Being the blank slate that it is, professional football can be infuriatingly counterintuitive, at times. The best don’t always achieve the most and the good guys don’t always win. And sometimes, a sequence of events can be triggered by a decision that looked crazy from the outset, but somehow forced itself to make sense when taken from a step of remove. In some cases, however, even that degree of sense from a distance is invisible, and there can, perhaps, be no better example of that than the sudden ascent of Oxford United in the middle of the 1980s.
There was a time when Headington United wasn’t even the most senior football club in the city of Oxford. That honour belonged to Oxford City, but as the 1950s wore on, City remained pegged to an amateur game that was set to enter a precipitous decline that would lead to its near extinction. Headington United, meanwhile, were ambitious. When the Southern League expanded to two divisions in 1949, the club was accepted for a place and turned professional. Eleven years later, it changed its name to the altogether more inclusive Oxford United. And two years after this, following the mid-season collapse of Accrington Stanley, the club was elected into the Football League in their place.
By 1982, however, a chill wind of economic reality was blowing through the club, just as it was so many others at that time. Gate receipts and threadbare commercial activities were no longer covering rapidly expanding costs and, in March 1982, with Oxford United being unable to service a debt to Barclays Bank, the club was sold to the publishing magnate and former Labour Party parliamentary candidate Robert Maxwell for the relatively meagre – even by the standards of the day – sum of £128,000. It only took a year, however, for Maxwell to blot his copybook. In March 1983, complete with apocalyptic warnings, he announced that the club would be merging with Reading to form a new club, to be called Thames Valley Royals. The plan was undone by the end of the season. A combination of supporter protest from both clubs combined with the discovery that anomalies within the share structure of Reading FC meant that the directors of the club couldn’t even make such a huge decision meant that, by the start of June, the idea was dead in the water.
With dissent in the air on the terraces and Maxwell having pronounced that the club was definitely going to die, nobody could have guessed what would come next. Jim Smith had arrived at the Manor Ground in 1982, and in the aftermath of this near extinction event, he built a formidable team. Over the course of the next two seasons, Oxford United raced to the Third and Second Division titles in quick succession. By the end of the 1984/85 season, the club was set to be playing top division football for the first time in its history. Some forgave or forgot about Maxwell’s misdemeanours of a couple of years earlier. Others, however, didn’t.
A fresh spanner was thrown into the works shortly after the end of the 1984/85 season. Jim Smith’s contract was up for renewal, and he was due to meet with Maxwell in order to discuss new terms on the twenty-ninth of May. Events in Brussels that evening overtook everything else, but when the two did sit down to discuss a new contract, few would have expected what the outcome would be. In the time afforded by the delay in negotiation, Queens Park Rangers had dangled a carrot in front of Smith, and the manager felt that he was worth improved terms, from £45,000 a year to £50,000 a year. Maxwell, ever parsimonious in some respects but not in others, is reported to have made no great effort to retain the services of a manager who had assumed the skills of am alchemist over the previous couple of the seasons, and so it was that Jim Smith departed for Loftus Road. His replacement was Oxford United’s chief scout, Maurice Evans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, life in the First Division proved to be a whole different challenge for the club. It drew its first two matches of the season and then beat Leicester City by five goals to nil, but this was followed by four successive defeats and this turned out to be the pattern for much of the season, the occasional surprise win, the occasional absolute thrashing – a six-nil reversal at Anfield against Liverpool which demonstrated the gap between the top and bottom of the division even then stands out – and just enough points to stay in touch at the foot of the table. The FA Cup provided little respite. Drawn against Tottenham Hotspur in the Third Round of the competition, Oxford were narrowly beaten after a replay.
The League Cup – then its final year of being sponsored by the concept of milk – was, however, another matter. A lack of European football following the post-Heysel ban might have encouraged the bigger clubs to take the competition more seriously than they might otherwise have done. In this competition, however, Oxford United rode their luck a little, drawing only one other First Division club, Newcastle United, on their way through to the semi-finals. Again, though, an air of dissent manifested itself on the terraces, this time with some supporters boycotting the club’s quarter-final win against Portsmouth in protest at ticket prices being jacked up for the match. Once in the semi-finals, however, Oxford United drew away to a rapidly declining Aston Villa team before beating them by two goals to one in the second leg. Oxford United, Football League members for just twenty-three years, were on their way to Wembley Stadium for the final of a major trophy for the first time.
