There’s a steam engine at the Science Museum where you can see the cogs and pistons working in mesmerising synchronicity. This week we’ve been exposed to the inner machinery of the Football League, it’s like someone has opened up the Flying Scotsman to find it powered by elastic bands, Sellotape and custard.
The centrepiece of the whole affair is, of course, what to do with the rest of the season since its suspension in March, and specifically, what to do with League 1. Agent provocateurs in the saga are Peterborough United who will lose most if the season is brought to a premature end.
The main thrust of Posh’s argument seems to be that because they’re going to win their remaining games, the season should be played out. Fry claims that teams are only ahead of them because of their results, which is obviously unfair. On Oxford specifically he argued that we were only third because ‘If Oxford hadn’t won [at Shrewsbury] they would be eighth and outside the play-offs’. The Peterborough press think this is a credible argument because we ‘only’ won after coming back from two goals down against ten men. Pfft, so not a proper win, then. Fry has more confidence in something that might happen in the future than something that objectively did happen in the past.
OK, so let’s play, you might argue. On no, this isn’t possible either because we should only play ‘when it is safe to do so’, a phrase nobody understands. For Ron, there is no scenario by which we can complete the season safely, therefore VOID, VOID, VOID.
Some players agree, a number are aghast that people are sick-minded enough to even talk about football when people are dying. This is one of those football humblebrags – acknowledging that people are dying while always using football as a central reference point. People are talking about lots of things happening while people are dying, in fact people die all the time while things are happening. The world is trying to find a way of functioning while minimising the risk. Football, it seems, cannot function without concrete certainty, including getting access to endless testing that’s not routinely available to most regular folks.
If only there were a central governing body in England to sort this mess out on behalf of the Football League, some kind of English Football League. The EFL have chosen to devolve responsibility for resolving their problem to the individual divisions. This is like the government devolving responsibility for managing the infection rate to each individual within the country. Yes, you can go to the beach, but use your common sense. Common sense, if it exists at all, is common to everyone, so if one person uses their common sense to go to the beach safely, so will thousands of others, it’s, well common sense. By devolving responsibility to resolving the issue to the clubs, the clubs are likely to use their common sense and back positions most favourable to them, that means there’ll be winners and losers which creates a schism.
Still, at least League 2 is all resolved and congratulations to Swindon Town for winning the title. Or have they? Court papers this week revealed that Swindon’s owner Steve Power has been less than honest with, well, everyone. Swindon are, in effect, owned by a company called Swinton Reds. Back in 2013 Power entered into an agreement with an anonymous investor to take a 50% stake Swinton Reds (and therefore Swindon Town). Michael Standing, who Oxford fans will remember for his seven-game stint in a yellow shirt including a 1-0 defeat at Histon claims he was the mysterious financial muscleman. Power, however, claims that he sold the interest to Standing’s friend and Premier League diesel Gareth Barry. Weirdly, this all happened in the same meeting and nobody took the time to clarify just who Power was talking to. In fact, seven years later, nobody has taken a moment to check who provided the money.
What’s more, Standing is Barry’s agent, and both are prohibited from having a financial interest in another football club. So, whoever is backing Swindon’s title appears to be doing so illegally. A fitting way to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Swindon’s last demotion for financial irregularities, perhaps they’re planning to livestream a recording of the FA disciplinary panel meeting from 1990.
There are many challenges that have come out of this crisis, but also many opportunities. One can only hope that ridding the game of even a small percentage of these chancers would be a decent start.
Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of our Conference Play-Off Final win against York. You may have noticed. I wonder what how it might have been marked in normal circumstances. A livestream? A podcast? We might have been basking in the glory of a 2020 promotion season, maudling at throwing away a golden opportunity, preparing for another shot at the play-offs and Wembley. Sure, we would have marked the occasion, but would it have enjoyed the same prominence in our consciousness, would we have come together on a Saturday afternoon if there had been the distractions of normality?
There’s an old joke about Sheffield FC, the world’s oldest football club, about who they played when they were the first and only club around. The answer is obvious; themselves. Sheffield FC was a club in the truest sense; a place for people to gather with a common interest. Only later came the notion that clubs would send representatives to play against other clubs. Later still that we might pay those representatives. Even later than that was the idea of football as a business separated from the original concept of a club.
The lockdown has removed the business of playing games from our lives and revealed the club on which we’re built. The club’s response has been nothing but exemplary; the branded facemasks, players and management phoning vulnerable and lonely fans, the podcast, the mental health advice. I don’t pay much attention to other clubs, but if the biggest ones are doing the same thing, even with their gigantic marketing machines, it hasn’t permeated my consciousness.
The club could have simply folded in on itself; mothballed its activities until it all passes. Oxford United is a small business, shutting the shop would have been perfectly acceptable.
Karl Robinson contributes a lot to that; he has always got the concept of a club from his Liverpool days. In fact, when times have been hard for him on the pitch he’s almost too much of a fan; too involved. He wants to please, to entertain, he wants to create something meaningful. His wife is a health and wellbeing adviser and the club have been quick to respond to the mental health challenges evident across its community. Listening to Dan Harris and Gary Bloom talking about the welfare of players, from juniors to the first team, and the duty of care they have to them is as reassuring as it is impressive. Most of the youngsters in their charge won’t make it to a professional football pitch, but they will all walk amongst us in society.
None of this could happen without the support of the club’s sponsors; Tiger and the rest of the board. When you have ‘foreign owners’ – it’s easy to think of nefarious means and dirty money – that fans are consumers and stadiums are real estate. But the owners confound that unfair assumption.
The club’s regular podcast has been a particular joy; the limitations of technology and the detachment from the corporatisation of the club means that the discussion is authentic and candid whether it’s talking to Paul Moody or Ryan Clarke about mental health or giggling incessantly about The House In Kidlington or naked kickabouts in 2016.
It’s not just boorish lad speak, while Simon Watts bonds things together, Chris Williams is often master of ceremonies, a fatherly figure both proud and exasperated by those in his charge. He’s spent time with them all and knows them as people. Fans have a very simplistic relationship with players and managers – to most Ian Atkins was a tactical caveman, Williams introduced him as ‘the man who taught me everything about football’. With him is Kath Faulkner, one-part club insider to two parts fan and Jack Brooks brings his experience from professional cricket, bridges the gap between those paid to do the job and those paying.
And in essence, that’s the club; people who have been in and around it for years. Our representatives – the players – come and go. I’ve always said that all I want for players is for their experience to be the best of their career. That they take a little bit of the club with them and tell others about how good it was. Listening to Mark Creighton describe the excitement of Wembley, Steve Kinniburgh taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere against Luton in 2009 or Alex MacDonald’s memories of playing in derbies makes you feel like we can achieve that goal. It’s also the bonds that still exist between them – Chey Dunkley’s deference to Johnny ‘Uncle Muls’ Mullins, even when Dunkley’s career is on an upward trajectory. Or how the class of 2010 listened to Ryan Clarke as talked about mental health – confiding with Alfie Potter at Northampton, and Adam Murray chipping in with warm words of support. And then, click, Clarke is describing Matt Green as ‘a cannon and a mess’ on a night out and everyone is laughing with him. Normal guys, with otherwise normal lives, nice people who work hard and sometimes do silly things. There isn’t one that I haven’t liked.
Those within the club should be proud of their response to the lockdown, it could easily have been different and we probably wouldn’t have complained if we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them. If there is to be a silver lining to this particularly dark cloud, then the reminder of what a football club is and should be may be one if its lasting legacies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!’
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.
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.
If applied, then Oxford will be promoted to the Championship. Understandably, there’s been plenty of handwringing and arguing about the merits of the system. Suddenly the game has been changed, though isn’t that the whole world right now?
The oversimplified argument is that every team and fan will back the system which benefits their own team. Let’s be honest, there’s no glory by being promoted like this, nobody in their right mind will sink to their knees, purple faced on their living room floor at the epic conclusion of an Excel spreadsheet calculation. No Oxford fan should gloat at the misfortune of others if it pans out like this.
My preference is still to complete the season, even if it means adjusting future seasons, we’re nine games behind, cancelling the EFL Trophy and replacing it with a league fixture for a couple of years, or forever, can shorten the seasons so we’ll quickly catch up the lost time.
But if a re-start isn’t possible, then is there a way of testing the accuracy of the options available? If you stopped the last 10 seasons on the same day as this season – 14 March – and applied the options, comparing them to what actually happened, it’s possible to assess their accuracy.
I looked at the League 1 top 10 on the 14th March for the last 10 seasons. A nice round 100 teams. There were two reasons to look at only the top 10 – for one, I couldn’t be bothered to look at more and two, the further down the table you go the more impact points will have on your league position. A win has a greater impact when everyone else is losing. So, we’re looking at how accurately any system would predict the most successful teams in League 1.
One option is to simply freeze the table and award promotion to the top three. Historically, that would give you the right result 76% of the time. The leaders on the 14 March have never failed to be promoted, but the third-place team have only blown it once more than the second-place team. It’s simple, it’s quite accurate, but is there a better option?
There are two weighted options – a simple points per game system and one that is weighted according to home and away form. The weighted formula is straight forward – the average number of home points achieved to date applied to all the remaining home games, and a similar calculation for remaining away fixtures.
The argument for weighting the points is a strong one; teams consistently accumulate a different number of points home and away, and usually higher at home. Plus, not everyone has the same number of home and away games left.
A weighted system is more accurate than stopping the season. Both a simple PPG and a weighted PPG are 80% accurate in predicting the top 3. Across the 100 clubs – a bigger sample – the simple and weighted PPG systems accurately predict the final position 82% of the time. On average, for both systems, they’re out by less than one place (about 0.6 of a place). Sometimes teams have a late season meltdown or surge meaning these systems can out by as much as 7 places, but it’s very rare that the error rate is more than one place, and it’s only impacted the top three once.
On the 18 occasions the two systems disagree with each other, 60% of the time the weighted PPG was more accurate. Put another way, of the 100 clubs, the weighted PPG was either the same or better than a simple PPG at predicting clubs’ final positions 95% of the time. The weighted system is just about more accurate than a simple PPG.
But is it fair? It’s certainly fairer than Peterborough chairman Darragh MacAnthony’s approach on Twitter which arbitrarily made Posh obvious promotion candidates based solely on a series of Peterborough-friendly variables. It reminded me of my favourite story about former Scotland manager Ally Macleod. When he was manager at Ayr United he took them to the Scottish Premier League. He was asked how they’d do in their opening fixtures – Aberdeen? Win. Motherwell? Win. Hearts? Win. The first six games, all wins. Celtic? Win, he said. When asked why he was so confident of beating the Scottish giants he said ‘Well, after that winning streak, they’ll be terrified playing us.’
These systems aren’t unfair in that they’re an objective way of concluding an unknown. Is it fairer than, say, the play-off system? The third best team in the division have only been promoted twice in the last 10 years; meaning they’re only 20% accurate in identifying the third best team in the division. The play-offs are an arbitrary system created to generate revenue and excitement. This is an arbitrary system created to conclude a season impacted by a pandemic. I mean, I’m all for the play-offs, but when they’re so inaccurate are they fair? They appear less fair than either PPG system.
Abandoning the season altogether is another option; I’ve often felt like giving up during this pandemic, so it’s very tempting. But I would always prefer a conclusion based on what’s been achieved, rather than scrubbing seven and a half months of hard work from the records. James Constable missed out on the club’s goalscoring record because Chester failed to complete their fixtures in 2009. We lost the three points gained that night, whereas I’d have preferred the result to have stood and every remaining team in Chester’s fixture list awarded a default 3-0 win. It feels fairer to me to recognise what’s been achieved than to pretend it didn’t happen.
