Midweek fixture: Chris Wilder – Premier League manager

When Oxford United appointed Chris Wilder I thought we’d given up. We’d tried the ‘been there, done that’ appointments (Atkins, Talbot), the emerging talent (Wright, Rix), the messiah (Jim Smith) and even the South American Alex Ferguson (Diaz). None had worked, and so in 2009, with finances biting, this nondescript appointment seemed like a sign we were hunkering down for a long dark winter of simply being a non-league club.

In fact, there was one recruitment tactic we hadn’t tried – advertising the role; applications, interviews, a selection criteria. Where his predecessors were heavily networked into the footballing establishment, Wilder was a hidden gem. He’d taken Halifax to the brink returning to the Football League against a backdrop of crippling financial problems, then working alongside Alan Knill at Bury to win them promotion. What he needed was a chance to get into the system; it came via Kelvin Thomas and Ian Lenagan and a dose of good practice.

Wilder’s first move was to create a siege mentality around the club; he declared Sam Deering – who broke his leg in his first game – to be our best player. Deering wasn’t, but the sense of injustice was galvanising. This was immediately followed by the revelation that the club was being deducted five points for not registering Eddie Hutchinson as a player. Hutchinson had been with the club for three years, but was on his way out and unregistered, then played due to injuries. It was a harsh punishment for an admin error, made all the worse by the fact we missed out on the play-offs by those five points. Wilder’s parting shot for the season was about his desire to get out of ‘this poxy league’ – the club and fans were as one on that.

Wilder’s ‘poxy league’ comment would be repeated countless time because it encapsulated both him as a person and the team he wanted to create – scratchy, awkward, aggressively ambitious and strangely relatable. Wilder knew we didn’t belong in the Conference, but he also knew getting out of it had to be earned.

The following season’s promotion will always be remembered as nothing but glorious, but it wasn’t without issues. Wilder was apoplectic at the apparent apathy after we’d raced to a 4-0 win over Chester in an unbeaten start to the season which saw us topping the table. He ranted about the club being backward looking, wallowing in its Milk Cup glory, much to the considerable chagrin of many fans – a rift that, for some, never healed.

He was right, we’d spent too long expecting a revival, like success would come from the push of a button – a different manager, new player or just some kind of natural justice. What was really needed was culture change, a reality check of who we were. The culture shift came in the form of players who would thrive in the environment, not freeze in it – Dannie Bulman, Mark Creighton, Adam Murray, Ryan Clarke, Jake Wright, James Constable. All players who shared a mindset, the relentless pursuit of success.

The coup de grace was the 3-1 win over York in the play-off final at Wembley. In many ways, a greater achievement than the Milk Cup Final win of 1986, certainly more important in terms of our survival as a club. It should have cemented Wilder as sitting alongside Jim Smith as one of the club’s great managers.

One of my lasting memories of that win was not so much the elation of winning, but the relief that Wilder’s efforts hadn’t gone unrewarded; in many ways the fear of failure, even when things were going well, drove him forward.

Back in the Football League, his elevated flight instinct – running away from failure – seemed to get the better of him. Fans interviewed coming out of Wembley were already talking about back-to-back promotions, so expectations were high. Wilder’s impatience to progress caused him to break up the promotion team – Jack Midson and Matt Green were loaned out, along with Mark Creighton and Dannie Bulman. The dumping of the heroes of Wembley – the spine of the team – didn’t do much for Wilder’s stock with the fans.

To some extent it killed our momentum, steadying the ship took time. The bi-product of the stall was a first league meeting with Swindon Town for 10 years the following season. It was perfect for Wilder; who got  under the skin of the more celebrated Paolo DiCanio. A home and away double was as much about outfoxing DiCanio as it was a footballing victory.

The success wasn’t without collateral damage. A proposed move to Swindon for James Constable dragged on for much of that season, damaging the relationship between manager and his on-the-field talisman.

There was another win over Swindon the following season in the JPT Trophy, but after an underwhelming campaign, with promotion missed and financial constraints biting, Ian Lenagan presented a new vision for the club; of homegrown players leading the club’s future. There was a short term contract extension for Wilder, barely an endorsement. Wilder looked haunted, subservient to his owner’s will, constrained by a triple lock of promotion expectations, a falling budget and the burning platform of a short-term contract.  

Time was running out; like many managers who have got teams promoted from the Conference Wilder remained a decent bet for any struggling team. Portsmouth were first to bite, and Lenagan barely blinked allowing him to speak to them, he didn’t get the job, but it was the clearest indication yet that Wilder wasn’t wanted.

Then Northampton came sniffing; they were bottom of the league and heading for the Conference, any manager would have been mad to take it on. But, for Wilder, it was perfect; an opportunity to get angry, invigorate and agitate, to shake them out of their slumber, no excuses. At Oxford, his fight had gone, he could please nobody. But also, things were running themselves, Wilder couldn’t be a hands-off manager strategically shaping the club, he needed a problem to solve. The impact was instant; Wilder sparked an astonishing revival, they went into the final game of the season within a win of saving themselves from relegation. Their opponents? Oxford United.

It goes without saying that Northampton swept to safety with a 3-1 win, it was such a Wilder thing to do.

As Wilder steadied Northampton, Michael Appleton arrived to transform Oxford. Appleton was the anti-Wilder – a theoretician and strategist – process, not results. Very modern.

Over the next year Appleton remodelled the he inherited from Wilder; jettisoning many of his players. Ryan Clarke, Alfie Potter and Danny Rose all eventually reconnected Wilder with his Oxford past.

With both managers battleplans fully in place; 2015/16 put Wilder’s resurgent Northampton side in direct opposition to his previous club. For once, we were the progressive modern affectation, they were the rugged survivors. The Cobblers task made all the more difficult in a backdrop of implied corruption and near bankruptcy. No Oxford fan would trade Michael Appleton, but it was difficult not to be impressed by the way Wilder rounded on those who were putting the club in jeopardy, imploring them to accept an offer for the club from his former Oxford boss Kelvin Thomas.

Thomas eventually took over, and Wilder took Northampton on a long undefeated streak to the top of the league. We weren’t doing bad ourselves, but were burdened by cup runs in the JPT and FA Cup. While we took plaudits from the media, they streaked to the title, inflicting a typically Wilder-esque defeat at the Kassam in February. We secured the second promotion spot, with Michael Appleton claiming we were the best footballing team in the division. Wilder raged, but it showed the difference between the two managers – Appleton the scientist and theoretician, Wilder, a results man through and through.

Inevitably, Wilder’s success brought the attention of others, and finally a club he couldn’t resist – Sheffield United. There’d been talk, even at Oxford, about how they just had to ask and Wilder would go, but now was his opportunity. Like his two previous clubs, The Blades needed organising, shaking out of their slumber; perfect for Wilder. The only question was whether he could scale his skills to a club of their size.

