12:32 15 February 2012
By David Crabtree, Chris Williams and Martin Brodetsky
By David Crabtree, Chris Williams and Martin Brodetsky
With grateful acknowledgement to Andy and Roger Howland
Along with many other clubs who eventually achieved league status, Oxford United started in 1893 as an amateur club, called Headington, a village team known locally as "the boys from over the hill".
In 1911 Headington merged with neighbours Headington Quarry, the new club going under the name Headington United. The club moved from Junior to Senior football in 1921, joining the Oxfordshire Senior League.
After the Second World War we were still a tiny set up, joining in the Spartan League in 1947. But in 1949 the club was elected to the Southern League and became a semi-professional unit.
Harry Thompson was appointed manager and set about the task of transforming United into one of non-league's major forces.
Only a handful of Football League clubs had installed floodlights when Headington United proudly used theirs for the first time in December 1950 with a friendly against local side Banbury Spencer.
By 1953 the side won the first of its Southern League Championships and in 1954 reached the Fourth Round of the FA Cup beating League clubs Millwall and Stockport County before losing 4-2 to Bolton Wanderers.
Ambitious ground improvements were undertaken at The Manor with one of the most modern stands in the land for that era - The Beech Road Stand - being erected in anticipation of the day when League football would be seen at the ground.
The appointment of the former Birmingham City manager Arthur Turner as manager in January 1959 was another turning point in the club's history. And in 1960, to increase appeal to the whole city and increase national recognition, the club name was changed to Oxford United.
Turner guided United to two more Southern League titles and when Accrington Stanley folded in 1962, Oxford United was elected to the Fourth Division of the Football League.
The Football League
This, however, was just the start of the club's development and ambitions. The careful planning continued and Turner had the distinction of leading Oxford United into the Sixth Round of the FA Cup in 1964 - the first of only four Fourth Division sides to ever get that far.
The Sixth Round match against Preston also set a record attendance figure for The Manor. A staggering 22,750 crammed into the ground for the game against the previous season's beaten finalists (hard to imagine when The Manor's capacity in modern times was less than 10,000).
One year later Oxford crept into the last promotion place of the Fourth Division to move into the Third Division where the club established itself for two years until winning the Championship under the captaincy of Ron Atkinson.
After eight consecutive seasons in Division Two Oxford United was relegated for the first time in its entire history at the end of the 1975/76 season. Poor results and a precarious financial position followed. Two managers (Mick Brown and Bill Asprey) came and went, before millionaire publisher Robert Maxwell saved the club from bankruptcy in January 1982.
The Glory Years
Ian Greaves' stay as manager came to an end when he decided to leave the club. His successor was former Birmingham City manager Jim Smith.
Smith's arrival was the catalyst of a remarkable three seasons which brought the club and supporters the kind of success they could never have dreamed of.
The Third Division Championship was achieved at the end of the 1983/84 season and this was quickly followed by the Second Division title a year later.
Oxford United was in Division One, the top flight of English football, for the first time in its history.
Consecutive championships of the third and second tier had never been achieved by any club before and, indeed, has never been done since, making the feat a unique achievement in English football.
Despite these major successes Jim Smith resigned as manager during the summer of 1985 to be replaced by former Reading boss Maurice Evans who had been Chief Scout/Youth Development Officer at United for the previous 18 months.
The first year in Division One proved to be tough but the relegation battle which had dogged the club all season was eventually won in the last game of the season, which ensured First Division football again in 1986/87.
The season was brightened however by the club's first major cup success. In front of 90,396 spectators Oxford United lifted the Milk Cup after defeating Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Wembley in April 1986. Completing the fairytale, manager Maurice Evans gave up the chance of collecting his winner's medal by allowing long-serving club trainer Ken Fish to climb the famous '39 Steps' to collect it in his place. It was a gesture which truly summed up this gentleman of football.
The second season in the First Division became almost as desperate as the previous 12 months with relegation thwarted in the penultimate match of the season. But the third season in the top flight proved too much and United was relegated back to Division Two.
Despite this sad setback United came very close to reaching Wembley again, only losing out in the semi-final of the Littlewoods Cup to the eventual winners, Luton Town.
Into the 90's
Mark Lawrenson was appointed manager in March 1988 but his tenure lasted just seven months and his number two, Brian Horton, was appointed team manager in November the same year. Horton performed well for six seasons with little money available for him to strengthen the side.
United's future became uncertain again in November 1991 following the death of Robert Maxwell. Players were sold to keep the club afloat and it was a miracle that the side won on the last day of the season to assure their place in the newly created Division One.
