Long Read: The Conference Play-Off Final 2010 – A game for the ages

Picture c/o – Paul Hawtin

“You should go”, she said. So I did. 

The due date was around the 20th April 2006, the 30th anniversary of Oxford United’s Milk Cup win, it would have been perfect. But the anniversary came and went and nothing happened, nothing happened for days, then weeks, then a few days later nothing else happened. This baby wasn’t coming.

It needed to be coaxed out, induced, so it was booked for Thursday 4 May 2006. By this time, in a parallel narrative, my football club had slid inexorably towards non-league football. Its demise had been going on for a long time, but now were in the bottom two of the bottom league with one game to go. The trapdoor was open.

The maths was with us; seven teams could still go down and two were playing each other. In effect, a win at home to Leyton Orient, themselves hunting for promotion, would keep us up.

There are several things they don’t tell you about childbirth; about the pragmatic, intimate probing of midwives and doctors or about how your lovingly constructed birthing plan – all whale music and birthing pools – are tossed aside the moment you breach the threshold of the maternity ward; in its place is primordial moaning and fluid; so much fluid. 

Nothing goes to plan in childbirth. Being induced was meant to be simple; a gel would be applied and boomshanka, labour would start. On Thursday the 4th May 2006, the gel was applied.

Nothing happened.

Like a lit firework, you don’t go back, another 24 hours needed to pass before we could try again. 

It was, by now, Friday the 5th May 2006.

Nobody tells you that lots of other people have babies too. Like, all the time. We waited another twelve hours for the maternity ward to clear, walking to the garage to buy The Oxford Mail which was festooned with good wishes about the huge game looming on Saturday. 

The next time the gel was applied something did happen. 

The next few hours were a blur of blood tests and intimate examinations. Midwives cheerily making predictions about when the baby might arrive while peeling off their plastic gloves. Or perhaps making an oddly inappropriate clinical observation like ‘neat cervix’. 

I’m not leaving until the baby arrives, but I know that when it does, they will send me home shortly afterwards in order to stare vacantly in the mirror and question what the hell I’ve done. It’s the one thing I remember from the classes we took a few months earlier.

So, the question is; at what point might I be kicked out and what does that mean for the prospects of making Saturday’s game? As the night becomes late night and late night becomes the early-hours I quietly set myself milestones. If I’m out at 2am, then I can go to the game, when 2am passes, it’s 3am, when 3am passes, it’s 4am. And so on.

I get some fresh air and text people with an update. The sun is coming up and it is, unequivocally, the 6th May 2006. A day of destiny in every sense. For a second, I realise I’m in a bubble – nobody knows where I am, there’s a vending machine and I haven’t eaten for hours. I buy some chocolate and a drink and sit briefly in the deserted corridor. It’s marvellous. There’s a security guard sat bored at the doorway; we exchange a glance but don’t speak. 

When I get back to the delivery room, something is wrong; there are midwives everywhere. The baby’s heart rate has slowed and a decision has been taken to go for a caesarean section, like, now. Everyone is calm and efficient and nobody talks to me. I’m later told I’m the least important person in the room. 

I’m left alone to put some scrubs on but my main job is to pack up our stuff. I don’t know if it’s a displacement activity or a reflection of my worth. Or both. A midwife appears and assures me everything is fine and escorts me to the operating theatre. 

When I get to the theatre, the mood is light, the morning’s sunlight bathes the room. The anaesthetist puts on the heart monitor noise ‘to make it sound more like Holby City’. Everyone is calm, there’s just been a change of shift so people are chatting while they go about their business. It is abnormally normal.

And then the baby arrives; a girl, she is, of course, perfect. Everyone takes turns to congratulate us, someone takes a photo and we’re moved on. There are rules for caesareans; the mother and baby are taken to an observation ward and visits are limited in time and number. Grandparents want in, sisters want in and they’re already on their way. It all needs to be packed in by about 2pm because mother and baby need their rest. Not for the first time, I’m the least important person in the room.

I’ve slept for about five hours in 72, and not at all in the last 48. ‘Why don’t you go to the football?’  she said.

‘You should go’. So I do.

The barrier is up, so I don’t have to pay for parking, everything is going for me. I turn right onto the road, drive along and hear a loud thunk. I continue for a while, check my wing mirror and it’s not there. It’s bent backwards, I’ve clipped the wing mirror of a parked car on the road, or maybe a cyclist, but probably a wing mirror. I’m late, I have excuses, I drive on. I’m not proud of this, but I am very tired.

By the time I get to the Kassam there’s 15 minutes to kick-off, but parking is atrocious, and I don’t get into the stadium until five past three. The atmosphere is febrile; it’s ugly and menacing, a bear pit. The sun of the morning has been replaced by a grey overbearing cold I’m ill-equipped to withstand. Leyton Orient have 4,000 tickets for the game, the whole of the North Stand. There are people sitting on the fence at the open end of the ground and people standing in the aisles.

Orient are fluid and quick, Oxford, curiously all in yellow, huff and puff. After a swift exchange of passes Lee Steele, former Oxford striker, hits the post for Orient. It’s a reminder that for all the talk about destiny, we are simply not very good. Ten minutes later, against the run of play, Oxford striker, Eric Saban scuffs a shot into the corner for 1-0. This is bang on the narrative; Oxford are staying up.

A few minutes later; Orient cross from the right to the back post; the ball is headed back towards goal, Billy Turley saves but falls back over the line. 1-1, Oxford are going down. Early in the second half, Orient striker, Gary Alexander, chips in for 1-2, now Oxford really are going down.

We need two goals, though where from is a mystery. Then, somehow Oxford bundle in an equaliser from Chris Wilmott to make it 2-2. Get another, and there’s plenty of time to do it, and we’ll stay up. This is the point in the story fear evaporates and we sweep to glorious victory. In fact, the game trudges along. Ten minutes from time Chris Wilmott lashes out waiting for a free-kick, he’s been provoked, but is sent off for retaliating. We have ten men and ten minutes to save our league status.