Yes. He took them to the League 1 title in his first season, swatting us out the way, yet again. Mirroring his Northampton days; he acquired Oxford captain Jake Wright. Following a period of consolidation in The Championship, George Baldock and Jon Lundstram – a chunk of the best footballing team in League 2 were now gunning for the Premier League. Marvin Johnson was added, albeit on loan and not really playing.

While it is likely that maybe only Baldock will expect to play in the Premier League, it is telling that no less than four former Michael Appleton players were in Wilder’s promotion squad. Appleton found the players, Wilder got them winning. If there wasn’t animosity between the two of them, they’d probably be a dream team.

So, Wilder is now one of the elite managers in the country, fourth or fifth in line for the England job, you might argue. Weirdly, the Premier League might suit him. Nobody will fancy his team to stay up so he’ll have plenty to rail against, he can create the siege mentality and rage against the uneven playing field as he did in his first season with us in the Conference, he can get under the skin of the suave European managers like he did with Paolo DiCanio.

And yet, his time at Oxford, which started it all has left a stain with all parties. You only have to see Wilder celebrating promotion; middle aged spread, a weak lager in his hand frothing over to tell you everything you need to know about how Oxford fans should feel towards him. Should we be proud of what he’s achieved, and wish him well in the future? Yes. Is he a bit of a tit? Yes also. When it comes to Oxford’s relationship with Wilder, that’s probably about as good as it will get.

The wrap: Luton Town 3 Oxford United 1

So that’s it, the end of a brutal and bruising year. One where every game appeared analogous of the whole season, yet seemed to signal something different. A season full of contradictions; where we’re owned by the richest people in our history, but can’t pay the bills, where we’ve developed an infrastructure for the future, but struggled for results today, where we spent 84% of the season in bottom seven (55% in the relegation zone) and finished in the top half of the table.

Because of this, I genuinely thought we might beat Luton, but in the end we stuck to the script; which I suppose, was a contradiction to the script-ripping nine months we’ve had.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Luton were champions; it’s difficult not to admire what they’ve achieved as a club. I’ve always seen them as a barometer; how we’re doing relative to each other and what we can achieve. But simultaneously, they (their fans, and perhaps just a minority of them) are loathsome, as their reaction after the game showed. And if you think that them taunting the away end and throwing a smoke bomb into the stand is just the excitement of the moment, then you’re forgetting them doing something similar in 2010 when York City players were forced to into the away end to escape. No set of fans deserve their success less.

In other ways, it’s heartening to see Luton succeed, it gives us a glimmer of hope. In truth, if you look at all our ups and downs over the decades, mid-table in third tier is probably our natural place, despite ambitions stating otherwise. The biggest challenge is that the increments needed to navigate beyond where we are grow by the year. A team can spend £4m on a striker and finish fifth in the third division now.

Luton’s promotion means that three of the four teams you’d think have Championship infrastructures – Sunderland, Portsmouth, Charlton and Doncaster – will still be with us next year. Of those coming down, Ipswich, Bolton (if they survive the summer) and Rotherham are all similarly capable of competing for promotion despite their woes.

For us, bridging the gap and breaking into the top six has to be our target. This season reminds me of Eric Morecambe’s famous line to Andre Previn – we played all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order. If we want to progress, then we have to be more organised; our season was killed by our form in the opening weeks, which was preceded by a chaotic summer.

The last few weeks have been as entertaining as anything we’ve seen in the last decade or more, even the promotion seasons, which have been laced with anxiety. We’ve been swashbuckling and daring, sparking life back into the club just as it seemed to be on a downward spiral. Even narrowly avoiding relegation in our 125th year would have been a grim way to celebrate.

Any sign the problems that caused us to fail so badly are sorting themselves out may come in the next couple of weeks. Our previous two promotions were characterised by high quality early signings. Fans will always get jittery during May and early-June because signings aren’t flowing in. In the main, that’s not justified because football slows down during those months as people take a well-earned break. However, if our results on the pitch in the last couple of months are a reflection of us getting our act together off it, then maybe we’ll see some signs of that in the coming days.

Midweek fixture: Why you should be an Oxford fan

The season is nearly over, our form is good, but why should you buy a season ticket or even be an Oxford United fan? Here’s a handy guide:

Because anything is possible

You are joining an institution which is 125 years old and has experienced everything there is to experience in professional football from national honours to the ignominy of falling out of the Football League altogether. Only one other club has done that, Luton, and, well, have you ever been to Luton?

Because it’s good for you

Life can be pretty overwhelming sometimes. School, college, work and home can get quite chaotic and become hard to process. But, there’s always a game on Saturday and the objective is always to win. You need this, because sometimes it gets you through the day.

Because you’re only truly alive if you mean something

Have you ever listened to people talk about the Premier League? It’s Ozil this and Aguero that, regurgitated opinions that have been replayed a thousand times on TV. Did you know Harry Kane is a good player? Opinions become worn out by relentless media coverage. When you’re not in the media spotlight and you talk about your football club, your opinion is yours, not that of some saggy ex-pro or wizened old hack with a deadline to hit. You mean something because it means something.

Because when you know, you know

You’re part of an undercover movement. If you see someone in a Spurs or Manchester United shirt, you don’t know whether they’re going to football or to Westfield shopping centre. See someone in an Oxford shirt and you know they’re part of the secret society. If you see someone in, say, a Rochdale shirt – preferably their away shirt from 1994 – you know they’re also part of the resistance network, a counter-culture people don’t understand.

Because you’re always on a secret mission

Let’s face it, people don’t care about your club; at best they’ll ask what division you’re in and shut down before you finish telling them. But they don’t know that your Saturdays are spent screaming for an undeserved away point at Scunthorpe courtesy of Jamie Mackie. They don’t even know what a Jamie Mackie is, and they are less of a person because of it.

Because you’re not just watching history, you are history

If you do get to Wembley, draw a big team in the cup, get promoted or have a moment in a game which makes national headlines, people suddenly want to know: were you there? You can say, heroically, that you were because you’ve invested the time and deserved to be part of that moment in a way they haven’t. Then you can watch the sadness in their eyes as they cower in the dawn of their meaningless existence.

Because they’ll never understand  

Sometimes you’ll draw a big team away in the cup and join an armada of 3,000 or more on a pilgrimage across the country. When you arrive, watch as the opposition fans – mere extras in the Premier League media product – look at you like you’re an exotic, beguiling creature. And that’s because you are. They think you’re there for the day out, they don’t know you’re there for the win, and if not the win, then a glorious death trying, a death we don’t fear. They can’t figure you out, they don’t know why you do it, but they’re jealous that you do.

Because it puts everything else into perspective

You go to a game on a Tuesday night when you’ve got work or school in the morning and the world is fixated on the Bake Off quarter-finals. The next day, your colleagues talk about under-cooked macarons as though they’ve got a purpose in life. You have a meeting with your boss where you thank them for trebling your workload because you ‘thrive on the pressure’. Secretly, you don’t give a crap about their meaningless existence and hierarchy because last night’s point means you’re eight points clear of the relegation zone and that is life.