The club was bought in 1992 by Biomass Recycling who had the long-term job of putting Oxford United back on a sound footing, with the added pressures of recommendations by the Taylor Report making life at The Manor Ground very difficult indeed.
Brian Horton and his assistant David Moss departed for Manchester City in September 1993 with Denis Smith and Malcolm Crosby replacing them. They set about a complete change in team personnel but just failed to avoid relegation and the club returned to Division Two.
With high hopes of an immediate return the club started the new season as runaway leaders, but the side lost their way after Christmas and missed out on the play-offs in a disappointing end to the season.
The 1995/96 season was significant both on and off the field. Robin Herd became the new chairman, transferring his knowledge of success on the motor racing circuit to the running of a professional football club. Oxford was also, finally, given full planning permission to build a new 15,000 all-seater stadium at Minchery Farm to the south of the city.
On the field the team made an indifferent start to the season, but a remarkable transformation took place in the second half of the season. A run of one defeat in 17 games saw the club rise from 14th place in January to snatch the second promotion spot on the last day of the season.
The first season back in the First Division proved to be an interesting one. The U's struggled early on but rallied to fifth position at the end of December. The side took a while to adjust to the loss of defender Matt Elliott however, when he was sold to Leicester for a club record of £1.6 million, but finished the season with a sparkling 5-1 victory over newly promoted Barnsley to end 1996/97 in the lower reaches of midtable.
Financial problems dogged the club again during the 1997-98 season. Robin Herd resigned as chairman and the future looked bleak. Players were sold to keep the club in business and manager Denis Smith left to take up the vacant managerial post at West Bromwich Albion.
Malcolm Crosby took temporary charge before stepping down to make way for former Milk Cup Final captain Malcolm Shotton to take the reins. Shotton's impact was dramatic and immediate. The club was languishing in the lower echelons of the Division and was in severe danger of relegation but Shotton inspired a mini-revival and the team pulled away from the bottom of the table to finish in a very creditable 12th position.
The 1998-99 season started with high hopes for Oxford United. The club transfer record was smashed with the £400,000 signing of Dean Windass from Aberdeen and there was an air of optimism about the club. However, the anticipated takeover ran into problems and the spectre of the poor financial position of the club returned to haunt The Manor Ground. Office staff were not paid for 10 weeks and players were once again sold to keep the club alive and in business.
In the face of this adversity Oxford United almost produced one of the great FA Cup shocks of all time. Premier League leaders Chelsea came to The Manor Ground and escaped with a 1-1 draw after a late controversial penalty gave the London side a result they had not deserved. This game put the precious talents of Dean Windass in the shop window and it was no surprise when a £1 million offer saw him depart for Bradford City. The absence of a consistent goal scorer cost the club dearly and despite beating Stockport County 5-0 on the last day of the season, United was relegated to Division Two.
Shortly before the end of the season the club's protracted takeover was finally completed when London hotelier Firoz Kassam agreed to purchase Robin Herd's shares. He immediately set about the task of stabilising United's financial position and moving the relocation plans forward.
On the field a poor start to the 1999-2000 season saw Malcolm Shotton and Mark Harrison resign their positions as manager and assistant manager respectively. Shotton's replacement was former youth team coach Mickey Lewis and after initially steadying the ship it was felt that a more experienced manager was needed as the team's fortunes nose-dived.
Denis Smith returned to The Manor in February 2000 and immediately set about the task of keeping the side in the Second Division. This was eventually achieved in the last week of the season. Smith moved to a scouting position when Joe Kinnear was brought in as Director of Football in October 2000 with David Kemp as First Team manager and Alan McLeary as assistant manager. Early in 2001 Kinnear left the club and towards the end of the season Kemp and McLeary left by mutual agreement with the chairman.
The end of the 2000-2001 season saw Oxford United relegated to the Third Division. It was a bitter end to the final year at The Manor Ground, but with the long awaited move to The Kassam Stadium, now completed after two years of legal problems and stalling, everyone at the club was looking forward to a brighter, more successful future.
The Kassam Stadium years...
A Farewell to The Manor charity match, held at the end of the season, reunited many of the Milk Cup stars and players and managers from throughout the club's history and there was not a dry eye in the house for the last League game: a 1-1 draw with Port Vale in which Andy Scott scored the last United goal at the Manor.
In May 2001 former England defender Mark Wright, who was a youth player with Oxford United, signed as First Team manager, with Ted McMinn as assistant. Unfortunately the pair's reign was shortlived, and in December 2001 Ian Atkins was placed in charge of the team. The season ended in disappointment, as the side's fortunes continued to fade, and the side ended the term in 21st place.