Perhaps an abandonment is the best option; but look at the top 10s over the last 10 years, you can see how pivotal a good League 1 season can be. Of the forty-nine teams featured, six are in the Premier League; in addition two more have been in it recently, three are in the Conference with another eight experiencing it in the last decade. Financially, the difference between Championship and Premier League football and the rest is massive. Sometimes a club might get just one shot; this summer we are likely to lose the core of our successful team, we could struggle to replace it, next year could be a relegation scrap, all this year’s investment and work just goes up in smoke. Is that fair? Coventry are in an even worse position, without promotion, which they thoroughly deserve, they could easily plummet. Promotion in this way is not about glory, it’s about survival. At the other end, do Southend genuinely deserve another season in League 1?
If I were a club chairman, I’d vote to continue the season when possible, but it means people making compromises about safety and contracts. There are plenty of industries pivoting in the face of the crisis and football won’t be unique in having to balance safety with sustainability. But, if a system is needed to bring the season to a close and give everyone a breather, then the weighted points per game system does seem the best.
My dad spoke about it evocatively, a moment of silence, a collective disbelief. In the split of a second your mind slows the world down to allow your brain to comprehend what you’ve seen, converting it into a physical reaction. It happened to him once, watching Wolves in the 1960s, a moment in a game where your perception of what’s possible and the reality of what you’ve seen leaves a silent, motionless gap.
It lasts a nanosecond, but you can live in it for an eternity, even when it passes, fragments of your memory retain it. You can revisit it when you need a safe space. Physically, you move on, metaphysically, you can rest.
I’ve been there twice; against Wrexham in 2009; we needed a goal deep into injury-time to sustain our unlikely promotion charge out of the Conference. The ball was worked out to Craig Nelthorpe. At the other end, Billy Turley theatrically threw himself to the turf, he couldn’t watch, but we didn’t need him anymore, it was now or it was never. Nelthorpe looped in a cross, James Constable leapt, straining every muscle. He connected, guiding the ball towards goal. It clipped the underside of the bar and dropped down behind the line. The forging of what you want and what you get. And there it was, that moment of disbelief, a glimpse of hyper-reality, that silence. And then, an eruption.
But it was the first time that was most memorable and a moment that lives in the collective psyche of those who were there. Thirteen years earlier, almost to the day, we were emerging from what looked set to be an underwhelming season. Then we tacked into a strong following wind, suddenly finding ourselves on a run that was taking us closer to the play-offs. The next visitors to The Manor were Blackpool; top of the table, five places and thirteen points ahead of us. Win, and a play-off chance would become a genuine promotion charge, lose and the whole season would likely be over.
It was Easter weekend, The Manor was cold and grey, that was my favourite kind of day, a day an outsider wouldn’t understand. These were days for the most loyal. The game was tight and intense, good quality for the level. Eric Nixon, a long-term tormentor of Oxford from his days at Tranmere, kept the game goalless. We knew without a breakthrough we were vulnerable to a counterattack. On this moment the season would pivot.
Deep into the second half, Oxford were probing with increasing urgency, long balls played into giants like Paul Moody and Matt Elliot, hoping to get a knock down for poachers like David Rush or Martin Aldridge. It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked. Right back, Les Robinson floated a hopeful ball into the box; the Blackpool defence repelled it back into midfield. With it bouncing awkwardly at hip height, Joey Beauchamp brought the ball under control with his instep. Beauchamp, back from his a miserable time at West Ham and Swindon, had yet to show the player he once was. His first touch brought the ball to heel, then in a single movement he contorted his body to hook his boot around it on the half volley sending it looping towards the London Road goal.
And then, the moment. I remember it vividly, the ball clipping the bar and nestling in the back of the goal. The rattling noise from it hitting the net. Through it all, a disbelieving silence. And then, an engulfing mayhem that flooded the senses; bodies, noise, a bombardment. Milliseconds earlier it looked like it was going over, maybe for a corner, but there in a moment was the breakthrough.
This was the defining moment of Joey Beauchamp’s career, perhaps the defining moment of every Oxford fan standing in the London Road that day. Twenty-four years later, it’s a moment that needs no further elaboration. To Oxford fans, the goal is just ‘that goal’, and Joey Beauchamp is simply ‘Joey’.
Beauchamp represented the slenderest golden thread from the glories of the mid-eighties to the more modest successes of the mid-90s.
He’d been a ball boy at Wembley for the 1986 Milk Cup Final and he got caught up in the post-match celebrations.
“The players came down the steps and got together for the team picture.” he told the Oxford Mail “Then I looked to my side to realise that every other ball boy had gone. I was stood in the middle of the pitch at Wembley and I was the only person there.”
He’d been discovered playing for Summertown Stars and nurtured to become one of the club’s brightest prospects. His professional debut too had a nod to those glory days, coming on for Lee Nogan for the last game of the 1989/90 season against Watford. In goal for Oxford that day was Wembley ‘keeper, Alan Judge.
Oxford is different, walk around That Sweet City and you’re struck by its beauty. Dig a little deeper; take an unprepossessing side street and you find quiet, eccentric genius; The Chronicles of Narnia, Radiohead and the educator of nearly 30 Nobel Prize winners. Strange and wonderous things. Fittingly, Joey was different; for all his talent, he was shy and understated, seemingly unaffected by his ability. He didn’t have the classic swagger of the great players; but when he played, he was mesmerising, among the best wingers in the country.
At the end of the 1980s we were readjusting to life as a second-tier club. Like a self-made millionaire who’d lost it all, we were still getting used to our life living in a semi-detached terrace house and driving a second-hand Ford Focus. For nearly a decade, Oxford had a conveyor belt of talent; Kevin Brock, Mark Wright, Andy Thomas alongside choice finds like John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and Dean Saunders. But the pipeline was running dry and, as we approached the 90s, the hangover of the 80s party was kicking in and it was difficult to know quite where we were going next.
Initially, there were delusions of bouncing straight back, Mark Lawrenson was a marquee manager fresh from a stellar career with Liverpool, but Robert Maxwell’s interest in the club was seeping away and with it any delusions the club had about returning to the topflight. After a brief loan spell with Swansea, quietly Beauchamp worked his way into the starting eleven building a reputation as a talented, tricky winger.
He was quick and direct with close ball control, he terrified defenders, they’d backtrack in hope of a moment to reset themselves. At the moment his opponents were most vulnerable, Beauchamp would cut inside to throw them off balance. He could be unplayable. Each cross and shot was a whole-body movement. It was pure poetry.
By 1992, Beauchamp’s career was in the ascendency just as the club were heading in the opposite direction. Robert Maxwell’s death the year before, and the scandals related to his fraudulent millions, ripped the funding and with it any hope from the club.
Beauchamp’s first goal came in a home win over Sunderland at the end of 1991, three months later, a confident Swindon Town side came to The Manor. Swindon in 9th were managed by Glenn Hoddle and hunting a play-off spot. Oxford were second bottom and hadn’t beaten their local rivals for nearly ten years.
Despite going behind, Oxford roared back to lead. At 2-1, Beauchamp terrorised the Swindon backline running the length of the pitch to make it 3-1 before half-time. In the second half he doubled his tally and scored Oxford’s fifth, in his signature style. It ended 5-3 win and was a classic. Beauchamp had arrived.
Despite these moments and Joey’s impressive form, our grip on the second tier was loosening. As we headed into the final game of the season away to Tranmere Rovers we were a point adrift of Plymouth Argyle in the relegation zone. We needed to win and for Plymouth, at Blackburn Rovers, to lose in order to survive.
Tranmere were full of experience featuring former internationals John Aldridge and Pat Nevin. Aldridge had scored nearly forty goals in a team which, in the following seasons, would see Rovers pushing for promotion to the top-flight. It was a day for bravery, not just ability.
Fifteen hundred Oxford fans travelled in hope on a swelteringly hot day. Beauchamp, Oxford’s youngest player, tore into Tranmere in the first half, his direct running coming close to winning it in the first half alone. It was as if the unassuming junior of the side had taken on the responsibility as a personal mission to save his hometown club.
With the season on a knife edge and Aldridge and Nevin ready to pounce on any error, Oxford still looked vulnerable. Just before the hour, a poor back pass allowed John Durnin in to give Oxford the lead. Two minutes later, the ever-ruthless Aldridge, equalised giving him a club record goal haul and threatening to send his old team down. With 25 minutes left, Beauchamp ran through, bouncing off a defender before slotting the ball between Eric Nixon’s legs for the winner. With Plymouth losing at Blackburn, Joey had saved us.
The celebrations were euphoric, the game etched into Oxford folklore, the local boy was a hero. But it was just brief rest bite from the trajectories both parties found themselves on. As we gradually succumbed to the inevitable aftermath of the glory years, Beauchamp’s path was clearly upwards; perhaps to the very top.
After another season in a struggling side, Swindon Town began making their first enquiries about the winger. They were heading for the Premier League and Beauchamp would have slotted right into their ambitious plans. Beauchamp, however, turned them down.
The parting eventually came at the end of the 1993/4 season. In the league we suffered a terrible start, in part due to the disruption caused by Brian Horton’s unexpected departure to Manchester City. He was replaced by Denis Smith who faced a race against time to find a winning formula.
The FA Cup offered a relief from the pressure. In the third round we drew Leeds United. In these pre-internet days, tickets were bought in person or on the phone. I was at university and missed out. Oxford, kicking down the slope towards the London Road, started like a rocket. A beautifully weighted ball from Beauchamp set Jim Magilton free to cross for Alex Dyer to score the first. A Matt Elliot drive doubled the lead before Leeds fought back to force a replay.
At Elland Road, Oxford again took the lead with a John Byrne goal, then Beauchamp and Chris Allen combined to make it 2-0. Unfathomably, in the final minute, Oxford contrived to concede twice, forcing the tie into extra time. Despite having thrown away giantkilling opportunities twice, against all odds, Jim Magilton lobbed home to seal the win.
It was a famous night, but ultimately one which damaged Oxford’s hopes of avoiding relegation as Jim Magilton was sold within days of the win.
In the fifth round, Oxford drew Chelsea and I was determined see this one. My train across London, and the bus out to Headington was tortuous and I missed kick-off. I bustled through the turnstile, climbing the steps into the densely packed London Road. As I perched at the back of the stand looking for a gap to sneak through there was a tangible swell in the stand, my eyes focussed on the pitch just in time to see the ball loose just outside the six yard box, arriving at speed to open the scoring was Beauchamp, the celebrations drew me into the swarm. It was a moment of joy, but we couldn’t hold out, Mike Ford missed a penalty as we slipped to a 2-1 defeat.
It was a highlight of an otherwise bleak season. By May, Oxford faced another final day with their fate out of their hands. This time, the gods weren’t with us and despite Beauchamp scoring a remarkable winner in a 2-1 victory over Notts County, results for Birmingham City and West Brom ensured it was no more than a valedictory. We were going down; Beauchamp, though, was going up.
Oxford were crippled with debt with no financial backing and a much loved, but crumbling, Manor Ground. The Hillsborough disaster in 1989 changed regulations for stadia in the UK, The Manor’s capacity was reduced by 40% over five years. The ever-stretching elastic holding the club together finally snapped.
