Midweek fixture: What’s Firoz Kassam’s problem with Oxford United?

Was there significance in Firoz Kassam serving a winding up order on Oxford United 20 years to the day after he bought it? I remember his first game, walking around the perimeter of The Manor followed by a phalanx of photographers half way through a 2-2 draw with Tranmere in 1999, an Oxford scarf held above his head. He was interviewed on the pitch and seemed shy and unassuming.

It’s hard to believe now, but when Firoz Kassam first bought the club he was considered a hero. The club had nose-dived due to the collapse of Robin Herd’s new stadium project, a fire sale of players was on, Dean Windass had been bought and then sold in a matter of months; a folly at a time of crisis.

FOUL – Fighting for Oxford United’s Life – the group set up to save the club, supported the purchase. There was no Plan B, a friend and FOUL activist reminds me regularly. Martin Brodetsky, writing in When Saturday Comes in 2000 said that most fans trusted Kassam’s integrity.

More than that, Firoz Kassam was eye wateringly rich. The Premier League was forging an unbreakable bond between the game, money and success. With one of the richest people in the country at the helm, there was a hope that he many not just save the club, but catapult it forward.

It wasn’t all positive. I fell out with someone on the This is United forum because they described Kassam as ‘Ayatollah’; an apparent reference to his skin colour. Plus, there was the source of his riches – some referred to him as a hotelier, others; a slum landlord.

Kassam’s money came from providing accommodation for asylum seekers and other vulnerable people. The authorities paid him tens of thousands of pounds a week to keep them in such poor conditions; they – some of the most needy people in the country – eventually rebelled.

Kassam’s first battle was with the clubs creditors. He forced a Company Voluntary Agreement on those who the club owed money to, reducing the club’s (more specifically Kassam’s) debts to a fraction of what they were. Then he fought a brutal war with everyone who stood in between him and the completion of the stadium build. He won, which softened the blow of the most abject season which saw us leave The Manor heading for the bottom division for the first time in 34 years.

While suspicions grew about Kassam’s intentions, there were signs that he was interested in the football. During our relegation season he bought Andy Scott, leading goalscorer for Brentford, in an attempt to stem our slide. When we got to the Kassam, he invested heavily in the team, including bringing back Paul Moody.

He was a presence at the stadium, his green Bentley parked prominently outside the South Stand, he even went to some away games. If his initial plans were about land deals and making money; he didn’t immediately show it.

But, there were worrying developments too; he sold The Manor to his own company, used the money to pay off the club’s creditors and then sold the ground for a massive personal profit. After 76 years sitting on prime Oxford real estate, the club didn’t make a penny from its sale. When challenged about the morality of it, Kassam simply stated that it was his right because of the risks he took in buying the club.

What Kassam struggled with, however, was the fact that despite putting money into the club, he wasn’t rewarded with success on the pitch. There were moments; a full house against Aston Villa, a derby win over Swindon, a trip to Arsenal. But there were more problems; Mark Wright racially abusing a referee, Ian Atkins resigning when the club were threatening promotion, players being bought, but not performing. Above all, there was a torrent of criticism from fans.

If Kassam wanted a successful club, and I think initially he did, he simply couldn’t make it happen. Inevitably, it caused a rift between fans and the owner. Despite pumping millions into the team, the fans wanted more.

The farce of Ramon Diaz’s brief reign at the club followed by the relegation from the Football League, mostly under Brian Talbot destroyed any remaining faith. Kassam sold up to Nick Merry and became the club’s landlord.

In the intervening years he’s fallen out with successive owners, his intentions towards the club are increasingly opaque – sometimes he talks about protecting it while simultaneously charging rent the club can barely afford. He’s sitting on a pile of money and has spent the last twenty years fighting an obscure little football club. What the hell is wrong with him?

The first thing is that being rich is hard work, there’s an idea that somehow rich people haven’t worked for what they have whereas poor people work hard and get nothing. When you work hard, you usually feel you deserve something for it; a beer, a million pounds, your bodyweight in chocolate. Firoz Kassam undoubtedly thinks he deserves reward for his financial success. But, hard work alone does not make you rich. Lots of people work hard and don’t get rich. There are lots of other factors, many out of your control, which help you get rich.

It is easy to believe that being rich makes you right. After all, rich people are seen to be ‘successful’, they have won at life. They could have drug and alcohol problems, broken marriages, children who hate them, but because they have money they are successful.

Somewhere along the line, Kassam’s wealth has welded him to the notion that he is ‘right’ and that he deserves things. It is easy to psychoanalyse why this is, his mother dying when he was a child, moving from Tanzania as a teenager, his home in Monaco; perhaps Kassam doesn’t have the roots others have and seeks to define himself by what he accumulates.

My feeling is that Kassam bought Oxford because he thought it would be something to define him beyond being a slum landlord. The stadium, in his name, was his legacy. But the club betrayed him, his money came to nothing. Now he’s turned on the club and takes a peverse pleasure in seeing it suffer. After a 20 year abusive relationship, and Kassam’s legacy almost universally negative, something has to give. If Kassam gifted the stadium to the club, or a trust, it would barely make a dent in his vast wealth or the club needs to move, because he’s not likely to change. If the two parties did go their separate ways, it would probably benefit Firoz Kassam as much as it would us.

Midweek Fixture: The 2016 JPT Final team – where are they now?