Because it’s the lows that make the highs

Don’t do it for the wins, do it for the mission, do it for the journey, not the destination. Week in, week out, you’ll be cold, you’ll be bored, you’ll be frustrated. Then sometimes, just sometimes, you’ll be deep into stoppage time, 100 miles from home in a game nobody else gives a damn about. All seems lost, when a final, desperate ball is launched forward, their full-back slips and suddenly your striker – four goals in thirty-six games and a contract that expires in four months – is bearing down on goal. He looks terrified, he can’t feel his feet, he scuffs his shot and it squirms under their keeper and rolls into the net. Suddenly he transforms into a god. And you? You’re tumbling down the terrace, arm in arm with a 64-year-old retired gas fitter from Wantage, careering into a steward like he’s a luminous crash mat in a gym. Your world becomes blurred and muffled because your face is embedded in the armpit of an overweight ginger teenager. Someone has their hand on your backside, and you can’t be certain that you’ve still got your phone. You gasp for clean air. When you surface all you can see is Sheila, a South Stand regular, whose been going to away games on the London Road coach for 30 years and insists Billy Whitehurst was a lovely polite boy, claps hysterically and waves the scarf she bought when Ron Atkinson was a boy. It’s a blissful momentary release from her sciatica. When you do finally extract yourself from the bundle and the final whistle goes, you want to tell everyone what happened, but the convenient faceless industrial estate where you’ve parked your car is empty. You go onto Twitter and share the moment with hundreds of others until the feeling fades and all that’s left is a vague sense of needing that moment again, and more. And so, despite the rain, despite the misery, despite the fact Saturday is your only chance to fix the broken guttering which threatens to wreck your house, you make a silent pact that you’ll do it all again next week.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Doncaster Rovers 2

It took a double take for me to realise that we’d made eight changes for the draw against Doncaster. At first glance, it looked like a fairly predictable starting eleven. That’s probably because there were only four from the starting eleven that played against Charlton just over a week ago.

With Kashi serving a customary ban, Hanson’s inclusion was no shock. Whyte and Browne for Garbutt and Sykes didn’t feel particularly experimental given both have featured regularly throughout the year. Only Nico Jones coming in for Rob Dickie was any real surprise.

Karl Robinson was back to his babbling best, if that’s what you can call it. Beforehand he said he wanted Jones to make mistakes – because that’s how you learn – and said afterwards that he ‘loved’ his own goal. Thankfully Nathan Cooper gave him an outball on that by suggesting that it was because of Jones’ reaction. Yes, said Robbo, moving incomprehensibly into a detailed description of some ‘diag’ Jones made shortly afterwards.

For all his nonsense, what I will say about Robinson is that he’s got a nice tone when talking about prospects, although referring to every young player as the future of the club does wear a little thin.

It’s a fine line though, there is undoubted benefit in giving young players the opportunity to experience the pace of first team football and the feeling of playing in front of a crowd. But, asking him to play the full 90 minutes against a decent team whose season is still very alive was a big challenge.

I thought it was a step too far, if I’m honest. It wasn’t a bad display in the context of his age and experience. The own goal and a couple of critical slips can be written off as unfortunate, but, more experienced players’ have the deep muscle memory to adopt starting positions that mean they’re less likely to get into similar muddles. Giving Jones the full 90 minutes asked a lot physically and mentally, and gave him a lot to process afterwards. Apparently Robinson took time to talk to Jones afterwards, perhaps he knew he had work to do to maintain his confidence after a challenging afternoon.

Will it make him a better player, or damage his confidence? Time will tell, but it was a gamble that, perhaps, wasn’t needed. I’d have preferred Mousinho for an hour – assuming he was fit – perhaps giving Jones half an hour.

Whatever, against a club whose season isn’t over, we were the better team. It was heartening to see that for once, we showed a bit of savvy with the wind. You could see Browne’s long-distance daisy cutter just after half-time which led to Sinclair’s wrongly disallowed goal was pre-planned. For his failings, Karl Robinson will use every tool he’s got to win, we haven’t seen since the days of Chris Wilder.

People have said that they don’t want the season to end, but I think it’s coming at just the right time. There’s no guarantee that we could keep up our current pace and a couple of defeats could have knocked us back to where we were. Instead, we can head into the summer on a big positive, which should help with season ticket sales and general positivity towards the club in general. Meanwhile, the owners and management get a break to sort out the messy backdrop against which the season has been played out. Then perhaps, just perhaps, we can come back in August and achieve something closer to what we expected to achieve this season.

