In his programme notes before the visit of Nottingham Forest in May 1986, then Oxford United manager Maurice Evans wrote “looking into the future whatever happens Oxford United needs a new stadium and that is something for us all to look forward to.” Little did he expect that it would be the turn of the millennium before the club finally moved to a new home nor could he have envisaged that it would be to host Fourth Division football, especially considering that Oxford were in the old First Division at the time. Even to this day the new stadium is incomplete. The gaping hole where the West Stand should be is a constant reminder to the fans of both the club’s on and off the field failings of the last sixteen years. Finally though this may be about to change, with the club promoted to League One last season, there is talk once more of a fourth stand on the horizon.
When a club moves to a new stadium it can often herald in a new era, a bright future, a change for the better but for Oxford United it has signalled 16 years of chronic underachievement, stagnation and financial insecurity. The club have been charged rent reportedly of around £500,000 per season and been unable to make any money from food and drink sales or from the ground’s conference facilities, these being run by Firoka group on behalf of the ground’s owner and namesake Firoz Kassam. The Stadium itself is bleak and soulless, three basic stands decked out with plastic blue seats despite the fact that the primary club colour is yellow. Four miles south of the city centre it generates a sense of isolated detachment. The fact that the club does not own the ground has been key to their lack of success. Take neighbours Reading as an example. Within eight years of moving to the Madejski Stadium Reading had moved up two divisions to the Premier League. Within the same time frame of moving to the Kassam Oxford were playing down a division in the Conference. The stadium has, to many fans, come to symbolise the dark cloud hanging over the club. Kassam’s eagerness to build the fourth stand is seen more as a concession to get permission for his other building projects rather than any genuine desire to improve the club. Along with the West Stand Mr Kassam also intends 260 new homes on the overflow car park and land surrounding the stadium thus potentially increasing the number of spectators attending matches while significantly reducing car parking!
Things have improved on the pitch with promotion back to League One for the first time since the club were relegated from that level in the 1999/00 season but this has come at a significant cost. The club published their accounts revealing a worrying loss of £2.4 million. Although the chairman Darryl Eales stated that this was to be expected it is now the fourth straight year of seven figure losses for the club and even though United have benefited from an FA Cup run, a Wembley appearance and higher gates due to a promotion season Eales believes that this will not be enough to make the club sustainable. “Even adding all that together the club is still not sustainable, but I don’t think at League One and League Two level that’s achievable, without some benefit of player trading.” Selling off the best talent will help balance the books in the short term but without owning their own stadium or playing in the top two tiers of the English league the club is likely to carry on relying on a chairman willing to fund the shortfall.
Building the West Stand may well improve the atmosphere but there is a growing voice among supporters to leave the Kassam Stadium completely with a couple of well-travelled suggestions being a move to Witney or a site at Water Eaton. Eales also questioned its worth, “from a pragmatic perspective, there would also not be much point in having a fourth stand if we cannot fill the existing ground.” With average attendances this season around 8,500 there is unlikely to be a requirement for the extra capacity unless the club gains promotion again. Most fans have taken the news with a pinch of salt as an Oxford Mail online poll revealed that 77% of fans taking part believe that a fourth stand will never be built.
The club supporters trust Oxvox are attempting to reach an agreement with Kassam and the local council to purchase the ground but progress has been frustratingly slow and, strangely, has not involved the club in the negotiations. The fact remains that Oxford need to own their own stadium and Kassam is unwilling to sell at a price the club can afford. With key players likely to be sold in the summer progression toward the Championship is unlikely to be achievable so, fourth stand, or not the underlying problems are likely to be around for the foreseeable future and remain as open ended as the stadium that has caused them.
words James Richards