongoing relationship with Darryl.

We asked NMcW for a breakdown of the £1million plus per annum that the Club have said they have to pay to use the stadium.  He didn’t have the full details to hand, at the time of meeting, but undertook to supply this to us. The basic rent of approx. £400,000 and service charge of approx. £200,000 comprised major elements, together with match day charges and VAT.

 Club’s commercial activities

NMcW confirmed that he was now working, effectively, full time (formally, four days a week) for the Club. He reported that Matt Everett was very successfully heading up the commercial activity. While there was a lot of work to be done to develop this area, we were told that the Club had record retail sales, increased revenue from season tickets, box revenue was very good, the use of social media was up and in commercial terms the Club was in the top six in League 1. We asked NMcW about the current management structure at the Club and he undertook to send us an organisational chart. On the playing support side there were plans to add one, or two, new performance and recruitment staff.

 Training ground

There has been media discussion about delays in completion of the training ground and we asked NMcW for an update on progress. There is no doubt, in our view, that the drawn out schedule may have contributed to the Club’s difficulties – though equally this should not be an excuse for poor performances! We have visited the training ground twice and note that the pitches have improved with recent work but that everything may not have fully ‘bedded in’ until early next season, with construction and finishing works expected to be complete by December. What we have seen is that the Club now have, for the first time ever, a first-class permanent training facility which everyone should be proud of.

Manchester City aftermath

Many of you will be aware of the crowd congestion after the recent Manchester City game. There was actually an OxVox Committee member in the vicinity at the time, and he called NMcW  who immediately left the boardroom and attended the scene. The Club contacted the relevant authorities first thing the following morning, with a full report, and there is now an official investigation being carried out. We have been contacted by a number of supporters following the incident and have passed their comments to the Club. We can also confirm that our messages, and any others received by the Club, have been passed on to the investigating authorities. Due to the ongoing investigation we are, obviously, unable to comment in respect of the incident other than to say that we hope and expect that all parties will learn from the experience, and we look forward to the results of the investigation being made public.

Pitch maintenance

We asked about the significance of the change of Kassam Stadium pitch management to the University ground staff. We were aware that there were serious concerns many years ago when the University managed the pitch and have spoken with them. They are confident that the status and usage of the pitch is better than at that time. NMcW reported that the contract for this was with Firoka and outside the Club’s remit.

Sensory Room

As recently minuted, we have been working alongside the Community Trust and Jigsaw to fund and assist in providing a new sensory room at the Kassam Stadium. This gives supporters with autism and/or other sensory needs a safe, relaxing space away from the matchday noise and crowds which can sometimes get too much.

Oxford United was one of the only clubs in the country that didn’t have such a facility available.

During September, we attended the launch and witnessed first-hand the excellent work the volunteers from Jigsaw carry out. More importantly, we also saw the positive effect it can have on the fans that need it.

Anyone wanting more information on how they can access the new facility should contact community@oufc.co.uk

For more info and pictures please see our website article at http://www.oxvox.org.uk/sensory-room-opened/

Future meetings

We will continue to have regular dialogue with Tiger, NMcW, ZN and all other stakeholders as is necessary.

A meeting with Firoz Kassam has not yet been arranged but we hope to meet him in due course.

Trust announcements

  1. Members’ meeting:

Please reserve the date of the evening of Wednesday 14 November, when there will be an OxVox members’ meeting. Details of the venue and start time and agenda will be circulated nearer the date. This will be an opportunity to hear updates from the Committee and to ask questions. We will invite representatives from the Club and local Councils.

  1. Membership renewals:

Thanks to the many members that have renewed their memberships recently. A number of members remain whose renewals are due. We have sent out emails but it is possible that some members may not have received them. If you think your membership may be due, please email updates@oxvox.org.uk and we will let you now and confirm how you can renew quickly and easily online.

Colin Barson

OxVox Chairman