As Bad As Things Got: Oxford United & The Maxwells, 5th November 1991

by | Jul 24, 2020

The past can interact with the present in many different ways. The revolting story of Jeffrey Epstein seems a million miles removed from the history of a League One football club, but recent news headlines have called to mind one of the most turbulent and eventful decades that English football club. Ghislaine Maxwell stands accused of some heinous crimes, but that she should have served as a director of Oxford United for more than five years is a curio that us leads towards an extraordinary story in its own right, taking in football, the media, politics, financial mismanagement, and a very grand larceny indeed.

Robert Maxwell purchased Oxford United Football Club on the 6th of January 1982 for £128,000. Born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in the small town of Slatinské Doly in Czechoslovakia in 1923, he escaped to France as a child – much of his family was later killed in the Holocaust – and settled in England, buying a small publishing house called Butterworth-Springer in 1951 and changing its name to Pergamon Press. It would go on to become one of Britain’s leading publishing houses.

In 1964, he was elected as the Labour MP for Buckingham and sat as their MP until being defeated by the Conservatives six years later, but this budding plutocrat was cut from very different cloth from other Labour MPs of the time. After a tussle for ownership of Pergamon which at the end of the 1960s and took until 1974 to resolve, the company grew significantly, and in 1981 Maxwell acquired the British Printing Corporation, changing its name to the British Printing and Communication Corporation.

In January 1982, Maxwell was given an opportunity to move into professional football. Oxford United had been elected into the Football League in 1962 following the mid-season collapse of Accrington Stanley, and they’d fulfilled the promise they’d shown as a non-league club by getting to the Second Division in 1968 and staying there for eight years. Following relegation back to the Third Division in 1976, the club fell into decline. This slide wasn’t the most severe that any club has ever suffered, but it came at the worst possible time. Attendances in the lower divisions had halved in the ten years between 1965 and 1975, and this downward still further, as hooliganism and dilapidated facilities took their toll on people’s interest in attending matches across the board. This decline was all the more accentuated at clubs having problems on the pitch. In 1975, Oxford’s average attendance was 8,261. By 1980, it was 4,832, and all of this came against a background of relentlessly negative press about the game and a period of transfer fee inflation.

There was a widespread recession amongst Football League clubs in the early 1980s, and Oxford United were caught in the eye of the storm. They owed Barclays Bank £128,000 but, whilst this was nowhere near the biggest debt that a club carried at this time, Oxford United had no means of paying theirs back. Maxwell put the money in, a fairly modest outlay for a man of his means, and got the club back on its financial feet. Two and a half years later, he bought Mirror Group Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People, Scottish Sunday Mail, and Scottish Daily Record. With the purchase of a football club, his transition into a curdled Rupert Murdoch was nearing completion.

Maxwell first showed his true colours in a football sense in April 1983, when he announced that he was close to buying a majority shareholding in Reading FC, and was merge Oxford United with them to form a new club to be called “Thames Valley Royals.” He’d paid £219,000 for this shareholding, and claimed to have the support of the Football League in principle. Thames Valley Royals would alternate their home games between Oxford and Reading, he said, with the aim of building a new stadium somewhere between the two. The chairman of the Football League, Jack Dunnett, described Maxwell’s proposal as “a bold and imaginative move which I’ll be watching with interest.”

There was, of course, immediate uproar, with protests from supporters at both clubs, but it took the intervention of a Reading supporter to put a stop to the whole plan. Roger Smee had been a Reading player who’d become a millionaire through the construction industry, and Smee spotted irregularities in the ways in which Reading’s shares had been allocated in previous years. After a court injunction was obtained at the start of May, three Reading directors resigned their positions and returned their shareholdings to the club. Within a few weeks Smee was the chairman of Reading, and the merger was off. Oxford United’s board had, perhaps unsurprisingly, been fully supportive of it.

On the pitch, though, Oxford United were about to enter a purple patch. Jim Smith had been appointed as manager of the club just a few weeks after Maxwell took control of it, and under his management they won the Third and Second Division championships in 1984 and 1985. From out of nowhere, Oxford United were a First Division club, just over twenty years after being elected into the Football League in the first place. Maxwell, of course, loved the attention, but within a couple of years it was starting to become increasingly clear that he had ambitions far beyond the Manor Ground.

