Friday, 13 July 2012

Why Kelvin Thomas was a great leader at Oxford United

The bowler raced to the crease. The batsman, who had enjoyed a fine knock, slashed at a delivery wide of his off-stump. The ball looped behind square and into the grateful hands of the fielder.

Not many people meet their football club's chairman where I met Kelvin Thomas. I believe they call it short third man.

As my team-mates from the Oxford Mail team trotted over to congratulate me, Kelvin nodded in my direction. “Good catch, mate” is what I believe it meant, but his body language was different. I sensed that he was irritated. As a teenager, I was too fearful of the extent to which I had irritated the chairman to bask in any glory. The mockery from his colleagues in the Oxford United cricket team did little to calm my panic. When I look back, however, I realise that this dismissal taught me a great deal about Kelvin Thomas. He is a winner.

On the day that Oxford United announced that Kelvin was to leave the club, there is nothing to suggest that I am wrong.

I remember exactly where I was when Kelvin was appointed as the chairman of Oxford United. It was a Thursday night in 2008. It was October, it was absolutely freezing and I had arrived for football training an hour early. My phone buzzed and my hands emerged from my pockets to read a text from the club about the change at the helm. Moments later it went off again. A text from a friend. “Bloody hell. It sounds like we're in a bit of trouble here, Dougie.” I would later discover that the statement spoke of 'a difficult task' due to the need for 'financial backing to see the club through'. The task was going to be more than difficult. As I watched a group of kids training, I remember looking at the number of Oxford United shirts chasing around after their Premier League equivalents. “This guy is going to have to be good if these guys are going to have anything to be happy about.”

Kelvin Thomas is good though. Very good.

In the same club statement from 2008, the club outlined Kelvin's aims for dealing with the 'difficult task'. 'Kelvin believes that it is possible by re-engaging with fans, improving performances on the pitch and involving individuals or groups who may wish to purchase a shareholding in the club.' The new chairman had a plan and it was one that he stuck with in order to fulfil each of his aims.

There are a number of reasons why we can't truly assess the state the club was in when Kelvin took charge. The most diplomatic way of putting it is this. The fact that we don't talk about Nick Merry tells you a great deal about Oxford United in 2008 under the guidance of the man who didn't wear socks. Merry was a nice man and whenever I spoke to him, he was receptive. However, despite the hard work he put in, the club was a mess.

It is impossible to document all of the changes that have taken place under Kelvin, but the crucial period was the search for a new manager after the dismissal of Darren Patterson. Big names fly around when a club like Oxford United have a managerial vacancy, but Kelvin didn't go in for that. The club took time to interview a number of candidates and selected the one whose philosophy, attitude and ambition was fitting with the club. I was slightly taken aback when Chris Wilder was appointed as manager, but I hadn't had the benefit of hearing what Kelvin had.

All too often football is made out to be a very simple science by fans. Sign a load of good players, stick them on the pitch every weekend and watch them beat everybody who is placed before them. However, to achieve success in this game you need a number of things. You need a plan, you need a team to enforce the theory and you need an atmosphere in which the ideas can thrive. Every success in football relates back to base moments. For Oxford United, it was the promotion of Kelvin Thomas and the hiring of Chris Wilder. As a partnership, these two have been immense for the football club. Dancing on the pitch at Wembley? Taking 4,000 vocal fans to West Ham to sing how proud they were of their team? Doing the double over Swindon Town? These are great moments that are the product of things that happened long before.

I am sure that Kelvin made mistakes during his reign, but I am equally certain that they were outnumbered by the triumphs. We are more stable financially than we have been for a long time, we have finished in our highest league position since 2004 and we have finally got an identity. There will always be dissent, but it is my belief that Oxford United is far more together now than it was before Kelvin came in. I am not sure I knew what this football club wanted to be five years ago. Under Kelvin, we have become a club who communicate, do things by the book and don't get carried away. Not everything can be public knowledge in the running of a football club, but Kelvin was open about a number of issues during his tenure. We never shouted about players that we wanted or how much money we had to spend. We instilled a mentality that encouraged the club to not get carried away in victory or become too despondent in defeat.

I like these qualities a great deal and I think that Kelvin has played a large part in our football club doing things the right way. More than anything, this may be the Kelvin Thomas legacy.

Among the many positives, there is one thing that deserves great credit. Kelvin Thomas has given Oxford United back to the fans. All the boardroom decisions clearly play a part in this, but there are a great number of instances where Kelvin was a hit with the fans by doing things that were certainly above and beyond the call of duty for a chairman of a football club.

I think back to the Special Effect day for Charlotte Nott and the day that Tess Sullivan was carried onto the Grenoble Road pitch to meet the crowd. The role of fans in raising awareness of these causes was crucial, but the club listened. If supporters told Kelvin that they wanted to help somebody, the club were willing to throw their support behind it. Football is great, but the satisfaction of an entire club community coming together to help others makes me proud to be an Oxford United fan. We have achieved a number of things with Kelvin in charge of our club, but moments such as these are right at the top of the list.

There was also a Saturday morning in April of 2011 when Kelvin graced Raging Fever, the Oxford United supporters' team, with an appearance. How many chairman play a game of football with the club's fans on the morning of a league fixture rather than knocking back the invitation to get to the ground early and have a drink? It's the personal touch that elevates Kelvin to such a popular status with Oxford fans. He scored two goals in a 3-1 Fever victory that day. As I said, he's a winner.

Every fan I meet seems to have a positive story about Kelvin and I am no different. I graduated from university this year and knowing this, I emailed the chairman to ask for some advice. As many know, I want to work in sports media. I assumed Kelvin would have a contact or two and knowing what he looked for in an employee couldn't be a bad thing. I sent a speculative email and heard back soon enough. 'Come to the club. We'll discuss it.' That was great, but as I returned from the Champions League semi-final, I received an email asking me to ring the club. Walking through Madrid airport I did just that and spoke to Mary, Kelvin's secretary. “Meet Kelvin for a drink in Summertown tomorrow morning. He's doing an interview live on Radio Oxford and he would like to take you along.” I gained a great deal from our conversation that day and despite agreeing to disagree on the adaptability of tiki-taka to British academies, I left Summertown with a new sense of direction. As I said, Kelvin goes above and beyond the call of duty.

There are dozens of stories like this. There are also those who have strayed the wrong side of Kelvin and have learned not to repeat their error, but that is what is needed from a good chairman. Kelvin's tenure has been organised, efficient, disciplined and ultimately, successful. Who are we to argue with the methods?

I have feared the day that Kelvin left Oxford United for a while now, but at the end of a big day for the club, a sense of optimism remains. The handover is set to be a smooth process and the familiarity provided by the Lenagan family will be of great benefit to the club.

Very few chairman can say that they left their football club more popular than they were when they arrived and even fewer can say that they have provided Oxford United with the level of improvement that Kelvin oversaw.

It is a shame that we didn't manage the second promotion while Kelvin was at the club. I believe that will come, however. The work of the former chairman won't be forgotten when it does. Kelvin Thomas is a winner and his football club have been reminded what winning feels like as a result.

On behalf of all the team at Rage Online, I would like to take the opportunity to thank Kelvin for his work at Oxford United and wish both him and his family the best for the future. I don't know about our readers, but Kelvin was the chairman that made me dream again.

1 comment:

abbott.simth said...

Attitude and ambition was fitting with the club. was slightly taken aback when Chris Wilder was appointed as manager, but hadn't had the benefit of hearing what Kelvin had.

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