We continue to plod, how is this possible? Lost in all this is Orient’s own position, if they can get a goal, they’ll be promoted. Creeping into the last minute, both teams are playing with 5 up front, someone is going to be punished, it’s just a question of who. Then, a wave of noise sweeps down the Orient fans in the North Stand; there’s a goal at Northampton. If Orient can avoid defeat, they’ll be promoted. The noise seems to distract Oxford who concede possession allowing Orient to break at speed. Lee Steele, a menace throughout the game breaks away to slot home their third and confirm promotion. The Orient bench streak onto the pitch. Their 4,000 fans go ballistic, it’s a sea of bodies, they’re on the pitch, engulfing the players. Elsewhere, there is disbelief.

Two minutes later the final whistle goes; Oxford 2 Leyton Orient 3. Oxford are relegated to the Conference and Orient are promoted to League 1. I walk out of the ground; I’m not interested in watching their celebrations. I’m certainly not interested in the lap of honour some Oxford fans think our players deserve. This has been a grotesque act of self-harm. 

I get a phone call from a friend who rants about the referee and linesman. Some of it I agree with, some I don’t. At the end of the day, crap football probably deserves crap refereeing. Driving home on the radio the commentators are saying that fans need time to ‘collect their thoughts’ and ‘reflect on what’s happened’. It’s like someone has died. Given my day, this is all a bit bemusing. My ranting friend comes on the phone-in repeating his views about the referee. He’s cut off moments before he gives a shout out to my new baby so they can interview manager Jim Smith.

I get home, watch TV and have a bath. Eventually I decide I need to eat, so I phone for a curry, fall asleep and wake up fifteen minutes after I’m supposed to collect it. I catch the start of Match of the Day and wake up as it finishes. I go to bed…

“Relegation was a low point in my life it’s fair to say.” Says Tom whose been going home and away to games since he was a baby with his Oxford United crazy family.

Wayne Hawkins, an Oxford fan since attending his first live game against Everton in 1986 “I felt sick, the world stopped for a moment, I actually was in disbelief.”

“This was my 4th relegation and by far the worst” Gav, a fan for about 30 years on the Beech Road and in the South Stand “We bounced back after 1994, but that series of relegations in 1999, 2001 and 2006 on the back of the likes of Kemp, Wright, Rix, Diaz, Talbot – what a string of managers. There was a sense of inevitability about it all.” 

Yellow AL, who follows Oxford home and away with his son; “My son 7yrd old son Billy (Hamilton) was crying his eyes out, inconsolable at Steele’s goal and me realising oh shit what have I done!”

“The tears, our ex-striker celebrating scoring and those Leyton Orient fans… oh my god, so painful” OUFC4EVA, a fan since 1981 and veteran of the Milk Cup Final win at Wembley in 1986.

Neil W, who has been following the club for nearly 50 years; “I sat crying my heart out at the final whistle with my 5-year-old son looking on in amazement at the sheer grief of his father.”

Paul Hawtin, a veteran of more than 500 games over 30 years; “I remember disbelief, unimaginable pain and disappointment. Looking back, also the woeful thinking of giving Leyton Orient fans the whole of the north stand that day!” 

“I was 5 years old.” – Harry Radwell in his first season as an Oxford fan – “My dad was a steward, so I had to wait for him in the Quadrangle with my nan, who still goes. I was plodding about, 3ft tall, and looked up to see Sky Sports on the TV with Oxford in a red rectangle with R in the place of our points.” 

For YF Dan, an Oxford fan since the 1980s, there was double the pain “Guess where my wife worked at the time? Leyton bloody Orient. The club that relegated us paid half of my mortgage. I actually went filming at the Oxford training ground the week before the relegation game for BBC News with Dan Walker and watched a truly shambolic training session with the players clearly lacking confidence and team spirit, and cliques between those brought in pre- and post-Smith.” 

“I remember going to work next day and getting fed up with people trying to talk to me about it.” Killer Brown, a fan since 1997. 

For Joe, a graduate of the South and North stands, and an Oxford Mail stand regular, it was formative. “I was 11 and up until that day I very much considered myself a Manchester United fan who enjoyed supporting my local team when dad took me. That day changed everything: I was completely swept away by what happened. So, I ended the day devastated, but clear in the fact that I was an Oxford fan.” 

And that’s the end of the beginning of the story. The journey to the end of the story should have been a short one, a momentary lapse, a lost train of thought in an otherwise faultless monologue.

The recovery was pre-defined; Jim Smith used his contacts to arrange a prestige friendly against Manchester United, including Cristiano Ronaldo fresh from knocking England out of the World Cup. After that indulgence, we would simply blast our way out of the Conference with signings like Phil Gilchrist, Gavin Johnson and Rufus Brevett. The plan was to overwhelm the postmen and milkmen we assumed habituated Conference clubs. At first it worked, storming to the top of the table going eighteen league games unbeaten. There was even talk of completing the season undefeated, but it was a gross under-estimation of the challenge:

“The pre-season game against Manchester United with Ronaldo getting stick was a treat!” GT in Runcorn, who has been watching Oxford since January 1972.

Neil W – The first year was great, the togetherness and unity in adversity, the novelty.

Wayne Hawkins – The club seemed to be doing the right things to go straight up. Weymouth away day was a great day.

Andy Downes – We had a flying start, then we started getting destroyed on Setanta Sports.

YF Dan – Even after the 18-game unbeaten start, I could tell a lot of cracks were being papered over. We actually weren’t very good. Smith’s 5-3-2 was limited. We were winning games, but I doubt modern stats would have said we were convincing. Dagenham and Redbridge were just relentless. Secretly I envied them. Their players had hunger, ours were old and a bit arrogant. Once we started losing, there was no way back really. We’d been rumbled.

