The Glory Years were at their best during the two championship winning seasons in 1984 and 1985. But it didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t even all down to Jim Smith. Behind every great team, is another great team. This is the story of the unsung heroes of The Glory Years.
Judge, Trewick, Shotton, Briggs, Langan, Brock, Hebberd, Houghton, Phillips, Aldridge, Charles. THE team of THE seminal moment of THE era. But one that doesn’t tell the whole story. By the time we’d beaten QPR at Wembley the glory years were effectively over. Life in Division 1 was hard, we struggled every week. We plodded on for 3 more years, but it was hard graft during a miserable period in English football. Being there was not as fun as getting there. Here’s a story about getting there.
In the early 1980s Britain was in a state of collapse. Margaret Thatcher was affecting an economic revolution away from the arcane structures of the state-centred industrial revolution towards one based on personal ownership of the country’s assets. It was a painful transition; assets were sold into the private sector, obstructive unions crushed; while the private sector, lauded to fill the gap left by a shrinking state sector, struggled to accommodate the influx of poorly skilled labour that was ill-equipped to cope in the emerging global technology markets from Japan and US. Unemployment tipped over 3 million and continued to rise.
Football, in particular, was feeling the pinch; by tradition it was the past-time of the working classes, but their priorities were elsewhere. In feeding themselves and finding jobs. Into that vacuum came a disaffected youth. Football was the home for systemic hooliganism. Facilities were dire and there was little to attract people through the turnstiles, let alone to attract benevolent billionaires. Oxford, highly reliant on the custom of those working at the Cowley car plant in particular, were suffering. Cowley was a particularly militant wing of British Leyland; at the vanguard of fighting the privatisation of the car industry. But the grim reality was that Cowley was a dirty industrial wreck and British Leyland and then Austin Rover couldn’t compete with efficient, reliable mass production from Japan and Germany. What resulted was a near-decade long decline. Something new was needed, whether it was Thatcherism or something else. While it fought its own demons, Britain and British football perished.
Football would eventually become one of Thatcher’s arch enemies. She couldn’t reform it; it was a hive of villainy that she couldn’t get under control. It may have been resistant to the zealots of right wing economics, but its viability was eroding along with the traditional British working class. The impact on Oxford, and everywhere else, was falling gates. Oxford were seriously at risk of being on the wrong side of the poverty trap; those at the top of the game could survive through inertia, while those at the bottom faced a constant battle against extinction.
By the end of 1980 Oxford were falling apart; they were 22nd in the third division with no money. They had become reliant on the club’s lottery, which at its peak was pulling in upwards of £5,000 a week; but such profitable enterprises inevitably attract competition and soon the market was so crowded that the club suffered. Match day income wasn’t going to compensate the loss; in November of that season the club attracted its lowest ever league gate against Chester.
Just before Christmas Bill Asprey, the manager, was fired after steering the club to near inevitable relegation. In his place was Ian Greaves, a former Manchester United full-back under Matt Busby who had been fortunate enough to have not been on the plane during the Munich air disaster in 1958 due to injury. Greaves had won a championship medal two years earlier as an understudy to Bill Foulkes. After the disaster, he became a bit part player in the fabled Busby Babes. A third choice full-back by the time of the disaster, he was part of the team that improbably made the 1958 FA Cup final only to be beaten by Bolton.
On retiring he took up coaching, ascending to manage Huddersfield in 1964. Learning from his time under Matt Busby, Greaves nurtured some of the great talents of the time; most notably Frank Worthington. When he moved onto Bolton, and to illustrate the impact Busby (and, then Greaves) ultimately had on the Premier League era, he brought through Peter Reid and Sam Allardyce alongside Worthington and took Bolton to the top flight in 1977. At one point he was touted as a possible manager back at Manchester United, but was fired from Bolton as their fortunes stalled along with their limited resources.
With Oxford floundering and relegation becoming a likelihood, Greaves was appointed after a spell as assistant manager at Hereford. His first game on Boxing day 1980 was a 1-0 win over Charlton, who were top of the league and on a run of 13 wins and a draw out of the previous 14. It was the first time Oxford had avoided defeat in five games. They followed it up with a win at Reading, a draw at Rotherham and a 2-1 win at the Manor over Colchester, the first time they’d scored more than one goal in 16 games.