West Ham’s £1.2 million bid was too good to turn down. Beauchamp was faced with his tormenting reality; he wanted to play football; he just didn’t want to be a star. Ultimately the choice was stark – either Beauchamp signed or Oxford United would go bust.
“I didn’t really want to move at the time” Beauchamp told Rage On fanzine “I was buying a house and I needed the money that I’d make from a move. I didn’t know what to do when West Ham came in for me. I really didn’t know whether I wanted to move or not.”
What happened next has been raked over endlessly, though rarely in a satisfactory way. With the inevitable pressure and expectation of his big move, Beauchamp’s insecurities bubbled to the surface. He didn’t want to be there, just days after arriving, he wanted to leave.
Beauchamp said his agent told him he could live in Oxford while commuting to East London. Beauchamp bought his house and signed his contract at Heathrow Airport, just 45 minutes from his home. On the face of it, it was a dream move; money, Premiership football and living in his home city. What he hadn’t accounted for was that playing for West Ham meant battling through peak rush hour to compete within a squad full of machismo with the likes of Julian Dicks and Martin Allen. For a self-confessed family man and local boy, it was an entirely different world.
Even now, when Beauchamp’s story is told, people talk disparagingly about the fact you can get from Oxford to London in an hour. They don’t talk about the additional hour it can take to get out to the east side of the city. Ironically, those who use this to claim Beauchamp was somehow soft, are making the exact same mistake he did when he signed.
More importantly, only recently people have told this as a mental health story. Beauchamp was a young man thrown into an unforgiving macho world with no support. For years Harry Redknapp, West Ham’s assistant manager, capitalised on Beauchamp’s failings by pumping up his own role in the proceedings. It’s all part of Redknapp’s happy-go-lucky persona; how he can effortlessly blow a £1million on a pup and walk away unchecked. A proper Jack the lad. He talks about it like he’d bought a Ford Capri but left it with a Police Aware sticker down a back road. All a bit of a laugh, nobody got hurt. Apart from Beauchamp, but in Redknapp’s world, he didn’t count.
Although Redknapp has dined out on the story for years, the man who brought Joey to West Ham was manager Billy Bonds. The player signed a three-year deal worth £2000 a week and was briefly West Ham’s record signing. At his first training session Beauchamp announced he’d made a mistake and that he should have signed for Swindon.
Bonds was initially sympathetic, recognising his own shyness when first joined The Hammers as a teenager. But when Beauchamp turned up for a pre-season friendly against Portsmouth and appeared to put in little effort, he became less accommodating. ‘The boy was a total wimp.’ Bonds said in his autobiography ‘I just told him to keep his nut down because the fans weren’t going to be too happy with him either.’ It was hardly helpful advice for a young and troubled man.
There are few pictures of Beauchamp playing in West Ham colours, ironically, most come from a friendly in his hometown against Oxford City. In it Redknapp apparently gave an abusive fan a place in the West Ham side to prove his worth. Another story for the Redknapp mythology.
Relations rapidly grew strained as Beauchamp tried to extract himself from his nightmare. Eventually the PFA stepped in to facilitate a move to Swindon for £200,000 plus defender Adrian Whitbread. He’d been a West Ham player for just 58 days.
Bonds described the signing as his worst ever, and the affair is widely believed to be a significant factor in him quitting a few weeks later. However, with Redknapp taking over, the internal politics at Upton Park couldn’t be ignored.
Just six weeks after signing Beauchamp had found an escape, of sorts. Swindon were ambitious for a return to the Premier League and a commutable distance from Beauchamp’s home. It’s not what he wanted, but it was better than what he had.
The move wasn’t as bad as is sometimes suggested. In his first season, he played over 50 games. Beauchamp was an exciting flare player, one of the best in the country who could propel The Robins back to the Premier League. But, if he was to truly settle and gain acceptance, his backstory meant he had to do double the work of anyone else to win people over.
Wingers are frequently inconsistent, and Beauchamp was no exception, his initial performances were underwhelming, his first goal came against Wolves in October 1994, a 25-yard low drive in a 3-2 win. He ran to the touchline and leapt into the arms of manager John Gorman, who he’d later describe as ‘brilliant’. But Swindon were already in trouble; Gorman had taken over from Glenn Hoddle who had masterminded their ascent to the Premier League before being poached by Chelsea. Their Premier League experience had been brutal, winning just five games and conceding 100 goals. The assumption was that they could dust themselves off and return, but the reality was far tougher. Gorman, a good assistant who took England to the World Cup in 1998, struggled when faced with the top job.
In the end he wouldn’t make it to Christmas, a 3-2 defeat at local rivals Bristol City meant he was sacked in preference for Steve McMahon.
“Within a few weeks of McMahon coming in he made it clear that he didn’t like me” Beauchamp said “He didn’t like me, Andy Mutch, Adrian Viveash or Brian Kilcline. We were the four that he wanted out straight away.”
McMahon was an old Liverpool warhorse whose career had been built on his metronomic reliability. He didn’t want show ponies like Beauchamp, they were too inconsistent, an indulgence. Their problems were deeper than that and their collapse resulted in a second successive relegation. McMahon put Beauchamp on the transfer list.
The following season, Beauchamp scored against Cambridge in the League Cup and started against Carlisle the following weekend. The rapid-fire opening to the season continued with the visit of Oxford the following Tuesday. McMahon dropped the winger to the bench. I remember Joey appearing on the touchline to warm up, swamped in a giant coat as Oxford fans sang songs about his girlfriend, Chloe. The Swindon fans feigned their support for him, which he must have known was superficial and just to goad the away fans. He looked sad, lost in a world not of his choosing. Rejected by one side, objectified by the other. Some players feed off this kind of notoriety but he wasn’t that kind of player, there was no on-field persona to cocoon him from the abuse. Eight minutes from time, he came on but failed to make an impact as Oxford secured a creditable 1-1 draw.
Beauchamp played just more three more minutes for Swindon, despite interest from Birmingham and Millwall, Beauchamp asked to return to Oxford. Showing his characteristic stubbornness, McMahon agreed. The deal was said to be worth £300,000 but a substantial amount was saving Beauchamp’s wages. The real figure was likely to be less than a third of that.
I’d expected Beauchamp’s return to be a triumphant one; the streets lined with supporters, The Manor full to the brim, the returning hero. We knew he was still the million-pound match winner West Ham had bought,] now we had him back. In fact, the reality was quite different. Our season had been fitful, the core of the side with Matt Elliot, Phil Gilchrist, Paul Moody and others meant that as proved in the draw with Swindon we could be competitive against the best teams in the division. But with injury to goalkeeper Phil Whitehead and pre-season signing, the ageing Wayne Biggins not scoring, the overall impact was like a boxer who’d shed a few pounds to make the weight, superficially we looked competitive but in reality we were drained.
Beauchamp returned against Stockport County at The Manor. He was immediately put in the starting line-up but was largely anonymous in the 2-1 win. He was obviously still struggling from the experience of the previous few months. The next three games Beauchamp was substituted, and by the time we played Shrewsbury Town at the end of October, he was on the bench. The difference from his experiences at West Ham and Swindon was that Oxford’s fans and management would give Beauchamp latitude to settle in, in a way the others wouldn’t.
By November, Oxford’s season had been pedestrian, home form was propping up poor away form; the play-offs and promotion were seemingly out of reach. An FA Cup first round tie against Dorchester Town was a welcome distraction. Dorchester, featuring former Oxford goalkeeper Ken Veysey, had their spirit broken with two early goals. In the second half David Rush ran riot as more flooded in. Beauchamp was introduced in the second half to torment the beleaguered non-leaguers. Charging down the left flank he cut inside in his customary style to slot home the eighth. It was the most Beauchamp of goals and proof he could still do it. The final score, a record 9-1 win was significant, but Beauchamp breaking his duck somehow more so.
That hoodoo dispelled, Beauchamp set about reclaiming his place in the side, interviewed in the Oxford Mail around Christmas he challenged Denis Smith to play him. It was a risk, but it worked.
By the end of January he was playing again. Then, there was a key breakthrough, an FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest was postponed with the players already on route to the game. The Denis Smith diverted the coach and gave the players an impromptu training session. In it, he worked on a new system they’d planned for the Forest game. It was eventually road tested on a cold foggy night at Burnley with Oxford registering their first win on the road.
After another month of so-so form we headed for Carlisle United. Despite going a goal down, Oxford fought back with Matt Elliot firing in a 30-yard rocket into the top corner. Before half time, from a Phil Gilchrist long throw, Martin Aldridge poked home the winner. It fired a sequence of five consecutive wins that changed the course of the season. Significantly Beauchamp was ever-present, scoring his first league goal in the 1-0 win at Bournemouth. He wouldn’t miss another game all season.
The squad suddenly found the perfect balance; up front, there was battering ram Paul Moody or the goal poacher Martin Aldridge. If they could be contained, then there was always David Rush. Supply on the flanks came from Beauchamp and Stuart Massey. The midfield of Martin Gray and Dave Smith anchored the operation in front of a defensive wall of Les Robinson, Phil Gilchrist, Matt Elliot, Mike Ford and Phil Whitehead.
With the run looking more than just a flash in the pan, Swindon Town were back at The Manor. It was a Tuesday night, the darkness enveloped The Manor, blocking out the space in the surrounding streets. Inside the ground, the stands were full without a space between one fan and another. With Swindon top of the table and Oxford being the form side in the division, neither side would give an inch. There was a density, a completeness, a single whole, the biggest game at The Manor for a decade. At the epicentre of it all was Joey Beauchamp.
The run-up to the game wasn’t without incident; I’d got a ticket for a friend at work and washed it into a mulch in my jeans. After a panic, the club replaced it, and we headed to The Manor.
The Beauchamp affair had turned a grumbling dislike between the clubs into open hostility. The singing was loud and shredded the throats. Midway through the first half with Swindon pressing menacingly, the ball dropped to Matt Elliot who swung a tree trunk sized leg at the ball. He connected perfectly arrowing the ball through the crowd in front of him. From the London Road is was possible to follow its trajectory all the way into the bottom corner. The melee in the London Road knocked me off my feet and span me round. I was no longer in control of my movement; I had become part of an amorphous whole. My friend, who was 6ft 4inch with the darkness of Nick Cave, was no longer next to me, then he appeared across my line of vision – somebody had grabbed him around the waste and was bouncing him around like a rag doll. He submitted to it with a huge child-like smile on his face.
The goal propelled Swindon to pile on the pressure and seek an equaliser, as league leaders they weren’t going to give up lightly, and certainly not to us. Early in the second half a quick break away allowed Martin Aldridge to bundle home the rebound from a David Rush drive to double the lead.
The job was to keep possession and not invite any kind of fightback. Deep into the second half, Paul Moody dropped deep to pick up the ball up on the right flank. Just a few paces ahead of right-back Les Robinson, in his own half, he was in alien territory for a target man. With few options he set off on a lengthy run directly down the flank. His rangy gate gave the impression his intentions were just to stall. As he advanced, Swindon backed off more, drawing in more defenders towards the looming threat. Moody suddenly found himself on the edge of the box, instinctively, he put in a low bouncing cross. Arriving at the far post was Beauchamp, all alone to slot home on the half-volley; super-Joey homesick, the soft lad, the wimp, vengeful and ruthless. He continued his run across the Cuckoo Lane terrace where the Swindon fans were penned in, swinging celebratory rabbit punches in their direction, a strangely Beauchamp like response. Instinctive but understated, it capped one of the great nights at The Manor.