“I remember standing behind the goal during the penalty shoot-out against Exeter in the play-offs and just knowing we were going to lose.” Jon, from generations of Oxford fans. “During their first penalty we were going nuts trying to put their takers off but we all just fizzled out.” 

“The loss to Exeter was my worst moment as an Oxford United fan” Nick, a Season Ticket holder and Oxford obsessive since 1986 “It was much harder to cope with than relegation from the league.” 

YF Dan – I stood in the tunnel for the Exeter second leg. I looked into the eyes of two or three of our key players. I knew we’d lost. 

The penalty shoot-out defeat in the play-offs to Exeter City condemned Oxford to another year of Conference football. With financial realities biting, the experience began to change. Jim Smith’s magic wasn’t working and after a grim defeat to Rushden and Diamonds, he was gently replaced by Darren Patterson. But nothing could slow the tide of a decade’s long ennui.

YF Dan – The following season was an absolute disaster. Who was it we lost to on Setanta playing 6 centre backs? I liked Darren Patterson a lot. If you’d seen what a positive influence he was at the club behind the scenes, he would have got more fan support. He inherited a shambles of a squad and improved it as best he could. If Matt Green had signed for us, rather than Torquay the following season, who knows? What if Jamie Guy had turned into the player he looked like in pre-season?

“I remember losing away at Hayes & Yeading – who were soundly beaten both the week before and the week after, we took about 800 away fans to their 250.” Rob – ‘Oxford-born, London-bound’ who moved away from Oxford when he was eleven but re-ignited his interest in the club when he went to university.

“Rushden away was a huge low point, among so many others. It all feels like a distant bad dream now.” Stuart Reid, a fan from the mid 80s who attended every round of the ‘86 Milk Cup run.

The Conference years, split opinions; some saw it as a re-connection, an adventure into an underworld, to others, it was a grim slog:

“I remember my dad hating the style of football but loving the day out.” Ellie, who attended her first game aged 5 in 2003. 

Tom – “There were lots of fun away days, I always knew it was a matter of time until we went up.”

“At the time it was hell.” Liam Burton, an Oxford fan since 1996 “I began to wonder whether we’d ever get out, the pain of watching teams come for a draw but nicking a win week after week. In retrospect, I quite liked how close we became as fans, players and staff. Chatting to Billy Turley mid-warm-up, enjoying a tea in all standing terraces – there was a romance to it all.” 

Killer Brown – I enjoyed the Conference years, they made me enjoy football again the highs of Forest Green away when they locked the home fans in, the lows of Tonbridge Angels away. The lasting memories; gate crashing Salisbury’s Christmas party, the scrapyard at Ebbsfleet, going out of the ground for an ice cream at half time against St Albans, stuffing Burton’s party up. I didn’t miss a game for two and half seasons.

Joe – I don’t see the Conference years as negatively as many, I’d been bitten by the bug in 2006, this was when I started going to watch Oxford regularly. My first away game against Stevenage in 2008/09 was another day I think I knew this Oxford lark was for me.

Yellow AL has been a fan since his first game against Manchester United in 1983 “I remember it positively… so many grounds and new places visited – we tried to embrace the challenge.” 

“One game that has stuck with me was Northwich Victoria at home the season before we went up.” Emily, a lifelong fan “Ryan Clarke was in goal for them.” 

Darren Patterson soon succumbed to his fate, after a decade trying to reverse the decline with big names, Oxford turned to an unknown; Bury’s assistant manager, Chris Wilder, who’d been Halifax’s boss for Oxford’s first Conference fixture in 2006. His arrival stimulated a storming late season run in 2009 with Oxford narrowly missing out on the play-offs. Then, the summer before the 2009/10 season everything changed:

Jon – I remember ‘Just Jeevesing’ ‘Chris Wilder’, wondering where Bury was and what good would he ever do?

Stuart Reid – I had this confident feeling all season that we were going to do it. I thought we had the combination of the right manager, players, owners and great support.

YF Dan – We looked like a team of strong athletes; Clarke, Creighton, Murray, Constable, Matt Green.

Andy Downes – I remember thinking we would stroll the league but worrying we’d bottle it.

Paul Hawtin – There were those mad last few minutes of the opening game of the season against York; Matt Green’s equaliser then Creights smashing in the winner at the death, absolute scenes.

Harry Radwell – I was only 7 or 8 but this is where I start remembering more than about 2 games a season; the best being Mark Creighton’s last-minute winner at home to York.

“The Beast’s winning goal v York – I’m in that photo!” Hamworthy Yellow, a fan since the 1960s

Joe – I was on holiday in Scotland; I knew we were one-nil down but lost my phone signal and remember clearly the moment we heard the final score on a very crackly Sports Report!

Nick – The game at home to Luton was superb; atmosphere, attendance, Beano’s goal after his penalty miss and then Jamie Cook’s long-range goal from Cowley – amazing stuff. 

Joe – Yeovil at home in the Cup is easily forgotten from that season, and a rare big FA Cup win under Wilder. A low point was the title slipping from our grasp away at Stevenage. 

YF Dan – My only panic was when Wilder decided to revamp a winning team by making it worse; Sodje, Francis Green, a load of other signings, seemingly just for the sake of it. What was he thinking?

Liam Burton – Luton 1-0 up to 1-2 in the dying moments was one of disbelief. Myself, my brother and my dad all just stood for a few minutes in shock.

Nick – Conceding those two goals in injury time still triggers waves of nausea even now. 

YF Dan – Around March, he went back to the tried and trusted players and we started winning again. Stevenage took the role of Dagenham and romped the league, and there was always the fear that Luton would come good. 

Killer Brown – Eastbourne away on the last day of the season was magic. We went for the weekend, rented a house by their ground, I got a slap in a nightclub which made me think it was time to leave nightclubs and settle down. It worked; I’m married with two kids now – that season changed my life. 