Greaves inherited a rugged but unspectacular squad, a classic of the the lower league type. Already in situ were a young centre-back pairing of Gary Briggs and Malcolm Shotton. Shotton had been brought in by Asprey at the beginning of the 1980/1 season from non-league football as a 23 year old. Shotton had nearly given up the game when he was released by Leicester, and had a job in a hosiery factory (‘stitching knickers’ as the press described it during the glory years). He would actually end the season as the club’s top goalscorer with 7 goals, albeit 4 were from the spot. Briggs, two years younger, had been fished out of Middlesborough reserves in 1978; the second player whose fee (£12,500) was decided by a tribunal.
Looking for goals, in Greaves’ third game in charge, blooded 19 year-old Andy Thomas, a graceful striker who would eventually gain a reputation as a super sub. Thomas joined Oxford’s beleaguered attack picking up his first goal in his third game against Sheffield United. He replaced Joe Cooke up front, the club’s captain, who had bagged just 3 goals all season. Greaves tried Cooke as a defender, partnering Gary Briggs, but his days were numbered, and was transferred to Mansfield Town at the end of the season.
Thomas’ partner up front was Peter Foley, a stalwart who had already been at the club for five years. A lower league Geoff Boycott, he was a diesel of a striker scoring with a slow unstinting grind. Foley scored 90 goals in 8 years, one of the club’s highest scorers, and yet only ended up the club’s top scorer on two occasions.
Greaves had also adopted Keith Cassells, a former postman. He was a busy striker who had played at Wembley (which the TV loved on FA Cup days) and had threatened to rot in non-league until Watford, and then Oxford, took him on. His transfer from Watford had been as a makeweight in a deal that had taken Les Taylor to the Hornets in a then record fee. Cassells arrived just before Asprey’s departure. His start was sluggish, failing to score in his first 10 games before breaking his duck at Walsall in March and then bagging a couple more before the end of the season.
Having lost 16 times before Greaves’ arrival, the club lost only 3 more times and ended the season safely in 14th. A miraculous performance given the predicament they found themselves in.
The close season was quiet, only Ollie Kearns had been signed, a sign of the stricken state the club was in. The club were losing £2k-£3k a week and posted a £170,000 loss despite the £100,000 income from Philips’ transfer. New players, and with it, any ambition, was a luxury the club could not afford.
The 1981/2 season opened with three consecutive wins, Cassells scoring twice, then 4 wins in the opening 5 games. The wheels fell off in September with three consecutive defeats but we won away at Millwall before going on a run of eleven games when either Thomas or Cassells scored.
Amidst this run Greaves introduced another Oxford teenager; Mark Wright for his league debut to take the place of the injured Gary Briggs in a home game against Bristol City*. He had played for the first team in the FA Cup the year before under Asprey. Wright was wiry, but unlike Shotton and Briggs had an elegance on the ball that set him apart from others. It would be the only game he played under Greaves, but his growing reputation was to prove significant.
Another player building a fearsome reputation was Cassells. In November he scored nine goals in five games including including a hat-rick in an FA Cup replay against Aldershot, and another one against Bournemouth in the 3rd round. In the fourth round, we were drawn away to 1st Division Brighton.
The cup run and good form was overshadowed by a more sobering issue. The threat of liquidation was looming, it even had a date: 11 January 1982; 12 days before the Brighton cup game. The inland revenue and Barclays Bank were forming a pincer movement on the club. A key revenue stream; the club’s lottery had collapsed. The total debt was around £200,000 but even more significant was the bank’s threat to stop honouring cheques if they hadn’t paid off their overdraft by the end of 1981.
In desperation, the club used a distant contact of the club’s assistant to the secretary to contact flamboyant millionaire Robert Maxwell who lived up the road at Headington Hill. According to Jim Smith, Maxwell’s attraction was not Oxford, but the opportunity to move grounds, merge it with Reading and, in a separate deal, buy Manchester United, which he tried to do. He was nothing if not ambitious. All three objectives would have been shrewd moves for Maxwell moving into the Premier League era. Maxwell insisted that he was being altruistic, which given his eccentricities is entirely possible.
In the short term Maxwell was the saviour. He fended off the threats of the bank and took over as Chairman on the 6th January, saving the club by five days.