Before it was infested by Under 23 Premier League teams, the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was a half decent tournament. At least when you got to the final. The last to maintain its integrity was 2016 where we faced Barnsley in the final. It was a joyous affair, despite the 3-2 defeat. Where are those brave men now?

Benji Büchel

Likeable weak link in an otherwise relentlessly effective team. Shared glove-based responsibilities with Sam Slocombe for most of the season. Replaced by Simon Eastwood once promotion was confirmed. Eventually went to Barnet on loan where he was briefly announced as playing for their ladies team. Now at FC Vaduz, he’s been capped by Lichenstein over 20 times and recently played against Italy.

Jonjoe Kenny

More than capable right-back signed on loan from Everton filling a not inconsiderable hole left by George Baldock. Slotted seamlessly into the team under the tutelage of Alex MacDonald. Headed back to Everton, playing the final game of the 2015/16 season. He was part of the England team which won the Under 20 World Cup in 2017. Has spent most of his time since in and out of their starting eleven at The Toffees.

Johnny Mullins (captain)

Started the season as a first choice centre-back before falling down the pecking order. Captained the side due to Jake Wright not being fully fit. Headed for Luton at the end of the promotion season where he won promotion, before joining Cheltenham.

Chey Dunkley

Cheyenne Amarni Keanu Roma Dunkley cemented a place in Oxford United folklore at Wembley by doing a Cruyff turn in his own box. Also managed to score Barnsley’s first goal. Spent most of the season overcoming Johnny Mullins in the centre of defence. Scored a decisive goal against Wycombe to seal promotion, dominant in our first year in League 1 before signing for Wigan Athletic. Won promotion to The Championship the following season.

Jordan Evans

Signed on loan from Fulham in January 2016, played only nine games before heading back. Started due to an injury to Joe Skarz. A Welsh Under-21 international, his professional career petered out, playing for Wrexham and Bala Town before ending up at Cefn Druids, A man with hidden talents, Evans is a qualified hairdresser and plays in the band Faded Strangers.

Alex MacDonald

Lovable tireless winger signed from Burton at Michael Appleton’s lowest ebb. Boundless enthusiasm for the game dragged us out of the fug and into the 2015/16 season. A regular through the promotion year before being unceremoniously sold to Mansfield Town.

Josh Ruffels

Oxford United survivor originally signed by Chris Wilder from Coventry City. Made the starting eleven due to a lunging John Lundstram tackle which gained a red card and a ban. Players came and went, as did managers, but Ruffels stayed. Mostly played in midfield, but converted to full-back under Karl Robinson, became a specialist in spectacular last minute goals.

Liam Sercombe

Wide shouldered marauding midfielder whose goals from midfield were critical to pretty much everything we did well that season. Scored a decisive goal at Carlisle at the end of the season. The following season in League One he continued his good form until he fell out with Michael Appleton, possibly over his reaction to only being a substitute in the JPT Final against Coventry the following season, where he also scored. Signed for Bristol Rovers in the summer.

Callum O’Dowda

Career-minded local boy flitted in and out of the team throughout the promotion season. Scored the opener in the final to wild celebration. Also scored the last goal of the season against Wycombe before flouncing off to Bristol City in the summer. A Republic of Ireland international.

Kemar Roofe

Ethereal goal machine who initially joined on loan from West Brom. Heralded a new era when he was announced as a permanent signing the following summer, smashed in over 20 goals before joining Leeds United for £4m.

Danny Hylton

Precise, analytical, focussed – everything that Michael Appleton was, Danny Hylton wasn’t. Signed by Gary Waddock weeks before the Darryl Eales revolution took hold. Stuck to the first team like chewing gum on your shoe. Scored the second goal which briefly raised hopes of a revival. At the end of the season, he headed for Luton Town where he won promotion. More recently spent most of his time cheerleading from the sidelines as Luton head for the Championship.

Substitutes:

Sam Slocombe

Initially signed to replace Ryan Clarke, Slocombe’s patchy form saw him chopping and changing with Benji Buchel throughout the season. Missed out on Wembley, but played in our 3-2 giant killing over Swansea. The signing of Simon Eastwood pushed him out the door to Blackpool. Lasted a year before going to Bristol Rovers. Loaned to Lincoln in 2019.

Jake Wright

A leader of men who was signed by Chris Wilder in 2010. Won promotion to the Football League at the end of that year. Injury meant he missed out on being the first Oxford United player to play at Wembley twice. Led the team to promotion, but re-joined Chris Wilder at Sheffield United in a defensive re-shuffle when Curtis Nelson arrived. Won promotion with the Blades where he still is, albeit now sidelined by injury.

Sam Long

A player who seemed to be so frequently injured, successive managers didn’t have the heart to release him. Survived Michael Appleton, Pep Clotet and became a regular in Karl Robinson’s starting eleven.

Josh Ashby

Once heralded as the future of the football club; Ashby achieved just seven appearances before being released. Signed for Oxford City.

George Waring (replaced Callum O’Dowda)

A proper unit signed on loan from Stoke City, flitted in and out of the team scoring once. Following a series of loan moves he headed for Tranmere before joining Chester in 2019.

Chris Maguire (replaced Alex MacDonald)

Enigmatic magician signed on loan from Rotherham. Sulked from one club to another, disgusted by the mediocrity around him. At Oxford, however, he bloomed and signed permanently in 2016. Scored twice in a derby win over Swindon and generally oozed genius. Appleton’s departure scuppered chances of a renewed contract where he made a disasterous move to Bury. Following their relegation he was signed by Sunderland where he initially regained form. Slipped out of the reckoning as the season progressed.