With the title conceded to Stevenage, Oxford needed to navigate a circuitous route back to the Football League via a play-off final at Wembley. Slipping to 3rd on the final day of the season after fielding a weakened team at Eastbourne set up a two-legged semi-final against Rushden and Diamonds, with Luton or York waiting in the final. 

Andy Downes who has followed the Us since 1993 “I remember the away leg; I’d had a job interview just before kick-off and listened to the game on the way home.”

Killer Brown – I talked my boss into going to the away leg. We went into Quick Save and bought their version of a party seven. It was a cross-country trip there and the pub was miles from their ground. Coming out of the first leg with a draw felt really positive. 

Wayne Hawkins – A group of us got the minibus up to Rushden; a few beers, great banter and an all-round good day.

Joe – I remember hundreds of Oxford fans with our Wilder masks waiting to be let into Nene Park, they didn’t open the turnstiles until about an hour before kick-off. I was fuming after the match about a foul on Adam Chapman in the build up to their goal. 

Paul Hawtin – There was controversy surrounding Rushden’s goal at Nene Park, Adam Chapman was fouled but the free-kick wasn’t given. It was all they mustered, we completely dominated both games, in fact we shouldn’t really have conceded at all in the play-offs! 

Liam Burton – My brother was 12th man for the home leg. I can just remember the excitement and noise. I can’t remember much about the game; it feels like such a high that it’s vanished from my mind. Like I’d had too much sugar. 

Harry Radwell – My dad and I were sulking in our family car listening to BBC Radio Oxford periodically because it was my younger sister’s birthday. York pulled off a bit of a surprise win against Luton, from that point I just knew. 

Nick – I never doubted that we would win. We’d matured as a team and we were better in every department. They were dispatched with ruthless efficiency. 

Joe – The second leg is one of my fondest memories watching Oxford. The morning of the match Dad told me that under no circumstances would we go on the pitch, I think he remembered the scenes against Northwich the previous year. Once the stewards started opening the gates he changed his mind!

Ellie – The atmosphere was electric. I didn’t realise until we’d won that we were through to the final and still remember how great it felt when the penny dropped after my dad explained it to me! 

Gav – Chaos on the pitch, finally something to celebrate at Grenoble Road after those first 8 years.

Paul Hawtin – The lead up to Wembley I had to sort out loads of tickets for people, the credit card took a hammering that day.

Killer Brown – In the build-up to the final I bought a special shirt and lots of tat; flags, scarfs; I got the lot. The day before I played golf just to past the time it was like treading water. 

Photo: c/o Killer Brown

The scene was set; for the first time in 24 years Oxford United were going to Wembley. While the glory of ’86 would shine for decades, this game, financially and spiritually, would be the most important game in the club’s history. With kick-off at 5pm, the Yellow Army gathered from near and sometimes very far:

Dunstan Allison-Hope grew up in Oxford in the 1980s and moved to America in 2004 “My wife Jamie and I flew from San Francisco to London for the game. We wore Oxford United outfits on the plane, but no one knew why. We stayed in the Hilton overlooking Paddington and walked around London on the day prior. It was sunny, and we wore yellow. On the day itself we took the Bakerloo line. This was my American wife’s first time in London for years, so it was part introduction to the city, part introduction to the club.”

GT in Runcorn – My son and I, and his Chester supporting friend, drove down from Runcorn very early, getting to the Kassam hours before the coaches departed. The coach driver played the Oxford Wembley song a few too many times. 

Paul Hawtin – It was my mate’s stag do that weekend in Bournemouth; we hired a minibus to get us down there. The original plan was to drive straight to Wembley but not all the stag doers wanted to do the football, so I had to drive back to Oxford, drop them off and replace them with other Oxford fans. 

OUFC4EVA – The entire family came; my parents, wife, son, daughter, her boyfriend, my sister and nephew all travelled from Bicester on the train. We set off at about 9:30 to go into London first.

Wayne Hawkins – I’d organised a coach of 50 of us to travel to the game. We met at Tilsley Park in Abingdon for the pre-journey bacon rolls, we left around 10am; t-shirts printed for the occasion and off we went 

Ellie – We were supposed to be meeting my cousins but they couldn’t find us, it ruined my dad’s planned morning of drinking. 

Mozzer – Me and my best mate met at Banbury station about 10 o’clock. We were joined by my mum, stepdad and little sister. 

Killer Brown – I remember standing on the platform at Didcot Station with a group of about ten of us; my brother and Helen, Mark, Garthy, Bob, Emile, GG, Henry and Michelle. We had to get the second train as the first one coming from Oxford was full. 

Nick – We went to the game on an early train from Swindon with a few mates that have followed Oxford for longer than me. 

Andy Downes – I was on the supporters’ coach from the stadium with my best mate, brother-in-law and sister.

Joe – My mum, dad, sister and I went on the London Road coaches. Radio Oxford played London Calling as we were on our way from the Kassam, I can still feel that tingle of nerves and excitement now.

Stuart Reid – I drove to the Kassam with my wife and a friend to meet some other friends to get a coach. It reminded me so much of Wembley ‘86 which added to the excitement and confidence. My whole family were supporting me, so we were messaging various people en route. I couldn’t eat anything through excitement! 

Jon – We went up on the train from Beaconsfield; my dad was shouting at Timmy Mallet as we waited on the platform. I still can’t believe he’s our only celebrity fan.

Neil W – The day was going to be special, so we had champagne for breakfast. We got out of the car at Thame Parkway to ‘Dog Days Are Over’ on the radio, which was also played at half time. 

Harry Radwell – We were on the train from Haddenham and Thame parkway, we had a few fair-weather fans with us – two of my cousins and an uncle, on top of the usual; me, dad and my nan. We made a flag with our names on which we never used. I have no idea where it went. 

Rob, Oxford-born, London-bound – I’m a Londoner so I dragged my non-Oxford supporting (but Oxford born) friend along. We got far too drunk on the tube there and needed to find somewhere on the Metropolitan line with a toilet. Success.