Midweek fixture: 101 Milk Cup Final (related) facts*

  1. The basics: on April 20th 1986 Oxford United beat QPR 3-0 at Wembley to win the Milk Cup. The club’s greatest ever triumph.
  2. A terrace ticket for the game was £5; in today’s money that would be £14.39. Seated tickets were £16 (£46.06). In 2019, tickets for the final were between £40-£150.
  3. The programme was an A4 sized brochure style publication and cost £1 (£2.88 in today’s money). The 2019 League Cup final programme cost £10.
  4. The team wore what is now considered to be its traditional colours – yellow with navy blue. In fact, it was the first year we’d worn navy blue shorts and socks, before that we’d word a lighter royal blue and before that gold and black. We played in a darker blue between 1900-1950, but the shade used in 1986 was fundamentally a new one.
  5. To much hilarity, we were sponsored by Japanese company Wang computers. It’s very unlikely the club ever received any money from the deal as it was struck by Robert Maxwell as a way of getting a discount for a computer installation for his newspaper business. Rumour is that the system was never implemented.
  6. The final shirts had a slightly different ‘Wang’ logo to the regular league shirts. The word usually had a frame around it, but for the final it was removed. This is likely to be because there were rules about the dimensions of sponsor logos for TV matches.
  7. Alan Judge wore a special goalkeeping shirt with a diagonal shadow stripe. Swanky.
  8. Radio Oxford commentator Nick Harris was on duty for the final, before the game he walked around the pitch perimeter with a giant backpack containing a transmitter which allowed him to broadcast ‘on the go’. He’s still commentating, albeit from a more sedentary position, 33 years later.
  9. One of the ball boys at Wembley was one Joey Beauchamp, who went on to become one of the club’s greatest ever players; playing 375 games for the club. Beauchamp can be seen behind the goal celebrating Jeremy Charles’ third goal.
  10. The official cup final record was My Oh My by Prism and Oxford United. It was released on legendary ska and reggae label Trojan Records.
  11. Most of the culprits associated with the record appear to have disappeared. Lead singer Trina Jones is now senior manager of publishing relations at iHeart Radio. At least, I think so.
  12. The club’s official suits were provided by Van Heusen via Shepherd & Woodward on Oxford High Street. An advert featured the reassuring strapline ‘Worn by Oxford United When They’re Not Playing Football’.
  13. The club produced an official preview, which revealed the players’ nicknames. Some were more convincing than others – Hebberd was known as ‘Nijinsky’ and Briggs as ‘Rambo’, but one might question whether anyone called Ken Fish ‘Come on, Come on’, Maurice Evans ‘Do-be-do’ or Alan Judge ‘The Flying Pig’. Calling nearly man, Mark Jones ‘The Nearly Man’ is just mean.
  14. Before the main event, there was a celebrity game between Jimmy Tarbuck’s Rangers and David Frost’s Dons. The Dons team included Tommy Cannon, Jimmy Hill, Michael Le Vell (Coronation Street), Alan Parry, Dennis Waterman and Adam Woodyatt (Eastenders).
  15. Tarbuck’s Rangers had Bobby Ball, Bobby Moore (eh?), Patrick Mower, Paul Usher (Brookside), Martin Shaw and Sean Wilson (Coronation Street).
  16. I’m fairly certain Tarbuck’s Rangers won.
  17. The national anthem and ‘further selections’ were played by the 1985 World Showband champions, the Bristol Unicorns Youth Band, the most successful British marching band ever.
  18. As fun as this was, the real game kicked off at 2.30pm and was broadcast live on ITV. The host was lifelong Oxford fan Jim Rosenthal. Famously, Rosenthal wore an oversized rosette and one of the club’s horned caps to show his allegiance, which got him into trouble with his producers. Pundits were Jimmy Greaves, Ian St. John and Mick Channon. Brian Moore was in the commentary box with Greaves as co-commentator.
  19. Although the game was warm and sunny, earlier it had been grey and wet; you can see the pitch cutting up during the game. The London Marathon was run in the morning, Grete Weizz won the women’s race in 2 hours 24, and the men’s race by Toshihiko Seko in 2.10.
  20. Oxford fan Paul Scaysbrook completed the marathon in an Oxford shirt and horned cap. Bob Wilson interviewed him on TV. Scaysbrook only finished an hour before kick-off, but still made the game just before half-time.
  21. In goal was Alan Judge, whose Oxford career lasted 19 years, although there was a twelve year gap without a game. In 2004, as goalkeeping coach, he played against Southend United due to an injury crisis. He’s also the only player in the team to have played at The Manor and the Kassam Stadium – in 2003 he played against Cheltenham Town, again due to an injury crisis.
  22. Before becoming a professional footballer, skipper Malcolm Shotton worked in a women’s underwear factory as a hosiery knitter. The captain of our second visit to Wembley in 2010, James Constable, also worked in a women’s underwear factory before turning pro.
  23. Stay with me on this; the sister of our third Wembley captain Johnny Mullins is glamour model – Geena Mullins – who presumably spends quite a lot of her time being photographed in women’s underwear. The sister of our fourth Wembley captain – John Lundstram – is Jodie Lundstram, a beautician who was on Desperate Scousewives; a reality TV show. There’s a link there somewhere.
  24. The final proved cathartic for number 10 Trevor Hebberd, who scored the first goal and was man of the match. In 1979 he played in every round of Southampton’s run to the League Cup final, but didn’t even make the bench for the 3-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest at Wembley.
  25. Hebberd was 25/1 to score the first goal, one Oxford fan bagged £2,500 – over £7,000 in today’s money when it hit the back of the net.
  26. Hebberd was Jim Smith’s favourite signing while at Oxford.
  27. Hebberd and Malcolm Shotton were the only players to play in every round.
  28. Glaswegian, Ray Houghton, scorer of our second goal, may never have had an international career if it wasn’t for the Milk Cup run. After our 2-2 semi-final first leg draw against Aston Villa, John Aldridge introduced Houghton to Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton. Charlton didn’t know about Houghton’s Irish heritage, and promptly signed him up for Republic.
  29. Ray Houghton was famously the only player in the squad who hadn’t been signed by QPR manager Jim Smith. Neil Slatter was the only other player signed that summer.
  30. Houghton spent some of the previous summer training with QPR with an expectation he would sign for them. He didn’t.
  31. He’d won the League Cup again, with Aston Villa, in 1994. John Aldridge was manager of Tranmere when they were runners-up in 2000.
  32. Scorer of our third goal, Jeremy Charles was sporting a particularly bushy beard. This was the result of his decision not to shave until we were out of the competition.
  33. Charles had signed for Oxford 10 months earlier; from Queens Park Rangers.
  34. His career was ended by an injury sustained in Oxford’s next League Cup game against Gillingham the following season. He only scored one more goal for the club, against Nottingham Forest.
  35. Along with Charles’ beard, we were pretty moustachioed-up with Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs and John Trewick. Up front, John Aldridge, who usually sported a ‘tache, shaved his off.
  36. QPR had no moustaches in their team, they preferred mullets.
  37. Our main goalscoring threat was John Aldridge, who scored 34% of our goals that season. He had a quiet game, drawing a save from Paul Barron which led to Jeremy Charles’ third. Aldridge also missed a penalty at Wembley in the 1988 FA Cup final, and although he scored in the Charity Shield that year, he finally broke his cup final Wembley duck for Liverpool in the 1989 FA Cup final.
  38. At twenty-eight, the oldest player in the team was Dave Langan, one day older than Malcolm Shotton. Kevin Brock was the youngest player at twenty-three.
  39. The longest serving player in the team was Gary Briggs who made his debut in 1978.
  40. Slatter, along with Peter Rhodes-Brown and Billy Hamilton all missed out because of injury.
  41. The starting line-up contained two changes from the game immediately before – an away defeat to West Ham. Jeremy Charles came in for Billy Hamilton and Kevin Brock played in place of cup-tied Steve Perryman.
  42. The QPR side included Republic of Ireland international John Byrne. Byrne spent a memorable period at Oxford in 1993 partnering Paul Moody.
  43. QPR striker, Gary Bannister spent 10 games on loan at Oxford in 1992.
  44. The QPR squad also had Peter Hucker who played in goal for us between 1987 and 1989. It also had Gary Waddock, who had a disastrous and brief managerial spell at the club in 2014.
  45. Going into the game, we’d not won in seven games. QPR hadn’t lost in eight.
  46. At the time the 3-0 win represented the biggest Wembley win in League Cup Final history. That was equaled in 1996 by Aston Villa, and only bettered in 2006 when Manchester United beat Wigan 4-0.
  47. We inherited the cup from Norwich City, who had beaten Sunderland in 1985. Our successors were Arsenal, who beat Liverpool 2-1 the following year.
  48. The final was our first clean sheet in the tournament after beating Northampton Town in the second round.
