Panic, dread, terror. Apprehension. Fear. If you are an Oxford United fan and one of these emotional states did not flash through your conscience on Thursday night, then you just do not care enough. As rumours of Kelvin Thomas’ resignation fluttered around the Twitterverse, anyone with a semblance of interest in the club would have been fretting into their late night brews. I know I was.
If more than a couple of these feelings remained come Friday afternoon, perhaps you care too much.
Like a doctor delivering the all-clear to a patient rushed into A&E the night before, Ian Lenagan stepped in to soothe any worries over the short-term future. We had feared that the life-support machine may be turned off. Rumours have abounded for weeks and months; funds had dried up, staff were being laid off, signings had stopped. The club was pot-less, they said. Yet within the space of less than 48 hours, Oxford United Football Club appear to have turned a significant corner, one which may be seen in years to come as a defining moment in the history of the club.
As the truth has emerged from the misty cloud of uncertainty, the underlying reasons for the changes have surfaced to provide a much needed sense of clarity. The decision is not a quick-fix transition which signifies the beginnings of decline; instead, with every new piece of information which comes to the fore the switch appears to be natural, organic, an inevitable progression which has been months, even years in the making. It is not a move dictated by chance or circumstance.
When analysing Ian Lenagan’s statement, it is startlingly apparent that his involvement, planning and influence at the club has stretched far beyond his wallet for some time now. Whilst a prominent figure in his time here so far, Lenagan has rarely ventured, publicly at least, into the everyday affairs of the club. Yet behind closed doors, Lenagan’s progressive ideas have been maneuvered into position - six figures invested in sports science methods, a revamp of training methods, improved facilities. All of this tends to suggest that Ian Lenagan has been undertaking a prominent role in the everyday running of the club for considerable time. Be it in collaboration with Kelvin Thomas or of his own accord, Lenagan signified his intent to be more than just the money man.
When a man of such influence and leverage in the world of sport displays such desire to acquire greater power over his capital, it is highly unlikely that his wishes will go un-granted. There is every chance that Ian Lenagan has decided the time is right to exert his control and apply his own personal strategies: a personal impulse to see things done his way. This is not to suggest that Kelvin Thomas has been pushed out or Lenagan has forced his way into the role. Instead, it is a case of a man with a proven record of implementing innovative and distinctive ideas wishing to lend his expertise to another venture. It would have been disrespectful to Thomas to have enacted this without first being in the necessary role, as well as undermining of the fantastic work he has done at the club. It is a tribute to the character of the man that Kelvin Thomas has recognised it is time to step down, that Ian Lenagan is the man to take Oxford United’s progression to the next level.
It may not sound like the greatest of praise, but to say that Kelvin Thomas is the most sensible Chairman in the recent history of Oxford United Football Club is the biggest compliment you can pay to anyone in a similar role. In this age of hyperbole, broken promises and perilous overextension, Thomas brought stability and strength to a club on its knees. Think back to 2008, if you can muster the strength. Just two weeks before Thomas took the reigns in October, a sub-4,000 crowd saw a 2-1 home defeat to Crawley. Almost exactly three years after his appointment, a near five figure attendance witnessed a 3-0 victory over Bristol Rovers in the Football League. There are few better comparisons to highlight the stunning reversal of fortunes of our club under Kelvin Thomas.
The appointment of Chris Wilder, promotion and a series of memorable results do not even rank amongst Kelvin’s greatest achievements. Instead, it is the sense of community, of belonging he has brought back to the club. He made it our club again. It is hard to recall in these times of progress but the club was a barren, destitute prospect in the years following relegation. We are now a feel-good club, a club on the up, one which takes pride in itself rather than wandering around aimlessly hoping for something to happen. Kelvin Thomas has taken Oxford United from a club some may have had reluctance in admitting they supported to one which can take 33,000 fans to Wembley. Every single one of them will be eternally grateful for bringing a sense of self-worth back to the club.
Yet as more dust settles and the situation takes on greater definition, so to does a sense that this was the right time for transition to take hold prevail. Arguably, Kelvin Thomas has achieved what he set out to do - get the club back into the Football League, reverse a hemorrhaging financial situation and reinstate the club as a focal point for the local community. Not taking the club a step further may be one regret Kelvin takes with him, but it is not one which Oxford fans will begrudge him for.
However, for all of Kelvin Thomas’ outstanding work, something extra is needed to propel the club further. The experience and specialist knowledge acquired by Ian Lenagan during his tenure at Wigan Warriors may well be this factor. The man has the wisdom of operating a club at the very pinnacle of their sport behind him - something that Kelvin, for all his noteworthy capabilities, cannot offer.
When a fresh edition of the club’s history is written in twenty, thirty, or even fifty years time, Kelvin Thomas will be credited as the man who gave buoyancy to a rapidly descending club. His efforts will forever be appreciated. He has laid the foundations. Lenagan now has free reign to build upon them as he desires, in his mould and with liberty.
So thank you Mr Thomas, and good luck Mr Lenagan.
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