Midweek fixture: The 1983/4 Milk Cup run

While Jim Smith and Robert Maxwell were trying to affect a revolution at Oxford United, by 1983 progress towards a new dawn was still fairly slow. The previous season had seen the club finish a creditable 5th in the 3rd Division and, while hopes were growing, Jim Smith’s only addition to the squad had been Paul Hinshelwood, an elegant full-back from Crystal Palace. What nobody anticipated was the epic Milk Cup run that would help define the season and propel the club to a level never previously imagined.

Round 1 – Oxford United 1 Bristol City 1, Bristol City 0 Oxford United 1 (Agg: 2-1)

The Milk Cup was a more bloated affair in the 1980s with the early rounds played over two legs. Oxford opened their account in August with a 1-1 draw over 4th Division Bristol City at The Manor, Kevin Brock getting the goal. The second leg was nearly two weeks later, a 1-0 win with Andy Thomas scoring at Ashton Gate. Both had played in Jim Smith’s first game in March 1982, three years later, both would be in the squad at Wembley for the Milk Cup Final.

Round 2 – Newcastle United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 2 Newcastle United 1 (Agg: 3-2)

Though we were top of Division 3, Round 2 was a major step up. We drew Second Division promotion seekers Newcastle United. There’s was a star-studded team, captained by England skipper Kevin Keegan and featuring Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley in their ranks. 

Steve Biggins helped himself to a goal in a 1-1 draw at St James’ Park in the first leg. Back at The Manor, a ferocious attacking display saw a 2-1 win with goals from Neil Whatmore and Andy Thomas while Gary Briggs was sent off late on for a challenge on Keegan.

Round 3 – Leeds United 1 Oxford United 1, Oxford United 4 Leeds United 1

Second tier Leeds United at Elland Road was another huge draw featuring internationals Peter Barnes, Kenny Burns and Frank Gray. Buoyed by the Newcastle result, a Mick Vinter goal earned the draw which brought the Yorkshire team back to a freezing Manor ground where goals from Brock, Thomas, Vinter and Bobby MacDonald destroyed them 4-1. Jim Smith described the display as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Round 4 – Oxford United 1 Manchester United 1, Manchester United 1 Oxford United 1 (aet), Oxford United 2 Manchester United 1 (aet)

Round 4 was epic; Manchester United were FA Cup holders and second in Division 1. To add spice, they were managed by former Oxford United legend Ron Atkinson, an old friend of Jim Smith’s and the one who had helped get him the Oxford job in the first place.

An hour before kick-off, The Manor was already full. Mark Hughes scored his first professional goal for Manchester United in his first ever start, but Bobby MacDonald stabbed home for a 1-1 draw and a trip back to Old Trafford. Listen to The Manor roar.

Over 3,000 Oxford fans travelled north for the replay. Assuming the tie was a foregone conclusion; there was only minimal TV news coverage present to see Kevin Brock put us ahead at Old Trafford with 20 minutes to go. An equaliser by Frank Stapleton a minute later saw the game heading for extra-time and then a second replay.

Manchester United offered to host the tie, citing the financial benefits, but Robert Maxwell refused. There was talk about it being held at the neutral Villa Park. In the end, the venue was decided by the toss of a coin, Maxwell called it right and everyone headed back to The Manor. 

Six days before Christmas, Arthur Graham gave Manchester United the lead after 38 minutes but George Lawrence stabbed home to drag us back into it. The tie, again, went into extra-time, when Steve Biggins’ looped a header over the head of ‘keeper Jeff Wealands for the winner and one of the most famous wins in the club’s history.

Quarter-Final – Oxford United 1 Everton 1, Everton 4 Oxford United 1

Having slayed the biggest of giants over an epic three games, the draw against Everton seemed entirely winnable. With Aston Villa waiting in the semi-final – the team we’d face at that stage in 1986 – Wembley was actually in sight.

The Manor heaved with anticipation, exploding into life when Bobby MacDonald put us a goal up. Oxford threatened to extend their lead and looked comfortable as the game ticked into its final stages. Then Kevin Brock picked the ball up in midfield, under hit his back pass to Steve Hardwick allowing Adrian Heath to nip in and secure an equaliser. Steve Biggins missed an open goal in the last minute, meaning a replay at Goodison Park.

Jim Smith admitted that he got over-confident for the replay, underestimating his opponents. Brock’s backless seemed to pop our bubble, and in the replay, played in a blizzard, we succumbed 4-1 with Paul Hinshelwood getting the goal.

The result saved Everton manager Howard Kendell’s job and sparked them into a life which led to an FA Cup win, Cup Winners’ Cup and League title win. We went onto win the 3rd Division title at the end of the season, but as an adventure – eleven games, five months and three huge giant killings – few runs were bettered.

A refreshing change

The first round of the League Cup is perhaps the weirdest game of the season. Few clubs involved harbour genuine ambition of going far in the competition and you have to go fairly deep into it (or get very lucky) before you draw a genuine money-spinning tie. So, in that sense, it seems obvious to rest first-teamers and give fringe players a leg stretcher.

On the other hand, we’re just three days into the new season and players are still looking for rhythm and sharpness. With just one competitive game under their belts its also difficult to know whether you’re on or off form.

The manager doesn’t have the benefit of half a season to assess under what kind of threat their job might be under. Cup runs can offer a respite from the pressure of the league and sustain, if not save, people’s jobs. But the manager can’t tell after one game whether what he has at his disposal is a team shooting for promotion or fighting relegation. This, ultimately, defines how important or otherwise the cups are.

Then, of course, there’s your opponent, who is in much the same position. Bristol City, for example, had a good opening away win in the league and stand 5th in League 1 after just one game. They are in the promotion race but by next Sunday could be in the relegation zone, by the end of the season they could be facing League 2 football and we will face them as peers. That’s what happened with Bristol Rovers in 2010.

So, it’s difficult to know just how good a League Cup win is. Particularly if you add the conundrum about whether or not they are taking the competition seriously and playing a full-strength team.

What is of little doubt, however, is that we really needed that win. We are on a venture into the unknown, with a new manager and several new players, plus some brow beaten and skeptical fans. The league hasn’t been kind to us with few games coming up that you might confidently hope for some points. A few barren weeks could be catastrophic to morale. As they say, you may not be able to win the league at this stage in the season, but you can lose it. While winning the league might be beyond us, we surely need some early success if we’re going to have a good season – however that might be defined.

In particular, a goal for Morris seemed essential. He has no experience or track record and a barren spell is likely to be damaging to his confidence. For all his outward confidence, he doesn’t know whether he can cut it in senior football and going out on loan must be unnerving; it doesn’t exactly scream confidence from your manager that your breakthrough is imminent. He also looks like a player who needs confidence to perform. Historically big target men like Paul Moody and Steve Anthrobus need good and plentiful supply to get goals. They don’t create goals themselves (Paul Moody’s solo goal against Cardiff in 94 aside, perhaps). So if the supply dries up, then so do the goals and confidence. And then to complete the vicious cycle, players around him lose confidence and try to work around the target man, not through him, to find success. If you add in the weight of expectation that might occur given that he’s wearing James Constable’s shirt, an early goal of whatever nature, seems essential.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but a win is a win. While the context is difficult to judge, whether we’re playing a full-strength team destined for promotion to the Championship or an understrength team in free fall to League 2; or any combination of those two extremes, there can be few that will argue that we needed that.