  49. It was generally believed that Oxford’s path to the final had been fairly easy, which is true. However, it did include knocking out the cup holders, Norwich City in the 4th round, along the way.
  50. It was the first win over QPR in nearly 13 years and the first League Cup meeting for 19 years. We lost 1-5.
  51. We met them again in 1995, losing narrowly 2-3 over two legs. The Milk Cup Final was, therefore, our only League Cup win over QPR.
  52. The official crowd was 90,396, the lowest Wembley crowd for a League Cup Final before Wembley was made all-seater.
  53. It was still by far the biggest crowd Oxford have ever played in front of – the next biggest being 74,434 against Coventry City in the Checkatrade Trophy in 2017.
  54. There were 16,396 more people watching the game than in all our preceding Milk Cup games that season put together.
  55. Manager Maurice Evans famously sent physio Ken Fish up to collect his medal. Mr Fish was a 50s throwback sergeant major type with a clipped English accent. In fact he was South African, joining the club in 1964. He stayed for over 20 years years and died in 2005, aged 91.
  56. Maurice Evans nearly wasn’t the Oxford manager at all. He was sacked by Reading in 1984 and found the experience so depressing he nearly gave up the game completely. Jim Smith persuaded him to come to come out of exile. Even when Smith left, Evans was his very reluctant successor. All the time he was manager, he didn’t have a contract because he didn’t believe in them.
  57. The trophy was awarded by Sir Stephen Roberts, chairman of the Milk Marketing Board.
  58. The 1986 final was the last to be sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board, changing its name to Littlewoods Cup. Following our second win at Wembley – the Blue Square Premier changed its name and after our third trip to Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy changed its name to the Checkatrade Trophy.
  59. The win would have seen Oxford United qualifying for the UEFA Cup, but due to English teams being banned from Europe after the Heysel Stadium disaster, it ever happened.
  60. Heysel may also have contributed to Jim Smith’s departure from the club. He and Robert Maxwell started negotiating a new contract on the night of the disaster, they broke off their discussions as the news came through, only to resume them a month later. By this point, QPR were ready to pounce.
  61. Jim Smith fell out with Robert Maxwell because he wanted £50,000 a year and Maxwell wanted to pay only £45,000. Smith wanted the equivalent of 4.3 times the then national average wage. Today the average Premier League manager earns over 50 times the national wage.
  62. Jim Smith took over from Frank Sibley at QPR. When he left, he was replaced by Trevor Francis.
  63. Despite his early set back, no subsequent QPR manager that has been in post any length of time has a higher win ratio and only two – Ian Holloway and Gerry Francis, have lasted longer.
  64. It wasn’t the first League Cup success for Assistant Manager Ray Graydon. He scored the winner for Aston Villa against Norwich City in the 1975 final. His penalty was saved, but he converted the rebound.
  65. The following Saturday, we lost 2-3 away at Ipswich. Steve Perryman came back in place of Kevin Brock in an otherwise unchanged team.
  66. The 1986 Milk Cup was the only major domestic trophy not won by Liverpool that season.
  67. Missing out on the UEFA Cup, the club didn’t even qualify for the Screensports Super Cup, a domestic replacement for European football following the ban. It was abandoned after one season.
  68. The Milk Cup wasn’t the only domestic national competition won by Oxford that season, though. We were also the Daily Express 5-a-side champions beating Arsenal in the final.
  69. The winning squad was Houghton, Shotton, Aldridge, Hebberd and Trewick. In goal was Oxford City keeper Paul Whittington.
  70. It wasn’t our only tilt at getting to Wembley that season. We made it to the semi-final of the Full Members’ Cup, but lost 2-5 over two legs to Chelsea.
  71. Oxford fans were in the East Stand of the stadium, the tunnel end.
  72. In the pre-match interviews Maurice Evans claims there’s an Oxford banner saying ‘Aldridge strikes more often than Maxwell’s printers’. This was a reference to the fairly brutal modernisation of the newspaper industry which was going on at the time.
  73. QPR fans had a puntastic banner which said “We made Chelsea Neil, we made Liverpool Byrne and we’re sending Oxford down the Bannister”.
  74. None-the-less, things were pretty grim in the QPR end with members of the National Front fighting the poilce and black fans in the stands.
  75. Our reign came to an end with a 0-1 defeat to West Ham the following season. Seven players who were in the final played in that game.
  76. Because sentient women didn’t exist in the 1980s the tabloids featured a bevvy of glamorous beauties alongside the match reports the next day. The Star went with the ‘lovely’ Andrea Kovic wearing her swimming costume back to front. She wants to go in a hot air balloon and keep ‘all her legs in one basket’. The more respectful and enlightened Mirror had Corrine Russel – a Benny Hill favourite – in a string bikini showing off bingo numbers.
  77. On the same page there’s a story about Jimmy Saville boasting about his sexual conquests while marathon running. Ew.
  78. Otherwise, the news was mostly about the Queen’s upcoming birthday.
  79. The Guardian described our performance as having ‘attacking movements of verve and accuracy not often seen in Wembley finals’. Crikey.
  80. The Times said QPR were ‘Woefully poor in defence, laborious in midfield and negligible in attack … their challenge was surely one of the most feeble ever to have been staged in the national stadium’. Oh.
  81. Later it emerged that many QPR players had been fed a triple does of Mogadon sleeping tablets the night before to help them sleep. A contributory factor to their unusually gormless performance?
  82. Maybe, Johnny Byrne blames the fact they watched Spurs the previous day. Whereas Martin Allen thinks they had become fatigued by the endless expectation.
  83. Had the game been a draw, there would have been extra time. After that, a replay would have been played at White Hart Lane on Wednesday 30 April.
  84. Alan Judge is the seventh oldest footballer in Football League history. He became a driving instructor and lives in Bicester.
  85. John Trewick played for Birmingham City before moving to non-league. After retiring he enjoyed a successful coaching career before retiring from the game completely. He now lives in Solihull.
  86. Malcolm Shotton managed Oxford in 1998, enjoying initial success before his sergeant major style rubbed everyone up the wrong way. Became a coach at Loughborough University before becoming a car salesman. Occasionally joins Radio Oxford for co-commentating duties.
  87. Gary Briggs moved up to Blackpool where he worked as a civil servant and caretaker.
  88. David Langan lives in Peterborough where he endured some fairly tough times, worked at Peterborough Town Hall. Published his autobiography in 2012.
  89. Les Philips works for a building company locally.
  90. Trevor Hebberd moved to Leicestershire where he worked for a steel merchant in their warehouse.
  91. Kevin Brock managed a number of local teams including Oxford City and Banbury United. Lives in Bicester.
  92. Ray Houghton enjoyed huge success with the Republic of Ireland, Liverpool and Aston Villa. Now works as a pundit.
  93. Jeremy Charles now runs Sydenham Charles Vehicle Leasing.
  94. John Aldridge moved to Liverpool winning the league and FA Cup amongst others, then had a successful spell in Spain with Real Sociedad. Managed Tranmere before becoming a media pundit in Liverpool.
  95. Andy Thomas followed a similar path to Kevin Brock managing a number of local teams. Works at Wychwood golf club in Chipping Norton.
  96. Maurice Evans died in 2000 of a heart attack aged 63. A lounge is named after him at the Kassam Stadium.
  97. Robert Maxwell died in 1991 falling off a boat after having a heart attack. Shortly after, it was discovered that Maxwell had been using millions of pounds from The Mirror pension fund to shore up his businesses which were crippled with debt. At the time Guiness were QPR’s shirt sponsor. In the directors’ box was Ernest Saunders, who was later caught up in the Guiness share manipulation trial. Top guys.
  98. The 20th April has proved pretty lucky for the club ever since, we’ve won six and lost two, including two 3-0 wins – against Brighton in 1991 and Rochdale in 2013.
  99. No Oxford player was born on 20 April 1986, in fact no player has been born on 20th April at all. Current captain John Mousinho was the first future Oxford player to be born after the Milk Cup on the 30th.
  100. In May 2001, in what was the last game at The Manor, Alan Judge organised a re-run of the game for charity. The game ended 4-4 in front of 3,500 people. Judge, John Trewick, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock, Les Phillips, Trevor Hebberd and Jeremy Charles all played.
  101. In 2016, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the win, a number of the players re-united again for the game against Hartlepool. Jeremy Charles, Trevor Hebberd, Andy Thomas, Alan Judge, Gary Briggs and Les Phillips all attended alongside a number of the squad players from the time.