The goal marked the first of four in the next five games for Beauchamp culminating in his wonder strike against Blackpool. From there on, the season turned into a riot. Days after the Blackpool win we went to Wycombe, who had beaten us 4-1 at The Manor earlier in the season and held a hoodoo over us since becoming acquainted a few years earlier. We thundered to another famous win in as Beauchamp whipped in the corner to allow Stuart Massey to score Oxford’s second of three goals.
A numbing last-minute draw against Notts County followed but it didn’t knock our momentum. Beauchamp set up Paul Moody for Oxford’s second in a 2-0 win at Bristol City. Three days later, he set up three and scored another in a 6-0 destruction of Shrewsbury, all six goals coming from headers. The penultimate weekend we were away to Crewe, themselves fighting for a play-off spot. Chaos reigned as Oxford fans worked their way into all parts of the ground. Already a goal up, Beauchamp glanced home a second half header from a David Rush cross in a 2-1 win. Critically Blackpool, 15 points ahead a few weeks earlier, were losing at home to Walsall.
Having lost only six games all season, Blackpool had gone on to lose four and draw two of the next six. They had choked in the most remarkable way. Spooked by the nature of their defeat to Oxford, and Beauchamp’s goal, manager Sam Allardyce had chosen to go for promotion with the minimum possible risk, but he’d gone too far, too defensive; it had backfired spectacularly.
Oxford moved into the second automatic promotion spot; if they could match Blackpool’s score in their last game against Peterborough, they would be promoted.
Seven days later, The Manor was full and expectant; the first half tense. While Peterborough were content to see the season out, they weren’t going to lie down and let us take the glory. Despite making a handful of chances, by half-time we still hadn’t broken through. The tension cranked up a notch. Half-time gave the players time to think about the challenge ahead, confront the fear of failure. The risk was that with the adrenaline of the first half draining away over the break, we’d descend into paralysis.
Shortly after the re-start we won a corner in front of the London Road, Beauchamp swung the ball in through a crowd of players, Peterborough striker Ken Charlery got his head to it, but it simply created chaos in front of the Peterborough goal. Juiliano Grazioli, the other Peterborough striker, could do nothing but steer it into his own net. The divine intervention of an own goal broke the seal and from there on it was one-way traffic. In six rapid-fire minutes, David Rush added a second, taking his shirt off and using it as a flag in celebration. Matt Elliot and Paul Moody weighed in with the third and fourth. If there had been any justice, Beauchamp would have rounded things off, but it didn’t happen. It’s one of Beauchamp’s biggest regrets “I could try and claim the first goal because it was from my corner that Grazioli headed into his own net, but I really wish I had scored.” He later said.
Promotion was sealed and all the fear and toil drained away.
Afterwards, the players wandered around shell shocked that it was finally over. With no trophy to pick up the afternoon lacked an obvious end point. For no obvious reason Denis Smith appeared in a red wig, reminding people that he was once considered a future England manager. Possibly by himself.
Beauchamp’s journey was complete; back at his boyhood club and at a level that he could thrive. Early in the new season we were back at the County Ground. The hostility off the pitch was predictable, but Beauchamp’s former manager Steve McMahon also seemed keen for retribution.
Swindon centre-back Mark Seagraves led the way, raking his boot down the back of Beauchamp’s thigh. Mark Walters’ kicked him in the face during a tussle on the ground before Seagraves exacted more verbal abuse. The petty fouls continued with referee Gurnan Singh seemingly content it was just part of the blood and thunder of a derby, part of the narrative. It was a brutal and ugly game in which Swindon snatched a 1-0 win.
McMahon’s post-match interview was grim, “I was delighted he got so much stick.” He said “I don’t want him coming here and people clapping him. It’s our job to make it difficult for the opposition to play and if it means giving people the bird that’s absolutely fine by me.”
With streetwise striker Nigel Jemson leading the line, Beauchamp and Oxford enjoyed a solid return to the second tier. But trouble was looming off the pitch. Early in the season owner, Robin Herd resigned as the club’s planned move to its new stadium ran aground. Without the financial support or prospect of moving from The Manor; the club were more exposed than ever. Matt Elliot was sold to Leicester City for £1.6m to prop the club up. The season ended with a creditable 17th place, three points clear of Swindon, including a satisfying 2-0 revenge win at the Manor in April.
The 1997/8 season saw a familiar trend; the foundations of the club began to crumble while Beauchamp’s star began another familiar ascent. By Christmas, he’d scored 10 goals, playing in a more central role, but the team were showing the strain of playing above the level they were financially equipped to cope with. By Christmas, Oxford were just two points clear of the relegation zone.
On Christmas Eve 1997, manager Denis Smith was poached by West Brom, the attraction of a bigger and more stable club heading for the play-offs being too good to turn down. Seeking inspiration, the club turned to Milk Cup winning captain Malcolm Shotton.
Shotton was a disciplinarian, more in the mould of Beauchamp’s nemesis Steve McMahon. While noting how hard the training became under his new manager, Beauchamp wasn’t a soft touch, he was more mature and had become steeled by his past experiences. Shotton had to tread a fine line if he was going to get the most from his prize asset.
Shotton was formally unveiled before a home game against Portsmouth. Not having met the players, he chose to sit in the Beech Road stand and allow caretaker Malcolm Crosby to take control. In an edgy relegation battle, at half-time Peter Rhodes-Brown announced that Shotton was in the dressing room sending a buzz of anticipation through the terraces. In the second half he appeared on the touchline barking instructions. His presence seemed to have the desired effect. In the last minute Joey Beauchamp latched onto a deep cross at the far post to score the winner. Two Oxford legends, from different generations combining.
A week later, Beauchamp added another brace, the second a breathtaking solo goal from the flank, taking his tally for the season to 14 as Oxford registered a 3-1 away win over league leaders Nottingham Forest. Suddenly there was momentum inspired by Shotton and executed by Beauchamp.
With the goals flowing, Beauchamp’s reputation was gaining renewed traction. His ability began shining through the reputation that had been tainted by the West Ham and Swindon debacles. In addition, there was no doubt there was a price that Oxford couldn’t ignore. For Beauchamp, now 27, if he had any ambition to play in the Premier League, any move would have to be soon. Bolton were first to enquire, but Shotton held firm.
With Beauchamp in the form of his life, Shotton’s influence was transforming the team; Denis Smith’s West Brom were turned over at The Manor, Beauchamp steered home a goal in a win over Manchester City at Maine Road. There were wins over Reading and then Swindon, with Beauchamp providing assists for both goals in a 2-1 win.
The remarkable turnaround saw Oxford safe from relegation before they were, at least mathematically, out of the promotion race. Youngsters Simon Marsh and Paul Powell were called up to the England Under 21s, there were even suggestions that Malcolm Shotton should win manager of the season. While outside promotion hopes ebbed away, the star of the show was Beauchamp, who scored 19 goals and missed just two games, even though it was Les Robinson who won player of the season. Beauchamp speculated whether his Swindon days had played against him in the vote.
Inevitably, the summer was full of speculation about Beauchamp’s future. Denis Smith put in a £800,000 bid from West Brom. Shotton alluded to the fact he would be ready to sell, if it allowed him to strengthen elsewhere.
Even into October, bids were coming in and the speculation seemed to be affecting Beauchamp’s form. He spoke with Fulham after the clubs agreed a £1m deal but couldn’t agree personal terms with boss Kevin Keegan, who had been in the players’ lounge at the Swindon game. Then, as a takeover bid for the club fell through, Manchester City made an enquiry, Beauchamp, again, was reluctant.
Speaking to Rage On around that time Beauchamp said “If ever I did leave it would be a big wrench, I love it here and now everyone knows it. I’m a local lad and I’m playing for the local team and that’s something that I wanted to do since I was young.”
By the middle of November 1998 a move seemed to be coming together. Shotton agreed an £850,000 deal with Dave Basset at Nottingham Forest. With the move set to go through Beauchamp failed a medical due to back and toe injuries. Beauchamp protested, claiming, quite reasonably, that he rarely missed a game through injury. It fell on deaf ears.
The collapse of the deal was significant; financial problems at the club were biting. For the second time in his career, it seemed Beauchamp’s talent was the only way out of the mess. He could feel the pressure building and Shotton couldn’t hide his frustration at his unwillingness to comply.
A bid from Southampton collapsed when Beauchamp asked for time to think the move over. With food parcels being delivered to back room staff, Beauchamp – often the club’s saviour on the pitch – couldn’t or wouldn’t be one off it.
The club continued to limp along with relegation and bankruptcy the most likely outcome; Beauchamp’s goals, so plentiful the previous year, had dried up.
Three days after Christmas, he was sent off in a game at Portsmouth resulting in a three-game ban. The red card wasn’t just a blow to the club’s relegation fight, it also meant Beauchamp would miss Oxford’s upcoming FA Cup 4th Round tie against Chelsea.
The difference between the two sides couldn’t have been more stark; Chelsea were full of internationals and World Cup winners, Oxford were threadbare and broke, weakened further by the loss of Beauchamp and ineligible on loan goalkeeper Paul Gerrard.
In previewing the game, The Guardian summarised the club’s plight; “In many ways, Beauchamp sums up the mad, inverted Oxford world. While the rest of football bemoans players’ lack of loyalty, Oxford’s finances have suffered from Beauchamp’s undying love for his home-town club. The club’s only £1million-plus asset, he has refused two moves to Premiership clubs this season, saying he wishes to stay on and help. Now, Shotton’s one player with the skills to worry Chelsea’s increasingly composed defence is suspended for the game.”
As the game progressed, however, Oxford seemed to be holding their own. Early in the second half Dean Windass turned in a Jamie Cook near-post corner for 1-0. Thereafter, Oxford were treated to a man of the match performance from freshman ‘keeper Elliot Jackson. There were even chances to double the lead through Kevin Francis and Jamie Cook.
As the clock ticked into injury time, Oxford were on the verge of one of the greatest FA Cup upsets of all time. A final Chelsea corner was scrambled away, Kevin Francis lunged in to win the ball from Gianluca Vialli. Referee Mike Reid pointed to the spot, appearing to judge the challenge on Francis’ ungainly style as replays showed he got the ball cleanly. Frank LeBeouf converted the penalty to earn a replay. It was a footballing blow, from a business perspective, it was a godsend.
Despite the injustices of the draw, the replay provided more cash to aid the survival. Some fans even asked Chelsea to donate their share of the gate to the club’s plight. Shotton kept faith in the 11 that started the first game, meaning Beauchamp would only appear from the bench. Despite taking a surprise first half lead, we eventually slipped to a 4-2 defeat.
What was happening off the pitch was even more significant. The squad were gifted a stay at millionaire Firoz Kassam’s central London hotel. With Beauchamp unable to find a deal to leave, only one option remained, the appearance of a rich benefactor, Kassam seemed to offer the club hope. By April, the takeover was complete, and the hands of fate released their grip from the club’s throat. For the first time in a decade, it could breathe.
The centrepiece of Kassam’s plan was to restart the stalled stadium project. On the pitch, he either didn’t know what to do to revitalise the team or he didn’t care. The blight on the squad was evident, and with Beauchamp digging his heals in, striker Dean Windass, who had compensated for Beauchamp’s loss of goalscoring form, was sold to Bradford City, ironically Oxford’s relegation was confirmed his new club on the penultimate weekend of the season.