Jordan Bowery (replaced Danny Hylton)

One of numerous target men that Michael Appleton signed. Unlike most of the others, he weighed in with seven goals during his time with the club including a critical winner at Portsmouth. Dropped to the Conference with Leyton Orient where he failed to find any form. Signed on loan with Crewe before being made permanent, scoring twenty goals for the club.

Midweek fixture: Michael Appleton’s Forty-Two

Michael Appleton’s time in charge at Oxford will be remembered as nothing but glorious. It didn’t start that way though. He lost his first four league games in front of an increasingly suspicious home crowd, flirted with relegation and chugged along to finish 13th in his first season. During that time he played no less than 42 different players, performing what he now calls ‘major surgery’ on the squad as the season progressed. Have you ever wondered what happened to them all?

Josh Ashby

Once so much the future of the club (yes, another one) Chris Wilder named him on the bench of a Conference game just so ensure we could maximise any transfer fees we might get for him. Made a total of seven appearances before being released. Now at Oxford City.

Jamie Ashdown

An old mate of Michael Appleton’s from Portsmouth and former FA Cup winner. Ashdown came in late in the season to replace Ryan Clarke. Made a decent fist of it as we started to turn the corner. Now retired.

George Baldock

Gorgeous George was brought in with the help of Dave Jones from Sky Sports from MK Dons. Signed for another year on loan in 2015, but only lasted until January when one Karl Robinson dragged him back to help out with their relegation fight from the Championship. Bought by Sheffield United in 2017 by Chris Wilder.

Tyrone Barnett

For a short while Barnett was the answer to all our problems. The big strong target man that Michael Appleton had been looking for. At the end of his loan period, despite efforts to sign him permanently, he moved to Shrewsbury. Now at Cheltenham.

Richard Brindley

Sometimes there are players who play for minutes before disappearing, and for some reason you remember them when everyone else forgets. Richard Brindley is one of those players for me. Made 3 appearances on loan from Scunthorpe, now plays for Bromley.

Junior Brown

Part of an original batch of signings at the start of the Appleton era. Showed precious little, lasted eleven games, including a half decent performance against West Brom in the league cup before being shipped out to Mansfield. Moved to Shrewsbury and was part of the team that nearly won promotion in 2018. Moved to Coventry City at the end of that season. Great hair.

Wes Burns

A little glimmer of hope when signed from Bristol City showing plenty of pace down the flank. Lasted nine games before heading back to his parent club. After a series of loan moves, he eventually settled with Fleetwood.

John Campbell

Perhaps the weirdest of all the signings that season. Rumoured to have joined from Jarrow Roofing, it was announced that he’d gone on loan to Torquay before anyone had confirmed he had signed. Lasted three games before heading back north. Now at Whitby Town.

Ryan Clarke

A club legend in the twilight of his Oxford career. Appleton stuck with him for most of the season before passing the gloves to Jamie Ashdown. Clarke joined Northampton Town the following year, but despite winning promotion, didn’t play a single game. He joined Wimbledon and Eastleigh before settling with Torquay and then Bath City.

Michael Collins

One of the inherited players having been signed in 2014. Saw his contract out and left at the end of the season in 2016. Headed out to India for while before returning to play for Halifax and Leyton Orient. Eventually ended up coaching at Bradford and was somewhat thrown under a bus when he became head coach briefly in 2018

Max Crocombe

Perpetual understudy to Ryan Clarke, Crocombe was a New Zealand international whose highlight at Oxford was keeping goal in a heroic League Cup defeat to West Brom at the start of Appleton’s reign. Moved to Carlisle after being released, then ended up at noveau riche Salford in the National League.

Chey Dunkley

Came from Kidderminster but spent much of his early career on the bench. He described himself on his Twitter account as the club mascot. Eventually overhauled Johnny Mullins for a first team spot, did a Cruyff turn at Wembley, scored a goal that clinched promotion, played his part in everything we did that was good for two years before going on to play for Wigan in the Championship.

Armand Gnanduillet

A player with legs like out of control fire hoses. Seemed to specialise in finding new and interesting ways of not connecting with crosses or misreading through-balls. Went back to Chesterfield where he joined Blackpool.

Aidan Hawtin

Most famous for being the ball boy who got in an altercation with a Swindon player during the 2012 derby win. Played just 1 game before moving to Norway. Retired due to injury in 2017 aged just 21 and became a personal trainer.

Patrick Hoban

A battering ram of a striker who came from Dundalk with a decent goalscoring reputation. Never really got going at Oxford, although scored a critical equaliser in a draw at Luton in the promotion season. Went to Mansfield before heading back to Dundalk where he’s started banging in the goals again. Very much found his level.

Tareiq Holmes-Dennis

Yet another bright young thing signed on loan from Charlton. Holmes-Dennis started with a man of the match performance against Tranmere, but in his subsequent 14 games ran out of steam. Headed back to Charlton before going to Huddersfield. Managed a handful of games before heading to Bristol Rovers.

Will Hoskins

Arrived from Brighton with a decent reputation but only managed four games before being released at the end of the season. Played for Exeter City, Hemel Hempstead and is now at Northcote City.

