Lost Glory: Oxford United, from Headington to Wembley to Non-League

Oxford United

A new series looking at clubs whose glory years are some time past.  We start with perhaps the biggest club currently in England’s non-league pyramid, Oxford United, relegated from the Football League in 2006, just two decades after winning a major trophy at Wembley Stadium.

Headington United

Oxford United have a long and interesting history. They were founded in 1893 by a vicar and doctor in Headington, a village just outside the city of Oxford. Headington is perhaps best known as the homes of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, who both taught at Oxford University, and rather more recently, for the Headington Shark.

Revd John Scott-Tucker ran a cricket club in the summers in the late nineteenth century, and as the Headington Parish Magazine reported in November of 1893, “The cricket season being over, Mr Hitchings, with his customary energy and zeal for the young men of the parish, has inaugurated a football club.” It would be called Headington Football Club, though quickly became known as Headington United.

They began well, playing 25 matches in their first six years, winning 14, drawing 8 and losing only 3, playing on the Headington Cricket Club grounds. The sports club only found a permanent home in 1926, when a group of civic-minded locals formed Headington Sports Ground Ltd and purchased the site of what became The Manor Ground, at first more known for cricket than football.

The cricket team moved to new pastures in the early 1940s, leaving Headington United as the main occupants, the football club making rapid progress on and off the field.

Headington turned professional in 1949 as they joined the Southern League, which they won in 1953. An impressive run to the FA Cup Fourth Round the next year saw them take on Bolton Wanderers in front of 16,000 at the Manor Ground. Headington lost 3-0, but the excitement whetted the appetite of the area for more.

Oxford United

Attempting to build on this foundation, in 1960 the club made the controversial decision to try and woo the larger metropolitan area of Oxford to the club by changing their name to Oxford United. One local lamented at the time: “It was their club; Oxford had never raised a finger to help them. Why should it pinch their glory now?”  The Manor Ground was also sold to the club. This would be the beginning of the end for Headington’s direct connection with the club.  The Oxford United club crest features an ox, representing the cattle Oxford was originally known for.

When Accrington Stanley went out of business in 1962, Oxford United were elected to the Football League as their replacements in the fourth division. Another strong FA Cup run in 1964 saw 22,750 pack The Manor for a sixth round tie against league giants Preston North End.

Programme for Oxford United vs. Preston North End, 1964

Centre-pages in the programme for Oxford United vs. Preston North End, 1964 (quisnovus on Flickr).

Oxford lost 1-0 to Preston, but the large crowd was another sign the city was ready for big-time football.

The next year, the club were promoted to the third division, and they established themselves firmly in the Football League, moving up to the second division before relegation in 1976 set-off a chain of events that would see them go on a rollercoaster ride up and down the leagues in the next four decades.


Thames Valley Royals

In January 1982, after five years of financial struggle and the club facing bankruptcy, they were purchased by media tycoon Robert Maxwell. He saved the club; but his grander ambitions took a nasty twist for Oxford fans in March 1983 when he suddenly announced he was also to purchase Reading Football Club, merge the two teams and create the Thames Valley Royals. As Rage Online remembers, fans, the football community and even members of the Oxford United board did not take well to the news.

Initial reaction of the fans of both clubs was hostile. Mike Habbits, chairman of the Reading Supporters Club, said: ‘Our fans can’t stand Oxford fans and I can’t see them travelling to Oxford to watch the new team’. Former Reading player Roger Smee, who had unsuccessfully bid for the club the previous autumn, was quick to announce he was considering a fresh offer. Another Reading fan asked ‘How can people identify themselves with a side that does not represent a town but an area? Football has always been between us and them’. A spokesman from Oxford United Supporters Club described the scheme as ‘crazy and unworkable’. Former United captain and then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson commented: ‘Mr. Maxwell obviously believes that if you add 6,000 United fans to 6,000 Reading fans you’ll get 12,000 supporters for the new club. You won’t’. Peter Marsh quit the United board three weeks after Maxwell took over. He called the plan ‘the end of Oxford United’. ‘The way this merger has been done is arrogant and autocratic’.

Supporters organised against the move, with the Save Oxford Soccer (SOS) campaign set-up, and a sit-in demonstration held at the Manor Ground in a match against Wigan. Meanwhile, Maxwell’s attempt to takeover Reading hit a serious snag as he lost the support of the board there. The idea had an inglorious death.