However, Atkins rebuilt the squad, releasing 17 players in the summer of 2002 and in the 2002/3 season the team set a new record for away wins in one season. A live televised victory over local rivals Swindon and yet another famous League cup win, this time at Charlton, meant that the U's had a far better season. Cup meetings with Villa and Arsenal added to the excitement but on the final day of the season the U's came up one point short of the play-offs.
In the summer of 2003 Ian Atkins again shuffled his pack, bringing in new faces and strengthening his squad as the U's prepared for the 2003/4 season. It certainly worked in the first half of the campaign, with United only losing one league game before the end of the year. However, the turn of the year also brought a turn of fortune, with the U's slipping from top spot to just outside the play-offs.
It also brought a change of manager, with Atkins departing for Bristol Rovers in March 2004. HIs replacement was Graham Rix, formerly a graceful player on the left wing for Arsenal and England. Rix set about changing the style and outlook of the side immediately but was unable to halt the slide and the U's finished the season in ninth place.
The following season was remarkable even by Oxford United standards. After a promising start United's results began to slip, and Rix paid the price in November, at which stage former Argentina World Cup star Ramon Diaz took over. Diaz, along with a first team coach, physical trainer, doctor, coach and two translators, added a new glamour to the club, but the new management team were ultimately unable to improve results and left before the final game of the 2004/5 season.
Their place was taken by the experienced Brian Talbot.but again he proved unable to stop the slide in 2005/6 and an alarming run of results from Christmas onwards dragged the U's into a desperate fight against relegation. Something had to give, and after the fans made their views clear Kassam left the club, selling to new owner Nick Merry. Merry, a former player at the club, was a popular arrival, but this was nothing compared to the welcome offered to returning boss Jim Smith, the most successful manager in the club's history.
Ultimately their arrival on transfer deadline day proved too late and despite the team's best efforts the club lost their League status on a dramatic, tear-filled afternoon in May when a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Leyton Orient sealed their fate.
Life in the Nationwide Conference in 2006/7 started well, with United unbeaten until November and looking well set for a retun to the Football League. However, form slipped at the turn of the year and Dagenham and Redbridge proved remarkably consistent as they overhauled Jim Smith's side. United still coasted into the play-offs in second place and after a 1-0 win at Exeter in the first leg looked set for a final place at Wembley. A YemiOdubade goal in the home leg looked to have secured that, but United took their foot off the pedal and Exeter hit back to overcome the 2-0 aggregate score and force extra time, and then penalties.
Amid much drama United's season ended in heartbreak and a second season in the Conference, newly renamed the Blue Square Premier, beckoned. The season didn't live up to expectations and by Christmas Jim Smith had moved upstairs to become a Director, with Darren Patterson taking over as first team manager. An unbeaten run of eleven games saw the U's end the season well and once again raised hopes for 2008/9, but results didn't go to plan and by the turn of the year Patterson had been replaced by Chris Wilder.
A tremendous second half to the season saw United end up just short of the play-offs once again: four points short after being penalised five for playing an ineligible player. Striker James Constable was voted BSP player of the year and some astute signings over the summer once again raised hopes for 2009/10; a season that would ultimately end in glory.
After a long and difficult season the U's ended the 2009/10 season in third place, sealing a spot in the end of season play-offs against Rushden& Diamonds. The first leg saw more than 2,000 U's fans travel to Nene Park for a game that ended 1-1, with James Constable striking for the visitors, before a sell-out crowd of almost 12,000 roared Chris Wilder's men on to a 2-0 victory in the second leg four days later, sealing the club's second trip to Wembley and supplying the long-awaited chance for promotion back to the Football League.
On Sunday May 16 2010 that dream was realised in front of more than 33,000 Oxford supporters as goals from James Constable, Matt Green and Alfie Potter saw off York City in an historic and precious 3-1 win that sent United back to where they truly belong.
United's first season back in the Football League ended with them finishing 12th in League 2, just five points adrift of the play-offs. The 2011-12 season saw the U's finally break their hoodoo against local rivals Swindon Town, winning at the County ground for the first time since 1973 and then completing the double on a joyous afternoon at the Kassam Stadium. However the team fell away in the closing stages of the season to just miss out on the play-offs again.
The summer saw Chairman Kelvin Thomas depart and owner Ian Lenagan become Executive Chairman as the U's geared up for another promotion challenge.
Updated July 2012