Brian Howard

Signed on a short term contract after leaving Birmingham City, expected to be the player who would run the team. Only made seven appearances before disappearing off to Eastleigh. Last heard of at Whitehawk.

Sam Humphreys

One of many youth team products who rotated through the first team. Made one first team substitution before having his contract cancelled so he could move to Norway. Returned to Hayes and Yeading, then Banbury.

David Hunt

When Michael Appleton talks about doing major surgery on the squad David Hunt frequently springs to mind (also see: Tom Newey). A tediously dependable full-back in a slowly decaying squad, he was eventually shipped out to Barnet and slipped into non-league with Margate and Wealdstone.

Danny Hylton

A strange bearded wizard, signed by Gary Waddock and adopted by Michael Appleton. Appleton described him as not very bright, but he carried him through the early months with an prodigious work ethic. Joined the glory train in 2016, winning promotion before joining Luton to everyone’s dismay that summer. I love Danny Hylton.

Alex Jakubiak

A too-much-too-soon loan signing from Watford teenager Jakubiak made nine games before being recalled by his parent club. The Hornets have persisted with him loaning him to a variety of teams, most recently to Bristol Rovers where he’s scored two goals. Both against us.

George Long

Goalkeeper who signed on loan from Sheffield United to cover Ryan Clarke’s injury. Played 10 games before returning to Yorkshire. Played a season at AFC Wimbledon on loan before being signed by Hull City.

Sam Long

A true survivor, despite crippling injuries and changes of management, Long is still with the club in 2019 despite only ever making very occasional appearances.

Alex MacDonald

A little bowling ball of a winger from Burton and an early sign that things were going to improve. Became integral to the team that clinched promotion in 2016. Inexplicably moved on the following season to Mansfield.

Jonathan Meades

Adopted by Michael Appleton having been signed in 2013 by Chris Wilder. Crippled with injuries meant he was limited to just seven appearances before being released. Played nearly 100 games for Wimbledon, winning promotion to League 1 in 2016, but retired in 2018 following a persistent injury.

Carlton Morris

The first of many big strong target men Michael Appleton tried. Signed on loan from Norwich, the job of leading the line in a formative team was too much for the teenager. Scored in an early League Cup success over Bristol City, he returned to Norwich after seven games. Still at Norwich now and has had a range of loans, most significantly at Shrewsbury in 2017/18 when he nearly got promoted to the Championship.

John Mullins

A dependable leader and a rare beacon of consistency. Mullins partnered Jake Wright for a majority the season and a good chunk of the promotion season in 2015/16 before being slowly overhauled by Chey Dunkley. Ended the year on the bench, was released in 2016 where he signed for Luton Town. Won promotion in 2016/17 before slowly falling out of favour. Signed for Cheltenham in 2018.

Tom Newey

An icon of Chris Wilder’s latter years at Oxford, a soul-destroyingly dependable full-back. Followed Wilder to Northampton Town making no more than a dozen appearances over two years. Retired due to injury and turned to coaching. Currently back with his first club Leeds as Under 16 coach.

Callum O’Dowda

One of many juniors rising through the club’s ranks at the time. Looked lightweight in 2014/15, but bulked up considerably the following season. A marginal rather than key player of the promotion squad, he was signed by Bristol City in 2016 and capped by the Republic of Ireland.

Alfie Potter

Lovable, jinky winger, Alfie Potter is the boy who never grew up. Signed by Chris Wilder, he seemed to have a knack of scoring memorable goals including the winner at Wembley in 2010, one in the opening game of the season against Portsmouth and a JPT winner over Swindon. Lost his way under Michael Appleton. Moved to Wimbledon, then Northampton Town back with Wilder. Now at Billericay Town. If you want to feel old; he’s thirty.

Giorgio Rasulo

Signed from MK Dons, played one game and leaves a legacy of being one of those players fans reference when trying to make an ironic point. Chugged along with MK Dons until 2018 when he joined Bracknell Town.

Michael Raynes

Perpetual bridesmaid centre-back, but one who put his heart and soul into everything he did. A graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University and brother of England Cerebral Palsy Goalkeeper Jordan, Raynes left for Mansfield, had a good couple of years at Carlisle before moving to Crewe. Currently on loan at Hartlepool.

Joe Riley

A full-back signed on loan from Bolton, played over 30 games before joining Bury just as we thought we’d found a decent player. Signed for Shrewsbury in 2016, one of a number of players who became important to their unlikely promotion push in 2018. Left for Plymouth in the summer of 2018.

James Roberts

Perpetually the answer to all club’s goalscoring problems for three years, Roberts scored a couple of top class goals in about 30 games. His brother was tragically killed in a car accident in 2017, Roberts’ career slowed and stalled following a series of loans. Left in 2018 for Hereford.

Kemar Roofe

Arrived from West Browm almost undercover in a blizzard of loan signings, initially Roofe looked like he was just another lightweight destined to disappear. Then scored two in a win over Wycombe and couldn’t stop scoring. Signed permanently in 2015/16 scoring over 25 goals as we were promoted to League 1, scored against Swindon and Swansea in the FA Cup. Bought by Leeds United for over £4m in 2016. After a bit of a slow start, grew to become an integral part of Leeds’ push for promotion to the Premier League.

