George Lawrences Shorts: Shotts-on target

Saturday 14 December 2019

In a vacuum, nobody can hear you scream. A 0-1 defeat to legal commercial sports entertainment entity MK Dons brought Oxford United’s 18 game unbeaten run to an end. Oxford fans made up over 2,500 of the crowd with the home support made up of over 8,000 soulless ghouls whose disinterest in the game seemed to suggest they’d taken a wrong turn looking for the soft furnishings section of the Ikea next door.

Sunday 15 December 2019

We live in Christophe Wilde’s world now; a world of real men, straight talking, real talking and straight men. Now Brexit’s getting done, bar decades of debilitating trade negotiations, Christophe’s Premier League sophistication slipped as he talked about gritty northern real stuff and Jim Smith to the Yorkshire post.  

Monday 16 December 2019

Now Charlie Methven has hung up his brown suede moccasins, Sunderland are looking to the future. The struggling League 1 minnows are interested in Feyenoord midfielder Liam Kelly to support their push to mid-table. But, if Kelly prefers to get a four to six week mid-season break with a spurious soft muscle injury KRob is also interested.

Meanwhile, do you remember the time Hull City goalkeeper Alan Fetis scored against us in 1994? Us neither, but you can read about it here.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

It was the Fans’ Forum on Tuesday. Tiger turned up in a pair of slippers and braces, like your dad wearing all his Christmas presents at the same time while watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. Zaki the Unstoppable Sense Machine threatened to record a club song with a local musician. We look forward to Jamie Mackie spitting sick bars over Radiohead’s ethereal electronica underlaid by moody static and spartan syncopated beats; a real terrace anthem.

Malcolm Shotton spoke to The Daily Mail about his days as Oxford captain. Ah, the 80s – a team of attacking flare and joie de vivre, or as Shotts remembers it, an opportunity to assault some of the era’s finest football talent. 

Back in the real world, every morning KRob conducts daily press briefings and interviews. With Manchester City visiting on Wednesday; this time there were people there to listen to him. Everyman KRob, spoke to vegan sandal wearing cosmopolitan elitists The Guardian and the racist, small minded Brexit elitists The Telegraph.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Football club as produced by Artificial Intelligence algorithm, Manchester City, strolled into town for the Type 2 Diabetes Cup quarter final, securing a 3-1 win. Matty Taylor delivered a flesh wound to the marauding monster seconds into the second half.

Preceding the game, the Oxford Ultras put in an impressive display as a tribute to Jim Smith. The original plan was for an image of the legend’s face, but catastrophe struck when three ultras collapsed in exhaustion during the set up after getting lost in the middle of the great man’s bald head.  

Thursday 19 December 2019

We woke up with a sick feeling in our stomach on Thursday morning. Not because of last night’s result, but because of the mental image of KRob soaking in a warm bath with an Andy McNab novel, his man breasts gently bobbing in the lapping warm water, soapy bubbles coalescing around his nipples. KRob’s pre-match bathing routine was one of many things we learnt after a Telegraph reporter was embedded in the Oxford camp in the run up to our game against Manchester City.

Friday 20 December 2020

Tomorrow we are visited by plucky non-leaguers Wycombe Wanderers, led by divorced dad at the school disco Gareth Ainsworth. The Chairboys, whose nickname comes from the fact they often sit at the bottom of the table, feature Ade Akenfenwa, who has the reputation of having the world’s fattest ego. Oxford will still be without wunderkind Ben Woodburn, who has contrived to break his foot while recovering from breaking his other foot.  

George Lawrences Shorts: Ooh, my Dickie ticker

Saturday 7 December 2019

There was a lot of camaraderie on the touchline on Saturday as both managers agreed their team was best after the 0-0 draw with Shrewsbury. With injuries to Anthony Forde and James Henry, Oxford ended the game with so many casualties, Boris Johnson promised to build 426 new hospitals on the moon to treat them all, and people believed him too. 

Sunday 8 December 2019

Angle faced Shrewsbury manager Sam Ricketts felt his team were well worth their point; “You could hear the home supporters getting frustrated.” he said. This is a familiar sound to the former Oxford player who heard it every time he appeared at the Kassam.

