This is the match Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven may have been both relishing and dreading. Both Oxford fans, and passionate ones at that, but now part of the latest Mackem revolution. Their private thoughts on Saturday afternoon would be fascinating. Simon Bradbury, a former vice-chairman of the Oxford United OxVox group, knows Stewart well. Who better to answer the ‘Who are you?’ questions? …
Salut! Sunderland: the Donald derby indeed. How are your lifelong fans, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, viewed in Oxford following their takeover of Sunderland (though bearing in mind Charlie’s stake is quite small) and who do you suppose they will privately be rooting for?
Simon Bradbury: Stewart is a fantastic individual and successful businessman. I’ve known him a long time, initially through my association with our Supporters Trust & we became friends. Stewart continues to be viewed fondly and most would like him to succeed. He has been a huge influence on Oxford United, supporting previous regimes with sponsorship, finances and support. Our club will miss him but Sunderland fans shouldn’t worry about Stewart. He’s one of the good guys & a shrewd businessman. As for who Stewart will be rooting for, knowing the man, for this fixture, I suspect he’ll be firmly wanting his football club to pick up the three points, that being, The Mackems.
Your club has known good and bad times – good as in promotion to the top tier and a League Cup final victory in the 1980s, bad as in the descent into non-league football. Describe your experience as a supporter.
I first was introduced to Oxford United on the old Osler Road, milk crate in hand, along with my father. His friends would create a small space for me to place the milk crate, before standing upon it wedged between the wall and a metal post, to protect me when we scored, which was a regular occurrence when you had Aldridge, Brock, Hamilton, Saunders and co on the pitch.
I was seven when I went to Wembley for our historic cup final win. Whilst those were my very young years, by the time I was a late teenager, that descent had happened – we were firmly a League One and League 2 side (Div 3 and 4 back then), before dropping out of the league in 2006. We knew it wouldn’t be long before we returned, the big clubs at those levels generally do & the first season in non-league was actually quite fun, taking more away fans to games than those supporting the home team – but it took a while to adjust and to appreciate and respect where we were. Only then, did we understand how to deal with it. Sunderland are in a similar situation.
Getting out of non-League and re-building our youth system, was solely down to the Lenagan Family, our owners at that time and who oversaw us back into the league. Ian Lenagan is the EFL Chairman now & FA Board member, his son, Simon Lenagan was all about our youth system, he was the unsung hero of that time. A system that produced players like Dean Whitehead!
Are Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth and Karl Robinson the right owner and manager for you and how far can they realistically take you?
Tiger is a great owner. He has been a breath of fresh air. I’ve been fortunate to know him well, again through my role at OxVox. He has great intentions and has some great support in the background. Daryl Eales, our previous chairman, has left the board in the past week and I expect new individuals will soon come forward to form a new board of directors. Tiger lives and breathes Oxford United, calling management and those on the OxVox board at midnight hours. I have every confidence he will sort the club out and drive us on.
Karl was in my opinion a superb appointment, he has a pedigree at this level, with Milton Keynes Dons, having taken them up from this level. He is passionate and that is infectious. He certainly is a marmite character, with his previous clubs’ supporters not particularly liking him but he’s ours now, we will support him. He has had a tough start to the season, playing a Barnsley side who look like they will go straight back up and Portsmouth. Defeats to Fleetwood and Accrington however, were not expected but we have had our fair share of injuries and new players coming in, so it’s a work in progress.
If you were to rise back through the leagues and enjoy another taste of the top flight, or at least challenging for it, would you need to reconsider the size of your ground (and that long-awaited fourth stand!) or settle for the Bournemouth way?
Interesting question, something that has been debated for, for a long time down here in Oxford. However, the simple answer is, with new housing planned around the Kassam Stadium, a new train station that will link the area to central Oxford & an ability to build a fourth stand and fill in corners, the answer is no we wouldn’t need to reconsider the size of the ground. Of course, new owners may think differently, but availability of land and the approval of councils, will probably prevent someone building a new stadium any time soon. We have had two years or more of talk of some supporters wanting to move our stadium to Water Eaton, but that continues to be seen as a pipe dream, especially after the Supporters Trust spent so long in discussions with a number of stakeholders.
I know Charlie – we worked together a few years ago – and he told me the Oxford-Swindon rivalry is arguably as intense as Wear-Tyne. That sounds improbable, but what do you think ?
Some initial comments from your new minor shareholder seemed to upset those up on Wearside and Tyneside but he’s correct. The rivalry between Oxford and Swindon, is up there with the intensity of others around the UK – Celtic/Rangers, Sunderland/Newcastle, Steel city derby, Tottenham/West Ham etc. People do laugh it off but unless you have lived it, you wouldn’t appreciate it.
We are having to learn a lot of unfamiliar names, own our players included, at this level. Who are the men vital to your season and where do you need strengthening?
