Promotion, Wembley, pre-season tours, hot dogs & takeover talks – an eventful three-and-a-half years

 DAVID PRITCHARD and MARK EDWARDS take a detailed look at Darryl Eales’s tenure as Oxford United chief

“I’M not doing this for a big ego trip. I’m doing this to test myself in a different arena – in the sport I love.”

Just over three and a half years on from beginning the test, Darryl Eales has handed over the controlling stake at Oxford United.

Some questions have been passed with flying colours, while others remain no nearer to being solved than they were in 2014.

First, the positives.

It is easy to forget now, but the club Eales and his new chief executive Mark Ashton inherited was drifting.

While memories of the Conference years may have started to fade, frustration was growing after a third successive attempt to reach the play-offs had hit the buffers.

Just as they had two years earlier, United stumbled terribly in the final weeks of the season to go from top-seven certainties to trailing in nine points adrift – 11 defeats in 14 games will do that for you.

Gary Waddock had been powerless to stop the rot and then never got the chance to make amends as weeks of inactivity ended with him being sacked as Eales’s first move.

Michael Appleton hardly seemed an upgrade at that point, following doomed, brief spells at Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers, as well as an earlier relegation with Portsmouth – albeit with the club in administration.

He knew another failure on his CV would effectively mean the end of his hopes for a career as a head coach.

Had he not been brought in by Eales, there is every chance Appleton might have been fired during the winter of his first, turbulent season.

But he first stood by his man, then backed him.

Herald Series:

  • PLENTY TO PONDER: Chief executive Mark Ashton, Darryl Eales and boss Michael Appleton after an embarrassing 5-1 defeat at Cambridge United in front of the Sky cameras. But the U’s board’s decision to stick with their manager was to reap rewards

Eales later admitted he wished the deal to buy out Ian Lenagan had come a few weeks earlier, because taking over a threadbare squad at the start of July came too late to sufficiently strengthen.

But Appleton, supported by a recruitment department getting up to speed, was given the resources to begin building from January 2015.

United had what so few clubs appear to have – a coherent plan.

Summer 2015 began a glorious 12-month spell where virtually everything came off.

Eales sanctioned an increase in the playing budget which moved swiftly to capture the likes of Kemar Roofe and Liam Sercombe.

Off the pitch, suspicions about the private equity expert from Birmingham’s motives were fading.

Eales oversaw the revamping of the club’s community work and mingled with supporters far easier than most chairmen.

He watched away games from the terraces, got rounds in at the bar and began the increasingly popular summer tours to Europe.

For someone with a background in finance, he will have appreciated the way the team’s stock rose.

Playing some terrific football along the way, United were back and everyone connected with the club were having the time of their lives.

Automatic promotion was sealed on the final day of a season which included a trip to Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and a stunning FA Cup win against Premier League Swansea City.

Herald Series:

  • DAMP: Oxford United’s open-top bus trip to celebrate reaching League One

Eales was flying solo by now, having removed Ashton midway through the season.

After being on the front foot in summer 2015, United were more reactionary 12 months later as first Roofe and then Callum O’Dowda departed for seven-figure deals.

A chunk of the money was reinvested wisely in the likes of Curtis Nelson, Marvin Johnson and Ryan Ledson and while it took the side time to adjust to League One, the second half of last season was littered with highlights.

But scratch beneath the surface and despite the results on the pitch, it was not quite the same as before.

A disagreement over flags being waved in the East Stand was allowed to fester, leaving Eales to ponder: “Frankly, it does make me question why I’m committing my time and money to build something special.”

It came at a time where the U’s chairman was losing patience in general.

There was a terse exchange of statements with Oxford City Council after failing to be given the green light run a new training complex at Horspath, while there was also frustration at supporters’ trust OxVox for a lack of progress in their attempts at turning the Kassam Stadium into a community-owned facility.

“If you want to do a deal and there’s a willing buyer and willing seller, it shouldn’t take more than 10 to 12 weeks,” Eales said.

The fact Eales was not involved in those discussions told its own story – and his inability to strike a deal with Firoz Kassam is likely to be the big area of regret from his tenure.

After an initially friendly relationship failed to get anywhere with United’s landlord, things soured.

A request to allow a temporary fourth stand was rejected, with Kassam pointing to unpaid bills – something Eales rejected, although the club have taken the stadium company to arbitration over service charges.

Eales is not the first person in his position who has been unable to solve the ground ownership issue, but for all the on-pitch success, that will rankle.

Another terrific FA Cup run and Wembley appearance left a creaking fixture list which ended United’s hopes of a run to the play-offs.

Herald Series:

  • CONSOLING: Darryl Eales and John Lundstram after United were beaten at Wembley by Coventry City in the Checkatrade Trophy final

A highest league finish since the 1990s was an achievement, but not enough to keep Appleton.

The head coach had been frustrated by the lack of investment in January and although the uncertainty which swirled for weeks around Juan Sartori’s interest in the club had ended by early June, his three years in charge was ended by Leicester City’s offer to become their No 2.

It was a major blow.

His successor was Pep Clotet, who was seen as the best fit to evolve Appleton’s work, rather than rip up the plans and start again.

Just like Appleton, the appointment could be seen as a gamble – for all the Spaniard’s impressive CV, the highlights had come as a No 2, rather than as a main man.

His cause was not helped by the sale of John Lundstram and Marvin Johnson. They brought in a combined total of well over £3m, but while Clotet was given a vastly-increased playing budget, only one player commanded a fee – Ivo Pekalski, who suffered a serious knee injury in his first week at the club.

Within a month of the season starting, another foreign investor emerged.

Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been a conspicuous presence at times in the directors’ box but, unhappy with the way so much of the Sartori saga was played out in public, Eales has given nothing away.

While details about negotiations have no divine right to be in the public domain, the silence has left everyone in the dark about other aspects of the club, from the training ground to transfer policy.

For someone who has been so accessible for the rest of his time in charge, it has led to a feeling of stagnation.

Pep Clotet was sacked early in January, but with takeover talks again at an advanced stage, the decision on his replacement was seemingly put on the back-burner.

A poor run of form saw the U’s drop to within five points of the relegation zone, and prompted calls from supporters and, more worryingly, players for the club’s board to speak publically.

Yesterday’s takeover answered some of those questions, but there is no doubt work needs to be done behind the scenes to bring back the feelgood factor that has sadly evaporated.

It may be tempting to draw a parallel with the atmosphere immediately before he took over, but that would be unfair.

Few clubs have experienced the sheer quantity of memorable moments in the last three and a half seasons.

As a football supporter at heart, Eales will know you cannot put a price on that.