Yellow AL – I live in West London, have done since 1986, on and off, Wembley was a bus ride away. My partner, son and daughter, her two friends and my mum, dressed as Spongebob, all in yellow took the 92 bus and walked up the high street. 

Emily – The Steventon Yellows joined together at the sports club; there was face painting, beers, a little kick around as we waited for the coach. We left about 9am, one of my brother’s friends, who is now the head groundsman at the training ground, had a half and half scarf. The coach was delayed because the driver made everyone leave their booze off the coach. 

Liam Burton – This is the painful one for me. I had a sitzprobe (a seated rehearsal) that day for a show I was in at uni. I was told, in no uncertain terms, if I failed to attend, I’d fail the course. I reluctantly gave away my ticket and my dad and brother went without me.

Photo: c/o GT in Runcorn

By coach, by train, by car; after the mobilisation; the invasion. 33,000 Oxford fans descended on North London the epicentres being The Globe on Baker Street and The Green Man in Wembley.

Joe – Unsurprisingly the coaches got there very early but I don’t think we were bothered. We circumnavigated the ground twice and went in 90 mins before kick-off. I don’t think I’ll ever experience emotions quite like that again at a match for the rest of my life; before the game, during and after.

Killer Brown – We went to Euston for a drink then onto Baker Street for a sausage roll. Then we took the Tube to Wembley to do Wembley Way, then onto the Green Man to meet my next-door neighbour. 

Harry Radwell – We mingled in the crowd on Wembley Way seeing faces we hadn’t seen for a while, having chats, enjoying the last bits of sun before we kicked off. 

GT in Runcorn – We arrived way too early, before the gates opened at the stadium. We saw the chairman and Jim Smith and were a bit surprised to read that ‘bombs are not allowed’!

Yellow AL – We went to Covent Garden for a meal and drinks and stopped off at the Globe on the way back to Marylebone. The pub was a sea of yellow and blue. The vibe was electric.

Nick – We went to a pub in Baker Street. I drank far too much. 

Gav – There was lots of discussion about the best location for a pint and travel to Wembley, we went to a pub near Oxford Circus.

Mozzer – We headed to the Green Man for a pint, or six! When we got to the pub the Milk Cup Final was on. Oxford had taken over all the pubs, it was an amazing sight. After the years in the Conference it was great to see us all together.

Wayne Hawkins – We went to the Green Man pre-match but had already a few beers on route. 

Neil W – I remember seeing Joey Beauchamp and Dean Whitehead at the Green Man.

Photo c/o: Dunstan Allison-Hope

Like a swarm, the Yellow Army filled the concourses of Wembley; the tangible buzz of excitement fizzed around the stands. At one end a sea of yellow, facing the banks of empty plastic seats as York fans were outnumbered 3 to 1.

Paul Hawtin – I couldn’t believe the sight of 33,000 Oxford fans, I didn’t do Wembley in ‘86 so I’d never seen anything like it before. Every now and then I put myself in the shoes of a York fan and wonder what they must have thought as their piddly 8,000 were so outnumbered.

Wayne Hawkins – What an amazing sight, that sea of yellow, pure pride. It had to be our day. My first Wembley visit with my club, just wow. 

Rob, Oxford-born, London-bound – It was unbelievable – I’d been to Wembley before for gigs and for free to see football I had no interest in. The place always seemed soulless and uninteresting – but painted yellow that day, the adrenalin was like nothing I’ve had at a match.

Killer Brown – I was very confident once inside the ground, we had a drink in the 1986 bar, the atmosphere was amazing, like a sea of yellow.

Joe – I still feel tingly just thinking about it now.

Tom – I was so nervous I couldn’t stop shaking I had so much adrenaline rushing around. 

YF Dan – The fireworks set my two-year-old son off crying. It was good, it took my mind off the game.

Nick – I was overcome with emotion. When the national anthem played, I couldn’t stop crying. The enormity of the game was huge. Funnily enough, I wasn’t the least bit embarrassed. 

Stuart Reid – My mate, who I sat next to every home game, didn’t go as he was too nervous, so I was calling and texting him as I didn’t want him to miss out. It is always so good to see just so many Oxford fans in one place. The noise was amazing!

Emily – This was my first visit to a stadium that wasn’t the Kassam. I just felt unrivalled happiness. This is the game that really pushed my love for the game and there’s no way that I would be where I am with my football today without this game as motivation.

Others took it in their stride…

Dunstan Allison-Hope – I was amazed there were so many people and couldn’t stop taking photos. My wife is from Tennessee and grew up seeing college American football in the south, she remarked upon the small size of the crowd and asked where everyone was.

Photo c/o – Yellow AL

With the rain teeming down, the game got underway. After just 15 minutes the York keeper rushes out of his box under pressure from James Constable. Jack Midson nods the ball to Matt Green who controls it on his chest, spins and on the half volley, rifles the ball into the top corner. 

YF Dan – Green. 1-0. One of the best goals I’ve seen. 

Gav – We’ve got this, we are going up – no doubt.

Wayne Hawkins – Scenes… pure relief that we’ve got a good start, it’s going to be our day and my, what a finish.

Joe – Ecstasy! I remember their keeper coming a long way earlier and being frustrated that we didn’t punish him but Green certainly didn’t let him off. I still wonder if he’s struck a ball more cleanly and accurately in the 10 years since.

Mozzer – Couldn’t believe it. What a strike.

Emily – I could tell as soon as it left his foot that it was going to hit the back of the net; the look on all my family’s faces.

Tom – I was bundled by so many people, it was immense; the noise, the limbs, just pure joy and all those emotions and stress were released. 

Ellie – Dad missed it as he was in the toilet (always happens) and I went mental as he came back out – I told him to stay in the toilet. 

Stuart Reid – Honestly, we played that first half like a team who could beat anyone. 

