Football: The pride and the precipice

Journey through football: From a club on the brink of oblivion to another on the coat-tails of a rich future

Oxford United should have been playing football at Mincherry Farm by now. Instead, the girders stick out like ribs from three half-built stands and concrete steps lie waiting to receive some of the 15,000 seats which would have secured a brighter future for one of the league's most troubled clubs. The pitch is scrubland, the whole site a monument to blind, desperate ambition. Nothing has moved since the builders walked out, unpaid, nearly two years ago. They were scheduled to return earlier this month, but, last week, the only activity came when a young man threatened to throw himself from the top of what, on an architect's drawing board at least, was the north stand.

The police intervened, but a few Oxford United fans would understand the sense of despair. Oxford are pounds 13.5m in debt and are losing pounds 13,000 a week, the administrative staff have not been paid for weeks and the manager, Malcolm Shotton, a club legend, has had to rely on his wife's income for the last seven weeks because he has not been paid either. The players went without their wages for three days and threatened not to play against Watford. The following week, they beat Birmingham 1-0 at St Andrew's. Though the new ground is just down the road from the Oxford Science Park, logic is not the football club's strongpoint.

"We are looking over the edge of the precipice and trying to draw away from it rapidly," Keith Cox, the club's chief executive, said. "I know the way out of the maze, but everyone has to be completely realistic about the consequences of falling over." Cox is a solicitor, who feels a touching duty to complete the unfinished business at Mincherry Farm, and this is legal speak for wanting to bang a few heads together. One would belong to Robin Herd, owner of nearly 90 per cent of the club's shares who stood down as club chairman a year ago and has rarely been seen since, another to the directors of Taylor Woodrow, who want to be paid for the first half of the ground before the second half begins, and a third to Grenoble Investments, the consortium interested in purchasing the club and the ground.

Without selling the Manor Ground, the club can raise no money to reschedule debts or restart construction; it cannot be sold off until the club has somewhere to go. To add to the problems, the deadline for all-seater stadiums ends at the start of next season and Joey Beauchamp's pounds 800,000 life-saving move to Nottingham Forest fell through because he failed a medical. "He's as fit as a fiddle. He's missed six in 170 odd games for us." Cox shakes his head. "At least they can't blame me for that. And I suppose it was Friday the 13th."

In the main office, the staff are leafing through Oxford's Formula One connections. Damon Hill emerges as a potential sugar daddy. It is that desperate. With each passing day, the bank manager's patience wears a little thinner and the sound of the administrators sharpening their pens grows a little louder. Cox makes insolvency sound like an infectious disease. "Millwall had it, Bournemouth had it, Northampton. Chester have got it at the moment. We are by no means unique. It's just more people know about us here."

Only 12 years ago, Oxford won the Milk Cup and frightened the life out of the First Division aristocracy. That they did so on millions of pounds of borrowed money was not so readily advertised. Success does not breed curiosity, on the whole, any more than empty pockets discourage wishful thinking. A group calling itself FOUL (Fighting for Oxford United's Life) has been formed to put pressure on the owners and to show that, whatever the crowd figures on a Saturday afternoon, people do care about the future of football in Oxford. At times, Cox wonders if rugby union wouldn't be the more attractive product.

Across the water, to the south and east, the secretary of Royal Antwerp FC would understand Cox's frustration. Antwerp's finances might be healthier, but, relegated from the top division in Belgium for only the second time in their 119-year history, the club is still down on its luck. At least it was until last Monday when the first football twinning agreement provided not so much a lifeline as a shot of Viagra. "We netted ourselves the biggest fish of all," beamed Paul Bistiaux, the club secretary. "It's not Lens or Metz, it's Manchester United. You wouldn't believe the jealousy that's caused."

In future, Antwerp will be the car park for young non-European Union players destined for shipment to Old Trafford. There are other advantages to the deal, but the prime motive from United's point of view was to bypass the United Kingdom's regulations on work permits. "In Belgium the law permits us to bring in players from outside the EU on condition that we vouch for his welfare and pay him the minimum of pounds 10,000 as a professional footballer," Bistiaux explains. "The idea is to sign promising non-EU players for Antwerp, have them monitored by United and then after a few years see if we can get them Belgian nationality - maybe they can get married to a Belgian girl to speed up the process - and we can transfer them to Manchester United."

If it sounds ominously like a sophisticated slave trade, the parallel is not meant to be so brutal. Dutch clubs have been importing the best talent from Africa and South America for ages, teaching them the game and then reaping the rewards of their labours. Ronaldo was one prime example. United are clearly wanting to tap into the same flow.

In return, Antwerp receive a share of any future transfer money and act as a continental finishing school for United's best young players. Danny Higginbottom has already begun the process and three more United players - a goalkeeper, centre-back and striker - are due to join Antwerp on three- month loans before Christmas. "United have 75 contract players and they cannot play them all in the first team, so they can come over here, get first- team experience and go home better players," Bistiaux says. Negotiations took two years to complete, while the lawyers investigated the legality of the move and United found common interests beyond mere commercial convenience.

A strong streak of the Anglo- Saxon runs through Antwerp, from the foundation of the club in 1880 by English students through to the high-windowed facade of the ancient main stand and the name itself. Despite pressure from nationalistic groups, the club has refused to change from the anglicised Antwerp to the Flemish Antwerpen. One of Bistiaux's proudest footballing possessions is a United pennant from the 1968 European Cup final. The club itself is frozen in the Fifties, complete with fading files on top of metal cabinets, wooden desks and an old fireplace with Victorian tiles. Only the problem of hooliganism shoves Antwerp towards the Seventies. Now, United's coat-tails offer the vision of a more prosperous future. Uefa, the governing body of European football, and the Professional Footballers' Association are not so sure. What if Antwerp and United are drawn in the same Champions' League group? "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Bistiaux laughs. "That was one of the attractions for United. It's very much stressed in the agreement that we keep our independence. It's obvious we are the smaller party, but football is show business now and to survive smaller clubs will have to align themselves with the bigger clubs. You cannot pay bills with tradition."

Oxford cannot even resort to ancient history for comfort. But they have Mincherry Farm, the ghost ground, to remind them of the suffocating consequences of unpaid bills.

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