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Requiem for a dream


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Well, that's that then. To the surprise of no one, Oxford are finished. GAG are too, obviously, but I don't know about their situation.

Oxford on paper had most things going for them - good board, city centre location (one of the finest places to watch rugby of either code in the world IMO), but struggled with several things:

- they were brought into C1 when it was avowedly a development league with some northern clubs to make it legit. It very quickly became not a development league, and the new clubs found themselves having to spend money on trying not to be humilliated every other week instead of playing their peers with an occasional visit from M62 world.

- the situation at Iffley Road; I rather suspect that this could have a thread in itself but let's just say that having to go on the road in for half of the 2014 season was where the rot started. I was a season ticket holder and on at least 2 occasions turned up at the turnstile only to discover that I ought to be in Henley. Communication with the STHs was abysmal, let alone general public.

- Abingdon was the kiss of death, especially for a team claiming to represent a city where the general belief of the natives is that if it hasn't happened within the ring road then it hasn't happened.

- the RFL, just in general really. Creating expansion teams and leaving them to twist in the wind by reshuffling the deck every 2 minutes. Nobody ever seemed really clear what expansion was for other than pins in a map and to be able to say it was happening. That became clear from the second season.

Nevertheless, before everyone drifted away (I moved away, which is my excuse for not being there the last 2 seasons), we had some fun. The summer of 2013 will live long in a few memories I think - blazing sunny afternoons at Iffley Road watching Oxford actually winning matches, with gates in the high couple of hundreds, rather than one man and his dog. 200 was never going to be a gate which would sustain the club either, but it was 200 more than a lot of people thought they would get, and it felt like the start of something good.

Thanks to all volunteers who've given their time over the past 5 years, to the players for putting their bodies on the line for a city about as far from the RL stereotype as it's possible to get, and to those who had the vision in the first place. Also, over the years, to Tony Benson and Tim Rumford for working hard to do their best with the tools they were given.


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A few thoughts from another ex-Oxford fan.

1.    Marketing. I often heard it said that Oxford did no marketing. They did. Before season two in particular they did a massive brochure drop to something like 5,000 local houses offering cheap admission to the first game that season. Sadly, the weather was truly appalling and few turned up. There was also an issue in that many inhabitants in that area are students living in multiple occupancy housing so a) they weren’t in Oxford for much of the season B) someone else in the house may have thrown it out before anyone interested read it. However, as the money got tighter it is fair to say the marketing was weak / non-existent. Build a rugby league stadium in Oxfordshire and they won’t just come, you need to persuade them to.

2.    The RFL. Where do we start. A) Firstly, they over-expanded down south, we just don’t have the player base. Most players who are good enough are already earning more money to play a decent standard of RU and do little travelling, why take up league and ensure you don’t get a break ahead of the next RU season? Skolars warned the RFL of this, their response was that the southern teams should use the student and forces game for recruits. Which takes us nicely to the next point. B) This may have worked in an expansion league, though frankly I don’t think it would have done, but in a league which included the likes of Hunslet, Toronto, Whitehaven and Barrow? No chance. The expansion teams entered into a development league. I believe at least one them would not have entered if they knew how quickly their league would cease to be a development league. The decision to expand the third division was a disaster for both the new and the established teams.  C) I hope the rumours that the RFL refused to ground grade local RU grounds for Oxford in the second season of on the road fixtures meaning Oxford had to play at such local venues as Cheltenham and Hemel isn't true. Several season ticket holders were never seen again after we returned to Oxford. Had those games been played more locally they may have hung around. D) I get that money is tight but if you are going to expand down south you need to spend money on development officers. If you don’t it just won’t work. Do it properly or don’t bother.

3.    The club. They didn’t get everything right. The absolute lack of publicity for the fact we were off on the road for the first time was appalling. Fine if you are online etc. but if you went to matches and relied on that for information you didn’t know. Several people turned up at Iffley Road that day, some were never seen again. At points the fans did seem to be viewed as a nuisance whilst the culture of secrecy at times was over the top. They tried to do things right – only making public statements when something was certain, I get that. However, at times it went too far. I remember talking to some first time visitors in season two. It was a poor gate by the standards of the time, 250 perhaps. They were puzzled, where were the 400 or so we usually declared, they thought they were coming to a vibrant little club, were disappointed and didn’t return. In my personal opinion the gates were over declared on many occasions, if so this bit them on the bum this time. The fuss about where to play the Leigh Miners Challenge Cup game was embarrassing and did little to endear the club to others in the sport. Likewise, the lack of officials at the end of the 4-96 embarrassment v Swinton (when a fan stepped in and did the traditional post-match speech & man of the match presentation) and the Castleford Lock Lane defeat (when the fans had all gone home as well so there was no speech / man of the match according to Lock Lane) didn’t reflect well on the club and further alienated people within the sport at a time the club needed as friends. Preventing the fans from presenting a crate of beer at the end of the match to the first player to make 50 appearances was bizarre. It was done informally leaving the players rather bemused. 

