Whatever happened to the Thames Valley Royals?

As AFC Wimbledon meet their past present and future in the FA Cup, many Oxford fans will have felt some empathy with AFC’s discomfort. Once upon a time, Robert Maxwell set about creating his own fictitious football club by merging Reading and Oxford United to form the Thames Valley Royals. At the last minute the plan was thwarted by the Reading board. But it could have been so different. What would have happened had Maxwell’s plan succeeded…?

Despite a spirited, but ultimately futile rearguard by fans of both Oxford and Reading (known as the Divided Together campaign) Robert Maxwell successfully completed his merger of the two clubs in 1983. Protests fell on deaf ears and any legal challenges were likely to take years to resolve with little certainty of success. Although both sets of fans and their media were resistant to the merger, the impoverished FA, attracted by Maxwell’s largesse, waived it through and the Thames Valley Royals were elected to join the 3rd Division in 1984.

The initial plan to move to Didcot was beset with planning and construction delays, so the club moved into Elm Park, which would be their home for their formative years. The decision to move to Reading was based on the fact that Oxford’s Manor Ground could be sold off for housing. The Oxford press initially tried to ignore the progress of the Royals, maintaining its boycott some way into the first season, but without a professional club to report on circulation fell and they were forced to take a greater interest, albeit a sneering cynicism. It would be the beginning of the end for the Mail, circulation would continue to fall until in 1998 when it folded leaving the weekly Oxford Times in a tabloid format.

Oxford and Reading fans formed new clubs; Reading Town and Oxford Manors. Their first game was a friendly against played each other at Oxford City’s White Horse Ground with Oxford, wearing yellow and blue, winning 5-3 in front of 3000 fans. The local media described the game as little more than a kickabout amongst pub league players, although that was missing the point. The Manors and City would eventually merge in 1988 when City were evicted from their ground and the Oxford City Manors (shortened back to Oxford City a year later) spent the next few years touring around Oxfordshire in a variety of grounds including Abingdon, Thame and, ironically, Didcot.

Jim Smith was installed as manager at the Royals and ageing ex-England striker Mick Channon was bought in on high wages as a way of stimulating interest in the club. The Royals’ first game was at the beginning of the 1984/5 season with a home game against Walsall. 4,300 fans turned up, although the local Reading press described the atmosphere as one of ‘curiosity turning into general bemusement’ as Walsall eased to a 3-1 win with Channon scoring from the penalty spot three minutes from time. For the first four or five home games, the Divided Together campaign protested outside the ground, but as the season drifted into winter, the protest dwindled. Divided Forever graffiti remained on the Elm Park wall until it was eventually closed.

The first season was a difficult one and the Royals finished 4 points clear of the relegation zone. In the summer Channon, whose participation was limited by an injury many believed to be essentially strike action at the lack of progress, left for Norwich. Smith resigned amidst a protracted argument over budgets for the new season. Alan Ball was appointed manager and the club limped through the 1985/6 season with a moderate improvement on their first year. The Royals drew Manchester United in the League Cup, but lost 2-1, the biggest game of their short history to date.

Crowds struggled around the 3000 mark, some way short of the 10,000 Maxwell had been predicting. There was a growing animosity between Maxwell and Reading Council. There were increased incidences of hooliganism between visiting fans and Royals fans, who, it seemed, were exploiting the club’s brittle nature to grow a hooligan element. The problems lead to increasing complaints from local residents in the Elm Park area. The Council’s response was to condemn large parts of the largely neglected Elm Park stadium meaning that by 1986 only two and a half stands were open. Maxwell put increasing pressure on Oxfordshire County Council to get the Didcot Stadium completed.

Finally, in 1987/8, Thames Valley Royals played their first game at the Didcot Stadium in front of 12,000 people. They ditched the yellow and blue hoops; another clumsy PR stunt by Maxwell, for red shirts, black short and black socks. Maxwell claimed at the time the change of colours signalled a new era for the Royals and red was the colour of the country’s biggest clubs (Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal). It was widely believed that Maxwell chose red after he’d failed to buy Manchester United in the summer of 1987.

The Didcot stadium was a 25,000 all-seater with four stands in the tradition of English football grounds at the time. The Royals drew their opening game at the new stadium and didn’t register their first win until November by which time crowds had dropped to around 7000, still amongst the biggest in the division at the time. Things picked up as Ball brought in a series of ageing ex-internationals. Eventually, the Royals finished 7th and took part in the first ever football league play-offs losing to Swindon on aggregate.