Danny Rose

Originally joined as a teenager in our first season in the Conference from Manchester United. Enjoyed promotion to the Football League with Newport and Aldershot before returning to Oxford in 2013. Chalked up over 80 games, but never really enjoyed a consistent run in the team. Briefly followed Chris Wilder to Northampton before moving to Portsmouth. Played a marginal role in their promotion to League 1. Went to Swindon on loan in January 2019. Urgh.

Josh Ruffels

Signed from Coventry City as part of a policy of solving the club’s financing problems by nurturing youth. Ruffels became one of the squads most dependable players, winning promotion with the squad in 2016 and playing at Wembley twice. Still with the club where he’s enjoying an extended period in the team at a full-back.

Joe Skarz

The best defender in the land was signed in 2015 from Rotherham. Became an integral part of the promotion winning back-four, heroically playing through injury to get us over the line in 2016. Slowly fell out of favour and left to join Bury, his previous club, in 2017. Dogged by injury, he’s yet to play a dozen games in the in the two years he’s been at the club.

Kyle Vassell

Played a mostly forgettable six games towards the end of the season, his only goal being a critical winner against Carlisle which was a great stride towards safety. Enjoyed a productive two years at Blackpool where he won promotion from League 2, joined Rotherham in 2018.

Andrew Whing

A grizzled old pro signed by Chris Wilder, all we wanted was a team of Andy Whings. Injuries and age slowly crept up on him, and he announced his retirement to take up a coaching role with the club in 2015. Left the club in 2017 to coach Kidderminster Harriers. Last year joined Coventry City as an academy coach.

Jake Wright

Surly, mercurial centre-back Jake Wright joined in 2010, won promotion to the Football League. Led the team through Chris Wilder’s reign and the chaos that followed. Was Michael Appleton’s captain during the 2015/16 promotion season, voted best player of the first 10 years of Oxblogger that year. Left for Sheffield United in what looked like a reshuffle that had gone wrong. Enjoyed promotion to the Championship before injury limited his game time with the Blades.

Midweek fixture: Swindon 2012 remembered

It was March 2012 and tensions had been building for months; animosity writ large. Oxford United and Swindon Town never were friends; never would be, but now the seething cauldron was boiling over.

The recipe was incendiary; Oxford and Swindon hadn’t met in the league at Oxford for just short of 11 years. Even then, in 2001, we were a ghost of what we’d been, a walking dead, preoccupied by our failure. That predictable defeat, in a season of demoralising defeats, meant almost nothing. You can’t kill a man twice. There’d been a brief reunion in the FA Cup in 2002 and a joyous 1-0 win thanks to a glancing header from Jefferson Louis, but meeting as equals, in the league, offered its own special pleasures; a sense of parity being restored.

In the intervening years we’d headed off on an odyssey into the non-league. Derbies against Swindon weren’t on our radar, promotion back to the Football League was our only goal. Then we did it and we enjoyed our first season back. This, our second, had the added bonus – they had just been relegated and finally, we’d meet again as equals.

But this only scratches the surface of the narrative; we’d won the first game at the County Ground in the previous August, the first win on their patch in 39 years and the return fixture offered the opportunity of a double. In the intervening months, they’d recovered from that setback to comfortably lead the division, but there was a score to settle. Even more, they were being managed by Paolo Di Canio, the vaudevillian comedy villain, a fascist, a foreigner. On the other bench was the gritty English working class grafter, Chris Wilder, a non-league worker bee made good.

Di Canio had the panache and media savvy to stoke the derby; Swindon Town was his super-ego, it was like they’d become possessed by his mania. He claimed that James Constable, the Oxford goalscoring saviour whose double had given us our famous win in September, was a wholesome boy from the West Country. De Canio claimed he was a charlatan, he wore yellow for money, but his heart was forever in Swindon. The fable Di Canio spun was that Constable’s dad had taken him to the County Ground as a boy.

Di Canio went further; in the January transfer window he tried to lure Constable to his team who were all set for League 1. The club reluctantly accepted a £200,000 bid, which angered fans. As a business deal, it was too good an offer to ignore. It would have been a great career move for Constable, but a seismic blow to us. To lose him would be one thing, to Swindon, Di Canio’s Swindon, would have been too much to bear. Despite a fraught few weeks, Constable resisted and stayed, cementing his legend.

In the intervening months Di Canio’s Swindon were dominant. Up to the game they’d won 10 in a row and losing just one in 21. Our own form was OK, 1 defeat in 13, but they were winning, we were drawing. We were steady and difficult to beat, if we could play to our best, perhaps we’d hold them. Four points from the two games would have felt like a victory.

Then it fell apart. Captain, Jake Wright was injured a couple of weeks beforehand, breaking up a solid partnership with Michael Duberry in the middle of defence. His deputy, Harry Worley, was injured in the run up to the game forcing holding midfielder Andy Whing to drop back into defence. Then full-back Liam Davis was ruled out and replaced by the less dynamic Anthony Tonkin. Whing’s absence in the middle turned into a crisis when mercurial playmaker Peter Leven got injured.

The team suddenly looked unfamiliar and disjointed with players being moved to fill gaps and others being drafted in from the margins. Where there had been guarded optimism about winning a double, there was now a fear that we would be humiliated.

The Swindon derby is the game the media love to ignore. Despite the theatre of the rivalry and the endless desire to show more games at all levels of football, somehow Swindon v Oxford is never selected for broadcast. Even YouTube doesn’t have any official footage of the game. It is a derby that happens only for those who attend, and it is stronger because of it.

