Notes of the OxVox Members’ Meeting
held on Wednesday 10 January 2018 at the Masons Arms, Headington
Niall McWilliams NMcW (Managing Director, OUFC), Dan Harris DH (Head of Academy, OUFC), Ian Hudspeth IH (Leader, Oxfordshire County Council), Bob Price BP (Leader, Oxford City Council), Mark Edwards (Oxford Mail), David Pritchard (Oxford Mail).
Darryl Eales (Chairman, OUFC), Simon Bradbury, Jemma Hayward, Matt Cavill (OxVox committee members), John Gould, Charlie Methven, Myles Francis.
Trust committee members in attendance:
Jem Faulkner JF (OxVox Chair), Colin Barson, Michael North, Trevor Lambert, Ali Wolfe, Maurice Earp.
Approximately 90 members were in attendance.
Jem Faulkner – Welcome and Introduction
JF welcomed members and thanked the guest speakers for coming. The turnout on a January evening of approximately 80 members was very pleasing despite members being aware that DE could not be there as he was away on a scouting trip.
Trust membership, finances, and general updates
JF reviewed aspects of the Trust’s activities in recent months and commented that recent growth in membership numbers meant that a total of 1,000 members was in sight within the coming weeks. The current total was just over 980.
The trust had a healthy bank balance of £12,000.
OxVox had been aware of recent problems for members receiving trust emails. The trust was in the process of changing its system, having followed the advice of its current software supplier without noticeable improvement to email delivery rates. [If a member thinks the trust may have an incorrect email address, please email email@example.com with the correct address.]
The trust maintained good lines of communication with Darryl Eales and OUFC, with Council leaders, and with Firoz Kassam and Firoka, and believed that it was important to do so in order to ensure maximum benefit and input into decisions affecting the club on behalf of trust members and all supporters.
JF then introduced NMcW and DH to the meeting and invited each to speak in turn about their ideas and priorities.
Niall McWilliams (OUFC MD)
NMcW had just taken on the role of Managing Director of OUFC but he had been a supporter of the club since he moved to the area in 1989. He outlined his role and plans for the football club during his period as MD. Although his appointment was part-time he expected to have a major effect on many aspects of the club, using his skill set which he had applied to turning round Peers Academy.
He stressed many areas which needed improvement, most notably communications between the club, supporters and the local community. The club had a natural catchment area in Oxfordshire of a population in excess of 700,000 and was fortunate to have no immediate local professional clubs in competition for support. Marketing and outreach had been in need of attention for a long time.
He stressed that it was vital to look at every area of activity carefully, and to plan strategically for the medium and long term, rather than to make piecemeal short term changes and firefighting ‘fixes’. He wanted, during the period of his appointment, to set up structures which would leave the club much better equipped to succeed in the long term. He was very open to input from OxVox and the fan base.
He underlined the importance of the training ground. A first rate training facility would be a factor in ’selling’ the club to potential new players. He saw it as a high priority to secure the agreement on the training ground without further ado. BP interjected that the City Council was very keen to see OUFC take full involvement and needed to know the detail of the club’s requirements so that speedy progress could be made.
Dan Harris (Head of OUFC Academy)
DH spoke next. He had been Head of Academy for four days. He had been in South Korea for three years during which time he had been tasked with setting up a football club and ground from scratch, which had given him many skills and insights.
OUFC was losing too many local youngsters of promising ability to other clubs. He wanted the word to go out that this was changing at OUFC. His keynote phrase for the club and Academy was ‘Proud history, bright future’. He wanted to end the culture of young players of ability going to the academies of higher league clubs, where many of them would be cast aside later. He wanted every fan to help in the process of locating new youngsters and to sell the benefits of playing for their local club.
He felt the club had been too timid in promoting the benefits of its academy over more distant and higher league rivals. Indeed, we should be positive in taking on the likes of Reading and Southampton, because we could offer something special in terms of closeness to the first team and commitment to the local team. He also felt that we should be pro-active in seeking players from these clubs’ areas, as they seek players in ours.
