A number of factors converged to affect a step change in the nature of the A420 rivalry. Firstly, after 10 years lording it up, Oxford finally lost its grip on the upper reaches of the Football League, this coincided with the formation of the Premier League and the emergence of Oxford’s finest ever homegrown player.
The start of the Premier League in 1992 ignited a gold rush Oxford failed to react to. They’d been stymied by an inability to secure planning permission for a new ground and without sufficient funding or infrastructure, they were always living on borrowed time. Relegation almost came as a relief, it was an opportunity to flush out some of the detritus and start again. It was confirmed at home to Notts County with the club’s most bankable asset, Joey Beauchamp, signing off with a magnificent goal.
Beauchamp’s departure was inevitable, he wasn’t going to slum it in the 3rd division and the club weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to cashing in on him. He left with everyone’s best wishes; we’d enjoy following his career wherever it took him. At least that’s what we thought. Famously, he then joined West Ham and left within 6 weeks claiming to be disenchanted with the commute to East London.
Swindon had hit somewhat of a purple patch. They’d taken a chance on Glenn Hoddle, a player so talented it seemed unlikely he was going to have the patience to coach players whose abilities were below his own. To everyone’s surprise, he turned out to be a natural manager and took the Robins into the Premier League. This could have killed the derby off for good had they not been caught out by the heat of the competition the top flight, and all its new-found riches, had bought. The toxic shock of losing Hoddle to Chelsea before the season began, itself an act of the cynical Premier League elite, and a torrid season in which they were persistently outclassed, resulted in an inevitable relegation back to Division 2.
The Premier League was a slightly different proposition to the one it is today. Debt was investment, and there were no foreign gazzilionaires pumping money into their toys. The supposed opportunity to succeed at the top end of the game remained a possibility, even for clubs like Swindon. They were happy to bet the farm to get a piece of the action and Swindon specifically, were convinced that they were deserving of their place back at the top.
John Gorman set about rebuilding his addled team with an eye on instant promotion back to the Premier League. He needed some impetus and a bit of class and knew of a homesick winger looking for a club. Beauchamp signed. He wasn’t the first to cross the border, Mark Jones had moved directly to Swindon without any fanfare. But there was deep symbolism in Beauchamp’s move. Oxford were failing, Swindon were thriving and the signing of Beauchamp was like us pawning a family heirloom to pay for food.
The lure of the Premier League shouldn’t be underestimated here; the £800,000 Swindon paid would be the equivalent of £5-6 million today. This was being paid by a team just relegated into the 2nd Division, for a player who was untried at the top level of the game and who showed some signs of, well, flakiness.
The recoil from their Premier League season was just too great and Swindon collapsed to another relegation. They started 1995/6 in the same division as Oxford. The previous season, with an instant return to Division 2 in our sights, we had one of our trademark storming starts followed by a post-Christmas collapse. However, there was class in the squad, with Matt Elliot, Phil Gilchrist, Phil Whitehead, Chris Allen and Bobby Ford all playing. Paul Moody gave the side goals. The failure in 1994/5 spurred us on to believe another crack at promotion was on the cards.
For the first time, Oxford and Swindon were gunning for promotion in the same division. And to add extra spice, our golden boy, the epitome of Oxford United, the player we had all wanted to be, was playing for them.
The two teams met at the County Ground in August in a high quality 1-1 draw. Beauchamp skulked around on the bench absorbing abuse from the Oxford fans about his girlfriend. He made a brief substitute appearance but cut a lonely figure. He was in no-man’s land – disliked at the club he was at, hated at the club he’d left.
With some inevitability, Beauchamp was released and Oxford were happy to take him back. All was forgiven back at The Manor. Swindon fans, of course, could barely contain their loathing of a man they considered to be at the heart of their ignominious collapse. In their eyes, the sulky, homesick, mummy’s boy was the manifestation of what Oxford was about and he’d been a cancer within their club.
Beauchamp’s decompression from the Wiltshire wilderness took some time, but as he found form, our season spluttered into life. Swindon’s big diesel locomotive chugged its way towards the title under the tedious, but effective, reign of Steve McMahon. Our form had been patchy; strong at home, but without an away win until the end of January. By the time we met at the end of March, however, we were on a run which had taken 16 from a possible 18 points. At that point, the play-offs were a vague aspiration, automatic promotion had been largely written off. But something had clicked, and all the struggles of earlier in the season fell away.
The immovable object was about to be meet the irresistible force.
Next… 19th March 1996