Ghislaine Maxwell, the youngest of Robert’s nine children, was born in Maison-Lafitte, a wealthy suburb in western Paris, on Christmas Day 1961. Two days after her birth, her elder brother Michael was involved in a road traffic accident that left him in a coma until his death six years later. Her mother later said that Ghislaine showed signs of anorexia as a toddler. She studied at Marlborough College and Balliol College, Oxford, and became a prominent face on the London party scene upon her return from a spell in New York, where she’d first become close to Jeffrey Epstein.

In April 1986, Oxford United reached the summit of their spell in the sun, beating Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Wembley to win the League Cup. Life in the First Division, however, hadn’t been easy. Upon promotion, Jim Smith had not been offered better terms and resigned. Under the management of former chief scout Maurice Evans, Oxford finished the 1985/86 season in eighteenth place, just a point above the relegation places. A month after the end of the season, Ghislaine was appointed to the board of directors of Oxford United. Her brother Kevin was appointed at the same time.

Within a year, Robert Maxwell had moved on to pastures new. It had been a difficult dozen years for Derby County since they won the First Division in 1975. Relegation followed in 1980, and then again in four years later. It had taken the Rams two years to get back into the Second Division. Maxwell had failed in a bid to buy Manchester United in 1984, but he was successful with Derby three years later. Within a year of Ghislaine and Kevin becoming directors, Football League ownership rules meant that their father departed for The Baseball Ground.

“Departed”, in this sense, was a subjective word. Oxford United’s stay in the First Division ended in 1988 with the club bottom of the table, and from here on the management of the club became increasingly oblique. Managing Director Pat McGeough, an accountant from Pergamon, ran Oxford on a day-to-day basis, and the suggestion was that Robert was still ultimately pulling the strings as a shadow director, with Ghislaine and Kevin doing his bidding at a boardroom level. When an Oxford United fanzine suggested this, they were sent a letter by Maxwell’s lawyer.

The tipping point for many came in September 1988. Manager Mark Lawrenson had come to an agreement with Kevin Maxwell to not sell coveted striker Dean Saunders if Oxford failed to win promotion back to the First Division at the end of the following season, but barely a month in Saunders was sold£9) l> without Lawrenson’s permission or even knowledge, to… Derby County. Lawrenson was sacked for complaining and replaced by the perpetually hangdog Brian Horton. Oxford finished their first season back in the Second Division in 17th place.

The team continued to stagnate on the pitch, finishing 17th again and 10th over the course of their next two seasons. Crowds, which had been at an average of 8,300 even throughout their wretched final season in the Third Division, fell further upon relegation. By 1991, they’d fallen to an average of less than 6,000, the lowest in the Second Division for the last two straight seasons. They started the 1991/92 season with five straight defeats, sending the club straight to the bottom of the Second Division table.

Overseeing this descent into mediocrity were the Maxwell children – on paper, at least. It’s difficult to say how much direct influence Ghislaine had over the running of the club at this time (it’s difficult to say how much influence Kevin Maxwell was having, and he was the public face of it all), but it was likely more than none whatsoever. As long ago as December 1984, she accepted the Fiat Team of the Year award on behalf of the club from then-England manage Bobby Robson, and was regularly seen around the offices of both Oxford United and Mirror Group Newspapers – where she earned a formidable reputation for rudeness, if nothing else – at the time.

By 1990, though, Ghislaine Maxwell was likely taking no active involvement in the club. Biographer Tom Bower would later reveal that she flew to New York on the 5th November 1990 to deliver an envelope on her father’s behalf that, unknown to her, was part of “a plot initiated by her father to steal $200m” from shareholders in Berlitz, the language school. Despite the growing problems at home, Robert Maxwell still considered himself to be an expansionist, and in late 1990 had bought into the financially ailing New York Daily News. Ghislaine was sent to New York early the following year to act as his representative.

Back in England, meanwhile, there is little question that Robert was pulling the strings at both the Manor Ground and the Baseball Ground, but by 1990 he was becoming restless again. With a bid to buy Watford having been blocked by the Football League, Maxwell put Derby County – by this time a First Division club – up for sale with an asking price of £8m. There was rumoured interest in him buying a finally stricken Tottenham Hotspur, as well. In May 1991, though, Derby were relegated from the First Division and the asking price for the club fell to £5m. Derby were sold that summer to Peter Gadsby, chairman and managing director of the Derby-based construction company Birch plc, who led a buyout by the other directors.

