Thursday, 31 May 2012

Concern Over London Welsh and the Kassam Stadium

Picture from @bbcoxfordsport
It never gets boring supporting this football club. It seems like there is always something new to worry about, whether it's the latest James Constable transfer saga, uncertainty over the club's continuing progress, or some other impending doom. In fact, the average Oxford fan appears to spend most of his or her life in a perpetual state of alarm.

The latest potential crisis is the intention of London Welsh to use the Kassam Stadium to host Premiership rugby next season. The initial announcement was met with an inevitably mixed reception, but debates over the state of the pitch appear to have taken a back seat to more pressing issues following Welsh's Championship playoff final victory over Cornish Pirates. The issue is muddied by the ongoing tussle between London Welsh and the Rugby Football Union over the club's eligibility to enter next season's Premiership. However, while the national and even local media becomes caught up in the wider debate regarding rugby's Minimum Standards Criteria, Oxford fans have become increasingly alarmed by the potential implications of recent developments, while the football club itself has remained silent on the issue.

The uncertainty over the potential ground-share comes down to the RFU'srules regarding primacy of tenure. In a ground-share situation such as those at London Wasps, Saracens and London Irish – where the rugby club is a tenant of the football club – the rugby club must arrange to have a backup ground within 30 miles of its principal ground. In the case of London Welsh, this is rumoured to be Brentford's Griffin Park (42 miles from the Kassam), clearly in breach of the regulations. And yet London Welsh remain convinced that they have met the RFU's criteria. Their chairman, Bleddyn Phillips, is a notable lawyer, he is not likely to have missed this detail. This, of course, suggests that something else may be afoot. It could well be that London Welsh mean to challenge the RFU's Minimum Standards Criteria in a court of law, though they must have been aware of the rules before agreeing to them at the start of the season. The other possibility, and the one that has been causing unease amongst yellows fans, is that London Welsh have secured primary tenancy over the Kassam Stadium, which would relegate us to the status of secondary tenants and could have a number of implications for the club.

Foremost among these is that such a move would place Oxford in violation of the Football League's own rules regarding primacy of tenure. This would obviously leave us vulnerable to sanctions, and though I'm unsure how serious this might be we would almost certainly have to apply for special dispensation to compete in the League. This is the most serious possible consequence, but there are many others as well. OxVox have worked hard to get their Stadium Heritage Project off the ground, but the arrival of London Welsh will make it much more difficult to get permission for any future signage and it is possible that all traces of the club's identity, which the club and its supporters have had to fight for, could be removed from the stadium and be replaced with signs bearing the London Welsh logo (and anyone who watched their playoff final at the Kassam could see how keen they were to hide any trace of the football club). The club's fixtures would also be affected by such an arrangement, with rugby activities taking precedence over football. This could result in fixtures being moved at late notice, or having to play on Fridays or Sundays, which would considerably inconvenience us all.

Picture from @MilanVranjes
However, until further information is revealed we can only speculate. Much of the 'evidence' to support this scenario comes from remarks in the press that leave much room for interpretation. Mostly we are getting concerned over London Welsh's stated aim to 'turn Oxford into London Welsh' and comments from the club's Managing Director, John Taylor, who appeared to dismiss Oxford by stating that the club is irrelevant to their deal with Kassam. Such comments are contrary to the earlier impression given before the RFU's rejection of London Welsh, when it was suggested that a ground-share might be mutually beneficial.
The scenario noted above is just one of many possible outcomes, and there remains a strong possibility that the Kassam will host no rugby at all next season. Given the club's recent history, it's unsurprising that Oxford fans will view any development regarding the stadium with caution, but some of the hysteria (talk of protests, etc.) is premature until the situation becomes clearer. OxVox have been commendably quick to act, and their statement on the matter is filled with reassurances from the Stadium Company that it will 'honour its contract to Oxford United'. The problem with this is that we don't know if the club's deal with StadCo guarantees it primacy of tenure.

Speaking on a personal level, I want to see sport in Oxfordshire thrive, and would welcome the arrival of high quality rugby to the area. However, I'm not prepared to support such a move if it comes at the detriment of my football club. London Welsh would do well to bear in mind that they will lose a lot of goodwill around Oxford if their presence at the Kassam comes at the expense of Oxford United. It's reassuring to see that Oxford fans are prepared and ready to act if the club's future should come under threat again, though in typical style it does appear that we have got ourselves worked up into a frenzy a little prematurely. We must remain vigilant, but should also remember that we may have to cooperate with London Welsh on a long-term basis and shouldn't start off with bad blood between the two clubs.

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An excellent write up of the situation. Many questions still need to be answered and should London Welsh win their appeal all parties are aware of Oxford fans concerns.

I'd also like to thank you for you kind words about OxVox. The Trust is still working hard with the football club's support to extend the heritage project and we are waiting for permission from the stadium company on a number of exciting projects. We'll keep you posted!

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