A decent start to the following campaign raised hope of a quick return. After an encouraging 1st Leg 1-1 draw with Everton in the 2nd Round of the Worthington Cup, Oxford headed to Goodison Park to register a shock 1-0 away win with Beauchamp scoring winner. Despite this, trouble was brewing behind the scenes. Malcolm Shotton’s uncompromising and sometimes confrontational style was wearing thin among a number of players who knew the club need them more than they need the club. A run of five consecutive defeats at the end of October was enough for the new owner to fire his manager.
As the sun dawned on a new millennium, fans reflected on the decade that had just passed. It had been a time that saw us survive in the face of seemingly endless financial problems, no small part of that was down to Beauchamp who was voted Oxford United’s player of the decade.
Having narrowly escaped relegation at the end of the 1999/2000 season, Firoz Kassam, leveraged the uncertainty of his on-off stadium project to offer his out of contract players a single year extension. Beauchamp wanted two years and despite interest from Reading, he eventually signed up to the club’s inevitable fight against relegation.
The 2000/2001 season was catastrophic, the club were tossed from one embarrassment to another conceding 100 goals and ending up rock bottom of the division. Relegation was confirmed as early as March. Even Beauchamp’s talismanic presence couldn’t prevent the unmitigated disaster, it was like a tsunami even he couldn’t hold back. Maybe it was a long time coming, perhaps the previous decade of near misses and struggle through adversity simply caught up with us.
The bruising debacle of the previous season was softened by the completion of the new stadium, the appointment of a new manager in Mark Wright and, it was hoped, a new dawn. For Beauchamp, a player who had resisted moves to bigger and more successful clubs in the hope that his own would soon be on the up, things began to go horribly wrong.
He missed the first game at the new stadium; the toe injury which put paid to his move to Nottingham Forest persisted and got worse, the back injury too was causing him trouble. He started the second game away at Swansea and then appeared as substitute for Phil Gray in the League Cup at home to Gillingham. But the injury flared up again as a series of specialists battled to find the source of the problem. Later Beauchamp later admitted his style of play had caught up on him “Being so left-footed with all the twisting and turning had taken its toll and my toe was agony. I was having pain-killers and injections before, during and after games just to get me through.”
Mark Wright was quickly under pressure from a poor start to the season. He finally broke his silence, criticising Beauchamp and Paul Powell for their lack of commitment.
“It seemed like he had it in for me and Paul Powell from the word go,” Beauchamp said later “We were the local boys, who he maybe felt had it easy because all the fans loved us.”
But it was Beauchamp’s injury that Wright had the biggest problem with.
“My toe had been getting progressively worse over the years. It was so painful that I told him there was no chance I could play in one match and he came out in the paper on the Monday and slaughtered me.”
But the injury was real, and serious. Wright’s tenure was in trouble; he and his assistant Ted McMinn struggled to extract results from the new team. There hadn’t been time to cleanse the club of its previous year’s experiences, the new stadium didn’t feel like home and the squad struggled to gel. Already rocking, everything came to a head when Wright was fired after he was alleged to have racially abused referee Joe Ross in a home game against Scunthorpe. Firoz Kassam turned to Ian Atkins to revitalise the club. For Beauchamp, it felt like a reprieve.
“Everyone was saying to me that he (Atkins) couldn’t wait for me to get back which was a huge boost,” Beauchamp remembers.
Beauchamp didn’t return until February. Despite being in increasing amounts of pain, he finally returned for the home game against Exeter City.
“I remember that I had trained – in pain – all week before the Exeter game. I had a fitness test on the morning of the game and the manager came over and asked me how I was. I was desperate to play and told him I was fine, even though it was really hurting me.”
“But then it all went wrong.”
The half-finished stadium, with its open end and gaps in the corner meant the wind blew in multiple directions at the same time. For the Exeter game, the weather was atrocious and the result seemed to rest on who could score the most goals with the wind behind their backs.
In the first half, Oxford, already a goal down, were battling the conditions as well as their opponents. Paul Powell crossed the ball towards Andy Scott, Exeter defender Steve Flack out muscled him in the air to head away. The ball hung in the wind and dropped on the edge of the box. Poised, watching it fall was Beauchamp who executed a trademark volley to fire home the equaliser.
The cross from the full-back, the knock down from the defender, and Beauchamp’s crafted left foot, the goal was an almost perfect replay of his career defining moment against Blackpool six years earlier.
Poetically, and tragically, the goal and the game brought Beauchamp’s career to a premature end. He was thirty-one and despite his defiant attempts to get fit and his odd appearance on the bench, the persistent toe injury just wouldn’t heal. Eventually, doctors was told that he faced a terrible dilemma – have an operation to fix his toe, but risk stress fractures that would put him out for longer. With his lucrative contract coming to an end at the end of the season, the player who for over a decade had been the club’s greatest asset, had become its greatest liability.
The end was unceremonious and undignified, Kassam cancelled Beauchamp’s contract. Beauchamp took the club to court arguing that he was due an automatic extension because the stadium had been completed. In the end the parties settled out of court, and while there was talk of a testimonial, it took 9 years to materialise.
Living in a modest house within walking distance of the old Manor Ground Beauchamp’s faced up to the realities of his post-football career. He played for Abingdon Town and made occasional appearances in the Oxford Mail playing Aunt Sally, that most Oxfordshire of games. It’s on the dog track that Beauchamp felt most at home as owner and professional gambler. Years earlier he’d talked about his passion for greyhounds and gambling – he owned two dogs Nashua Dream and Dona Madina and was on Ladbrokes’ hit list due to his winnings
But, Beauchamp’s story is a classic of 90s football; prior to the Premier League years, football had never been a career that would set you up for life. Footballers ran pubs or car dealerships after their playing days ended. Suddenly, players were making big money that afforded you a luxurious life. The things was, when ordinary life caught up, the bills continue to roll in. The money quickly ebbed away and the pressures of life build. Players who are idolised become ordinary; the struggle emotionally, financially and socially becomes very real.
Everything came to a head in 2009, Beauchamp was arrested after being caught drink driving in Cuttleslowe, he was three times over the alcohol limit.
In mitigation, Beauchamp told the court his life had started to fall apart after football. He was on anti-depressants and drinking heavily. Ingloriously, the final straw was a fall out over an MFI kitchen.
For a while gambling had replaced the buzz football as his career, Beauchamp claimed he earned £200k a year. But he couldn’t sustain it and was now unemployed and disabled from his toe injury. There also were pressures at home as his daughter had an untreatable eye condition. He was disqualified from driving for two years and given a six-month community order.
Six months later, Beauchamp gave an interview to the Oxford Mail in which he admitted that he had felt suicidal.
“I was getting up in the morning, going to the pub and drinking all day, every day, I was taking every sort of tablet you could imagine.”
The conviction saved him, refocussed his life; after seeing a therapist, he began to emerge from the tunnel.
In the intervening years, Beauchamp’s life seems to have settled. When Firoz Kassam finally sold Oxford in 2006, it helped heal a rift between the club and one of its greatest players. In 2011, Beauchamp finally got the testimonial he deserved joining Dave Langan and a host of old favourites. He became a frequent visitor to The Kassam as guest of honour as he settled into life as an ex-legend and a normal person. In 2019, manager Karl Robinson invited him to train with current first team squad in order to illustrate the impact the club, and its players, has on its fans; Beauchamp was the embodiment of the club.
In so many ways Beauchamp was everything you wanted from a player; homegrown, a genuine fan and prodigiously talented. He was belligerent and headstrong, sometimes to his detriment, but he was also fragile and vulnerable. He remains the butt of many jokes about 90s football, but for those who stood on the London Road, Osler Road or Beech Road and watched a local boy mesmerise and terrify defences he will always be one of the greats.
Where to begin? What about Matt Murphy’s come-to-bed eyes? It’s about 3.40pm on 25 November 2000 and Oxford United’s go-to scapegoat Matt Murphy, is suggestively wrapped around a goalpost he grabbed to stop him careering into the London Road. He’s just rounded the Notts County ‘keeper and tapped home to make it 2-0 in front of a shocked home support. It’s not even half-time, we’re winning, and comfortably. I’m standing in the London Road, this is it, after months of trauma, months of misery, we’ve turned the corner. It’s all coming together.
Murphy looks up and his eyes meet mine, did he just raise his eyebrows suggestively? Like he’s enticing me into his footballing boudoir? It is a moment of grand hubris on his part, we’re bottom of the table with two wins and two draws all season; eight points from a possible 57; and suddenly Murphy is acting like he’s personally got it all under control. But, I’m ready to follow this lothario wherever he wants to take me.
And yet an hour later, I’m heading home sans Murphy and we’ve lost 3-2.
But, let’s go back and set the scene; it’s the start of a new millennium. Oxford United, with the feint echoes of winning the Milk Cup and playing in the top-flight still ringing in their ears, are reeling from the death of its wealthy benefactor Robert Maxwell in 1991. In 1997 they’re plunged into even greater peril. Two years prior the club’s new, well-intentioned, owner Robin Herd achieved what a generation of owners before him couldn’t. He secures planning permission for a new stadium. When the investment dries up the contractors walk off the site and the club are faced with losses amounting to £12,000 a week on top of a £13m debt and the maintenance of a rusting carcass of a stadium in Minchery Farm on the edge of Oxford.
In April 1999, mysterious hotelier Firoz Kassam buys the club and all its debt. Kassam appears quiet and unassuming and is paraded around The Manor as the saviour with an Oxford scarf around his neck. A successful man in every sense, he still looks uncomfortable, football is clearly not his setting. Kassam is one of the richest people of Asian descent in the country and a regular in the Time 100 rich list. He has the backing of Oxford’s fan groups, it seems the club will not only survive, it’s ready to thrive.
In 2000 Denis Smith returns to the club he steered to promotion four years earlier. While Kassam battles all-comers to get the construction work re-started, the blight on the team becomes a vice-like grip around the club’s throat. At the end of the 1999/00 season they narrowly avoid relegation to the 4th tier for the first time since 1964. The season is hideous and its end comes as a blessed relief. The spring sun offers little respite from the battle ahead; to stay in the division, to find a new home and stay in existence. This is the story of what comes next. Strap in, it’s going to get very dark, very quickly.
It’s 4th May 2000.
With the final embers of a tortuous season still glowing, over 6,000 fans arrive at The Manor for Mike Ford’s testimonial. Goals from Chris Hackett, Derek Lilley and Jim Magilton give Oxford a 3-2 win over a young Manchester United team. It’s a rare moment of light where there is otherwise a darkening mood. The return of players like Matt Elliot and Phil Gilchrist feel like the ghosts of the club’s past coming back to haunt us. Ford later announces that the game is his last as a professional footballer.
The current squad is a ramshackle assemblage of panic buys, bargain bucket nomads and fading stars from the mid-nineties. Nine are out of contract including the iconic Joey Beauchamp and Canadian international defender Mark Watson. Watson’s contract is particularly complicated; Canada’s lengthy 2002 World Cup qualifying programme means he could miss a big proportion of the season. The club, hardly known for their largesse, aren’t keen on investing in a player who won’t be there.
Former Chelsea midfielder Eddie Newton, who helped steady the listing ship in the latter stages of last season opts to head for China to see out his career. Or at least that’s what’s reported, he doesn’t seem to have ever made it, reappearing briefly at Barnet before retiring. Meanwhile giant Swedish goalkeeper, and fan favourite ‘porn star’ Pal Lundin is released. Also shown the door is Nigel Jemson after a dismal second spell with the club in which he played thirteen games without scoring.