* All facts would benefit from further verification and modification, I’ve done my best, right?

The wrap: Shrewsbury Town 2 Oxford United 3

The first game I saw this season was at home to Accrington. People were already talking about how unprepared we looked in our first few games. Against Stanley we took the lead twice, but lost 3-2. I mentioned at the time that perhaps this high energy style was what Karl Robinson was looking for, and perhaps both players and fans had to get used to the approach.

Robinson’s personal style is all action, of course, it’s perhaps not a surprise to see his teams playing the way they do. What is evident is that when it’s not working, it can be embarrassingly bad – being 3-0 up against Scunthorpe and drawing 3-3, conceding eight minutes into injury time against Luton, for example. When it does work – as it has in recent weeks – it’s brilliant, we haven’t had a sequence of games like this since promotion in 2016.

I was walking in The Chilterns with a patchy 4G connection during our win over Shrewsbury, but when information did filter through, it had a familiar feel about it. Conceded a penalty? Like Charlton, sending off? Like Walsall and Charlton, thrilling comeback? Charlton (again). All that was missing was the 94th minute winner.

Unless you’re there, not only does it take a while to piece it all together, it’s a lot to process. Ahmed Kashi has been sent off twice, and was booked against Charlton, Marcus Browne and Simon Eastwood have both received red cards. If you add people like Cameron Brannagan – 14 yellow cards this season or Jamie Mackie (11), you start to realise that this approach is not without its collateral damage. In addition, we’ve had to come back from behind twice and relied on injury time goals twice. This doesn’t happen very often.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a lot of fun as we’ve scrambled for safety and then made a bit of a mess of others’ promotion and relegation fights. I’ve loved Ahmed Kashi’s lunacy; bans give others opportunities, which keeps it interesting when the results are largely meaningless. But, is it sustainable across a whole season?

If we are going to mount a promotion bid next season, we surely can’t do it relying on 35 yard last minute winners or having to deal with the consequences of bans and injuries resulting from an over-combative style. We won’t have a big squad next year, so it’s not likely Karl Robinson will have options to draw on, he needs to keep his players playing. If we’re going to do well, then we need to be able to pick up points efficiently with minimal fuss. With the summer in our sights and players likely to leave anyway, then what happens between now and the end of season can be as messy as it likes, But, there’s nothing wrong with a controlled 2-0 win, and we will need to learn that at some point.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Charlton Athletic 1

My evolving theory about League 1 this season is that the division mostly consists of fairly average teams, of which we are one. There is a small group of marginally more competent teams who will fight for promotion. But, no one is really capable of competing in the Championship for any length of time. Is it better to know your level or fight to get into a division you’re not equipped to compete in?

Our recent run has been slightly tinged with the concern we’ve merely hit a good run of opponents at the right time – Walsall, Bradford, Wycombe and Wimbledon all look like relegation candidates and we played them one after the other, drawing with with one and sneaking past two in the last minute.

Charlton offered a different proposition; not only are they in that group of teams looking to go up, there were times in the opening minutes where they blew my theory out of the water. Perhaps they could sustain themselves at a higher level. I thought they were much better than Sunderland or Portsmouth. The fact they were unbeaten in eleven supporting that view.

Their penalty was soft, I thought, but may have done us a favour given the chaos later. It made it much harder for the referee to make big decisions on marginal calls without the game descending into a farce that would have been of his making.

There was something about the sunshine, the meaninglessness of the game from our perspective, the buoyancy of the Charlton fans and the early goal which gave that foreboding sense that we were going to collapse in the theatre of it all.

Then it all turned around. Just when we could have switched off, we resolved to show we weren’t just a makeweights in someone else’s end of season adventure. Curtis Nelson, perhaps playing his penultimate game at the Kassam, had plenty of time to watch the ball drop, but caught his volley perfectly. And then Garbutt slammed home his brilliant second.

Garbutt’s resurrection may be the story of our revival. He could easily have crumbled under the criticism of earlier in the season, he’s well paid and is not from round here so he could have just given up. Instead, he’s dragged himself back into the team, changed position and transformed. He’s now the one gee’ing up the crowd and, at Walsall, disappearing into it. Karl Robinson’s role in turning his season around can’t be ignored, either.

The second half was entertaining but barking mad – Simon Eastwood was rightly sent off although it was clearly a miscalculation rather than a deliberate attempt to cheat. His one-match ban implies that the FA agree, so it does make you wonder whether red is too harsh a punishment for a momentary mistake.

Incidentally, I’m not a fan of a team being allowed to make an immediate substitution when a goalkeeper gets sent off. Clearly it would have disadvantaged us, but I think you should have to wait until the next available stoppage before making any changes.

There was half-an-hour to hold out. I remember looking at the clock and realising that Eastwood had only been off the field for six minutes; it felt like hours had passed. They had territory and possession, and won a lot of corners, but we didn’t cave.

Eastwood’s dismissal should have signalled the end of our hopes of taking the points, but in reality, we had the better chances. In many ways it was reminiscent of our fabled win at home to Swindon in 2012 when James Constable was sent off.

Solly’s sending off was as much about Jamie Mackie’s fall as it was about a dangerous challenge. Perhaps that was more deserving of a yellow, although I thought Lapslie should have been sent off for tripping Jerome Sinclair when he was clean through. It could easily have been a goal from Garbutt, who benefitted from the advantage, with Lapslie then being sent off for the foul. Practically every decision and incident could have gone the other way; it was that good a game.

