It’d been a difficult start; just before Christmas 2008, former Halifax boss, Bury’s assistant manager, Chris Wilder had been the underwhelming choice to replace Darren Patterson as Oxford United manager. A week later, in Wilder’s first game, diminutive winger Sam Deering broke his leg in a 2-1 defeat at Salisbury. Two weeks after that it was announced the club had been deducted five points for fielding an ineligible player putting them five points above the relegation zone.
Eddie Hutchinson had been at the club for three years but hadn’t been in Patterson’s initial plans for the season. As the season progressed in its fitful way, he eased back into contention. The rules stated it was the club’s responsibility to register the player as well as ensure the registration arrived; like being responsible for sending an email and its read receipt. We’d fallen foul of a flawed and arcane system. The Conference hated us.
It could have been worse, the original penalty had been the 11 points gained while Hutchinson had been on the pitch that season – clearly the authorities had never seen him play. The club were angry, Chris Wilder was angry, the fans were angry; immediately following the Salisbury defeat, the team scorched through a run of eight wins in nine games only to be halted by top of the table Torquay.
Just two of those games were away from home, so the revival was evident in front of the fans. James Constable, on loan from Shrewsbury Town, was on course to become the first player in 22 years to score more than 25 goals in a season. A spirit galvanised the club and fans in a way that had been woefully absent for years, BBC Oxford radio DJ Malcolm Boyden capitalised on the newfound spirit – ‘Believe’ he said.
The run propelled us to within six points of the play-offs with four games left. The odds were still stacked against us, but we were the form team of the division.
Easter weekend would start to determine the fate of the season and we went into it with one defeat in 17 while others were wobbling.
Momentum, a distant dream becoming a reality, came with pressure. Wrexham, the next visitors to the Kassam, had been relegated the season before and were still a big club in the division. The game was tight and tense, the minutes ticked by; with the dream slipping back into the ether, deep into injury time the ball was worked out to the left wing to an early Wilder signing Craig Nelthorp. At the other end, desperate Oxford fans screamed to keep hope alive and make something happen, Billy Turley theatrically threw himself to the floor, unable to look. There would be no counter-attack to defend, no second ball, no next time; it was now or never.
Nelthorpe slung in a hopeful cross, James Constable strained every sinu to make the connection, guiding the ball goalwards, off the underside of the bar. For a moment, nobody could be sure it had crossed the line. Constable wheeled away in celebration and the Wrexham keeper threw the ball at Adam Murray like a frustrated child. The crowd paused in disbelief at what they’d witnessed, they’d believed in a miracle and it materialised in front of them, the belief soaked in. We’d done it.
Revitalised, three days later we headed for Woking finally looking like a club that was too big for the Conference. We’d been bloated and overblown and mistaken that as a sign of strength, now we were rippling, bursting at the seams. Oxford fans travelled in huge numbers, overwhelming the stadium, creating a carnival of yellow and blue. Kick-off was delayed an hour due to overcrowding in the away stand, Chris Wilder appeared from the dressing room to settle the fans; a cool head in an overheating situation. In the past, these disruptions may have dislodged us, knocking our focus, but we cruised to a 2-0 win with Oxford fans celebrating from all around the ground. It had been an occupation, but what we were conquering were our demons.
The deficit to the play-offs reduced to three points, Kidderminster, Histon and Stevenage had games in hand. Histon used theirs against Ebbsfleet three days later to reinstate a four point gap.
Next was the visit to champions-elect Burton Albion. The Conference is full of teams either falling apart or indulging a local millionaire in a brief, doomed football fantasy. Burton’s success was based on slow and steady improvement. Manager Nigel Clough had spent eleven years carefully building the club towards promotion, but he’d left for Derby County and while they were becoming rudderless, they still had plenty in the bank and their title was all but assured. They were now within a point of fulfilling their dream of making the Football League. The game was live on television, the stadium was full and expectant, we were just bit part guests at their promotion party.
The story was so focussed on Burton, we were the forgotten force. The game was nervy with neither side really finding any rhythm. Being awkward felt good, like we’d turned up, spiking the punch with liquor and commandeering the stereo. Deep into the second-half Oxford won a free-kick twenty-five yards out on the right. It was an awkward position; too near to cross, too far to shoot. Only a delivery of the highest quality would yield anything. Adam Chapman, who Chris Wilder had brought in on loan from Sheffield United, fizzed with panache and ability, but surely this was beyond his talents. His free-kick curled beyond the wall and into the net sending the travelling fans into rapture. Burton’s dream was crushed, for a few days at least, while our mission was still alive. “We’ve been the best team in the league over the last four months.” a breathless Billy Turley told the TV reporter afterwards.
The following day, things got even better; with Kidderminster playing Histon and Stevenage playing Torquay, the four teams being chased down by the now rampant Oxford were always going to take points off each other. Both games ended in a draw, perfect, the gap closed to two points.
All four still had a game in hand, but Kidderminster’s was against Stevenage and they couldn’t both win, if either Torquay or Histon dropped points, the whole thing would go to the final day and that’s all we could ask. Stevenage took the three points against the Harriers, while Torquay, making a debilitating 600 mile midweek round trip, could only pick up a point at Barrow. It was on.
Into the final day, we simply needed a win to stand a chance of making the play-offs; everything else was out of our hands. Torquay, three points ahead, but without a win in four, hosted champions Burton while Kidderminster had Kettering. Chances were slim, but not impossible.
If the game against Woking showed that our new found confidence was too big for the Conference, the game against relegated Northwich Victoria showed that even we struggled with the seething beast of hope and expectation.
Over 10,000 fans packed the Kassam, nearly 4000 more than the next biggest crowd of the season. Northwich, though doomed, were on a late season surge, having won their previous five games, but focus was all on us.
We looked disjointed, finding the nervous energy hard to control. An early goal would have settled us. After eight minutes a goal came, but it was at Burton; the news was good, the champions were a goal up. A goal for us now would put us equal on points and a goal from the play-offs.
Five minutes later the advantage slipped away; Torquay had equalised, we were back to square one. Northwich, with Ryan Clarke in goal, cushioned our threat and it was no surprise to see them take the lead on the stroke of half-time. With results going against us, things began to unravel; the season was dwindling and thousands of fans, there for the spectacle alone, began to lose their poise.
A minute after half-time things got worse, Torquay had taken the lead, we needed a miracle, but Malcolm Boyden’s belief was running short.
Six minutes from time, James Constable’s equaliser set up the possibility of a pyrrhic victory. The goal sparked was an invasion, someone ran on the pitch in his pants, others followed, goalie Billy Turley wrestled one fan to the floor. Somewhere in the melee a fan attacked a visiting player with a corner flag and Northwich walked off. It took an age to sort out, and as results came through confirming another season in the Conference, concentration evaporated and we conceded again. In the Oxford Mail stand a fight broke out between two women. It was a wild and chaotic end to the season.
In the end we were just four points short; it wasn’t the result hadn’t did for us, the five deducted points for an administrative error had confined us to another season of purgatory. Chris Wilder seethed; “We need to take it out of people’s hands by producing a winning team and get out of this poxy league.” he said. His comments resonated through the club and through the summer as he built a team aggressive in its ambition to return to the Football League. Twelve months later, at Wembley in the pouring rain, as Alfie Potter swept home the decisive goal against York City, he made good on that promise.