A week later, groundsman Mick Moore tears his ligaments in a freak accident when defender Phil Whelan yanks his leg awkwardly in a taxi on their way to the PFA Awards Dinner in London. The incident, which is described as ‘high-jinks’ puts Moore on crutches just as his busy summer preparing the pitch for next season gets underway.
There’s some good news as the club receives special dispensation to use The Manor for another season. Had their licence not been renewed they would have only been permitted to use The Manor’s 2,800 seats and not its crumbling terrace. That would have made it unusable for the upcoming campaign, so the news is a big relief to Firoz Kassam, who is racing to complete the new stadium before the authorities grow tired of the club’s incompetence.
Despite avoiding relegation by the skin of their teeth, and to the dismay of many fans, Denis Smith, fresh from his own 1-year contract extension, offers new deals to the glacially slow defensive pairing Phil Whelan and Steve Davis. Goalkeeper and fan favourite Richard Knight, who has been released by Derby, is offered a contract after completing an impressive loan spell. Off the pitch legendary midfielder ‘mad dog’ Mickey Lewis is confirmed as Smith’s number two.
With contracts still outstanding, Smith begins the process of rebuilding his beleaguered squad. The work appears to get off to a flier; Richard Knight accepts his offer and Smith announces the imminent arrival of Darren Byfield, a young striker from Aston Villa with a reputation for pace and most importantly, goals.
Meanwhile in Florida, striker Derek Lilley, on holiday with his family, is held up at gunpoint. The gunman and an accomplice burst into the family’s apartment one evening. The family are forced into the toilet and the gunman, appearing to panic, puts his weapon to the head of Lilley’s five-year-old son. Money, about $15-$20, is, thankfully, all they lose and the family returns to England straight after. Denis Smith assures fans that the ordeal won’t affect Lilley who has been subject to transfer speculation due to his commute from Yorkshire. “You can get over anything in life,” Smith said dismissively. “It was a nasty experience, but with something like that you just think how unlucky you were that it should happen to you.” He couldn’t be more wrong as Lilley’s daughter suffers night terrors and his wife grows homesick. While he stays at the club, his mind is elsewhere.
Bizarrely, to those who only ever saw Steve Davis as a last resort for Denis Smith, the defender has written to the club formerly turning down their contract offer. Even the players we don’t want to play for us don’t want to play for us. Then, at the eleventh hour, the player we most definitely do want to welcome, Darren Byfield, opts to join Walsall. It’s a major blow for Smith who desperately needs to bring goals into the squad.
There’s better news from Joey Beauchamp, who had been subject to speculation linking him to Reading. Despite the opportunity to move to a club with stability and ambition, it looks like the winger may stay at The Manor after all. Days later, there’s another blow as club captain Les Robinson leaves after signing a two-year deal as player-coach at Mansfield Town. After 453 games and 10 years of impeccable service, Robinson’s departure leaves a gaping hole that’s going to be hard to fill.
And then another turnaround; it’s announced that Joey Beauchamp may be leaving after all; he’s in two minds about whether to join Reading or stay with the club. Money isn’t the issue with Reading offering £1000 per week more, but Beauchamp’s previous experiences at West Ham and Swindon make him reluctant to take the step. As if one transfer saga isn’t enough; the protracted contract talks of Mark Watson also look set to drag on. The club are wrestling to reconcile Watson’s commitment to his national team and the need for him to be available to play league football. There’s more World Cup woe as hapless striker Steve Anthrobus is in the frame to take part in Barbados’ campaign to make it to Japan and Korea.
Elsewhere, Firoz Kassam has won another case in his battle to get work started on the new stadium; a covenant preventing alcohol sales in a half mile radius around the nearby Blackbird pub is removed by the high court. It’s a small victory, as there remains a judicial review into the permission to allow a cinema on the Minchery Farm site.
The Beauchamp deal goes on ice as he heads off on holiday with Jamie Cook to think about it. Denis Smith, who has been linked with the vacant job at Gillingham, threatens to withdraw the offer, releasing funds for other players. Meanwhile, youngsters Rob Folland and Jamie Cook turn down their contract offers.
Phil Whelan, fresh from putting groundsman Mick Moore in hospital, signs for Southend United after turning down his contract offer. With Les Robinson leaving, and Mark Watson and Steve Davis both undecided about their futures, the Oxford backline, brittle at the best of times, looks decimated. Chartlon Athletic also confirm an interest in left-back Paul Powell. The news can’t be helping Denis Smith’s mood as he recovers from back surgery.
It’s not just on the field that things are falling apart; off it, physio John Clinkard leaves the club after 12 years to join Wimbledon, he’s replaced by Neil Sullivan.
Things start looking up towards the end of June as Denis Smith finally makes his first signing of the summer bringing in John Robertson from Ayr United. This is quickly followed with the news Joey Beauchamp, back from holiday, is due to sign. Mark Watson is still a maybe. The month closes with the signing of Ian McGuckin from Fulham and Manny Omoyimni from West Ham.
Omoyimni is a particularly interesting character; in 1999 he was on loan from West Ham at Gillingham, playing for them in the League Cup. On returning to Upton Park, he features as a substitute for West Ham against Aston Villa in their quarter-final tie. It’s a breach of the competition’s rules which results in their exclusion from the competition.
At the start of July, South African goalkeeper Andre Arendse triggers a clause in his contract allowing him to leave the club. With Richard Knight signed up, Arendse’s prospects for the season have become limited and he also has to consider his World Cup prospects. His time at the club has been uncomfortable, seemingly too lightweight for a lower league dogfight in a failing team.
In yet another twist, Mark Watson goes missing in Canada. The Oxford Mail eventually track him down and find out that the club have been negotiating with the wrong agent. Watson claims that the agent Denis Smith has been talking to barely talks to the player and that he should, in fact be talking with his girlfriend. Clearly someone is lying. Back home, it looks like the manager is giving up and moving on, inviting Welsh Under 21 defender Lee Jarman to join the squad at their south coast pre-season camp.
Firoz Kassam continues to make progress on the new stadium as an objection by developers, Pentith, who disagree with the plan to build a cinema at the stadium, is withdrawn. It’s a major obstacle removed from the process. And then, another blow. Morrells raise an objection to the removal of the covenant preventing the sale of alcohol around the Blackbird pub. The objection throws the viability of the new stadium back into doubt. FOUL – Fighting for Oxford United’s Life – organise a boycott of Morrells pubs.
Kassam’s hotel business is exposed by The Observer, The London Park Hotel is described as a hostel from hell for refugees rife with gang violence and crime. The continental breakfast is to die for.
With the first pre-season game on the horizon, Steve Anthrobus heads out to Barbados for a World Cup qualifier against Guatemala. Anthrobus’ first season with the club saw him score just two goals; the first of which was on his debut on the opening day of the season. It’s been seven months since he found the net making him an unlikely candidate for a World Cup campaign. For Denis Smith, securing his squad must feel like nailing jelly to the wall, he signs Lee Jarman on a monthly contract after missing out on other targets while the Mark Watson deal remains up in the air. Still.
As the club announce a new sponsorship deal with internet agency Domino, replacing long standing shirt sponsor Unipart, Steve Anthrobus unexpectantly arrives back from Barbados. It turns out that due to administrative errors surrounding his citizenship, he’s not eligible to play for the national team after all. He just had to travel 4,000 miles to find out. It’s been that kind of summer.
Pre-season steps up with the club’s first major friendly against Birmingham City. Denis Smith claims the 3-0 defeat in the Bill Halsey Memorial Trophy is ‘brilliant’ as it showed how much work there was still to do before the start of the season. Man of the Match is Richard Knight who makes six crucial saves to keep the score down.
There’s better news off the field, as the appeal regarding the drinks covenant is rejected and Pentith’s objection to the cinema dropped. A dispute with Thames Water is still live, but Firoz Kassam claims construction could re-start as early as September.
Ahead of a daunting friendly against a strong Chelsea team, Denis Smith gives another ultimatum to Mark Watson. He now has until the end of the week to sign, but with all communication going through his agent, prospects seem dim. Smith’s patience finally runs dry following the 5-1 defeat. He laments the schoolboy defensive errors and acknowledges that, for the second thrashing in a row, the score was ‘kept down’. Anders Jacobsen, a defender on trial from Stoke, says that he remains unconvinced that the result is a one-off – it’s not, it’s a two-off, but we know what he means. His concerns reduce the prospect of him signing permanently.
With July coming to an end, and the season less than two weeks away, the deadline for Mark Watson to sign passes with an eerie silence.
With the club preparing its final descent towards the new season, there’s a series of twists characterising the whole summer. First, Steve Davis, who formally turned down a contract in June, returns to plays in a 1-1 draw with Hereford. Afterwards, to the bafflement of all, he announces that he’s agreed a 1-year deal for next season. Then, as the deadline for his signing passes, Mark Watson decides to break his silence, gushingly calling on Denis Smith to sign him up. Then, the Steve Davis deal falls through and Smith announces the arrival of Jon Richardson from Exeter City seemingly bringing the whole debacle to a close.
It takes the number of new signings to seven with Richard Knight, striker Manny Onoyimni, and defenders Ian McGuckin, John Robertson and Lee Jarman, who is on a monthly contract. In goal for the Hereford friendly is Jimmy Glass, who is most famous for scoring a last-minute goal for Carlisle United in 1999 to keep them in Football League. Denis Smith seems keen to bring him in as cover for Richard Knight.
Two days before the season starts, the squad finally gathers for its team photo; their shirts, featuring the Domino logo are made by New Balance and are a darker yellow with a strange luminescent quality. Under the lights it seems to create the illusion of turning the shirt green.
Denis Smith is bullish on the eve of the season opener against Peterborough at The Manor. The bookies have the club favourites to go down, but Smith thinks they may surprise some people. He’s right, but perhaps not in the way he meant. He backs Manny Omoyimni to fire the club forward, setting him a target of 20 goals for the season. The picture changes 24 hours later as Oxford fall to a 1-0 home defeat. Denis Smith seems confused about his best team and formation with Lee Jarman being sacrificed in a reshuffle mid-game.
Days later the worsening mood grows darker still when full-back Ross Weatherstone is convicted of racially assaulting a taxi driver during a night out with friends. He receives a fine for his part in the incident. The club’s ponderous response to the issue angers both fans and the local press.
Just two days after that, it’s announced that former manager, Maurice Evans has died of a heart attack. A universally liked and unassuming character, Evans managed the club to Milk Cup success, taking over from Jim Smith in 1985. The club would go into mourning, if it wasn’t so self-absorbed in its own failure. A dismal week concludes with a 3-0 defeat to Port Vale in the second game of the season.
The following week, we play Wolves at Molineux in the League Cup allowing Dean Whitehead to make his first start for the club. Wolves are in the second tier but suffering from injuries. If the season so far hasn’t been bizarre enough, a Matt Murphy goal gives us a 1-0 first-leg win and a genuine chance of getting through to the next round.
Four days later we lose our third league game of the season 1-0 to Brentford. Off the field the club suspend Ross Weatherstone for his conviction for racially aggravated assault, but with a ten-day gap between the decision and the club’s action, the damage is already done. The month concludes with our fourth consecutive league defeat, at Walsall we take the lead through Joey Beauchamp, then concede twice, Beauchamp equalises before the hosts grab the winner eight minutes from time. The goals, at least, represent our first of the season.
The Walsall game has a further casualty when Paul Powell damages knee ligaments, putting him out of the game for several months. On form, Powell represents the club’s brightest prospect with Premier League teams taking an interest in his progress. The loss is another bitter blow.