Leaving the game with adrenalin coursing through my veins once again got me thinking; in terms of sheer thrills, spills and drama; is there a team offering better value for money in the country than us right now?

Through all the mayhem, though, was a refreshing level of gamesmanship and guile. We would have been overwhelmed with less maturity. It’s something we have frequently lacked in the past. Michael Appleton prided himself on developing players, Pep Clotet on his tactical acumen, Karl Robinson’s thing is winning games at all cost. He’s more a Chris Wilder, with all the baggage that comes with that.

It was Robinson who introduced Mackie and Hanson because he knew they’d dig in. He removed Kashi to protect him from a second yellow, god help him if Josh Ruffels’ last minute chance had gone in. For all Robinson’s streams of consciousness when interviewed, he kept his head when all those around him lost theirs.

It goes without saying that Jamie Mackie led the charge with a masterful performance of pushing, being pushed and being outraged at being pushed. Cameron Brannagan showed his growing maturity being tidy and combative at the same time. The back-four protected Jack Stevens admirably, with Josh Ruffels and Sam Long both offering outlets when the chance was offered. Not that Stevens was a passenger, his scooped save being as good as anything Simon Eastwood has produced this year, in fact I’m not sure Eastwood would have the athleticism.

Every Charlton shot was met with two or three players falling over themselves to block the ball. Total commitment and discipline.

With the younger players learning from the older players, what emerges is an increasingly competent and effective unit, one capable of performing against the best in the division.

And this is what turns a team from being a League One also-ran into potential play-off or promotion candidates. It’s come too late for this season and large chunks of the squad will disappear over the summer, but if a DNA is emerging and some off-the-field stability can be established, then we can, perhaps look forward to next season with a degree of optimism.

Midweek fixture: A defence of Karl Robinson

Karl Robinson is not always easy to love; he’s an ebullient character who loves to talk. Like the bloke in the pub who is really fun to be around at first, but then tries to instigate games of strip Monopoly at 4 in the morning when you’re trying to get to sleep on the sofa.

A typical Liverpudlian, he wears his heart on his sleeve and wants people to know how much he cares. I don’t have the same aversion to Liverpool that other Oxford United fans have and their the faux outrage of missing out on a UEFA Cup campaign in 1986. But, I can see how the scouse character grates with some Oxford fans, looking back we’ve always preferred the more considered, cerebral managers like Maurice Evans or Michael Appleton.

But, incompetent he is not; put aside the toxicity of the MK Dons brand and you see a lot of success – promotion to the Championship and a League Cup win over Manchester United – then at Charlton in a difficult environment, he steered them to the edge of the play-offs. In that sense, he’s not dissimilar to Michael Appleton; cutting his teeth on difficult jobs before arriving here.

Appleton fell on his feet at Oxford; he was given time, money and support to turn the club around. Robinson has not had the same stable platform to work from, but assuming we do secure a mid-table finish; he’s still delivered a reasonable result despite, not because of the environment he’s in.

I think there is another layer to Robinson that peeks out from time to time and which is a rare quality in a football person. There are many football autobiographies which reveal how being in the game destroys any love for it. Politics, rivalry and jealousy overwhelms people, extinguishes the joy of the game. It turns people into mercenaries. Robinson, despite the batterings he’s received from the game, not only does he recognises that as unpleasant as it is inside football, for fans on the outside it, the appeal remains.  

Robinson has been at pains to impress his responsibility in managing the club. He’s under no illusions about how long he might stay, or that he’ll ultimately be another grain of sand in the beach of Oxford’s history. But while he is in position, he has a responsibility to protect the history of the club and, hopefully, improve it in preparation for the next incumbent.

I’ve not heard a manager talk like that before. Typically, managers want to be recognised for what they achieve, respected for the work they do, they need their own brand to be enhanced. It makes them less interested in their host club. Robinson recognises a responsibility to something bigger than him that will last much longer. I said back during the celebrations for the 125th anniversary, the maintenance of the club’s spirit is crucial. If you let it die, you’ll never get it back. Robinson seems to understand that.

Furthermore, he’s keen to see that philosophy promoted to the players in his charge. The idea to invite James Constable and Joey Beauchamp to train with the first team was a masterstroke. It can be more than a flaccid PR stunt, it promotes the idea that if you work hard and play well for the club, then not only can you progress into higher leagues, you can leave a legacy in the way Beauchamp and Constable have. That might not be important when you’re virile and in your early 20s, but there will be a time when you’re not; leaving your mark when you can gains value when your body won’t deliver any more and ambition is replaced by realism.

Robinson isn’t as refined as Michael Appleton; if we lose a game, he’s prone to reflecting on what went wrong – which is perceived as laying blame. Appleton, looked at what went wrong and projected them forward as things to improve on. Robinson might say ‘We weren’t ruthless enough’ where Appleton would say ‘We need to be more ruthless’. The switch to from past tense to future tense, changes everything.

But Robinson is too quick, words tumble from his mouth. He’s at pains to support the club he’s at, to protect not only its reputation, but the people in it. He’s been protective of the owners and Niall McWilliams when he’d have every right to not be. He seems very conscious of the impact that the non-payment of salaries had on the staff at the club. In short, I think he genuinely cares for the club and people in it. And that’s all you can ask for.

As infuriating as he can be, underneath is a capable and compassionate man. It’s still questionable as to whether the club will find the stability it needs, and it’s possible that Robinson will not survive as it does, but I genuinely hope that isn’t the case. I appreciate his philosophy and work he puts in, accept he has flaws as we all do, but ultimately I hope he succeeds for himself as well as for us.   

The wrap: Oxford United 0 AFC Wimbledon 0

They say drowning is pleasurable. Perhaps it’s the sense of helplessness; that your destiny is secured and you are no longer faced with the competing forces of life in general.

There was a similar beatific calm about our draw with Wimbledon, we’re pretty much safe, we can’t go up, we couldn’t even change our league position as both 11th and 13th were mathematically out of reach.

I kind of like it, I mean, like when you’re drowning – you may enjoy while but you know you’d miss being alive – I’d ultimately miss the lack of competition and purpose, but for now, in sitting in stasis, I quite enjoy the moments of peace.

I sat with Brinyhoof, chatting about life and his success as one of the world’s leading fantasy football league managers (Bundesliga edition). In front of us, we played well, made chances and scored none of them. Afterwards – with the players still leaving the pitch – I summarised the game as ‘full of entertainment, though I can’t remember a single moment of it’.

They, of course, have no such luxuries, with a very real relegation battle on their hands, and you can tell why. Like Walsall and Bradford, both of whom we’ve beaten recently, they’re just not very good. Wally Downes, a veteran of the Crazy Gang; the grimly romanticised Wimbledon team of the eighties, is turning the club from a fan-driven metrosexual cosmopolitan snowflake liberal wet dream into an unpleasant unit in the image of his own playing career. It’s probably out of necessity rather than anything else, they were always in for a battle to stay up, though perhaps they’ve taken the term battle a little too literally.