With Oxford fans still coming to terms with the opening goal, we surge forward again, this time James Constable reacts fastest to a loose ball, bustles his way into the box and fires home to double the lead. Moments later Jack Midson guides a skidding cross onto the York post.

YF Dan – Constable 2-0. Goal machine. Midson; should have been three. Our athletes were running rampant over physically weaker York. It was almost too easy. 

Stuart Reid – Like most people, I love Beano, and to see him score, on that stage, in that situation, and for it to be such a good goal, was really special. I phoned my mate and I couldn’t hear what he was saying so I just shouted ‘Beano, Beano, Beano’ for about 30 seconds and hung up!

Mozzer – I’d nearly lost my voice at this point. I was starting to get that brilliant feeling you can only get at football. 

Killer Brown – I just started thinking about where we could be going next season. No more Conference; Thursday nights on Setanta, Setanta Shield, Back in the League Cup.

Joe – I’m ashamed to say I was thinking it was a bit too easy. There was a lack of drama the occasion deserved.

Emily – My dad lifted me up off my seat, the roar of the crowd, I was in dreamland.

Paul Hawtin – Suddenly I was a lot calmer and dare I say a little confident. Jack Midson missed a sitter to make it 3-0, hit the post, things seemed to be going to plan… And then…

And then… with Oxford totally dominant, the clocked clicked towards half-time. The first key staging point. Two minutes from half-time, unchallenged, Ryan Clarke let’s a harmless looping cross slip through his hands and into the goal for 2-1. 

Stuart Reid – That was such a non-league moment! I really felt for Clarke. He had been superb all season and was the last player likely or deserving of that happening. That was the first chink of doubt of the whole season!

Wayne Hawkins – We weren’t going to make it easy for ourselves were we?

Tom – Awful timing, it almost felt like they were winning. 

Rob, Oxford born, London bound – I was right in line with that goal, up high though. I couldn’t work out what the hell I’d seen. How… is that…?

Harry Radwell – Fucking typical Oxford, the nerves were back full swing, we were going to bottle it. 

Paul Hawtin – I remember my brother turning to me and saying ‘big half now!’ Suddenly we’ve gone from looking completely in control to ‘uh oh this may go horribly wrong’, it is Oxford after all! 

Photo c/o Wayne Hawkins

Half-Time – from a half Oxford dominated, everything was back on a knife edge. In the stands and concourses, Oxford fans wrestled with their emotions. Destiny was at play, the question was, which destiny would it be? 

Wayne Hawkins – We had a quick beer at half time, the mood was good, I texted my wife who was with our 2 months old son Joel who was all kitted out watching it on TV. They felt like the only people left in Oxfordshire. 

Gav – I managed to get a beer, got cornered by a local bore and needed another pee.

Yelow AL – I remember looking round trying to judge everyone’s mood.

YF Dan – My son, who’d been crying throughout, was cheered up by a bag in Minstrels. He loved the second half and having him on my knee was really comforting. You know, it’s only a football match after all.

Nick – I was a bit down; the goal knocked the stuffing out of us. We thought we’d won and all of a sudden it was in the balance again.

Liam Burton – I was desperate to finish university.

Harry Radwell – I remember saying we need another goal to seal it and we need to come quick out of the blocks from half-time. 

Joe – I have one memory of half time: walking back to my seat with ‘The Dog Days Are Over’ playing over the Tannoy and thinking ‘we’ve got another 45 minutes yet’!

Stuart Reid – Half-time went really quickly, which was good. My non-Oxford supporting family obviously just didn’t get it. I was happy to spend most of the half time break going for a wee!

Emily – I needed a toilet, and with it being a 33,000 crowd, that was the whole of the break gone.

Back out for the second half, the atmosphere began to shift. York probed for an equaliser; Oxford cautiously tried to find a killer third goal. York’s striker Michael Rankine screwed one wide when he should have scored, then James Constable broke clear and did the same at the other end. 

YF Dan – I remember little of the second half. That York chance, just wide. A couple of scrambles. We took off Green and Midson, I was worried that if it went to extra time, we’d have no fire power. Constable to win it… over. Oh Beano. 

Emily – I could see that Rankine’s shot was going wide from my seat. We were always going to have a few more clear-cut chances so wasn’t too worried about Beano’s miss.

Joe – That whole second half was agony. It felt like the ball never left our half until that Beano chance, I still can’t believe he missed. For the life of me I couldn’t tell you whether I thought we would hold out or not.

Harry Radwell – It was just written in the stars for Oxford to bottle it, it’ll be a classic Oxford performance having 638,932 chances and them having two and somehow scoring four.

Rob, Oxford born, London bound – The second half went on for ages. How can we bring this many fans to their ten or so thousand and actually threaten to lose? What will happen? There’ll be carnage.

Stuart Reid – Physically and emotionally I was a husk of a man. I hadn’t eaten for hours, I’d drunk gallons of coffee. I was shaking, starving and fidgeting. I was so sure Beano would score and when he didn’t, I felt we would never get a chance like that again. York were also looking good.

Mozzer – I was very nervous and thinking about my dad who was very unwell in hospital. He would have loved to have been at the game.

Dunstan Allison-Hope – I spent the whole time looking at my watch, I couldn’t believe how slow time was moving.

Photo c.o Joe

Into the last minute with the game on a knife edge, from a York corner, former Oxford winger Courtney Pitt; a totem of Oxford’s dire recent history shanks a cross to the edge of the Oxford box. Rhys Day under pressure from two York players wins an aerial ball nodding it out to substitute Alfie Potter. Suddenly, it’s two against one, Potter exchanges passes with fellow substitute Sam Deering. Potter lines up eight yards out to bury the ball in the net. It’s 3-1 and we’re back in the Football League:

Mozzer – Just as Rhys Day had the ball my phone started to ring, it was my dad asking how it was going. I don’t think he was expecting me to give him a live commentary of one of Oxford’s greatest moments. ‘Hi Dad, 2-1 to Oxford… wait, Sam Deering… HE’S GOT TO SQUARE IT TO POTTER! GET IN!’ 