Yet ironically, Maxwell’s investment in the club would soon see it reach the greatest heights in its history in the mid-1980s.  After successive promotions in 1984 and 1985, Oxford United reached the top flight for the first time. They survived their first season there by the skin of their teeth, avoiding relegation on the last day of the season, but most famously won the Football League Cup (then the Milk Cup, now the Carling Cup), beating QPR at Wembley in the final, with 90,396 in attendance.

The next year, though, would be the start of Oxford’s slide to non-league football. Robert Maxwell purchased Derby County, and it being sensibly against league rules for anyone to own two clubs, he ended his ownership of Oxford…..But his replacement was his son, Kevin Maxwell. The club were relegated in 1988, and controversy followed as Oxford striker Dean Saunders was sold to none other than, you guessed it, Derby County.

There was one last twist in the Maxwell saga. His sudden and mysterious yachting death in 1991 was the catalyst for his financial estate collapsing, and Oxford ended up out of money and looking for a bail-out again. That came from a rich fan, Robin Herd, who bought the club and tried to lead the construction of a new stadium for the club that would fit the post-Hillsborough stadium development of English football in the 1990s.

But growing debt and problems with the local council stalled the project. Oxford passed into new hands again at the end of the decade as they yo-yoed up and down the Football League, bought by Firoz Kassam in 1999. Gary Andrews at Soccerlens has an excellent synopsis of Kassam’s own controversial ownership:

Kassam, by his own admission, was not a football man. What he was good at, though, was business, having made his fortune through hotels in the 80s. He was quick to enter the crippled club into a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) in order to reduce the debts, with all unsecured creditors over £1,000 paid 10p in the pound. In this case, the £9million owed to such creditors ended up costing Kassam £900,000.

Meanwhile Kassam also moved to resolve Oxford’s other problem: the unfinished stadium. This was still bogged down in appeals on the surrounding land but a resolution was somehow found, which saw Kassam pay £1.3million for the land and planning permission for a large leisure complex, including a hotel, restaurant, cinema, and bowling alley. The £15million modestly-named Kassam Stadium plan was ready to proceed.

But Oxford’s chairman hadn’t just been working on securing land around the new ground. While the legal battles over the out-of-town site were ongoing, Kassam had sold the Manor Ground stadium to Firoka, a holding company registered in Jersey and owned by Kassam, for £6million. This money was used to pay off secured creditors while the Manor Ground and the surrounding land was sold, complete with planning permission, to the Nuffield Hospital Group for £12million. The profits on the sale went to Kassam.

Kassam’s business acumen had paid off nicely for himself and there was an extra sweetener on top. When Oxford moved into their new stadium in 2001, Kassam kept ownership of the ground and the surrounding commercial development. The terms of the lease means Oxford United are still paying rent and overheads to Kassam, despite the millionaire no longer owning the club.

Kassam has frequently defended his role in Oxford’s history, pointing out his money saved the club and that he took a huge risk when building the new stadium. That risk did not extend to putting cash into the playing side and all cash put in to cover operating losses was done so as loans. Oxford are still paying these back.

Unsurprisingly, the club struggled on the field as well, falling down to the bottom division of the Football League by the time Kassam sold the club in 2006 (though notably, he kept ownership of the stadium, which Oxford rented out).

A 3-2 defeat to Leyton Orient on the last day of the 2005-06 season saw Oxford United drop out of the Football League and into the non-league Football Conference.

After Oxford United's last Football League match.

After Oxford United's last Football League match. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Under the promising new ownership of a former Oxford player and US-based businessman Nick Merry, Oxford’s first season in the Conference saw them reach the playoffs, losing on penalties to Exeter in the semi-finals.

As the Kassam Stadium crowd shown below at the last game of the 2008-9 season demonstrates, support for the club remains strong, and Oxford have topped the attendance chart in the Conference three years running, despite missing the playoffs in the last two seasons (though only because of a controversial points deduction in 2008-9).

Oxford fans on the last day of the 2009 season. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Oxford fans on the last day of the 2009 season. (quisnovus on Flickr)

Despite a very robust average attendance this year approaching 7,000, renting the stadium for £480,000 annually from Kassam is described as crippling the club by present club chairman Kelvin Thomas: the club has £4m of debt. Smart initiatives such as a new club membership scheme and a 12th man fund-raising effort have helped, but a long-term stadium solution is still needed.  On the field, things are rosy: as of today, they sit in second place in the Conference, one point behind Stevenage with three games in hand: it seems likely they will not be a non-league club for much longer. Off the field, Oxford’s financial future remains — seemingly as ever — unclear.

Credits: All photos used with permission of Pat Baker (quisnovus) on Flickr.

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