Monday 9 December 2019

Bad news from Saturday after it was revealed that Anthony Forde popped his lung resulting from his broken ribs. It’s possible that James Henry’s injury is not as bad as first thought; so we can all breathe more easily about that. Unless you’re Anthony Forde, of course.

Tuesday 10 December 2019

Sad news as it was announced that dome bonced managerial genius Jim Smith had died. Smith was responsible for unprecedented success at the club, signing legends like John Aldridge, Billy Hamilton, Trevor Hebberd and Gary Twigg. He was also the man responsible for George Lawrence pulling on a pair of unnecessarily tight shorts for the club. We love you Jim.  

The Milton Keynes Jim Smith, KRob, is still sorely missed at MK Dons. In six years he guided them to The Championship, developed players like George Baldock and Deli Ali and literally didn’t steal another club’s place in the league.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Potty mouthed KRob has been charged by the FA. He’ll contest the accusation because he thinks it’s a fucking pile of cunting bollocks.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Pocket racist Sam Deering has been talking to something called the World Football Index about his ‘career’. The best player he’s played with is Ricky Holmes who is currently plying his trade in the (physio’s treatment room of the) Premier League. Sadly there was no tribute to any ‘Paki nurses’ who looked after him when he was injured.

There is no obstacle we can’t overcome after it was revealed that in FIFA 20 not only do Oxford United need to beat Championship Millwall in the virtual world, they have to do it with a zombified version of Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford standing in the centre-circle.

He’s a cryin’ talking’ sleepin’ walkin’ livin’ haystack; Boris Johnson has swept to victory in the General Election. We can reveal the secret to his baffling success – his campaign bus of lies was the Oxford United’s first team’s coach. It’s got that winning vibe.

Friday 13 December 2019

It’s the Crazy Gang on Saturday as we head for footballing pariahs MK Dons for the start of the 12 Days of Footballmas. Bookie monster Alex Gorrin is back and James Henry might make the bench, so while the our midfield woes could be clearing up, our defensive troubles may be just around the corner; Derby County are apparently interested in sulky sixth former Rob Dickie. Oh good.

Midweek fixture: Jim Smith

The first Oxford United manager I remember was Ian Greaves. In 1980 my family moved back to the area which allowed my dad to fulfil his parental duties by taking me to The Manor on a regular basis just as Greaves was orchestrating a dramatic change in the club’s fortunes.

One night, before a game against Reading, we joined an abnormally long queue which stretched down the London Road. The queue rippled with rumour that Greaves had gone to Wolves. I didn’t want to believe it, hoping that he’d be in the dug out as usual when we got into the ground. He wasn’t.

Jim Smith was recruited by Robert Maxwell shortly after, my dad was impressed in that slightly distant way dads are. Smith had a solid track record at Birmingham and, though it appeared a step down for him, it was a coup for us.

He was the archetypal football manager – sheepskin coats, neat spirits and fat cigars. He was a parody, but football in the eighties was a wild and violent place; there was trouble on the terraces and corruption and bankruptcy, both moral and financial, in the boardrooms. To thrive you had to hustle and that’s what Smith was built for.

The eighties for Oxford United is now portrayed as a riot of results and promotions, but it wasn’t immediate. Smith took a year or so to find his feet, but then suddenly we were competing and beating the best in the country.

It was an attack on the senses growing up. What had been a way to distract me on the weekend became an adventure that would shape and define me. It provided me with stories, heroes and memories that would last a lifetime. It took me to places where I learned life skills; how to handle and read big crowds, how to avoid trouble, about the power of a community and a club. We were national news as we swept aside Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds and achieved back-to-back championships.

The Manor, hidden from view during the day, glowed at night as the games grew in significance; a searing light in a dark Oxford suburb. We swarmed towards it. The club, once a footnote in the vibrant story of the city became a hub and a hive, but not just for the dons and the dandies, but for the factory workers and regular Oxfordshire folk.

Just as it reached its peak, weeks before our first game in the top flight, Smith was gone. Contract negotiations with Robert Maxwell had been delayed by the Heysel Stadium disaster. By the time they resumed, QPR had pounced.

Smith’s team went into its biggest challenge without its biggest influence. Maurice Evans steered a steady course to survival and to Wembley where we came face-to-face with Smith once again. On our greatest day, we needed to beat the great architect of our success. It was poetic.