Liam Burton – I’d run from the theatre to a local pub who knew me and knew I was an Oxford fan. When I got there they’d set up a booth with the game on, they pointed me straight to it. A burger and beer were waiting for me and I saw the last few minutes. As the ball hit the net, I phoned my brother. We spoke until I heard the cheer at full time which said one thing… we were back!

Wayne Hawkins – One of the best feelings ever… I can’t remember how many aisles I must have climbed down, hugging people along the way but that feeling right there… Perfection. 

Gav – Booooom.

Andy Downes – I just jumped up and down, dragging my mate down with me. 

Tom – Just remember staring, not blinking praying quietly to myself while everyone went wild around me. That was one of the best limbs ever, just all my emotions came out, I’ve never shouted and screamed so much.

YF Dan – Scramble. Break. A one-two-one-two that seemed to go on for ever between our two tiny players… Bam! 3-1. Oh the release! Better than sex? Can’t remember, it 10 years ago. So was the goal. 

Nick – The best moment of my life. 

Killer Brown – The release of pressure was like we were living in a dream. 

Ellie – I’ve never felt so happy in my life, dad jumped over a few rows of seats and realised later he’d lost his phone. He did find it. 

Stuart Reid – I lost it before Alfie scored. My wife was crying and I lost control not knowing what to do. I phoned my mate and was just shouting ‘Football League! Football League!’ Over and over again until the whistle went! I’ve never felt a moment like that. Ever.

Emily – I thought I was dreaming. Potter was mine and my sister’s favourite player; we wanted him to get on so badly. When he got the winner, we both were so happy.

Harry Radwell – I ran down the stairs in excitement, the space in my seat just wasn’t enough. I saw Chris Wilder sliding on his arse right in front of me, then my uncle threw me in the air. 

Joe – There are no words. Not ones that can do that moment justice. I still can’t believe that the game panned out the way that it did, it was just perfection. When the ball went in it was like an out-of-body experience, 45 minutes of torture and everything else that went before it released in one moment. Every time I watch it back, I’m still on the verge of tears.

Dunstan Allison-Hope – It was such a relief. It was the perfect goal – going from one up to two up in the 90th minute is one of the greatest joys in football. There’s no way back from that. Sheer relief. I also knew I’d have to explain to my American friends that yes, our hero goes by the name ‘Potter’. Thanks for that, thanks.

Photo c/o Mozzer

Back on the coupon, back in the Football League, 33,000 Oxford fans, elated, drenched, exhausted. 

OUFC4EVA – It was my son’s birthday, he caught Michael Creighton’s t-shirt, the one which said, ‘We are going up’, he also won about £180 on the result. Happy birthday indeed.

Andy Downes – Clarkey hoofed the match ball into the crowd as they left the pitch, it hit me on the chest, my brother-in-law dived on it, it’s now in a case in my nephew’s bedroom. 

Nick – The emotions of the day left me an emotional husk of a man. 

Liam Burton – My mates joined me in the pub and we had many beers. The evening ended with a live band who closed with Mr Brightside and Don’t Look Back in Anger. 8 years later they were the last songs to be played at my wedding reception.

Neil W – I had my son on my shoulders walking out. I remember queuing for ages to get the train back. A joyous day that somehow made all the pain worthwhile. The dog days were over.

Tom – I couldn’t sleep that night, I was too pumped and had too much adrenaline.

YF Dan – I was too relieved really to fully celebrate, if that makes sense. Nothing could complete with that win.

Killer Brown – After the game I remember going back to the pub in Didcot, dancing until one in the morning to Nellie the Elephant, we walked home and slept for a long time. 

Harry Radwell – We didn’t stay long, we were on the train home and we saw a relative of ours, my dad’s cousin in law. I’ve never seen a man so drunk, my dad told me to hand him a can of Stella, he thanked me by calling me by my dad’s name. 

Dunstan Allison-Hope – That Icelandic volcano with the impossibly long name erupted and my flight back to San Francisco was cancelled. My $250 a night hotel room became a $750 a night hotel room – I don’t care, mission accomplished! I flew 10,000 miles to see my team make it out of the ‘non-league’, which I am still explaining to my American friends. I showed them the video and they remarked about how empty the stadium was. I didn’t care. I was there, I knew what it meant. 

Paul Hawtin – It took an age to get out of the car park but we didn’t care as the result was so massive. England were winning the T20 cricket World Cup which was on Radio 5Live. We dropped everyone off, fuelled up the bus for the return the next day then went to the pub, the highlights came on the TV and we cheered as we watched the goals back for the first time. 

GT in Runcorn – We heard that Ronnie James Dio had died. I was so looking forward to getting back to the Kassam and having a celebration meal at Frankie & Benny’s, but our coach broke down on the M40 near Wycombe and everywhere was closed by the time we got back. We had to drive 3 hours back to Runcorn, but we were still in good spirits.

Ellie – I had my year 6 school residential the next day, I had to be up for at 6am and mum only let me go on the condition we came straight home! My poor dad. 

YF Dan – I got home at midnight and stuck on Sky Sports News. My son, who never ever woke up in the night, came downstairs as the match report came on. ‘Oxford United’ he said, pointing at the TV. The perfect end to a great day.

Stuart Reid – Straight back to Oxford in time for a few beers and a curry in Jericho, just with my wife and step-dad. Exhausted and finally able to eat.

Emily – We went back to the sports club and did knee slides in front of the clubhouse, the other villagers clapped us in. The cheer was massive when Sky Sports News first showed the Conference table with the ‘promoted’ sign next to us.

Wayne Hawkins – We went back on the bus, singing and celebrating, I celebrated with my wife and watched the game again… just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. 