Offensively we have recruited well, Gavin Whyte from Crusaders (linked with Championship moves), Marcus Browne in on loan from West Ham, Ricky Holmes & Samir Carruthers from Sheffield United to name a few, we made a big money signing from Derby, Jamie Hanson and addressed our full back options, bringing in Luke Garbutt from Everton. Some will need to take time to gel and re-familiarise themselves with League One, most have been playing higher up the pyramid. We really could do with a new striker, despite bringing in Sam Smith in from Reading, we have not many options.
Chris Maguire has made a good early impression, both in attitude and performance. Do you rate him?
Do I rate him? Yes, absolutely. He is a maverick, he is a winner, he is an exceptional footballer. To be honest, I am surprised with the impact he has made so early into his career with you but I have no doubt, he will win you games on his own. He will wind up the opposition, he will wind up the opposition supporters, he will do anything to win. I would have him back here in a heartbeat and it’s a shame, we didn’t get him back after his spell at Bury – who I assume didn’t understand him as a footballer.
Tell us your highs – and lows – as an Oxford fan
Beating Swindon more often than not over the past 20 years, getting out of the conference after the initial arrogance had subsided, seeing Michael Appleton build an impressive side that was build on intelligent recruitment – that’s the high’s of the last decade or so. Beating all the top clubs regularly at our old Manor Ground in the 80s, surviving in the top flight for several years, rising from nothing.
Lows, obviously relegation to Non-League was horrendous, both emotionally and actually to the immediate survival of the club itself. People lose jobs when big surprises like that happen to clubs who think they are too big. I think as equally as disappointing, was not having our club play in Europe after the ban on English Clubs in the 1980’s. That I believe, changed our future, we simply couldn’t hold onto players like John Aldridge or Ray Houghton from that point on. Had we done well in Europe, who knows what might have happened?
And who are the best players you have seen for the club or wish you’d been around to see if from the past?
I remember Dave Langan, Aldridge, Kevin Brock & Billy Hamilton from that era. Gary Briggs was my all time fave. Joey Beauchamp was one of the most under-rated ever, Matt Elliott & Jim Magilton. More recently, the likes of Kemar Roofe and Chris Maguire have added some excitement to our play. Let’s not forget of our own youth product, Dean Whitehead.
Which players should have been allowed nowhere near the ground?
We had a player called Doudou & yes he was. We really have been dished some rubbish in the last 20 years, I just seem to have erased them from my memory.
Explain OxVox and your role within the organisation until recently?
I had been on the committee for 10 years until May 2018, with the last four/five years fulfilling the role of Vice-Chairman. We have one of the more progressive Supporters Trusts in the country, with a paid membership of over 1000. We were the first trust, for example, to list our stadium as an Asset of Community Value, even having the pleasure of it going to tribunal by the landlord. We set up and oversaw the Yellow Army Fund or the 12th Man Fund as it was originally named – raising or helping to raise £60,000 in fundraising for new player signings etc. The Trust has invested heavily in community in recent years, providing tickets and transport for young disadvantaged children to go to Wembley, to pay for a VIP day for a supporter, who had life-ending illness, to go to Wembley with his father. The membership and committee have done so much for the community, it’s been a honour to serve on it.
Did our sharp and steep decline surprise you?
I think the drop from the Championship did, but that division now has 19 out of 24 teams being ex-Premier League clubs, so it happens. Blackburn showed how to deal with it & Manchester City have done the same to be fair. This division is tough, you’ve had a good start, but your weakness will be any arrogance that is shown. Clubs will love to play at the SoL and you’ll find it tough.
Any other thoughts on Sunderland – the club, the fans, the city and region, Jack Ross and anything more you want to say about Donald and Methven?
The fan base seems to be remarkable, that’ll be key throughout the season. The area lives for football and you seem to have a fantastic academy system. I only have good words to say about Stewart Donald, he rarely fails in business but he’s got a tough gig up there, I am sure if he is in control, you’ll be just fine.
How do you see Oxford’s season going and hand on heart, where will our clubs finish come May?
I aspire for us to sneak into the play-offs after a shaky start. Our owners aren’t here for League One football, we are building and the aim is to move up a division. This season, I see us finishing between 5th and 10th.
The World Cup: memories to treasure or you couldn’t wait for it to be over and league football to resume?
I enjoyed it. It was the fix a fan needs in the close season, it’s a shame it doesn’t happen every year. This summer, the fans got their country back. We have young, fresh, vibrant footballers, Pickford, Maguire, Trippier, Ali, Lingard, Kane et al. It’s going to be a good few years.
The Neymar question: will VAR eliminate cheating or is it with us to stay?
I think if we take Neymar first, what a embarrassment to football he was this summer. I am involved in grassroots football, children who aspired to be like him now just mock him. We’ve had sessions where the young players, find it funny to all roll around on the floor mimicking him. If Neymar isn’t careful, that’s what he’ll be remembered for.
VAR will eliminate cheating & players will get shown up in the process. The real shame of the World Cup was the authorites didn’t suspend players like Neymar, that would have been a start to addressing that issue.
Will you be at our game? What will be the score?
Yes, looked forward to it since the fixtures were released. I’d take a draw………………..please.
Interview: Colin Randall