On the 6th of November 1991, Oxford United supporters were preparing for a trip to Vicarage Road to play Watford, the target of Maxwell’s most recent desires. News had started to filter through at around lunchtime the previous day that he had died, and that afternoon’s 2-0 defeat ended up as the backdrop to something very different indeed. Oxford started that day in bottom place in the Second Division, having won just four previous games that season, but the atmosphere amongst the away supporters was very different that day.

Maxwell had been aboard his yacht, the Lady Ghislaine (named for his “favourite” daughter), on course for Gran Canaria. The day before, he’d had an argumentative phone call with his son Kevin over a meeting scheduled with the Bank of England over defaulting on £50m worth of loans. An inquest later established that he had suffered a heart attack and drowned overboard, but rumours persisted that there may have been considerably more to the story that that, possibly even that his involvement with the Israeli secret services might even have been resulted in his murder. In the absence of any evidence of murder or suicide, though, a verdict of death by natural causes was recorded.

His empire collapsed with remarkable speed. By the start of the following month, shares in MCC and Mirror Group Newspapers were suspended on the stock exchange. Hundreds of millions of pounds had been taken from pension funds to prop up the MGN share price and fund his lavish lifestyle, with the Daily Mirror, which had printed sixteen pages of eulogies after his death, turning on him, reporting that almost $1 billion had vanished in the weeks before his death. Kevin Maxwell clung on at the club until May 1992, when he resigned and declared himself bankrupt with debts of £400m. It was the biggest personal bankruptcy ever seen in this country at the time. In 1995, Kevin, his brother Ian and two others went on trial for conspiracy to defraud, but they were unanimously acquitted by a jury in 1996.

Kevin Maxwell’s six months at Oxford United after the death of his father, though, were an exception rather than the rule. Pat McGeough, the Permagon middle-man who’d been running the club on a day-to-day basis, also stayed on, resigning in September of 1992. But it hadn’t taken as long for the other rats to depart this particular sinking ship. Paul Francis resigned his directorship on November 15th, just ten days after Maxwell’s death, and then, in the space of three days at the start of December, the entire remainder of the board resigned – James Hunt on the 3rd, and Albert Ramsey, Geoffrey Coppock, and Ghislaine Maxwell, two days later.

Stuck on one of the outer spiral arms of Maxwell’s financial galaxy, Oxford United were not harmed as much as many closer to its centre, when it turned out that the centre of this galaxy was a financial black hole. While Mirror Group shareholders were wiped out, arguably the biggest losers were the group’s pensioners, who had £460m embezzled from their fund to continue the fooling of auditors after the passing of money from company to company – mostly in order to keep the MGN share price buoyant – became impossible to continue. Despite a partial government bailout, as well as money from the investment bankers who advised Maxwell, most had to accept a 50% cut in the value of their pensions.

In a broad sense, the fallout of the collapse hit Oxford hard. One of his companies, Nuffield Press, found that two-thirds of their pension fund was missing. Maxwell Aviation Management, another Oxfordshire-based company, collapsed and was in liquidation by the end of 1993. Pergamon Press, arguably the most successful of his companies, was swallowed into the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier by 1993, again with redundancies and a vast amount of the pension fund having gone missing. Those who had been sceptical of the Maxwells during United’s most successful period ended up being proved right in a manner even grimmer than even the most cynical might have expected.

But Oxford United’s accounts had become as murky as those of any other Maxwell company, with attention focusing on a £1.8m, interest-bearing loan made to the club by Kevin Maxwell through a company called PH (US) Incorporated, and on money that seemed to have gone missing between Oxford United and Derby County on the Maxwells’ watch. It was relatively small beer in terms of gargantuan numbers being talked about in the wake of this collapse, but this was a vast amount of money for a Second Division football club at the time, and the collapse of Aldershot in March 1992 also gave pause for thought.