Their opponents in the final would be, perhaps inevitably, Queens Park Rangers. Jim Smith’s new club had gone through almost the opposite of Oxford’s luck in the draw, playing First Division opposition in every round after kicking off with a two legged win against Hull City, a run that included beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the quarter-final and then, albeit with the assistance of two own goals and a missed penalty, Liverpool over two legs in the semi-final,drawing at Anfield after having won the first leg by a goal to nil at Loftus Road. Following the semi-finals, Queens Park Rangers had been unbeaten whilst Oxford United had won just one of their nine matches. Queens Park Rangers were at full strength whilst Oxford United had injuries in key positions.
On that bright, Sunday afternoon in April 1986, however, Oxford United upturned the apple cart yet again. With five minutes left of a lifeless first half, Trevor Hebberd broke clear to give them the lead, and second half goals from Ray Houghton and Jeremy Charles sealed a convincing win. At the end of the match, captain Malcolm Shotton lifted the trophy whilst Maurice Evans, ever the gentleman, sent the club’s long standing trainer Ken Fish up the Wembley steps to collect a medal in his place. If Robert Maxwell was one unwelcome face of the game within the Manor Ground at that time, Evans and Fish represented the club’s beating heart.
The inquest into the match at Loftus Road was a painful one. Why did Queens Park Rangers not seem able to get out of first gear that day? A somewhat surprising possible answer to that question appeared some twenty-eight years after the event, when a well connected QPR supporter stated that he was aware that several of the team’s players were accidentally given triple the recommended dose of mogadon, a sleeping tablet commonly used to combat pre-match nerves, on the night before the match. It would certainly explain their sluggish performance that day, but none of this should detract from Oxford United’s achievement that day. For one thing, any team can only beat the opposition that is put in front of them, after all, and if any players were accidentally drugged by their own side the night before the match, then surely it would have made more sense to play replacements instead. For another, Oxford had a seam of quality running through their team that merits attention. Ray Houghton and John Aldridge, for example, would go on to shine for Liverpool. To focus entirely on Queens Park Rangers’ deficiencies that day is to do Maurice Evans’ team a considerable disservice.
Oxford United, meanwhile, had the altogether more pressing matter of First Division survival to deal with rather than worrying about the whys and wherefores of their League Cup win. The team had four matches left of the season to save their top division status, and the made its life considerably more difficult for itself just six days later in losing its next match by the odd goal in five against fellow strugglers Ipswich Town. The next match, however, would come to have a significant bearing on both ends of the table. Everton were still chasing Liverpool for the league title when they arrived at the Manor Ground, and a single goal from Les Philips not only left Oxford’s chances of staying up firmly in their own hands but also swung the championship race firmly into Liverpool’s hands. A defeat at Nottingham Forest in their penultimate match of the season turned up the tension a little more, but in their last match Oxford brushed aside an Arsenal team, which, in the absence of any European football, had nothing left to play for, by three goals to nil to ensure survival and relegate Ipswich Town in their place.
Oxford United ended up spending a further two seasons in the First Division, finishing in eighteenth place the following season and then bottom of the pile altogether, with just six wins from forty league matches. Robert Maxwell, who tried unsuccessfully to get involved at Manchester United and for whom Oxford United only ever truly felt like a stepping stone, departed for Derby County in 1987, leaving his son Kevin in charge of Oxford. Over the next couple of years, suspicious transfer dealings between the two clubs would lead to accusations that Maxwell senior had appointed his son in order to circumvent FA rules on club ownership and that, by the end of the 1980s, Oxford United was little more than a feeder club for Derby County.
Then, in November 1991, Robert Maxwell tumbled overboard the Lady Ghislane, and his empire began to implode almost immediately. Oxford United, stuck on the periphery of this black hole of financial impropriety, might well have been sucked in by the gravitational pull of the financial chicanery, but somehow the club survived, finally leaving the Manor Ground in 2001 – after financial problems had delayed the building of its replacement for the previous four years – for the Kassam Stadium. Within five years of this, and twenty years after lifting the League Cup at Wembley, though, the club fell out of the Football League altogether. One of the clubs that replaced them was the descendant of Accrington Stanley, the club whose collapse in the winter of 1962 had nudged Oxford United into the Football League in the first place. A further five years after this, the club returned to the new Wembley, a quarter of a century after their last trip, and 33,000 supporters saw the team win a Football Conference play-off final to reclaim that Football League place.
And there’s the contradictory heart of Oxford United. The club had an owner that wanted to close it and merge it with another club, and it reacted with two successive promotions. The owner lost the manager who had been the architect of this over £5,000 per year and replaced him with the chief scout. The club reacted by winning the League Cup. Some years later, it moved into a posh new stadium. Five years later, it fell out of the Football League. It may all feel a million miles removed from that sunny afternoon at Wembley a little over twenty-nine years ago, but at least, we may consider, the club is still with us.
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