And there it was, a millstone ten years in the making cast aside, masterminded by Bury’s former assistant manager, Chris Wilder.

Wayne Hawkins – Amazing man, loved him. So much time for the family at open days. So glad he’s gone onto amazing things, I loved the Kelvin Thomas and Chris Wilder partnership. 

Paul Hawtin – He has to be known as a club legend, he achieved what the club desperately needed; this was so much bigger than 1986. 

YF Dan – He was chippy as fuck, but that’s just what we needed. It would have been lovely to be champions, even if it meant Wembley never happened. I wish he’d given that team a chance to develop, but weeks into the new season, he’d dismantled it. Creighton, Green, Bulman and Clist were all disposed of too quickly. 

Rob Oxford born, London bound – What a legend, he always seemed destined for greater things, and we were lucky to have him and help him make his name. I feel like a proud parent… but can take no credit whatsoever for his success!

Liam Burton – One of the best managers in the world. I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Prat of a human, but an incredible manager.

Joe – He’s an absolute hero, it still saddens me that people think back with such mixed feelings. I look at Sheffield United now and think everything that was great about that Oxford team is in them, but that he has also learnt so much, certainly from how he broke up that side the following season.

Ellie – Not my style of football and didn’t want to watch it every week but we will always owe it to him for getting us out the Conference. 

Stuart Reid – What a man! It meant so much to him. He’d taken the hard route and so deserved that type of day. We were idiots to treat him like we did. I have nothing but respect and gratitude.

Emily – Legend. So happy with where he is today – he deserves it. I was so disappointed with the way he left. Felt a bulk of the fanbase never really appreciated him enough for getting us up.

As the roars ebbed away, an indelible mark is left, an imprint of a memory; the following day, thousands gathered for an open top parade through the streets of Oxford. And then, what? What did it really mean?

Gav – I went to the parade, I know that.

Emily – That was immense. It felt so good to finally give a more personal ‘well done’ to the players and staff. I remember getting the DVD for Christmas and watching it that evening as a family. Brought it all back. Still watch it every now and again.

Paul Hawtin – The bus parade was interesting, packed into Broad Street with the team dancing on the top deck jumping up and down. I did wonder how the floor didn’t give way! I loved the players joining in with the fans singing ‘are you watching Luton Town?’ 

Tom – Just an amazing day, loved every minute, still gives me happy memories and goose bumps to this day.

Joe – That was the first time I remember a match carrying me through the week and beyond, a high like that couldn’t wear off quickly. The open top bus tour was great; it’s the silly things like endlessly watching Potter’s goal back on YouTube or spending half of my RE GCSE exam thinking about that moment that stay with me.

Nick – I wrestle with the guilt of not taking my son. He’s started to go to some games that year, but I knew that it wasn’t wise to take him because of how I would react. On balance, I made the right decision, I’m glad he, at such a young age, didn’t see me so emotionally naked. The whole thing was a whirlwind. What a season, what a finale!

Paul Hawtin – The last word should always go to Jerome Sale and his commentary at the end, ‘Back on the coupon, back in the football league, back where they belong!’

Photo c/o OUFC4EVA

So, a lifetime of memories, one of the greatest days in the club’s history, but more?

Nick – It saved Oxford United as we know it. 

Paul Hawtin – Honestly, it meant the future of the football club, simple. Any more seasons in that ‘poxy’ league could’ve finished us. Crowds were poor in those days, how the club would have kept afloat I don’t know. 

Tom – The success we have had now, I think was all triggered by that, we are on the up.

YF Dan – It saved our club from oblivion. Simple as that.

Neil W – I still talk about it today. You had to have taken the journey to understand the impact and feeling.

Rob Oxford born, London bound – I felt proud that a club as small as ours could feel so big. Oxford attracts a weird bunch of people that have come and gone through the city over the years – you see many of them at away fixtures, myself included, not quite knowing the songs or the pain or the glory of years gone past. But they are interested, and this made people really interested. Maybe it was just because I was there, but I felt we helped put non-league football on the map and in the minds of those who only follow the top tiers.

Liam Burton – It gave us a real sense of knowing that we have the support and capabilities of being a bigger team again and that supporting your local side is the right thing to do.

Hamworthy Yellow – Relief due to getting out of that poxy league! 

Killer Brown – It put us back in the league to start our slow climb back up the ladder to get back to the Championship where we should be. 

Joe – I don’t think you could look at players like Beano, Ryan Clarke or Alfie Potter in the same way without something tangible like a promotion to their name. Looking at everything that has happened to other lower league clubs, Rushden and York for starters, and you wonder how we would have faired had things gone differently. Then again, maybe we would have walked the league the following season. I can’t believe we would have done better than the wins over Swindon, another magnificent promotion and numerous cup runs had we not won that day.

Emily – It changed my life. Made me fall in love with the game. Being seven years old, you don’t realise what football really means. That game taught me.

Harry Radwell – It’s one of the best memories of my life, I cherish every memory of my dad. I lost him just two years ago when I was 16. Every memory I have of my dad is at the football, he was my best mate and I was his, to have shared a day like that with him and my family is something that I will never forget for as long as I live. 

And you can’t say fairer than that, can you? A game that has defined people’s lives, indelibly etched in their memory, fragments and moments, shared across thousands of people, spanning the globe. Ninety minutes and one very special goal, a story for the ages, a story of a football club, but most of all, a story of its fans.

Photo c/o Gav

With thanks to – Paul Hawtin, Killer Brown, Stuart Reid, Neil W, Harry Radwell, Hamworthy Yellow, Joe, GT in Runcorn, Emily, YF Dan, Liam Burton, OUFC4EVA, Nick, Tom, Ellie, Yellow AL, Mozzer, Jon, Rob, Oxford-born, London-bound, Andy Downes, Dunstan Allison-Hope, Wayne Hawkins and Gav.

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Oxblogger is a blog about Oxford United.

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