Ebbsfleet are a team in a crisis, an identity crisis. There’s the historical alliance of Gravesend United and Northfleet United, then the shameless re-branding to align to a town that doesn’t exist. There’s the dubious ownership model. They’re also a team with virtually no pedigree, Jimmy Bullard is probably their most famous past player and last year’s FA Trophy their biggest honour.
It’s difficult not to look at them with suspicion. As such, getting away with a draw feels like a good result.
We’re similarly anonymous. The Woking game brought it home to me; I don’t know what we’re about. I don’t mean the technicalities of tactics; but in terms of our identity, our spirit, our brand.
The Glory Years were characterised by a club punching above its weight, playing good football with wingers, finding and developing players to move on to greater things. The Atkins years we were big and ugly; nobody liked us and we didn’t like anyone else. Everything about the club subscribed to that identity.
The Merry and Smith are not dissimilar to Kassam in that they have asked the fans to sit back and enjoy the ride. Increasingly the football is a service to us as customers. However, the most successful clubs recognise the value of aligning the club with the players and the fans.
When I saw Manchester United play Sporting Lisbon last year, it was notable that the fans, like the players didn’t panic when they went a goal down. It was almost as though Sporting conceded their lead as they realised that 70,000 people were looking on them disapprovingly. Last season, Aldershot were notable in that the club and fans are one – given their history, they’re happy to watching football, they enjoy it, which breeds confidence and success. When Oxford performances don’t meet our expectations, we boo, we hate our club. It can only give the opposition more confidence.
The club need to work to reduce the distance between them and the fans. This is about presenting a clear vision of what we want to be and the role everyone plays. So, for example, we want matchdays to be a celebration – passing, expansive, attacking football on the pitch. Noise and colour off it. Then, in the club shop there are flags for sale, cheap yellow t-shirts that people can buy to bring colour to the stands. Turn players into cult heroes. Get the Oxford Mail campaigning. Create a matchday experience that breeds a winning confidence. Not one that gets bored after 20 minutes and flatly surrenders to a 0-0 draw with Woking.
Unlike Ebbsfleet, we don’t want to pick the team or buy and sell players. We don’t want to negotiate the purchase of the stadium. We want to play a part.