Tickets evaporated the moment they went on sale. The kick-off was brought forward to lunchtime; an attempt by the authorities to minimise drinking time and any potential for trouble. The sun shone, the slight chill of the morning slowly dissipated. Overhead a helicopter whirred loudly monitoring the crowd, behind the North Stand a steel wall was erected and buses of Swindon fans were driven in with police outriders into their compound. It was threatening and thrilling.

There’s a nervous tension before big games, some deal with it by singing loudly and talking boisterously, others internalise their stress, their legs ache, they wrestle with their flight instincts. You want it to be over, but you want to stay.

The stands started filling early; parking anxiety does that, the players warmed up trying not to notice the hum of expectation.

From kick off, Swindon were flowing and dominant, but we were keeping it tight. Or were we? Difficult to know, it just felt like it; like we were containing DiCanio’s seething ball of energy. Every time an attack was snuffed out, or a pass over-hit, there were ironic, but relieved cheers.

After 10 minutes the ball dropped to James Constable just inside the Swindon half in front of their fans who were goading him for his misplaced loyalty. He span and seemed to break away. The defender behind him, who was touch tight, fell to the floor. The referee blew his whistle and there was a melee. It wasn’t clear what the referee was blowing for – a foul by Constable? Holding by the defender? Concern about a head injury?

It felt like the game needed this, a brief relief of tension, some pushing and shoving, and then back to it.

The referee weaved his way through a crowd of players to stand in front of Constable. He pulled out a card. Yellow? 10 minutes into a derby? Perhaps to calm things down. No. Red. Oxford’s already decimated team had been struck down – the loss of a player was enough, the loss of your talisman, the epicentre of the whole drama for months, the one person we were, in essence, fighting over. It was crushing.

The shock was palpable; Constable disappeared down the tunnel having extracted himself from a crowd of Swindon players and their mix of mock sympathy and apoplexy at the supposed violence Constable had dished out.

Had Constable elbowed him? Deliberately? It didn’t look like it, his arm was out, but their fans didn’t seem to react, but none of it was conclusive, everything was a blur.

Where now? Scott Rendell would forage alone up front, he was big and strong, but he had no pace to stretch them. We were embattled and would have no option but to dig in and defend.

We needed to settle to the task and defend until we were on our knees. But that was later, this is now.

Minutes later, we won a free-kick at almost the exact spot Constable had committed his foul. Lee Holmes, a tricky winger on loan from Southampton, swung in a high looping cross that dropped on the edge of the six yard box, as the Swindon back line watched the flight of the ball, Asa Hall ghosted in connecting on the half volley past the flailing limbs of the Swindon keeper who had been caught between catching the cross and blocking Hall. 1-0.

The crowd erupted, from a deep despair to this in minutes.

Big games, big goals, there’s a moment immediately after you take the lead in a big game when the play continues before you’re ready. While we contemplated that Hall’s goal had given us a buffer, something to defend, a chance for a draw perhaps, we suddenly become aware that Holmes had the ball down the left flank. If he was clever, he might get a corner, he jinks to his left and gives himself an inch to roll the ball across the six yard box, it’s a proper daisy cutter with no pace; somehow it evades everyone and trundles into the path of Ollie Johnson who pokes home for two. TWO.

TWO!

And now we really had something to play for. 20 minutes gone, down to 10 men in an already injury ravaged team against our local rivals, and top of the league, Swindon, who have just taken 30 points from 30.

We were playing for immortality. On the sidelines Paolo DiCanio is on his haunches, head in hands, all that hubris, his magic failing him at a moment he most needed it. Johnson has a boyish grin on his face as he scrambles to his feet, it’s all caught on camera, each photo becoming iconic.

The clock slows to a glacial pace; Swindon push and probe, but we hold resolute, if they do break through, Ryan Clarke is there to save us. They win a corner, a ballboy, Aidan Hawtin picks the ball up and holds it to run the clock down. Their striker runs over and pushes him, Hawtin holds firm. The crowd go bananas, Clarke breaks it up; it’s ugly but everyone is playing their part.

Half-time comes, the break should have an effect; it could break their flow or our resolve. The players return and we get back to work. There’s none of the drama of the opening minutes, thankfully, but every minute takes hours to pass.

As we turn for home, there’s a dawning realisation that we could win this, or we could concede and then capitulate to a humiliating loss. Why isn’t this fun? Scott Rendell is on his knees. He’s had to do the work of two men, but put in a shift of 10. Ryan Clarke struggles with his kicking; you know you’re in a game when your keeper gets cramp. Michael Duberry and Andy Whing, with a combined age of 65, are exhaustingly disciplined.

There are more scares, they just become less frequent. Minutes click by. At some point we start to believe that we will hold for a draw, despite being in the lead, and comfortably so, then we start believing we might just win.

The whistle goes, relief, a giant euphoric sigh. Everything about the game said we’d lose, but we’d won. It wasn’t three points, it was so much more.

Walking from the ground, the helicopters buzzing above, the noise of antagonism and celebration, there’s something inside me still expecting them to score. It’s barely past lunch time and most of the day’s games haven’t even started, I feel like going to bed. Hours later I can still hear the noise of the crowd ringing in my ears, and when that eventually dissipates, all that’s left is the feeling. Years later, it’s still with me now, it’s why we go to football.  