4.    The grounds, Iffley Road was a glorious place to watch rugby league on a good day. To be fair, ORL had to leave. They may have got away with being on the road every two or three years, with a bit of help around fixture scheduling from the RFL, but every year? No chance. Why buy a season ticket when you have no idea where about a quarter of the games will be played? Every time we went on the road even more familiar faces were missing when we went back to Iffley Road. Oxford University RU had also driven a very hard bargain financially. I suspect as crowds fell it would have been economically unviable even without the on the road issues. If the story that ORL had all but agreed a deal to move in at Oxford United only to be blown out at the last moment due to a better offer from London Welsh is true, it’s probably no bad thing it happened as it forced them to go to Iffley Road. It’s difficult to see crowds of 400 maximum being much fun at OUFC. 

Abingdon, well I get why they chose it. Frankly there aren’t many suitable locations in that neck of the wood, (Oxford City FC is often cited but they were installing their new 3G pitch the first summer ORL moved to Abingdon so wasn’t a possibility.) ORL were anchor tenants and no on the road games issues. Unfortunately, it was a truly shocking place to watch RL – in terms of both sight lines and spectator facilities. At Iffley Road people stuck around for a beer and a natter post-match, we got to know each other. At one point it was a very special club, there was a genuine closeness between the fans, team and some officials. That was quickly lost. At Abingdon people had their car engines on within seconds of the final hooter. You arrived as late as possible, watched the game and fled for home. This just wasn’t a location that a first timer would turn up at think ‘I enjoyed that, I’ll go again next week.’ There simply weren’t enough rugby league tragics in Oxfordshire / surrounding counties (at one point most of our fans seemed to live in Hampshire, Berkshire or Northamptonshire) for it to work. Even some of those decided Abingdon was too bad to bother, we lost a couple of Leeds Rhino’s fans who had watched the club for four seasons this season. I know they disliked the venue so that’s probably they stopped coming. Even after what we knew was almost certain to be the last ever home game no-one really stuck around to say goodbye such was our dislike of the stadium, we just jumped in our cars and left. The fact that it was pretty awful to get to by public transport didn’t help either. A few regulars who used public transport drifted away. Put simply I’ll miss Oxford RL. If I ever have to return to Tilsley Park it will be a day too soon. 

5.    Players, the old Oxford should have played 17 southerners chestnut. Put simply they’d have loved to but a) there aren’t enough players of sufficient standard down south who aren’t already earning more for less travel playing rugby union. B) those that are here are often ex London Broncos academy lads. For obvious reasons a lot of them live in London / Hemel areas. With the exception of those living in a few bits of West London it makes little sense for them to travel to Oxford for training. c) It’s a pretty open secret down south that Skolars and All Golds could out pay Oxford. Tim Rumford has suggested that Hemel did too. Not likely too many players will make Oxford their choice under those circumstances. d) If Oxford did get someone we couldn’t pay them enough to stop them playing RU (ORL lost a southern winger nearly all season this year due to an injury late in the RU season) or justify them missing work (they lost a southern winger a three seasons ago as he could no longer train. There’s also a good ex ORL lad living in Cheltenham who plays amateur RL as he cannot commit to training). e) It’s not just the ability, it’s also mentality. Most of the southern RL players are recreational players. Oxford played quite a few southerners the day we lost 96-4 to Swinton (the two facts are connected.) I saw one of the southern lads – a debutant – laughing and joking in the bar sinking a pint less than ten minutes after the final hooter. I knew then he’d never make it. Some have the talent but not the mentality. Compare that with a northern lad who has wanted to play RL since he was say 7. He’s more likely to make the sacrifices in terms of his social life – no Friday or Saturday night out – and little things like not being able to take many over the counter medicines due to drugs testing, to haul up and down the motorway for one or two seasons in return for little money on the off chance he is spotted and picked up by a bigger northern team. I won’t break any confidences but I think you’d be surprised at just how little some pay as you play lads were on at Oxford. For the northern lads it was often their last chance in the pro game and they put everything into it. The southern lads generally had never thought of being a pro RL player and were less likely to make the sacrifices needed, why bother when they can play union to a decent standard, probably get paid more, play at a level with no drugs testing so no worries about which cold cure to take and undertake far less travel. They probably lived closer to a suitable RU team than a RL team as well.  

ORL gave me back my love of rugby league. After twenty odd years watching the sport at Prescot and in London the Gus Mackay led Broncos were killing my interest in the sport. I went to watch Oxford’s second game at home and ended up staying for five seasons,. Thanks to Oxford I've now got a Broncos season ticket again as Gus has gone rather than drifting away from the sport, and spent a wonderful month crashing round Britain watching the last world cup. I’ve got some wonderful memories from Iffley Road, that and Whitehaven are my favourite places to watch league. I’m very grateful to the likes of Adrian Smith – it just about summed up the vibe around club in the early days that I spent two years talking to him thinking he was the club photographer before I was told he was the CEO. I hope the backers haven’t been too badly burnt either financially or in terms of their love for the sport. Whilst they certainly didn’t get everything right the blunt truth is you would struggle to find a better qualified board than the one at Oxford.  Frankly if they couldn’t make it work then the RFL needs to step back and look at what has happened and why and learn the lessons if there are to be any other future attempts to expand the game. 

Oxford RLFC 2013 – 2017. Thanks for the memories. 

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