Smith wasn’t perfect, he was always better with an assistant, at Oxford he had Maurice Evans, at Derby he had Steve McLaren, at Portsmouth, Harry Redknapp. But it was his irrepressible spirit and bonhomie that bound the club together. It’s held ever since.

While Smith and the club headed off in different directions, there was always part of him left behind. But, it couldn’t last and while we battled gamely against the forces against us, there was a slow and inevitable slide.

By 2006 we were emotionally, psychologically and physically beaten; years of oppression and neglect left us damaged. There was one final desperate act of resistance as fans stormed the executive box to remonstrate with Firoz Kassam who seemed to revel in our misery. Days later, out of the blue, it was announced that the club had been sold to a consortium fronted by Nick Merry. At his side was Jim Smith. He’d returned to save us.

Smith took over as manager, the homecoming, against Peterborough, was euphoric. I remember feeling the sense of release as he appeared from the tunnel. But, it only papered over the cracks – Kassam still owned the ground and Smith wasn’t a miracle worker. Rationally, his arrival destabilised us just as we seemed to be digging in to avoid relegation, emotionally, despite the collapse that sent us to the Conference, it was just what we needed.

It didn’t work out; Smith grew frustrated at the limitations of his players, his network of hidden gems and reliable old hands started to crumble, above all, his health seemed to be failing him; his voice slurred and his face became puffy and red. He lost his magic and eventually the club moved him on in the most dignified way it could.

He’d still appear in the executive box, overlooking what he’d created as the club eventually dug its way out of the hole it was in. While we celebrated the promotions, giant killings and derby wins throughout the 2010s Smith quietly left the party. We turned around, and he was gone.

When he didn’t appear for our 125th anniversary game last year, it was obvious that something was wrong. After that, it was just a matter of time before the news eventually came that he’d passed.

Jim Smith’s name is still sung by the home fans, most of whom are too young to remember him in his prime. It’s a testament to his achievements that he remains in the fabric of the club and its people.

And that is ultimately Smith’s legacy; without him we wouldn’t have had the memories of top flight football and The Milk Cup. More importantly, when things got tougher, the spirit that Smith created, the memories, the people who bonded in his name battled on through. He gave us something to fight for. Those who were there, passed that spirit on to those who weren’t, they kept coming to games, keeping the club afloat, giving investors something worthwhile to spend their money on, without him we may just have crumbled to dust, another meaningless backwater club of no discernible purpose. Smith ensured that we were more than just a side-bar conversation.

If Joey Beauchamp is our Dixie Dean, then Jim Smith is our Bill Shankly. He may be gone, but look what he left behind.

Games of Note: Peterborough

4 May 1996 – 4-0 Home

The last game of the 1995/96 season, the week before we’d snuck into the automatic promotion places after a scintillating late season run. One more game, three more points, and then Denis Smith can wear a ginger wig and claim to be a future England manager.

25 March 2006 – 1-0 Home

After years of being trapped in a loveless relationship with Firoz Kassam, suddenly we were free. Our saviours? Nick Merry and Jim Smith. Their first game, a 1-0 win over Peterborough came with a goal from T’Cham N’Toya. It started beautifully, it just didn’t end so well.

20 August 2016 – 2-1 Home

Back in League 1 but no wins, we could really do with three points and a dose of last minute shithousery. Ah, Mr Maguire, so nice to see you.

30 September 2017 – 4-1 Away

Three defeats on the trot conceding eight goals in the process, what we really need to do is to go to promotion threatening Peterborough. A goal down at half-time, where do we go from here?

20 April 1993 – 2-1 Home

The eighth anniversary of our Milk Cup win, when shorts were short and Chris Allen had no control over his legs. Proper football.

Chris Wilder: our greatest ever manager?

The title of this post has a very deliberate question mark at the end. Only time will tell how Chris Wilder is remembered, in the coldness of his immediate departure it probably seems a ludicrous idea that he might be considered amongst the greats. But, is it?