Dan also spoke about the need for a team to bridge the gap from the current upper age limit of youth teams through to the first team – effectively a level from age 18 to age 21 approximately. Often promising young players were lost at this stage because they were not yet ready for the first team squad.
In summary, both speakers were enthusiastically received by the meeting and their commitment and desire to effect positive change for the football club was obvious. Those present appreciated that each had been in post for a relatively short time and could not be expected to have command of every detail.
The new OxTales database was a topic about which OxVox had expressed concerns to Ian Mixter, reported JF. It was appropriate for the database to contain details of people subject to banning orders and acceptable behaviour agreements, but it was in OxVox’s view much harder to justify collecting data on ‘persons of interest’ who had not committed any offence but were thought to be likely to do so.
OxVox have been in touch with the Football Supporters Federation about this, and have expressed concerns about this and other issues relating to OxTales to Ian Mixter. There are serious issues with regard to who can see data on the system, who can update it, what rights individuals have to see and correct data about themselves, how long data is retained, and so on. Data protection rules are relevant too and the system has to satisfy all appropriate legal requirements including forthcoming changes on 25th May with the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
In response to JF’s comments, NMcW undertook to take the topic to Ian Mixter to discuss. In response to a question, NMcW stated that he had met Ian Mixter a few times, at operational meetings held before and after matches.
Unfortunately no-one from the Ultras group was able to attend the meeting. Apologies had been received from one person who had unexpected work commitments. Members were interested in the history and the breakdown in communications which had currently resulted in the loss of the flags, banners, and improved atmosphere which the Ultras brought. A questioner from the floor asked how this unfortunate situation had been allowed to happen. Was it the fault of the new safety officer, or was it more complicated? Another asked why the particular area at the top right of the East Stand had been allocated to the Ultras rather than a central area at the top of the stand
Ali Wolfe of the OxVox committee had been involved in discussions with the Ultras. He responded that the area was chosen and approved by the Ultras because there were only 17 season ticket holders there already, and therefore the disruption to those who wanted to move was minimal. The Ultras were happy with the area: the current problems centred around the administration and checks on match days, and difficulties in accessing stored materials and getting into the stadium in good time to set up. This had made it impractical to continue for the present until these matters were resolved.
NMcW was asked to comment on behalf of the club. He said he doesn’t know enough about this issue to comment, but he will raise it internally with others and look at what can be done to mend fences and restore relations. He is very supportive of noise and colour being an important part of match days and wants to do all he can to encourage the Ultras and indeed everyone to improve the atmosphere at the ground.
On a related matter, JF reported that OxVox are looking at installing a permanent mural along the back of the East Stand. This would not prevent Ultras displays but would ensure there was yellow and blue colour rather than bare concrete at all times. Firoz Kassam has assured OxVox that he would allow this provided it did not feature advertising. The intention, reported JF, is to create a design which creates a positive vibe and celebrates the club, the fans, and the city. This will be funded by OxVox. Guests and visitors to the club would get a more positive impression of the stadium, and the mural would improve the stadium identity as the home of OUFC.
The stadium was a hot topic of conversation. There were questions as to what either council could do to aid the situation, and questions about OxVox’s role and experiences in the many meetings that have been held to discuss the stadium over the last two to three years.
JF commented that were no easy solutions and indeed if there were, they would have been found by now. OxVox had carefully considered all options. The potential for a development at Water Eaton had been the subject of a recent OxVox-convened meeting, with IH and relevant planners and district council officials present, and all had agreed that the local plan and other factors precluded any development there. IH and BP agreed that Water Eaton as a site for a new stadium would be very difficult, and this had always been the case.
At the same time several factors which would favour Water Eaton were due to emerge at Grenoble Road soon – namely housing plans for the area which would mean ultimately that 40,000 people would live within a 20 minutes’ walk of Grenoble Road, a new train link, together with the possible willingness of the Science Park to provide additional car parking. Also, as previously discussed, the current stadium has expansion potential which could take capacity beyond 20,000.
BP reported that Firoz Kassam had been submitted three failed planning applications for housing on the overflow car park, due in the main to an incorrect mix of housing types, and his planning team had not made further contact. The car park site would not be an easy development, due to, among other things, access, and the Councils would be prepared to assist with infrastructure in order to facilitate the stadium passing into the hands of a community based group at a reasonable price.
