OXFORD United chairman Kelvin Thomas has expressed his disappointment at Conference chairman Brian Lee after he criticised them for handing out three-year contracts.

The U’s have signed striker James Constable, centre half Mark Creighton and this week goalkeeper Ryan Clarke on three-year deals, and have also tied up boss Chris Wilder on a similar length contract.

Yet controversial Conference chief Lee, the former Wycombe Wanderers manager who presided over the league’s points-deductions fiasco last season, blasted clubs like Oxford and suggested it was time for everyone to take a realistic view as the economic downturn hits home.

Chester City, relegated to the Blue Square Premier, and Northwich Victoria, relegated from it, both went into administration last week while several other clubs have massively slashed their wage bill Lee said at the weekend: “The situation in football is at its worst ever. This is as bad as I can remember it – every day another club seems to be in difficulty and unless attitudes change it is only going to get worse.

“Clubs are committing themselves long-term to the future, but they have no idea what the future holds for them.

“I am hearing more about three-year contracts for people in Non-League – players and managers. With all respect, it is crazy and can’t continue.”

There was clearly implied criticism of Oxford in his remarks, and Thomas felt Lee was singling out Oxford for undeserved criticism.

“It is very disappointing that the chairman of the Conference comes out with comments like those,” Thomas said.

“It’s unbelievable that a club is being criticised for providing stability. I’m sure the League Managers’ Association will not look very highly on the fact we’re being criticised for offering a manager a three-year deal and stability for his family.

“No club’s ever gone into administration because of three-year contracts.

“Clubs have gone into administration because they’ve not been able to pay their bills.

“We’re doing that and yes, we have some historical debt that we have to keep working on, but I said when I came in that we can’t turn everything around in six months, it’s going to be a process and we’ve got to have a sensible business plan and provide stability for us to make it through.”

The U’s believe all the players who have signed longer-term contracts will be worth a bit of money if the team enjoys success, so each is seen as an investment. The same is true of the deal they have struck with their manager.

If another club wants to prise Wilder away partway through his contract, Oxford will be entitled to compensation.

Burton Albion wanted to interview him earlier this month to be on a short-list for their manager’s job, but United refused the Brewers’ request, and subsequently got Wilder to put pen to paper on an agreement which keeps him at Oxford until 2012.

Thomas said: “Realistically, the players that we’ve got on three-year contracts are players the football club see as assets and will help the football club in value.

“That’s what professional football clubs do and also successful businesses. We are not going to get through this economic downturn by taking short-term views.

“It’s not offering one-year deals and then, if everything goes wrong, thinking we’re OK.

“It’s about providing stability and ensuring we’ve got assets. Then, when a club comes in for one of our players they’re going to say ‘oh, he’s on a three-year deal, we’ll have to pay money for him’.

“It’s not going to be a case of letting players go. If we’d put Jack (Midson) on a one-year deal, and he scores 25 goals, he could go at the end of the year. So, we have put him on a two-year deal which gives him the stability that he was looking for, and us some protection if these players are as successful as we expect them to be.

“James Constable is going to be here the next three years. He’s not going to be a one-season wonder. We know that, he’s proven.

“Also, we have given a combination of one-year, two-year and three-year deals. We are doing it the way we see fit, and I think it’s a little unfair of the chairman of the Conference to criticise us for doing what we feel is right.

“The thing that disappoints me most (with the comments) is that you’re also able to negotiate better deals for longer-term contracts, so they actually help with the cashflow pressures.

“Brian’s comments about the manager surprise me,” Thomas added.

“The wider football community talks all the time about managers not being given time, or given stability, and we have a manager that we feel will be successful so we offer him stability while protecting our asset, and we are criticised for it.

“Of course we understand the economic downturn, but I don’t think we should be critised for trying to put together a longer-term business model with appropriate budgets, rather than ‘going for it’ in the short term. “If we suffer short-term financial problems, it will not be down to our three-year contracts, it will be down to our historical debt and a potential downturn in income. “However, we have seen a 14 per cent rise in season tickets numbers and we are not seeing a significant drop in our commercial revenue, so I think, while we have financial pressures, I feel we can have an cautiously optimistic outlook on our position”