That said, it didn’t really affect us, only Aaron Ramsdale’s heroics in their goal prevented it from being a comfortable win. At any other stage of the season, we’d have been apoplectic, but there was a general shrug of the shoulders. You play well and don’t win; it happens.

In the 69th minute, Karl Robinson introduced Jamie Mackie, Jordan Graham and James Henry in a triple substitution. It was a slightly odd move; an unnecessary act of aggression – we were in control of a game that ultimately met little. But he felt it necessary to make a triple substitution by bringing on senior players, which is usually a sign that the game must be won at all costs.

Maybe it was a reminder that cruising through the last few games of the season is not acceptable. You get a sense that Jamie Mackie, in particular, is unlikely to let the intensity of his game drop whatever it is he’s playing for.

But, this does raise the question about how you approach the final games of the season – in 2015, Michael Appleton’s first year, it became an opportunity to build momentum, pre-season before the pre-season. It could be an opportunity for fringe players to prove themselves, in the context of new contracts; although I think most of those decisions make themselves. Perhaps it’s a chance to blood some young players.

We need to be thankful that the form we’ve had came at the time it did; our run-in – Charlton, Shrewsbury, Doncaster, Luton is pretty tough, if there was much hanging on them, we might fear for ourselves. But, they offer a good opportunity to see just how good we are (or aren’t).

I don’t think this is about cruising to the end of the season as tempting as that is, it’s about seeing who has the appetite to play at an intensity needed to mount a decent challenge next year. After all, if you can motivate yourself when there’s nothing riding on it, you should be able to motivate yourself when there’s all to play for.

Midweek fixture: What’s Firoz Kassam’s problem with Oxford United?

Was there significance in Firoz Kassam serving a winding up order on Oxford United 20 years to the day after he bought it? I remember his first game, walking around the perimeter of The Manor followed by a phalanx of photographers half way through a 2-2 draw with Tranmere in 1999, an Oxford scarf held above his head. He was interviewed on the pitch and seemed shy and unassuming.

It’s hard to believe now, but when Firoz Kassam first bought the club he was considered a hero. The club had nose-dived due to the collapse of Robin Herd’s new stadium project, a fire sale of players was on, Dean Windass had been bought and then sold in a matter of months; a folly at a time of crisis.

FOUL – Fighting for Oxford United’s Life – the group set up to save the club, supported the purchase. There was no Plan B, a friend and FOUL activist reminds me regularly. Martin Brodetsky, writing in When Saturday Comes in 2000 said that most fans trusted Kassam’s integrity.

More than that, Firoz Kassam was eye wateringly rich. The Premier League was forging an unbreakable bond between the game, money and success. With one of the richest people in the country at the helm, there was a hope that he many not just save the club, but catapult it forward.

It wasn’t all positive. I fell out with someone on the This is United forum because they described Kassam as ‘Ayatollah’; an apparent reference to his skin colour. Plus, there was the source of his riches – some referred to him as a hotelier, others; a slum landlord.

Kassam’s money came from providing accommodation for asylum seekers and other vulnerable people. The authorities paid him tens of thousands of pounds a week to keep them in such poor conditions; they – some of the most needy people in the country – eventually rebelled.

Kassam’s first battle was with the clubs creditors. He forced a Company Voluntary Agreement on those who the club owed money to, reducing the club’s (more specifically Kassam’s) debts to a fraction of what they were. Then he fought a brutal war with everyone who stood in between him and the completion of the stadium build. He won, which softened the blow of the most abject season which saw us leave The Manor heading for the bottom division for the first time in 34 years.

While suspicions grew about Kassam’s intentions, there were signs that he was interested in the football. During our relegation season he bought Andy Scott, leading goalscorer for Brentford, in an attempt to stem our slide. When we got to the Kassam, he invested heavily in the team, including bringing back Paul Moody.

He was a presence at the stadium, his green Bentley parked prominently outside the South Stand, he even went to some away games. If his initial plans were about land deals and making money; he didn’t immediately show it.

But, there were worrying developments too; he sold The Manor to his own company, used the money to pay off the club’s creditors and then sold the ground for a massive personal profit. After 76 years sitting on prime Oxford real estate, the club didn’t make a penny from its sale. When challenged about the morality of it, Kassam simply stated that it was his right because of the risks he took in buying the club.

What Kassam struggled with, however, was the fact that despite putting money into the club, he wasn’t rewarded with success on the pitch. There were moments; a full house against Aston Villa, a derby win over Swindon, a trip to Arsenal. But there were more problems; Mark Wright racially abusing a referee, Ian Atkins resigning when the club were threatening promotion, players being bought, but not performing. Above all, there was a torrent of criticism from fans.

If Kassam wanted a successful club, and I think initially he did, he simply couldn’t make it happen. Inevitably, it caused a rift between fans and the owner. Despite pumping millions into the team, the fans wanted more.

The farce of Ramon Diaz’s brief reign at the club followed by the relegation from the Football League, mostly under Brian Talbot destroyed any remaining faith. Kassam sold up to Nick Merry and became the club’s landlord.

In the intervening years he’s fallen out with successive owners, his intentions towards the club are increasingly opaque – sometimes he talks about protecting it while simultaneously charging rent the club can barely afford. He’s sitting on a pile of money and has spent the last twenty years fighting an obscure little football club. What the hell is wrong with him?

The first thing is that being rich is hard work, there’s an idea that somehow rich people haven’t worked for what they have whereas poor people work hard and get nothing. When you work hard, you usually feel you deserve something for it; a beer, a million pounds, your bodyweight in chocolate. Firoz Kassam undoubtedly thinks he deserves reward for his financial success. But, hard work alone does not make you rich. Lots of people work hard and don’t get rich. There are lots of other factors, many out of your control, which help you get rich.

It is easy to believe that being rich makes you right. After all, rich people are seen to be ‘successful’, they have won at life. They could have drug and alcohol problems, broken marriages, children who hate them, but because they have money they are successful.

Somewhere along the line, Kassam’s wealth has welded him to the notion that he is ‘right’ and that he deserves things. It is easy to psychoanalyse why this is, his mother dying when he was a child, moving from Tanzania as a teenager, his home in Monaco; perhaps Kassam doesn’t have the roots others have and seeks to define himself by what he accumulates.

My feeling is that Kassam bought Oxford because he thought it would be something to define him beyond being a slum landlord. The stadium, in his name, was his legacy. But the club betrayed him, his money came to nothing. Now he’s turned on the club and takes a peverse pleasure in seeing it suffer. After a 20 year abusive relationship, and Kassam’s legacy almost universally negative, something has to give. If Kassam gifted the stadium to the club, or a trust, it would barely make a dent in his vast wealth or the club needs to move, because he’s not likely to change. If the two parties did go their separate ways, it would probably benefit Firoz Kassam as much as it would us.