Somehow, though, the team managed to haul itself clear of relegation by the end of the 1991/92 season. A run of four wins and three draws from eight games between the middle of February and the end of March gave them a fighting chance of avoiding the drop, and on the last day of the season an unlikely 2-1 win away to Tranmere Rovers secured their place and relegated Plymouth Argyle instead. Their winning goal that day was scored by Joey Beauchamp, a twenty year old midfielder from Blackbird Leys who’d come through the club’s youth set-up.

The club was sold to Biomass Recycling Ltd later in the same year, but times remained tough. The Maxwells had taken little action towards upgrading the Manor Ground to the standard required in the post-Taylor Report era apart from taking the fences down, but the arrival of Robin Herd as chairman in July 1995 marked the beginning of a new era for Oxford United.

Herd managed to get planning permission for a new stadium in the south of the city, on the outskirts of Blackbird Leys. Still, though, the club’s financial troubles continued. Construction of the new stadium began in the summer of 1996 by Taylor Woodrow, but was suspended in December 1997 after financial problems meant the contractors weren’t paid. Robin Herd left the club in 1998, and it was eventually bought by Firoz Kassam. After a spell in administration (which reduced the club’s liability to Taylor Woodrow by 90%), Oxford finally moved into the three-sided Kassam Stadium in August 2001, shortly after relegation into the Football League’s bottom division for the first time since 1965. Oxford would be relegated back into the non-league game in 2006, and would take four years to get back into the Football League. There remains an open space at one end of the Kassam Stadium to this day.

Ghislaine Maxwell’s involvement with Oxford United was peripheral when the family wanted it to be and less so when they didn’t, and the received wisdom of the 21st century is that the Maxwell children were largely stooges, put to work to carry out their father’s bidding. Football League rules prevented Robert Maxwell from owning more than one club, so when a bigger one than Oxford United came along, he bypassed the rules by installing his children as directors and moving on. But by the end of the decade harsh winds were blowing through his house of cards, and the collapse of his companies was inevitable. The empire was on the brink by the time of his death.

It might be tempting to believe that the financial misdemeanours of the past within professional football cannot be repeated. After all, that is surely the point of regulation that has come in over the last two or three decades, isn’t it? This belief, however, doesn’t really stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Just as the EFL waved through the sales of Wigan Athletic, Bury, Bolton Wanderers, so they agreed with the Thames Valley Royals merger and ignored the likelihood that Robert Maxwell had simply bypassed their own regulations on owning more than one club during the 1980s. Just as they agreed Coventry City having to play home matches in Birmingham, so they agreed both Wimbledon and Charlton Athletic leaving their homes to ground-share elsewhere, in order to not have to redevelop their own grounds. It’s not difficult to see the patterns of issues that their brand of extremely light touch regulation seems to almost encourage in others.

Ghislaine Maxwell, now charged with conspiring with Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse minors, is currently residing in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, a far cry from the life of opulence that she has been accustomed to since birth. And the shadiness continues, with her refusing to identify who her spouse is to prosecutors despite arguing in court that she should be released on bail while awaiting trial for her alleged involvement in Jeffrey Epstein’s child sex trafficking ring because of “the Covid-19 crisis and its impact on detained defendants.” And it seems unlikely that her involvement with Oxford United, just another thing to do as authorised by daddy, has played very much on her mind since at least December 1991, and highly likely for some time prior to then.

But she was a director, with a legal responsibility. As such, the sequence of events that took place at the Manor Ground throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s is partly on her. It shouldn’t need to be added, of course, that all of this palls in comparison with the heinous crimes of which she now stands accused, and comparison between the two would be distasteful to say the least. It is, however, another tiny charge to add to the bottom of an increasing charge list, and the story of Oxford United and her family also serves as another tiny reminder of the mindset of a type of person for whom rules and regulations are for the little people, for whom charm is an accessory to be used to gain advantage over others, and for whom almost anything can be treated as a stepping stone towards something bigger. That Oxford United survived the Maxwells is nothing to do with them, and considerably more to do with the diligence of supporters who dug into his business dealings and sounded the alarm over the company accounts at the very end of the 1980s. As stories football club ownership go, the Maxwells & Oxford United remains a parable as relevant today as it was almost four decades ago, when the family patriarch first breezed into the Manor Ground with so many promises that were ultimately built on sand.