Grenoble Road – Holding OUFC back?

From the Rage Online newsdesk Monday, October 14th, 2019  

With Paul’s ‘Fan’s View’ back in action this week, Will Green takes a look at the Grenoble Road experience…
Paul is, of course, back in the saddle this week, but I was down for a rare home game this weekend and thought I’d give an exile’s perspective of home matches and the general matchday experience at Oxford United. For context, I’ve been to four home games before – Luton in 2015/16, Charlton in 2016/17, Fleetwood in 2017/18 and Bristol Rovers in 2018/19 (coincidentally, I hadn’t seen us win at home before yesterday).

The first comment is more on the city centre than the actual ground. It’s not where the football is played, but it’s an important part of any matchday experience. Lots of away fans will arrive, as I did, at the railway station and then wander around the city centre looking for booze (ok, not the booze part for me. I was by myself). But there is practically no sign of OUFC in the town centre. I saw only one person wearing club colours (a scarf) and one lad with what may have been a yellow shirt under a jacket, but there’s almost no evidence that it was a home matchday in this town. I myself wasn’t wearing colours, so it’s entirely possible (and in fact likely) that there’s lots of Oxford fans about, but even so, the absence of Oxford branding was noticeable. (And I do include myself as a culprit in that). In one of the shopping centres there’s a stall selling calendars and yearbooks. There was a football section. Of course, there was no OUFC calendar. Celtic – tick. Watford – tick. West Brom – tick. OUFC – nope. I mean, come on. West Brom? Really? They’re only one league above us. I asked the bloke if he had any OUFC merchandise, hoping that I’d missed something. He said no, but pointed me towards the one club presence in the city centre – the Covered Market, in the form of the OUFC shop.

Having a club shop in the city centre was – and is – an excellent idea. But in a covered market full of foreign tourists, the shop was completely empty. The fact that you enter via a barber’s shop, and get stared at by the barbers and patrons can’t help much. Why not put an external door in? In addition, most visitors to the market seem to be shopping for food, which also can’t help much.

City centre done and dusted, we move on to getting to the ground. I think that this one factor does more to harm attendances than anything else. It’s unbelievably hard to get to the ground. The station is around 4 miles away, buses in a new town are always a bit hard, and there’s always huge amounts of traffic. If you don’t own a car, you will struggle to get to the match; if you own a car, it’s hard to leave. If we do end up moving, this factor needs to be addressed – either by building large amounts of parking, or by putting it slap bang next to Oxford Parkway (or, indeed, putting it in the city centre, but that’s never going to happen, ever).

The stadium itself is also, well, a bit rubbish. You can see immediately that the build quality is extremely low. It’s basically made out of corrugated iron painted blue and grey. Inside, the concourse is bland and the toilets are a bit grim. The roofs (rooves? Roofes? KEMAR ROOFE IS MAGIC) are too high so it’s hard to generate any noise. My mate, who’s doing the 92, commented that the stands (with the exception of the SSU) are shallow – the views are poor and fans are far from the pitch. The massive gap between the stands and the turf doesn’t help either. Nor do the empty corners or the absence of a fourth stand. This in of itself makes our club something of a laughing stock. I’m going to be honest and say that I would rather we had Accrington’s stadium – with its 5,450 capacity – than ours. It’s easy to get to, compact, with terracing and low roofs, and we would sell it out every week. Far better than our current rows and rows of empty seats.

The atmosphere in of itself isn’t really an issue – most people in the East Stand sing (including a few blocks who start chants and stand all game – these people are vital for the club), and a fair few in the North as well. That’s usual – a few dedicated chanters, a few hangers-on, and a few who don’t sing at all. The problem is the acoustics. There’s just big gaps everywhere – a high roof with no overhang, no windshields, massive spaces in the corners, and a random empty space at the back of the East Stand. Like, what even is that there for? Terracing? Seats that nobody could be bothered to fit? If it’s the latter, we sell out a few times a year, and another couple of rows would add another few hundred seats to the capacity. This sort of thing about the club just really winds me up. I know some of it is down to Ka$$am himself, but the grey shell that is our home is rubbish. It’s also all gone quiet at the OxVox end about this mural – which is disappointing considering that about 200 people have put a fair bit of money together.

Perhaps the only decent thing about the matchday experience is the programme – one of the best I’ve read and not too expensive (standard price, I suppose, but well written and also pretty long). I do like the ‘Long list’ squad concept as well – easy to mock, but it creates a concept of club and family, which was clearly present in 2015/16 when we got promoted.

Of course, at the moment the football is pretty good – we played really well yesterday. The referee was very poor, but that’s to be expected, and some players were exceptional. Fosu was top class, Henry was back on his game, and Eastwood didn’t put a foot wrong. Doncaster put a lot of long balls into the box – I suspect they may have wanted to test Eastwood after his error at Accrington – but he was equal to the task. Alex Gorrin was also exceptional in the first half. To be honest, no player had a bad game.

But all of this is besides the point. Our current form compared to our attendances shows that the two aren’t really linked – we get bigger crowds when we play well, but only by a few hundred. If you don’t really have any connection to OUFC – i.e. if you aren’t already a fan or don’t have family or friends who are fans – what is there to attract you to visiting the Kassam (another reason – what a stupid name)? The facilities are crap, it takes forever to get to the ground, the views aren’t great, the football isn’t always special, tickets are expensive (yes, they’re reasonable, but if you’re not really into football why would you want to pay upwards of £50 to take your family to an activity you don’t care about?). Our club needs a transformation of its brand to make Saturday afternoons appealing for the general public. That means advertising in Oxford, but also across Oxfordshire (let’s be honest, the stadium is barely in Oxford anyway); getting a new stadium to make up for the current embarrassment; reducing the amateurishness of the operation. The last time we had a real big go at advertisement was before Wembley in 2016, and 35,000 people turned up to see us play in a tinpot trophy match. The people are there. The club is just currently not attracting them. If we want to be a sustainable outfit in the long term, we need to do this desperately. Sorry to be gloomy when we’re doing so well. Here’s hoping Paul’s piece is a bit more positive.

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