Still, two days later, a 1-1 draw at home to Cambridge sees us take our first point of the season. Denis Smith isn’t there to see it because he’s in hospital with a blood infection (obviously). The point lifts the club off the bottom of the table setting things up nicely for the second leg of the League Cup tie against Wolves…
… to whom Oxford crash out, despite taking the lead through Jon Richardson, going 2-0 up in the tie and Wolves have Joleon Lescott sent off, the visitors turn the tie on its head with two quick goals and a winner that sends Oxford out. It’s the hope that kills you.
Still, it’s not all bad news as the council give the go-ahead for a leisure complex at Minchery Farm, meaning the stadium construction can get underway, at last. Probably. A local farmer, Les Wells claims he owns some of the land and may still call for a judicial review into the decision.
The season is the first to feature Oxford’s three most local rivals – Swindon, Reading and Wycombe – so coupled with the bigger picture, there are local bragging rights to win. Or lose. First up is Wycombe Wanderers in a Friday night game live on TV. Richard Knight is injured in the first-half meaning a debut for Canadian ‘keeper Hubert Busby Jnr. The substitution has a lengthy delay when it turns out that Busby doesn’t have a goalkeeper’s shirt and has to quickly find a club training top to play in. Afterwards, Oxford’s kitman Ken Ridley claims he hadn’t forgotten the shirt, he just didn’t have any in stock. Wycombe win 3-1. Busby, playing his one and only game in England, saves a last-minute penalty, which has to be retaken. They score.
There’s a hitch with the planning permission on the new stadium because, well, of course there is. With Firoz Kassam determined to get building started, it’s now suggested that approval needs to go to full council. It helps that nobody seems very sure on this point.
Oxford’s fifth defeat in six league games, a 4-0 thrashing by Stoke, results in a major re-think for Denis Smith. It’s only September and he’s already talking about a clear out; especially up front where it’s been 18 hours since a striker scored for the club.
And then, a win! A goal ten minutes from time from substitute Jamie Cook against Bury sees Oxford take its first three points of the season. Even a missed Joey Beauchamp penalty doesn’t bring the mood down. Denis Smith still wants to sort out his striking problem. A £200,000 bid for Torquay’s Tony Bedeau falls through, so Smith turns to a loan deal for Manchester City’s Leon Mike.
It’s back to normal after the Bury win as Mike makes a demoralising debut in the 5-0 thrashing at Millwall. The team have now conceded 18 goals in just 5 away games. Denis Smith blames a lack of leaders, having previously blamed a lack of fire power.
Off the field, two club stalwarts leave the club, commercial manager Trevor Baxter and communications manager David Crabtree are pursuing new opportunities. A clue as to the reasons behind Baxter’s decision may be in the news that the club have announced that the team’s new, vaguely green, replica shirts are expected to be in stock before the end of the month – 6 weeks into the season. The month concludes with a 0-1 home defeat to Bristol City. Youth team coach, Mike Ford comes out of retirement for his final professional game.
The aftermath of the Bristol defeat is significant, fans turn on Denis Smith, calling for his head. The following Monday, the club announce that he’s standing down but will stay on as an advisor to help appoint his successor. First to throw their hat in the ring is former Oxford centre-back who played for England in the 1990 World Cup, Mark Wright. Wright, manager at Southport, is emerging as one of the most promising managers in the Conference.
Instead, Mike Ford is given the role in a caretaker capacity, dauntingly his first game is the local derby against Swindon at the County Ground. Fans are pessimistic with only 1500 buying tickets for the game some 25% down on normal figures.
The day before the game a row erupts when it’s revealed that Swindon are offering cheaper tickets to their fans, a breach of the rules. Oxford report Swindon to the Football League as a result. Ford unveils Guy Whittingham, a veteran striker on loan from Portsmouth.
Oxford create the better chances playing a more direct game. Swindon keeper Bart Griemink saves from a Matt Murphy point-blank header before Lee Jarman hits the post.
Then, inevitably, Alan Reeves sweeps it home from six yards before Whittingham connects with a Sam Ricketts’ pass for the equaliser.
Swindon’s substitutes combine to take the winner, Giuliano Grazioli, who four years earlier had put into his own net to spark Oxford to promotion against Peterborough, tucks away Sol Davis’s low cross.
Whittingham’s is the first Oxford goal by a recognised striker for five months, however, things are moving quickly back at Portsmouth; manager Tony Pulis is sacked and replaced by Steve Claridge whose first act is to recall Whittingham. He leaves with one goal from one game and a legacy which will last longer than many other Oxford players in the current squad. The club has to seek special dispensation from the Football League to replace Whittingham with another loan player.
Two further names are thrown into the ring as a replacement for Denis Smith; Steve Coppell and Ian Atkins. Meanwhile two senior professionals; Matt Murphy and club captain Peter Fear ask to be put on the transfer list, the latter, looking overweight and disinterested, can’t get into the team. The club secedes to both requests.
Cheltenham manager Steve Cotterill turns down the opportunity to take over the Oxford hotseat after meeting with Firoz Kassam. Following a farcical 4-3 defeat to Wrexham, Denis Smith, who appears to be both an ex-manager and manager simultaneously, signs 38-year-old ex-Arsenal defender Andy Linighan to try and shore up the leaky defence which has shipped 27 goals in 12 games. The impact appears immediate as a man of the match performance from Richard Knight results in a 0-0 draw with Luton Town picking up our fifth point of the season. Every silver lining has a cloud as the game is marred by Paul Tait breaking his leg.
Any sense that the point offers a fragile platform on which to build a recovery is blown out of the water the next day as Firoz Kassam goes on the offensive. Kassam, who has been largely silent when it comes to team matters, is ostensibly there to trailer a double announcement; the first of which is expected to be the restart of building work at the stadium. However, the club’s dismal start to the season cannot be ignored. Kassam explodes.
His particular gripe is the supposed lack of investment in the team, he claims to be £5m out of pocket and has a clear message for the media and fans; “So all I can say to the media and to a few supporters who make unnecessary threats to me and my family is: if you don’t like it, piss off, go away.” The rift is never fully healed.
The next day, as if nothing has happened, in the strangely homely surrounds of the ancient Priory Pub next to the new stadium, Kassam announces Joe Kinnear as his new director of football with David Kemp coming in as manager. It’s quite a coup; Kinnear is a manager with Premier League experience. Kassam also announces Birse as the construction partner on the new stadium.
The impact is, well, minimal. Kinnear and Kemp’s first game is our seventh straight away defeat, 3-1 to Rotherham. Derek Lilley contrives to have a goal chalked off for offside after he converts a shot that was already going in from Jamie Cook. The loss is followed by a 2-0 defeat to Wigan. It’s not even Christmas and we’re already looking for a miracle to survive.
The following week we head to Reading. Despite the mocking by Oxford fans about their toy town stadium and plastic fans, the Madjeski Stadium is in such stark contrast to the collapsing Manor Ground it illustrates the growing chasm between the two clubs. The game is a classic. As the rain lashes down, Oxford come from a goal down to lead 2-1, Reading equalise before John Richardson makes it 3-2. Just as it looks like an unexpected three points is on the cards, a late Tony Rougier double in the last 12 minutes turns the game around. Another 3-4 defeat. It’s made all the worse as the win sends Reading to the top of the table.
A 1-0 defeat to Bristol Rovers sets David Kemp on a search for new blood, he signs Keith Brown from Barnsley and Keith Andrews from Wolves both on loan along with Northern Ireland international striker Phil Gray from Burnley. The impact is immediate as the new look team head to Swansea and come away with a 2-1 win. Andrews stands out, scoring the winner and running the midfield. The result was the first win in nine, and just the second league victory of the season. It wins the club Performance of the Week by Sky.
Kemp, never one to play down his contribution, declares his team are on the up; but Joe Kinnear is not resting on his laurels, tracking Jamaican international Onandi Lowe and sacking Mickey Lewis, who has become surplus to requirements since Kemp and his assistant Alan McLeary took charge.
It doesn’t dampen the mood as we secure a 1-0 FA Cup win over non-league Macclesfield, the game is marred by trouble in the Oxford end when we concede a penalty two minutes from time. Richard Knight’s save preserves the lead and sends Oxford into the second round.
Suddenly, there seems to be stability at the club which Kinnear wants to leverage with a cash bid for Birmingham’s Steve Robinson. I mean, obviously he doesn’t sign, but remember the name. As if to illustrate the positivity, Oxford race to a 2-0 first half lead against Notts County with two goals from Matt Murphy. Suddenly the fight-back is truly on. Then, it all falls apart again. Three second half goals and we collapse to yet another defeat. All confidence seeps away.
Despite the big money bids, Kinnear and Kemp struggle to bring anyone in, as if to illustrate the frustration both Lee Jarman and Jimmy Glass, who have been on weekly contracts, are signed until the end of the season.
David Kemp splashes out £35,000 for Forest Green Rovers defender Wayne Hatswell. Hatswell has already gained notoriety lashing in an own goal for Morecambe in the FA Cup last year. The goal, in which Hatswell under no pressure, three yards out, manages to find the top corner of his own goal, is shown repeatedly on Match of the Day. He sounds like our kind of player.
With Hatswell, Manny Omoyimni and Jimmy Glass, the club are building quite a collection of players people will reminisce about on podcasts in years to come.
Another 3-2 defeat, this time to Oldham is followed by a 4-1 Auto Windscreen Shield defeat to Brentford. Although the result is largely meaningless, Kemp apologises for the performance, it’s the thirteenth time the team have conceded three or more goals.
An old wound is opened in December when Ross Weatherstone announces that he doesn’t plan to appeal his conviction for racially aggravated assault. He continues to insist that he isn’t a racist and that not appealing is down to the club’s suggestion that everyone needs to put the issue behind them.
There’s another 3-2 defeat, this time to non-league Chester in the FA Cup, David Kemp turns his ire on shell-shocked ‘keeper Richard Knight. Knight has conceded a bucketload of goals but is still a fan favourite and contender for player of the year due to his performances. Knight’s error in the Cup triggers Kemp to bring in Neil Cutler on loan from Aston Villa. The endless merry-go-round of players continues as Derek Lilley leaves to return to Scotland; he’s had a torrid time and failed to settle down south.
Cutler is far from popular with the London Road faithful, who feel Knight has been scapegoated. His debut, however, sees a 3-1 win over Northampton Town, Steve Anthrobus scores for the first time in the league in nearly a year. We’re in a parallel universe. Star of the show is 17-year-old Chris Hackett, who Joe Kinnear offers a five-year contract to days later. Youngsters Jamie Brooks and Simon King are also offered long term deals.
Days before Christmas it’s revealed that The Ackland Hospital has re-submitted planning permission to relocate to the Manor site once Oxford leave for Minchery Farm. The stumbling block is traffic, but the plan would provide essential finance to the club.
A 2-3 defeat to Colchester before Christmas is followed by a dismal 1-2 Boxing Day defeat to Bournemouth with two goals from teenage superkid, Jermaine Defoe, who is on loan from West Ham. The goals are in a sequence of ten consecutive games, a post-war record. After a fleeting flicker of hope, Oxford head into 2001 needing a miracle if it is to salvage anything from the season.
The New Year brings no rest bite as Oxford collapse to a 3-0 defeat to Brentford. David Kemp thinks the answer is in the transfer market. When it comes it’s pretty remarkable. Brentford’s Andy Scott, one of the division’s top goalscorers, teammate Rob Quinn and Kevin Austin – a loanee from Barnsley at Brentford all sign in a deal worth £250,000. Also arriving from Swansea City is defender Garry Monk.