Midweek fixtures: A tribute to the Oxford United Ultras

It’s not unusual to forget something when you move house; the bread maker in the loft or the cat. When Oxford United moved from The Manor to The Kassam, we forgot to pack our soul.

Rewind.

Rageonline tells me it was January 2006 about 2.40pm, we were playing Darlington. I was sitting in my car facing the East Stand. It was cold so I took a punt at parking in the car park, when I got there, I had my pick of the spaces. Nobody had bothered to turn up. We lost 2-0.

Two weeks later we were playing Rochdale. The mood was sombre, the atmosphere was dead. We didn’t know it, but the Kassam-era was coming to an end. In a few weeks fans would be storming the stadium in protest; days after Nick Merry and Jim Smith would stride out as the public face of our new owners.

Amidst all the bleakness, spontaneously, the East Stand struck up a heavy rhythm – clapping, chanting and banging seats – it was loud and unrelenting, completely at odds with the meandering on the pitch.

For the rest of the season, although we were tanking on the pitch, the fans started reclaiming their club. At the Manor, we inherited it from our forebears; it’s stories, the giant killings, promotions, the players; all soaked into the walls of the old place. We left it all behind; we became consumers, even though what we were consuming tasted increasingly sour. The fans had to reimagine its relationship with the club.

This wasn’t the start of the Oxford United Ultras, who announced recently they were folding after ten years, but the idea of fan participation was starting to stir. Despite relegation to the Conference, the embers of that idea remained. A giant flag was purchased and unfurled in time for every crushing defeat and false dawn. It was a gallant attempt at creating atmosphere, but the problem was that the noise from the East Stand was muffled and nobody could clap when holding it up.

In 2007, Aldershot Town visited the Kassam. It was early in the season and they were flying. Their fans had hold of their destiny – they turned up in huge numbers, festooned with flags and balloons; a wall of red and blue, willing them to succeed. It was a carnival of the like I’d never seen before. In stark contrast, Arthur Gnohere handled comically in the box conceding a penalty. They won 3-2, then went on to win promotion back to the Football League.

It was a low, but things were looking up. Chris Wilder took over in 2008 and went on a run that nearly got us into the play-offs. We were docked five points for playing an ineligible player, exactly the number of points we fell short by. The injustice of it all ignited something.

The summer was a blur – Wilder brought together a squad full of flair and aggression. Constable, Green, Midson, Clarke, Creighton; names that would become legends.

Off the field things were moving; fan groups, partly fuelled by social media, were emerging, planning and plotting. First pre-arranged areas for home games, then flags, then more. Many of the groups died, or merged, it takes energy to turn pub dreams into reality. There’s an irony about ultra movements; they seem unruly and anti-social, but in reality they have to be organised and structured, funding has to exist, people have to do things to do things.

I’m not keen on military analogies, but we became like an invading army. We had James Constable, Mark Creighton and Adam Murray controlling things on the pitch and a cacophony of flags and banners filling the away end, the air was filled with yellow and blue smoke bombs, our relative size in the Conference had been a burden, now it was becoming an asset.

I’ve said before that I know players rarely support the team they play for, but I want their time at Oxford to be the best of their career. Lower league football can be unforgiving and spartan, the joy of playing with the backing of the Ultras must have been immense.

We swept to promotion on a sea of optimism and a riot of colour. Back in the Football League, despite a couple of memorable wins over Swindon, but the fun started to dwindle. The flags were still waved; banners appeared at the back of the stand. There was something, but it was a battle to keep the energy going, particularly at home.  

In 2016, though, the movement peaked. The year kicked off with the now fabled Austrian tour, it is easy to forget that we drew 0-0 playing in the previous season’s kit with no sponsor. What is memorable is the crowd, the bewildered looks on the faces of the players at the fervent optimism. Without that, the tour would have been meaningless.  

The plan for the season was uncompromising; we weren’t just going for promotion, we were going for everything. In the JPT we were once again drawn against Swindon. Although they were in a division higher, the balance of power was shifting. The aim was not to beat them heroically as we had in 2011 and 2012, we were going to dominate them on and off the field.

Something special was promised by the Ultras, though the details were kept under-wraps, immediately before the game it wasn’t evident what was planned. As the players emerged from the tunnel, from the top of the East Stand, a flag was unbundled and passed down to the front.

The ambition was staggering; it stretched from the top of the East Stand to the bottom, featuring a giant, angry ox with a robin impaled on one of its horns. I am rarely stopped in my tracks at football; years of following the same club and the same routine does that to you, but this was nothing short of breathtaking.

At the Swindon end, a banner was meekly held aloft, some streamers disappeared into the night sky; we’d won and hadn’t even kicked off.

The season was a blur; against Swansea another display in the East Stand, criminally ignored by live TV cameras, then for the final game against Wycombe, another.

In between, the back wall of the East Stand was festooned with banners featuring a myriad of opaque cultural references – Time for Heroes (acknowledged by The Libertines on Match of the Day), Always and forever, Remember 86, That Sweet City. Even for run-of-the-mill games, the ultras brought life to our soulless home by quoting Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.

Promotion brought another reward – yet another pair of derbies against Swindon Town. A critical aspect of any victory is the ability to surprise; following the giant flag, the Robins knew something was coming. Whatever was being planned, the Ultra’s response needed to be beyond good.

