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Oxford United seek to re-live 1980s glory as they host Manchester City in Carabao Cup

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On Wednesday, Oxford United will once again glimpse the limelight as they host Manchester City in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals.

Thirteen years after suffering relegation from the Football League, the club are on the up again and are chasing promotion from League Two as they seek to replicate the glory days of the 1980s.

A 1986 Milk Cup win and three successive seasons of top-flight football remain the high point of the club’s history and preceded a remarkable fall from grace featuring unscrupulous owners, a gypsy curse and an ill-advised attempted merger with Reading. 

The 1986 Milk Cup victory remains the only major trophy won by Oxford United to date

The 1986 Milk Cup victory remains the only major trophy won by Oxford United to date

After winning promotion from League Two in 2016, the U's are looking upwards once again

After winning promotion from League Two in 2016, the U’s are looking upwards once again

First formed as Headington United in 1893, they turned professional in 1949 but were not renamed Oxford United until 1960 and only reached the Football League for the first time in 1962. 

Two years later they reached the FA Cup sixth round — they have yet to surpass that feat — and by the end of the 1967-68 season the club had been promoted to Division Two as the heady rise continued.

Following relegation back to Division Three eight years later financial hardship would set in and controversial businessman Robert Maxwell took charge in 1982, beginning a turbulent but wildly successful spell in the club’s history. 

The media magnate would propose a merger with Reading — part of the Didcot Traingle alongside hated rivals Swindon — to create the Thames Valley Royals.

In a statement, Maxwell said: ‘Oxford United has only one choice. Either it becomes part of something bigger and more modern on a beautiful site with a new stadium and a leisure centre, within a reasonable distance of our people, or else there will be no Oxford United possible at the beginning of next season. 

‘If they wish to oppose it they can get themselves a new chairman for Oxford United and let somebody else pick up the tab. The option they have is to have the Thames Valley Royals to carry on the great tradition of Oxford United and Reading football – or to have no football in Oxford.’ 

He also added, for those opposed to the plan: ‘Attempts to stop the merger would be like trying to make The Thames run backwards.’ 

Robert Maxwell would oversee a controversial period as owner of Oxford United

Robert Maxwell would oversee a controversial period as owner of Oxford United 

However, this idea proved wildly unpopular with both sets of supporters and was eventually called off despite threats from Maxwell to fold the U’s. 

Amid the chaos, the late Jim Smith led the club into the Second Division in 1984 and, just 23 years after joining the Football League, they would reach the First Division in 1985. 

This would herald a golden age in the club’s history —  top-flight survival was secured on the final day and the same season saw an unlikely charge to the final of the 1986 League Cup — then known as the Milk Cup.

Trevor Hebberd, Ray Houghton and Jeremy Charles scored the goals at Wembley to defeat Queens Park Rangers and lift a first major trophy.

Maxwell (left) and captain Malcolm Shotton celebrate with the 1986 Milk Cup trophy

Maxwell (left) and captain Malcolm Shotton celebrate with the 1986 Milk Cup trophy

At this point Maxwell handed control of the club to his son Kevin and then purchased Derby County.

In 1988, Maxwell Jr controversially sold Dean Saunders to his father at Derby for £1million, provoking outrage from the U’s fans.

While they survived in the top flight for another season, the club were relegated in 1988 with Mark Lawrenson as boss. They would slip into the third tier in 1994 and the financial problems gradually escalated – despite a return to Division One in 1996.

With club debts at £15m, Firoz Kassam purchased Oxford United for £1 but, despite addressing the debt and initiating plans for a new stadium – that season would end in relegation and by 2001 the club were back in Division Three.

With the club adjusting to life in the basement division, things took a rather bizarre turn when the club’s mishaps were blamed on a gypsy curse placed on the original Minchery Farm site before the building of the Kassam Stadium.

When the land was sold to the club, travellers who had lived on the site were banned from returning and in retaliation cursed the ground. 

Club chaplain the Reverend Michael Chantry called on the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, to lift the curse and bless the stadium to end the run of bad luck.

At the time, Chantry said: ‘I do know that sometimes, as written in the scriptures, people put curses on other people and this has to be taken seriously.

‘You could just regard it as an old wives’ tale, or you could take it seriously, but Oxford United’s history of bad luck speaks for itself.

‘There’s nothing lost by having an exorcism and it’s better to be safe than sorry. I am not saying all gypsies have malicious intentions, but it was best to bring in someone to lift the curse.’

The Kassam Stadium and the ground below was believed to be cursed by travellers

The Kassam Stadium and the ground below was believed to be cursed by travellers

On the ceremony itself, Chantry added: ‘The bishop sprinkled holy water on part of the pitch where we were. He said a prayer of exorcism and blessed the new stadium.

‘It is already licensed for weddings and we’ve had funerals with the scattering of ashes on the pitch.

‘I think gypsies can put a curse on people or places, so I felt this exorcism was well worth doing. It was part of the bishop’s pastoral duties.’

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, was called upon to bless the ground

The Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, was called upon to bless the ground

Despite lifting the curse, the club cycled through a succession of managers until it found itself facing relegation out of the football league in 2006.

With the club 22nd in what was now League Two, Kassam sold up to businessman Nick Merry who reappointed Smith. 

This did not inspire a revival and, in May 2006, on the final day of the season the U’s faced a make-or-break clash against promotion-chasing Leyton Orient.

An injury-time winner from Lee Steele sent the O’s up and ended Oxford United’s 44-year stay in the Football League. 

On relegation Smith said: ‘I am devastated we have gone down but at the same time I am positive about what we’re going to do next year.

‘We are not going to let our plan slip away just because we have gone down – we are going to stick to it.’

Returning to the club for a second spell as manager, Jim Smith could not prevent relegation

Returning to the club for a second spell as manager, Jim Smith could not prevent relegation

Their first season in non-league saw them lose in the play-off semi-final and Smith would leave in November 2007 to be replaced by Darren Patterson. That would prove to be the nadir on the way to a ninth-placed finish.

In 2008, current Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder took charge and instigated an upturn in form, but not until 2011 did the club return to League Two – beating York City in the final at Wembley in front of a then-record crowd of 42,669.

Since then, the revival has been slow but steady – Wilder left for Northampton in 2014 and his successor Gary Waddock lasted just eight games before new chairman Darryl Eales appointed Michael Appleton.

This appointment would prove inspired and the club would finish the 2015-16 season in second place with 86 points, securing a return to League One with the unstoppable Kemar Roofe scoring 26 goals.

There have been ups and downs over recent seasons – last campaign saw a heavy 3-0 Carabao Cup defeat against Wednesday’s opponents, a game notable for Phil Foden’s first senior goal, while Thai businessman Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth took charge in 2018.

The club have also honed a regular stream of talents, with midfielder John Lundstram now a regular at Premier League Sheffield United and Roofe sealing a summer move to Anderlecht from Leeds.

After initial struggles when appointed in March 2018, Karl Robinson has this season guided a young squad up to eighth in the third tier as they hunt for a long-awaited return to the upper echelons of the Football League. 

Under Karl Robinson, the club are slowly climbing League One and are in sight of the play-offs

Under Karl Robinson, the club are slowly climbing League One and are in sight of the play-offs

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