Despite the relative success of that season Maxwell fired Alan Ball and installed Colchester manager Mike Walker. This was an inspired choice as the Royals were promoted as runner’s up in 1989. The Royals were now a 2nd Division club, albeit still one viewed with suspicion and not a little ambivalence. Despite the success, crowds failed to exceed 8000.

Football was in the doldrums; Hillsborough, Heysel, the Bradford fire and endemic hooliganism, plus Margaret Thatcher’s membership card plans had put it on the defensive. Maxwell’s Mirror Group had been alone in supporting of the Royals project, but their success was increasingly being seen as a bright light in the grey, people began to attract the attention of the press more broadly. With a growing ‘yuppie’ class, the idea of ditching the old and recreating the new seemed a very modern thing to do. The club represented a fairy tale and perhaps even a new model. A new middle class educated football fan was beginning to make itself heard through Fanzines and magazines like When Saturday Comes. Suddenly the Royals model offered a solution to football’s problems.

The new way was a sure fire winner, the media could start making money off the back of the games again, the government could get a greater control over the national game and the newly emerging middle class fan could have a new, safe version of their game to go to. This centralised franchise format would replicate the very successful NFL, which was enjoying a boom via weekly Channel 4 coverage. This seemed to represent how sport was supposed to be.

A new company would be set up to manage the game replacing the FA. Chelsea and Fulham were reported to be in talks, as were Notts County and Nottingham Forest. A group of entrepreneurs announced a partnership with Birmingham City Council to form a brand new city-wide team. Maxwell was the saviour of the game, the Mirror Group and Channel 4 announced a partnership to become the primary media outlet for this new football. No longer the outcasts, Thames Valley Royals were the vanguard of new, modern football. In the summer, the Royals knocked down the main Maxwell stand with the intention of increasing the capacity of the Didcot Stadium.

The work had barely started in 1991, when Robert Maxwell fell off his yacht and died in mysterious circumstances. His business empire quickly unravelled. Millions had been plundered from the Mirror Pension Fund. Everything he had touched was under suspicion. The Royals were toxic. With no deeply loyal fan base to speak of, those who had gone to games deserted the club, nobody was interested in reviving it, investors wouldn’t touch it. At one point the club were locked out of their ground as the assets of the Maxwell estate were frozen.

The club were relegated back to Division 3 in 1993, and narrowly avoided another in 1994. Crowds wallowed about the 3000 mark, rattling around the crumbling stadium with its antiquated design and three completed stands. Ownership passed from one businessman to the next, attracted by the prospect of millions from the new Rupert Murdoch inspired Premier League. Each promised some sort of revival that never arrived. In late 1994, the Royals were bought by a 23 year old entrepreneur who had made £20 million from selling a email software programme that he’d created in his bedroom. He had jumped on the booming new internet industry and had created a website selling luxury cars. He promised to make the Royals a internet focussed company, launching a new high-tech website which fans were expected to buy season tickets to access.

Less than a year later, the entrepreneur was declared bankrupt and his internet business liquidated amidst debts of £5million. The administrators announced that he’d transferred ownership of the Royals to the company and that the ground was to be sold to pay creditors. The Royals, homeless and unable to fulfil its fixtures were thrown out of the football league. The Maxwell dream had lasted 12 years.

A year later Peter Winkelman applied to the FA to move Wimbledon to Milton Keynes. Stung by the Thames Valley Royals experience the request was quickly rejected by the FA. Winkelman’s consortium  jumped ship from Wimbledon and the club slipped down the leagues and were relegated to the Conference in 2004. In their place was Oxford City who had become darlings of football’s middle classes. Shortly afterwards, the club were approached by Millionaire Firoz Kassam with a takeover attempt. He planned to build the club a new stadium at Minchery Farm. Fiercly fan-centred, chastened by the Thames Valley Royals experience, Oxford City rejected Kassam’s approach. This was celebrated nationally and there was a mention in the House of Commons praising Oxford City’s stance.

Seeking a publicity opportunity, Sir Richard Branson announced that he would like to buy the club a new stadium without the caveats offered by Kassam. The new Virgin Stadium was opened in 2008 and the club was promoted to the 1st Division. In 2010, the club made the Championship play-off final where they played Swansea City off the park, winning 3-1. From the destruction of a league club 30 years earlier through the formation of Thames Valley Royals, Oxford City were a Premier League club and one of the most admired in the country.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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