Again, a plan was hatched, preparation was needed. The night before, the Ultras gave every seat in the East Stand a flag. It must have taken hours. The morning of the game was miserable and drizzly, but there was a bigger problem; a great section of the flags had been removed. Swindon fans? Kids? The plan had been scuppered. Or had it?

This is where the Ultras’ work is underestimated; rather than just giving in, they were back in the stadium repositioning the flags, removing the broken ones, making sure everything was right.

And just before 3pm, the effect was heart stopping, a sea of colour another crushing blow before a ball was kicked.

There were so many other displays – against Manchester City, for our 125th birthday, but in the background, politics was playing its part. All displays are going to test health and safety rules, if they don’t, then they’re probably not worth doing. The club started moving the goalposts, the Ultras felt like they were being taken for granted.

Perhaps they just ran out of energy and money, but it seems like The Ultras, the visual spirit of the club, became a pawn in ongoing arguments between the club and the stadium company. Like a divorcing couple using their kids to emotionally blackmail each other. Just after their 10th birthday, it was announced the Ultras would be retiring their flags at the end of the season, but another altercation with the stadium company finally killed their spirit and they closed.

If the Oxford United Ultras’ only contribution was to bring personality back to the club after it had been stripped bare by its owners, that would have been achievement enough. But they grew so much beyond that, they created defining moments in the modern history of the club.

And then some; we live in a world of corporate football, where atmospheres are paid for and organised by billionaire owners. People applaud fan movements, and visual spectacles, if there was a better, more authentic, more spectacular, more ambitious fan group in the country than the Oxford United Ultras, I’ve yet to see them.

Midweek fixture: Panini Cheapskates’ Best Oxford United drawings

If you ever feel a bit sad, there’s worse you can do than check out Panini Cheapskates on Twitter who specialise in hand drawn football stickers. They claim to be bad at drawing, but that’s what’s so good about them. And, they’re local, from East Oxford. A couple of weeks ago they started drawing Oxford legends, which you can, and should, buy here. These are my favourites.

Matt Murphy

2000/01 was our worst season. It didn’t deter me from thinking recovery was around the corner. Playing Notts County and on our best run of the season. We went two up, Matt Murphy rounding the keeper to prod home his second, nearly colliding with the post as he did. He looked into the London Road and gave me what can only be described as the ‘come to bed eyes’ depicted here. We lost the lead, and the game on our way to relegation.

Mickey Lewis

I once drove past The Manor, Mickey Lewis was coming out from the shop in the garage outside the London Road. He had a copy of The Sun and was eating a chocolate bar, if he didn’t have a packet of fags, he should have. He looked like this, surprisingly similar Josh Widdicombe. Many years later I was at a wedding with Mickey Lewis which ended with him in the bar telling the story of our 3-0 win over Wycombe Wanderers in 1996 while dry-humping a chair.

Alan Judge

I was once chatting idly with a friend of a friend (of a friend) in the pub. Somewhere along the line it came out that I supported Oxford. She, struggling to have anything meaningful to say, but said she had once seen Oxford at Wembley. An old boyfriend had taken her. She got free tickets because he worked for the club, she said. His name was Alan, Alan Judge. I’ve got to say, having seen Judge here, I can know what she saw in him. Sexy.

Maurice Evans

Imagine being manager of Oxford United’s greatest ever team on its greatest ever day. Imagine all the credit for Oxford United’s team on their greatest ever day going to the opposition’s manager. While that sinks in, imagine in your haste you hand your greatest personal moment on the greatest day in the club’s history to the club’s physio, allowing him to pick up your medal. It’ll probably give you a clue as to why Maurice Evans he’s so angry.

Jim Magilton

Jim Magilton was such a mercurial talent, he could run games from midfield with his graceful touch and rangey passing. He was integral to our survival in the Championship in the early 90s. Days after orchestrating a stunning 3-2 FA Cup giant killing at Leeds, it was announced that Magilton was moving to Southampton. Here, Panini Cheapskates have caught the look he gave when he saw how much they were paying him.

Paul Moody

Paul Moody looked like he hated football. Half his Oxford career was spent with Nigel Jemson, who thought nothing of screaming in his face in front of the London Road. After winning promotion in 1996 Moody went to Fulham. five years later, with his body falling apart, Firoz Kassam paid a stupid amount of money to bring him back to appease increasingly angry fans. This is very much the face Moody would have pulled when he was told about the deal.

Roy Burton

Roy Burton kept goal for Oxford for nearly ten years. It was a formative experience standing in the London Road, gazing at his bum crack poking out the top of his shorts as he hoofed the ball downfield. Burton seemed to be a permanent fixture at The Manor, then one-day he was gone. Caught here, is his expression when he found out he’d spent his entire career showing his arse off to the crowd.

Peter Rhodes-Brown

Peter Rhodes-Brown was a graceful master on the wing and a magician with a dead ball. Sadly Rosie’s career was dogged by injury and he missed the Milk Cup Final in 1986. Despite retiring early, he stuck with us as community officer, radio commentator and general all-round good guy. What you see here is the tired look of despair of a man who has spent the last 30 years with 3,000 people singing ‘Chelsea reject’ at him just before 4pm every other weekend.

Paul Powell


Paul Powell was such a talent I thought he’d play for England. There are few players who could almost choose when to beat a team, fewer still playing for Oxford. There was talk of him moving to the Premier League, but never made it and his career petered out. This is the face of a man who thought smoking fags in Didcot was a good career move, but is wrong.