There’s an old trick in music journalism. When describing someone’s music you list three comparable acts, the first two are easily recognisable, the third should be completely obscure. So you might say something like; ‘with a sound that is a cross between The Artic Monkeys, The Stone Roses, and Herbert’s Juniper Cello.’ The first two are for the benefit of the reader, the third gives credibility to the journalist.

So when talking about Oxford United’s greatest manager, expect someone to offer the name Arthur Turner. To know Turner’s achievements is to reveal either a grand old age, or a credibility enhancing deep knowledge of our history. His achievements may have been greater than all those who followed, but I wasn’t alive when he was manager, so, when considering our greatest ever manager, I’m not going to count him.

At last count, we’ve had 26 managers since I’ve been a ‘proper’ Oxford fan – that is since I’ve consciously considered them to be my team. This includes 6 caretakers and a few repeat offenders (Jim Smith, Denis Smith and Darren Patterson). Just four have won anything; the Smiths, Jim and Denis, Maurice Evans and Chris Wilder. I have a soft spot for Ian Greaves, but when talking about the best of that vast batch, it’s difficult to include anyone who simply did a decent job.

Maurice Evans, of course, was the steward for our greatest ever achievement; the Milk Cup in 1986. That success was tempered by the fact the team he did it with was constructed by the man on the opposite bench, Jim Smith. Only Ray Houghton was an Evans addition. In support of his greatness, he also kept us in the First Division, which was no mean feat, and whilst it was always a struggle, this included an often forgotten League Cup Semi-Final in 1989.

Evans’ success as a manager reinforces just how important he was in the success of Jim Smith. Smith is the default greatest ever manager in most debates, and for good reasons; he jettisoned us from obscurity to the big time with two titles. The only manager, during my lifetime, to actually get us promoted as champions, and he did it in consecutive years.

Smith blotted his copybook a little with his heavy handed return in 2006. There were some mitigating factors; we were in a desperate slide and at 66 he wasn’t at his sharpest. It was a case of heart ruling head. What it also revealed was how much Smith thrived when supported by an able assistant – which in the main he wasn’t during his second spell. Maurice Evans played that role in the glory years, finding the likes John Aldridge. Later in his career Smith had some more success with Derby, where he was supported by Steve McLaren who despite some ridicule still coached Manchester United’s treble team of 1999, took Middlesborugh to a UEFA cup final, managed England and took FC Twente to a Dutch title.

Smith, first time around, was also funded by Robert Maxwell. Although this didn’t offer Abramovich levels of largess, it wasn’t inconsiderable in the impoverished world of 80’s football. There’s no doubt that Smith’s successes were significant, but we shouldn’t ignore the favourable environment he was in.

The same can’t be said for Denis Smith who took over the club while it was in happy stagnation. Smith’s predecessor; Brian Horton, has passed into legend with the almost ubiquitous London Road chant of the time ‘Horton Out’.

Smith’s arrival came at a time when the fans’ expectations and the club’s capability fell out of line. We expected to be higher than we were able to be. Maxwell died in 1991 taking with him the finances that had sustained our success. The club were regressing back to its normal state of being a plucky, if small, club.

Although he ultimately failed, Smith made a decent fist of trying to keep us in the Division 1 when he arrived in 1994. He sustained the feel-good factor for the first half of the following season before we fell away. In 1995 the hangover of the previous season seemed to be hanging heavy and we chugged on unremarkably. But, Smith had assembled a strong team with Whitehead, Elliot, Gilchrist, Moody and Beauchamp amongst others. He may well have lost his job and with it gained the obscurity others have since enjoyed, but eventually things began to click leading to a late run and promotion at the end of that season. Smith sustained the progress of the club as its finances fell apart, but jumped ship for West Brom in 1997.

The occassionally patchy form, inflated expectations, Smith’s prodigious ego (reminding people that he was being considered for the England job) and nature of his departure means that he wasn’t that well liked, but he did a pretty decent job all things considered.

Where does Chris Wilder feature in this debate? He’s more like Denis Smith than Jim Smith in that he managed the club in largey unfavourable times. Wilder took over when we were demonstrably going backwards. He built a key partnership with Kelvin Thomas, but things didn’t look good. At least Denis Smith took us over when we were standing still and still had the fast-failing glow of Premier League football in our arsenal.

