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Happy Milk Cup Final Day

Reflections on a great day in United's history

20 April 2024

Club News

Happy Milk Cup Final Day

Reflections on a great day in United's history

20 April 2024

Thirty-eight years ago today, Oxford United achieved the single greatest result in the club's history as they beat Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Wembley to lift the League Cup.

Oxford United have achieved many great things, but arguably the Milk Cup final of 1986 is the greatest game of them all. Not necessarily the single-most important match - that honour probably belongs to the 2010 Conference play-off final - nor the club's greatest achievement - election to the Football League in 1962, or promotion to the top flight in 1985 possibly trump the cup final - but as a one-off event, 20th April 1986 surely tops the list.

There were 36,000 Oxford fans at the home of English football that day, with Club Secretary Jim Hunt buying extra tickets from northern clubs that weren't interested in selling their allocation for a final contested between two southern sides. Back home, Oxford was a ghost town for the day, with those who weren't at Wembley watching the game at home on television (there were no sports bars back then).

The M40 to London was full of cars, buses, minibuses, motorbikes and coaches carrying the Yellow Army the 48 miles to Wembley Stadium. Many others made the journey by train, with the football special setting off from Oxford station, via Banbury and Bicester, to the station adjacent to the ground.

That was how I travelled, with the atmosphere on the train a mixture of anticipation and nervousness, not helped by a long unexplained delay before the train pulled into Bicester station. Upon arrival, we made our way up Wembley Way, a throng of yellow and blue and blue and white. We passed through the narrow turnstiles, up the steps and into the bowl, where we were met by a cauldron of noise and colour. Never before or since have United played a game in front of such a large crowd, with over 90,000 in attendance and who knows how many more watching on television - the first live broadcast the club had been involved in.

I was just in time to witness the last knockings of a charity game taking place on the Wembley pitch and time seemed to drag until the two sides came out, side by side, with the familiar figure of Jim Smith leading out the opposition. Introductions and handshakes with dignitaries done, the kick off was met by a primal roar the like of which I had never heard before.

The first half was, mostly, fairly dull as both sides seemed a tad awestruck by their surroundings. My main memory is of a huge yellow balloon bouncing around the running track, never quite making it onto the field of play. A few minutes before half time I looked up to see some fighting at the QPR end, and when I looked back at the pitch, there was Trevor Hebberd with the ball in the QPR penalty area.

"He's going to miss," I thought. The next thing I remember was a huge bundle as he shot past Paul Barron into the near corner and half of Wembley went wild. If playing a major cup final at Wembley had been beyond our dreams, taking the lead seemed surreal. The euphoria took us up to half time and through the interval.

If the first 40 minutes of the game had dragged, the rest of the match went by in a blur of yellow. I honestly can't remember being worried by any QPR possession. Alan Judge might as well have lit a cigar and leant against the goal post for all the threat his goal came under.

United, meanwhile, looked comfortable, confident, assured and played with a swagger that belied their perilous position near the foot of the league table. 

And then it happened, Houghton to Hebberd - run, run, run - to Houghton to sidefoot home and 2-0. Cue further delirium and, as a contest, that was pretty much it. I remember John Aldridge getting sent clean through and I was already celebrating 3-0 before I realised his shot had gone wide.

But with a few minutes left, 3-0 became reality as Barron pushed an Aldridge shot straight to Jeremy Charles, who prodded the ball into the net to leave Oxford in dreamland. The party had started long before the full-time whistle, and the sense of the unreal was compounded when Maurice Evans sent long-serving physio Ken Fish up the steps to collect his medal.

The roar that greeted Malcolm Shotton lifting the cup was a mixture of pride, happiness, disbelief and triumph. Emotions felt by every Oxford fan that was there to witness it.

Emotionally spent, the train ride home passed by in silence, everyone reflecting on their day, never since repeated. The greatest day in the club's history? It felt like it at the time, and it still feels like it now, 38 years later.

Happy Milk Cup Final Day to you all.

Alan Judge, John Trewick, Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton, Dave Langan, Ray Houghton, Les Phillips, Trevor Hebberd, Kevin Brock, Jeremy Charles, John Aldridge. Manor legends, each and every one of them.

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