30 years of the Swindon derby – part 1

My first memory of Swindon has been curdled with the passing of time. It’s 1982 and we’ve just romped home 5-0. As is the 80s tradition, there is a pitch invasion and some fighting. This might be some specific derby-trouble, but, to be honest, if a game in the early 80s didn’t end in some kind of ruckus, then someone wasn’t trying hard enough.

One man, who in my mind is dressed in a vest, a pair of bell bottom jeans and has a red and white scarf tied around his wrist, is being chased by a hoard of Oxford fans. It is like a scene from the Children’s Film Foundation. Sensing the futility of a chase he can’t escape from, he turns and runs at them. Shocked by the audacity of the man, the crowd scatter; the momentary confusion, plus a few flailing punches, allows him to escape into the Cuckoo Lane End.

Admittedly, parts of this scene may have been drawn from a Roy of the Rovers story where Melchester’s resident football hooligan becomes a prime suspect in the attempted assassination of Roy Race. The fundamental mechanics of the story are sound.

However, the most significant thing about this story is that I remember only the incident and the result. The opposition – Swindon Town – were largely an irrelevance. They could have been Gillingham, Colchester or Northampton – one of those generic football league teams we periodically meet.

To me, derbies were between teams from the same town – Liverpool/Everton, Manchester’s City and United, Sheffield United and Wednesday. Not Oxford Swindon; I didn’t know where Swindon was and a 5-0 win, though a lot of fun, does not instill a feeling of intense rivalry, which requires at least some degree of injustice or negative bias to really burn. Our supremacy on the night was proof that whatever feud the two clubs might have had, the result proved beyond doubt, and permanently, who ruled supreme. When you’re at school, that is how the world works.

I was vaguely aware of a rivalry with Reading because about 3 months earlier 9000 people – 4000 more than the season’s average and 2000 more than the Swindon game – suddenly turned up at The Manor to watch a turgid 1-0 Oxford win. I remember queuing down the London Road and the kick-off being delayed to accomodate the big crowd. This was what big-time derby football was really like and it didn’t involve anyone wearing red.

On that point alone, it was not unusual in the early 80s for Oxford have a red away kit. Nobody thought anything of it. Today, even a splash of red would result in apoplexy.

Aside from the return fixture with Swindon the following May and a meaningless Associate Members’ Cup game in 1984, we would be promoted twice and have a trip to Wembley before we met them again. We didn’t have local rivals during The Glory Years, they were all swamp bothering in the lower leagues. Our focus was on the battles to stay with the country’s elite; Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal; they were our marquee league games. Any Swindon rivalry was an antiquity. If we had a derby, it was against Reading. We faced The Royals 9 times in various competitions over the mid-80s fallow period of the A420 derby.

The bias towards Reading during this time was probably fueled by the proposed merger for Oxford and Reading to become the Thames Valley Royals. Robert Maxwell got perilously close to achieving his goal, and although both sets of fans were unified by the same goal of defeating the intiative, the rivalry was stoked up a notch simply by the fans trying to prove just how different they both were.

From 1988, for the next five years, having Oxford and Swindon steadied in the 2nd Division and the rivalry was renewed. But, we exchanged blows to no great effect; we’d do OK at home, they’d do OK at home. We’d reached a period of stability where we’d agreed to disagree, we didn’t like each other particularly, but it was difficult to know exactly what we were arguing over; the A420 itself? Kingston Bagpuize?

Perhaps I was too young to know otherwise but the rivalry was little more than a grumbling dislike. Unlike the Manchester and Sheffield derbies, where rival fans worked with each other, comparatively few Oxford and Swindon fans would meet each other beyond the games themselves. At least, there weren’t any Swindon fans at my school. There was no wider forum to constantly exchange insults and taunts and so the rivalry would cool in between games. 

In addition, the second division afforded us the opportunity to play larger teams than Swindon. Manchester City, Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City and Crystal Palace were all regular visitors to The Manor around that time. The Swindon fixture had to compete with that and the occasional visit by a Division 1/Premier League club in the FA and League cups. Although always among the best of the season, it was rare that the Swindon fixture would draw the year’s biggest crowd.

By the early 90s we were holding steady while Swindon began to find traction under Glenn Hoddle. They went off to have their own glory year and the derby fell into another of its periodic hiatuses.

In 1993/4, Swindon made the Premier League, at their second attempt, just as we finally lost grip of our 2nd division status some 10 years after we’d left the 3rd division. This was to become a significant turning point in the history of the fixture…

Next… Promotion and Joseph Daniel Beauchamp.

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