The club had survived and on the 23rd January Oxford headed for the Goldstone Ground to play Brighton in the cup. Brighton had finished 14th, their highest ever finish, the year before and their team contained many of the players that would play in the FA Cup final against Manchester United a year later, including future Oxford captain Steve Foster.
3 years before Hillsborough and 10 years before the Premier League, things were different. Big teams played in ramshackle victorian shitholes, small teams played in small ramshackle Victorian shitholes. There were no alien and intimidating enormodomes. It would be another five years before Middlesborough built the Riverside to trigger the grand transformation of football stadiums.
Pitches were boglands by January, not the product of precise science they are today. Attitude played had far greater influence over results. Oxford emerged in front of 3000 followers resplendent in all yellow, with Adidas shirts and socks and Admiral shorts. For the first time they had a shirt sponsor – Saturday Journal. Greaves’ underdogs started like a freight train. Thomas tested keeper Moseley in the first minute. Wingers Smithers and Jones, who would later join Swindon, tested the keeper then Jones grazed the bar. At the back Shotton, Briggs and Burton marshalled the Brighton attack.
The breakthrough came in the 19th minute; Cassells lifting the ball over the oncoming keeper for, fittingly, his 19th goal of the season. Shortly before half-time the lead was extended with Peter Foley. Foley scored again shortly after the restart. Oxford had swept the Seagulls aside. It was the first giant killing against a top flight club for a decade and the biggest home defeat a first division club at the hands of opponents outside the top two divisions for 22 years. Peter Foley later described it as the turning point for the club.
A week later at Walsall, Oxford won again and the promotion bid was really on track.
The following Wednesday, as Oxford prepared for a home derby at the Manor against Reading rumours were rife that Greaves was about to be poached by top flight Wolves, who had sacked their manager John Barnwell the month before. The club were unable to confirm or deny the story due to the fact that Greaves wasn’t under contract and not obliged to give any notice. Behind the scenes Greaves, an old school manager, and Maxwell, a man used to getting his way clashed almost immediately. Maxwell took Greaves down a peg or two for losing his temper in a board meeting, according to Jim Smith. Greaves wasn’t prepared to hang around to see the glory days.
The crowds queued down the London Road waiting to get in still unsure as to whether Greaves had left or not. The kick-off delayed, eventually nearly 10,000 people rammed into the Manor with coach, Greaves’ assistant, Roy Barry in the dug out. Greaves had gone the day before. The club, apparently in shock, laboured to a 1-0 win.
Greaves was in charge for 54 games, a fraction over a year, the crippling financial constraints had meant he’d brought virtually nobody into the club. He’d taken the club to the edges of promotion and destroyed a first division team on their own ground. Had he stayed, with Maxwell’s money, it may well have been he and not Jim Smith that took us to the top division and Wembley. Instead, what he achieved was to stem the slide and with no money and virtually no new players, turn the team around to the point where they could compete.
His legacy, however, shouldn’t be under estimated. He made average players good. He put nearly 1000 people, 18%, on our home gate in the middle of a recession, allowing us to survive just long enough make the Brighton fixture and attract Maxwell. He’d fashioned Briggs and Shotton into a formidable centre-back partnership which had took us to Wembley four years later. When Smith arrived he wanted to replace them, but later described them as the most importnt component of our back-to-back championships.
In Thomas and Brock, we had two of the finest home grown players in the history of the club; Brock played for the England under-21s and was part of the Wembley winning team while Thomas was an unused substitute. Perhaps his greatest contribution was in turning Keith Cassells into enough of a prolific goalscorer to attract the attention of Southampton three months after Greaves left. Cassells was sold on, and later Wright taken to the Dell in exchange for winger George Lawrence and enigmatic midfielder Trevor Hebberd, who would go onto be man of the match at Wembley. Although Cassells never really made it at Southampton; a team which contained Kevin Keegan, Peter Shilton and Mick Channon, Greaves made him good enough for long enough to make him a saleable asset.
The rest of Greaves’ team was gone within 6 months.
Greaves died in 2009, there was a muted response to his death from most Oxford fans – there was no special tribute on the front of the programme as the had done with Maurice Evans. most of whom will be unaware of how important he had been in setting us up for glory.
* incidentally, although I’d been to Oxford games before visiting my grandparents in Abingdon, I generally consider this my first game as a proper fan. My dad, seeing Wright, predicted that he would play for England. A prediction he still reminds everyone of today.