There are few, if any, who have made a greater contribution to Oxford United than Jim Smith. A manager who improves every team he’s involved with. During the 80’s Smith improved Oxford beyond any fans’ comprehension.
It’s important to understand the context of Oxford’s success in those days. During the 1980’s football was in the doldrums, hooliganism had seen the game’s stock drop dramatically. It was a great leveller and gave smaller clubs the opportunity to lord it with the big boys; Swansea City, Watford, Wimbledon, Luton Town and Oxford all made it to the top (Aberdeen and Dundee United did the same in Scotland).
Alongside this, Oxford had Robert Maxwell, a media tycoon with an arrogant disregard for the rule of law. Money flowed in and out of the club, much of it went into his pocket, some went into other clubs (Derby County most notably), some of it went on the players that made the team.
Smith mixed experienced old pros like Bobby McDonald, Billy Hamilton and Colin Todd with choice finds like John Aldridge. He inherited a bedrock of local talent – Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas and a couple of lumps of concrete – Shotton and Briggs. The team played fast, attacking, free flowing football, a style which, to this day, is synonymously the ‘Oxford way’; a millstone around many managers’ neck.
Two consecutive championships (along with a couple of exhilarating League Cup runs) saw the club catapulted into the 1st Division. During the summer of ’85 Smith and Maxwell fell out over money and the manager left for QPR. Ironically the following April, Smith lead out his QPR team against Oxford in the Milk Cup Final. Oxford won 3-0 and that, was pretty much that.
Until this year, that is, when new owner Nick Merry brought Smith back to the club. His first game was a tumultuous 1-0 win over Peterborough in front of an ecstatic crowd. However, he simply wasn’t able to sustain the revival and relegation to the Conference was confirmed with the last kick of the season.
Whether Smith can recreate the magic he did during the 80’s remains to be seen. Whilst he brings immense experience and an undoubted feel-good factor to the club, he is 65. Whether he still has the guile and energy to revive Oxford like he did in the 80’s is still very much under consideration.