With Austin’s signature held up, Quinn, Scott and Monk all make their debuts and Andy Linighan is sacrificed for the 2-1 win over Walsall. Days later, Austin’s move collapses due after he fails a medical. A 1-0 defeat to Colchester precedes a 4-2 defeat to Peterborough – it’s the 16th time Oxford have conceded three or more goals. David Kemp resorts to tortured analogies to explain the latest failure: “We’re like an old car. You think you’ve got one part mended and then the bumper falls off.” he says before adding “We’re like a bucket with a hole in it, you patch it up and then another hole appears.” Yes David, we get it.
Elsewhere, St Andrew’s First School are the latest people to take an interest in moving to the Manor Ground site next year.
101 days after arriving at the club, Joe Kinnear announces that he’s leaving the club to spend more time with his family. It comes as something of a surprise when two days later he’s unveiled as Luton Town’s new Director of Football. Rumours circulate that the deal was struck before Christmas.
A 0-2 defeat to Wycombe prompts David Kemp, who is already on the ropes with the fans, into action. He attempts to alleviate the pressure by diving into the transfer market again to find the latest solution to the club’s endless woes. Northern Ireland international Darren Patterson is signed after completing a short-term contract with York City. While the door is open, the Weatherstone brothers – Simon and Ross are shown the exit as they head off to Boston. There’s no immediate impact as Chris Hackett is sent off after 20 minutes in the game against Bury as the team collapse to a 1-3 defeat, number 25 of the season.
Patterson, who is made club captain, puts in a man-of-the match performance three days later scoring in a 1-1 draw with Stoke. One beneficiary of the Kemp-era is Matt Murphy, who has cemented a place in the team since asking for a transfer, now he’s even talking about getting a new contract.
The month concludes with a routine 0-2 defeat to Millwall, after which Neil Cutler is sent back to Aston Villa. Although not popular with the fans, David Kemp is angry at the decision which appears to have been made by Firoz Kassam.
March sees the relegation doomsday clock on countdown. The only bit of light that seems to be shining; progress on the stadium, is stunted when Les Wells wins the right to a judicial review into the decision to allow a leisure complex on what he claims to be his right of way. Wells isn’t looking to kill the project, but instead is looking for compensation of around £20,000. Firoz Kassam is taking a different tone. He says the issue threatens the whole project. Once again, the club’s future is in the balance.
Richard Knight makes a triumphant return to the first team with a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw at Bristol City, but it’s business as usual three days later as we go down 3-5 to Wrexham.
The final visit of Swindon Town doesn’t sell out with just over 7,000 attending. Dean Whitehead is sent off before half-time after kicking Steve Robinson, a transfer target for David Kemp earlier in the season. Matt Murphy follows him with 25 minutes left for two bookable offences. The home fans hurl coins and bottles at Steve Mildenhall in the Swindon goal forcing the referee to take the players off with 12 minutes to play. By this point we’re already a goal down to a Robinson (yes him) first-half volley, he fires another one in with a minute to go.
“This is Oxford United and the way things are going you get a large kick in the balls as opposed to a little tap,” says analogy magnet David Kemp “The thing to do is not sulk about it but just hope that the tide turns and surely it will.”
23 points adrift from safety, with the future of their new stadium in the balance, Firoz Kassam has taken decisive action to do nothing about the club’s parlous state until the outcome of the judicial review forced by Les Wells.
The double threat – the right of way and the judicial review into the planning decision – could be resolved if Kassam is prepared to compensate Wells. With the transfer deadline approaching, Kassam confirms that nobody will be signed as the club may not exist in a week’s time, despite having no cover for Richard Knight.
With Firoz Kassam ratcheting up the pressure on the council and Les Wells, Wells takes to the Oxford United Forum ThisIsUnited to make his views clear. Kassam responds by revealing that The Manor has been sold, though to whom remains a mystery. The sale will render the club homeless if the stadium isn’t complete. This is brinkmanship of the highest order.
Four days later, Les Wells demands £1m for his land, which Firoz Kassam looks set to pay. If legal costs can be agreed, the crisis may be averted.
Ironically, as the club teeters on the brink of oblivion, the team hit its best form of the season; first comes the most extraordinary result of year as the team contrive to beat league leaders Rotherham 4-3 at the Manor.
Man of the Match was Manny Omoyimni scoring twice, his first of the twenty Denis Smith had predicted for him, plus having another one ruled out for offside and an assist.
Omoyimni’s cross allowed Rob Qunn to score after six minutes, Mark Robbins on 24 minutes before he fired in a 25 yard drive three minutes later. The third came on the hour with Andy Scott heading the fourth seven minutes later. Two later Rotherham goals made it an uncomfortable finish, but the three points were secured.
That David Kemp said: “I hope the penny has dropped for him.” Omoyimni scores once more all season.
The game preceded a council meeting on Tuesday whether to give the go-ahead on the stadium. Chairman Firoz Kassam, continues to ratchet up the pressure saying: “If the conditions are not lifted I will no longer support the club and will stop paying the contractors. It is in the hands of the council.”
The restrictions are lifted and it appears, finally, it’s all steam ahead.
Oxford then lose to Cambridge, but only by a last minute goal from Paul Wanless. The month concludes with a 1-0 win over Northampton.
The Northampton game isn’t without its own dose of farce; the team coach fails to turn up meaning the players have to make their way to Sixfields, like wacky races, in a fleet of cars. The coach company take the blame saying “I do apologise to the club. It was a new driver who had problems because the toilet on the coach wasn’t properly drained and then the fuses kept blowing.” which sums the whole season up.
A Phil Gray goal after 8 seconds doesn’t prevent Oxford from falling to yet another 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth. It is the fourth 4-3 of the season, and the 13th game with five goals or more. We are nothing if not entertaining.
The defeat sets up the inevitable; we are now just one defeat from relegation. The night before our home game against Oldham, the new stadium is struck by an arson attack. The damage, which is estimated to be worth around £60,000, appears to have been done by kids.
The following day, a last-minute goal condemns Oxford to a humiliating relegation. They are the first team in the country to do it.
With the misery over, Oxford pick up a point at Luton before narrowly losing 3-2 to Wigan. David Kemp is bullish about the future calling for Firoz Kassam to invest in the team. Days later, the team meekly surrenders 2-0 to Reading. It is the club’s sixth defeat in six derby games. And if you want to argue about whether to include Wycombe as a derby or not, you really haven’t been paying attention, we simply no longer care. Fans continue to call for David Kemp’s head, who hits back saying that fans need a reality check.
With relegation confirmed, thoughts turn to damage limitation, with four games left and 90 goals conceded, the club set themselves a goal of avoiding conceding 100 goals before the end of the season. I mean, it feels like Fergie in his pomp doesn’t it? Fittingly, even that target looks beyond them when they concede six in a 6-2 defeat to Bristol Rovers. Richard Knight is sent off for a professional foul, only the leniency of the referee prevents substitute keeper Phil Wilson – who saves a penalty before watching the rebound go in – going after he commits a similar foul ten minutes later. Had Wilson gone, it would have left the club without a ‘keeper for the last games of the season.
It’s some great irony that David Kemp is fired after a 3-1 win over Swansea. The result turns out to be the final win at The Manor, which is 2,500 short of capacity for the farewell game against Port Vale. Mike Ford takes over as caretaker manager fielding a young team of local kids.
The Port Vale game features fireworks and a speech from Firoz Kassam who promises to build ‘a team to be proud of’. It’s a promise that would haunt him in years to come. Andy Scott slots home the final Oxford goal in the first half and then, somewhat fittingly, Port Vale equalise in the last minute.
The final game of the season, away to Notts County, features an inexperienced team with eight home-grown players. Against the odds, a Rob Folland goal gives Oxford the lead, but County hit back as Oxford concede their 99th and 100th goal.
Oxford United end the season bottom of the table, 10 points behind second bottom, 35 points from safety. They’ve won seven games, drawn six and lost 33. They’ve scored 53 goals and conceded 100. They have had three managers and played forty-one players including five goalkeepers.
On the morning of the final game, Firoz Kassam finally reveals who bought The Manor. It’s Firoz Kassam. One of his companies – Firoka – buy the ground for £6m from the club, which is set to be bought by The Ackland Hospital who are planning a £25m development. Although Kassam claims there are no other buyers, the purchase deprives the club of the full market value of their own ground.
The clearout of the squad begins almost immediately; Peter Fear and Steve Anthrobus are both released with Lee Jarman and Jon Shepheard also likely to leave. John Robertson also heads back to Scotland because his wife is homesick.
Mark Wright is announced as the club’s new permanent manager. Wright has built a reputation as a bright young manager after a stellar playing career. But, if the end of the season is expected the herald a new dawn, the misery continues to when the Voice of the London Road Andrew Knapton dies suddenly.
This casts another shadow over the final game at The Manor, a charity re-run of the Milk Cup Final organised by Alan Judge. Many Oxford players from that game return, though not Malcolm Shotton, Ray Houghton or John Aldridge.
Mark Wright starts re-building his squad, trying to sign younger players such as Dean Whitehead and Jamie Brooks. Wright sacks Denis Smith, the man who recommended him for the job.
Domino, who step down as the club’s shirt sponsor, have no regrets as the club announces a new shirt for next season. The kit, voted by the fans, is brighter and made by TFG and will be sponsored by local company Buildbase. Completing the exorcism of the last 12 months, the club hold an auction to sell off parts of the old Manor Ground.
Thoughts turn to the new stadium – which Firoz Kassam bashfully names after himself – as local residents worry about parking issues on matchdays. The club setting aside nearly £250,000 to support traffic management and announce a price freeze on season tickets. The announcement has the desired effect there is brisk business for renewals.
It’s not all good news as the stadium is subject to another attack of vandalism, this time windows are smashed using catapults.
Still, the squad re-building continues with the signing of Martin Thomas and Sam Stockley. Mark Wright’s attempt at luring Neil Ruddock and Dean Saunders fails, and the signing of John Dreyer is blocked by Firoz Kassam. One of the issues is the stockpile of defenders at the club; with two more added – Scott Guyett and Phil Bolland from Mark Wright’s former club. As a result, Ian McGuckin is shown the door to try and release more budget.
With the new season less than a month away, the club’s pre-season starts with a game against Brackley Town, Paul Tait scores in a narrow 1-0 win over Didcot. Mark Wright solves his goalkeeping difficulties with the signing of Ian McCaldon from Livingstone. He signs after Dave Beasant turns down the opportunity to see out his career with the club.
The rush is on to finish the stadium and gain its safety certificate in time for its opening game – the Bill Hasley Memorial Trophy game against Crystal Palace. Days beforehand, the club confirm that the upper section of the South Stand won’t be available for the game, but they remain confident it will go ahead. It’s that close.
The club’s staff finally take up their new position at the stadium and three days later the Palace friendly gets the go-ahead. There’s traffic chaos as the kick-off is delayed; a majority of the crowd haven’t bought tickets in advance meaning there are long queues at the ticket office. Still, despite the ground still being covered in dust and tape from the construction work, the game goes ahead. Paul Powell scores Oxford’s first ever goal at the new ground, a penalty. The 1-1 draw results in penalties, which Oxford win.Work continues throughout the week to finalise the stadium in time for the season opener against Rochdale. On 11 August 2001, after 15 psychologically exhausting months, Oxford sit on the cusp of a new dawn. The day is grey and the weather is cold, but finally it’s here. The future.