Wilder changed the club completely, using its strength – it’s size and history to its advantage whereas previously it had been a millstone. While he didn’t sign them all, he had players that thrived on being the big boys in town; Murray, Midson, Green, Turley, Creighton.

Despite criticism that he couldn’t manage strikers, he managed to switch on James Constable, which gave us the first genuine Oxford hero in a generation.

Above all, Wilder gave us memories. Wembley, of course. Swindon, three times. The play-off semi-final against Rushden, the last minute against York and Wrexham, Peter Leven’s goal against Port Vale, Tom Craddock’s last minute winner against the same team and the 4-1 win over Portsmouth.

I don’t buy the idea that Wilder didn’t achieve enough in the time he had at the club. Had he achieved more, then he would have left much earlier than he did because he would have been plucked by a larger team with more finances. In the end, he achieved what he achieved. It is not necessarily the ratio of success to duration that should define his achievements; it is the quality of the memories he left behind.

The frustrations around Wilder more recently will fade in time, what I hope will be left are these memories. For me, one of my strongest lasting memories is perhaps a strange one. After our win over Swindon at home, I headed back to quiet domesticity at home by walking the children into town to buy some books. The adrenaline was still pumping, my ears were ringing and the memory still burned brightly. The sun came our and shone gently on my cheek. It gave me a momentary flashback to playing in the garden after a day watching the FA Cup final as a child. Those FA Cup final days are one of my happiest memories. They were revitalised, in a form, by Wilder decades later.

I think his time in charge represents a golden age for the club. He is, at least, on a par with Denis Smith in terms of greatness. I could easily argue that he’s offered more in terms of the sheer volume of good times.

Jim Smith and Maurice Evans’ successes were both greater in terms of stature, but both were given the envinronment to achieve what they did. Chris Wilder had to turn a ship around before he could make it progress; a big lumbering, rusting ship. Promotion from the Conference is the narrowest of windows, so there was little room for error, and he still got us up. As big an achievement as any I’ve seen.

Is he the best? Difficult to say. It will take a lot to topple Jim Smith but we would be wrong to dismiss Wilder as a credible challenger to that crown.

Ian Greaves and the glory before the glory

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.

Oxford United – For Sale?

It wasn’t the biggest Twitter bomb of the week, that was reserved for Jonnie Marbles and his custard pie, but the reaction to the Dispatches – How to Buy a Football Club was fierce.

As the title suggests, the programme claimed to reveal how easy it was to buy a football club. Not that the reporters did that, you understand. They met with a puffy faced Thai, Joe Sim, who claimed he could arrange deals to buy teams like Sheffield United (current debt: £58 million).

With him was Bryan Robson who offered invaluable advice on how to realise the millions hidden in these debt-ridden carcasses. Basically, sell your training ground to a supermarket, bring in loads of brilliant players on loan and reach the Premier League, then sell your club for £100million+. Is that all? Thanks Bryan.

It’s not exactly news that bullshit merchants are looking to make a few quid from football. And Bryan Robson has had his body and credibility battered by the game. So his callousness shouldn’t be a surprise.

More ‘proof’ came from pictures of Sim with a bigwig from Sheffield United. But if you had £58million of debt, you’d probably share a couple of hours with every kook that came knocking claiming to have millions of pounds in his pocket.

We got a couple of mentions with the insinuation that we were close to falling into an abyss of corruption. We’re a club that has growth potential, a good infrastructure, ground and a sound fan base. Investors scratching around for investment opportunities in football may well consider us a second glance.

That doesn’t necessarily explain how we were identified alongside Cardiff, Leeds and the two Sheffield clubs. Here’s my theory. The lynchpin of British football is Sir Alex Ferguson. Sim was an egomaniac who made much of his contacts with the man, despite the programme’s insinuation that he had, there was no evidence that he’d ever actually benefited from knowing him.

It’s quite conceivable that Sim had, at some point, through Sir Alex, met his good mate, Jim Smith. And that somewhere along the line it was mentioned that Smith had connections with Oxford. From that Sim could then claim that through his vague network of football contacts that he could, theoretically, put investors in contact with people who might have an influence over the sale of the club. But that’s it really. I don’t think we’re very close to being taken over by evil gambling rings as the programme suggested. We can probably rest up for now.