Book review: Rags to Riches – the rise and rise of Oxford United

The origins of Rags to Riches – the rise and rise of Oxford United is uncertain, the copy I bought from Amazon is a hard back with a letter from Robert Maxwell at the start that implying it was part of an annual series plotting the success of his businesses. The letter also suggests it was a gift to the employees of his publishing empire. Despite this, it looks opportunistic, clearly published sometime between promotion in May ’85 and the start of the following season.

We had a copy when I was younger but my dad didn’t work for Maxwell, so it was obviously available for sale from somewhere. And, I’m sure ours was a paperback. Perhaps it was reprinted for wider distribution as a result of our promotion in 1985.

The book has the hallmarks of a piece of hurriedly produced vanity publishing; it is A4 in format; which at the time was the cheapest print format available and it is awash with photos and comparatively little writing. The structure jumps around from the story of our ‘rise and rise’, to a ‘tale of three strikers’ (Cassells, Biggins and Aldridge) to a piece on Malcolm Shotton’s wife; Treda. Given that there are three pictures of Treda with their newborn son, Matthew, you suspect that this ‘chapter’ is actually just a rehash of a news story the paper ran about the baby’s birth.

The book tracks a period which is both odd and, at the same time, wholly understandable. The opening brushes over the first 70 years of the club in a couple of paragraphs before jumping straight to 1982 – Maxwell’s Year 0. This paints Maxwell in the hero role, a mythical saviour in the mould of Kim Il Sung of North Korea, painting the club as though it barely existed before his arrival. The story ends in 1985, just before our first season in the football league; the team photo on the back has the team in the 1984/85 blue pinstripe kit, with Smith still at the helm. Most of the Milk Cup winning team are in the picture, of course, famously only Ray Houghton was brought in by Maurice Evans. But, it feels like the story is left hanging just before it reaches its climax. This is also some of its charm, there was no expectation that we’d end up at Wembley within a year. Looking in the eyes of the players in the photo of the back, you think ‘you don’t know what you’re about to achieve’.

The narrow 3 year focus, allows a more detailed telling of the story than is possible in a more comprehensive club history. Better still are the photos, which aren’t necessarily the greatest quality, but they come from long forgotten bread and butter games of the time – the cover is taken in a game against Notts County at Meadow Lane which we lost. Had the book been published a year later, the cover would have inevitably been of the team at Wembley. Each photo sparks a long dormant memory.

For a story about the rise of a football club; the owner maintains a high profile throughout; I counted 12 pictures of Maxwell in 64 pages. It’s hard to imagine that a book tracking a 3 year period of Manchester United’s success would have the Glazers gurning out of every page. The book is published by Queen Anne Press, one of Maxwell’s companiesy, and it’s hard not to ignore his cold hand on the shoulder of the author.

It’s no whitewash though; author John Ley, a journalist at the Oxford Mail, covers the failed merger between Reading and Oxford and, in relation to Jim Smith’s departure before the start of the 1985/6 season describes Maxwell’s decision making as ‘odd’. There is also mention of Maxwell’s threats to close the club if he didn’t get support from the local council for a new stadium, an echo of Firoz Kassam’s grandstanding 20 years later.

The copy is dated in its style; Ley regularly describes the aforementioned Treda as Shotton’s ‘pretty wife’ and Maxwell describes his business approach as ‘like a housewife, you can only spend what you’re given’. There’s no malice, it’s just very ‘of its time’. Heysel and the Bradford fire had just happened and English clubs were about to be thrown out of European competition, football was at its lowest ebb. The family friendly, all inclusive, media rich game we know today wouldn’t begin to rear its head for another five years.

The closing chapter is called ‘The Future’; which is always going to be worth a read 28 years later. Division 1 is recognised as a step into the unknown, and there is a fatalistic air about it all. If the club survive a couple of years, it says, then it can turn into a very good top flight club. It did, and it didn’t, of course. A new stadium is top of the list of key requirements with Maxwell threatening to close the club if the council didn’t cough up £250,000 towards ground improvements. The section claims that a new ground was looking more promising, but ‘not before 1990’. He was right about that.

There is prescience in Maxwell’s comments. He laments the £50 million of debt football clubs owed the banks (compared to £1.3bn of debt today). He says that football’s core problem at the time was that it never ‘got’ TV. He recognised that TV was at the core of football’s future prosperity years before others got on board. You suspect that although the mid-80s will forever be associated with our glory years, that, had Maxwell and the club joined forces about 7 years later when the Premier League boom happened, we might have achieved even more.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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