JF also spoke about a temporary 4th stand between touchline and fence, which would accommodate up to 2,000 fans. OxVox had located such a stand and could obtain it at a good price. Catering, toilet provision, and access issues would obviously have to be resolved, but in principle this could become reality quite quickly. Firoz Kassam was supportive, though he did joke about who would get the additional ticket revenue (the answer, of course, being OUFC!).
All present were aware of the potential urgency of the Kassam Stadium situation, with the current license agreement only having eight years to run.
A questioner asked whether Firoz Kassam would do a deal on the stadium after the current arbitration issue is resolved. No-one present could anticipate what may happen, but the meeting was reminded that a fall-back position existed at the end of the current licence for a further 25 year extension. This was in about 8 years’ time, and no-one present wanted it to come to that, but it was at least a guarantee that the club would not become homeless.
Another questioner asserted that Exeter College owned land which they were willing to sell which would be suitable for a new stadium. If it were to become available, would that speed up the prospects for a new stadium away from Grenoble Road? In reply, IH asserted that Exeter College have not come forward with any plans to sell the land in question. That being the position, IH does not believe that there is a reasonable prospect of progress in that direction. IH stated the three things needed for a new stadium site to proceed: a suitable site and willing seller, finance, and resolution of planning issues. If two of these issues were satisfactorily resolved, the third may be easier to overcome. As it is, he did not see any prospect of a ‘non-Grenoble Road’ stadium option making progress on any reasonable timescale, though nothing was set in stone.
In Darryl Eales’s absence it was difficult to get into any significant detail on this topic. NMcW was asked if Darryl Eales wanted to sell up and he answered that he thinks he has the best interests of the club at heart and wants to keep the club, but also to see it progress. If that meant working with new financial partners then NMcW’s impression was that Darryl Eales would be willing to do so.
Questions from the floor on other matters:
Q. What is the situation regarding registration of the OUFC Women’s team?
A. A decision is due to be made on 5th February.
Q. Why were shirts removed and prices raised for the OX4Life promotion?
A. NMcW is aware of many marketing issues of which this is one. He will factor it into his future plans.
Q. Why have there been very few emails to fans from the club?
A. NMcW is likewise aware of the lack of communications. He is visiting Peterborough United and Bristol City to look at how they do things and take ideas to bring to the club. He will work hard to get it right.
Q. Why is the Covered Market shop unreliable in its opening hours?
A. NMcW is aware and will also be looking into this.
Q. What is the status of the arbitration on servicing charges with Firoz Kassam?
A. JF reported that the true state of the arbitration negotiations, and the timescale for a resolution, were unknown. Both parties have said to OxVox that so far as they are concerned they have dealt with any issues and they cannot understand the delay.
Q. Are the Science Park willing to provide additional match day car parking?
A. This is mentioned elsewhere in these notes. NMcW reported that the Science Park now appear willing to talk about opening their car parks on match days and the club will be pursuing this.
Q. What influence does the City Council have on Firoka with regard to repairs to the Priory pub and ensuring that assurances, given before the new hotel opened, that the pub would be renovated are followed through?
A. BP replied that council planners are actively looking at legal action about the lack of progress on the Priory.
Q. Does the City Council have powers to ensure that Kassam Stadium toilets do not breach health and safety regulations? The very poor state of the toilets has been raised with OxVox by members, including some concerned about risks to health of those with compromised immune systems.
A. BP responded that he would ask Council Health and Safety inspectors to take a look.
Q. JF asked what news there was of the training ground.
A. BP replied that a meeting on Friday 12th January, which involved OUFC, would make decisions about the training ground, which it was hoped would proceed quickly.
Any other business:
The meeting thanked the OxVox committee for organising a very helpful meeting. It had been interesting to hear from NMcW and DH, and particularly to have both BP and IH present lent authority to the discussion around the stadium and the complex factors involved.
The meeting closed at 9.30pm and informal chat and drinks ensued.