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.

Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

Newcastle wrap – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0

If the build-up to Saturday’s Cup game was anything to go by, Newcastle fans think they exist in a Premier League bubble that, in reality, they don’t belong to. There was a general apathy towards the tie; we were just Oxford – insert blank look and indifferent shrug – generically from ‘the lower leagues’, a shadowy movement at the bottom of a pond. They knew little of us and cared even less, their team would cruise through to face someone more worthy of their attention.

Hopefully they’ll get back to where they occasionally belong before the bubble pops; it could be a devastating shock otherwise. Some appear to know there’s a ticking clock on this; one tweeter said it was a case of ‘no promotion, no Rafa’ as though the club owed the manager success, not the other way around. What a weirdly desperate world they live in.

The reality is that there is far less between most professional football clubs than the money gaps suggest. Those thinking we’d be a pushover miss the fact that Lundstram, Ledson, Martinez and Hall have all come from Premier League backgrounds while Maguire, Hemmings and Johnson have Scottish Premier experience. From a technical and temperament perspective, they are all capable of playing at a higher level. Others; Sercombe, Skarz, Dunkley have plenty of big game experience at the Kassam. To the outsider we might be ‘lower league’ but on any given day the differences between us and those above us are tiny.

Then there’s the Newcastle mind-set; the players that were picked know they’re not favoured by the manager. If Newcastle get promoted, it’s likely they’ll be shipped out to make way for better players. Also, it’s widely accepted that draws in the cup are the worst possible outcome. Defeats are surely unacceptable, but if the manager does nothing to suggest a win is desirable, how can a player know what the right mind-set is?

Michael Appleton overcomes this dissonance by simply playing to win regardless of whether it’s the league, FA Cup or Checkatrade. He rarely makes significant changes to personnel; the philosophy is that you try to win all games, not just the financially important ones.

If both teams applied its ‘quality’ consistently and in a linear way, then the difference between a Championship and League 1 team is so small, it would only show in the last few minutes of a game. It’s more complicated, of course, players’ physical, mental and technical abilities fluctuate throughout games and that’s when differences can be seen and, more importantly, when you have to take your chances.

Newcastle’s potential threat first emerged around the half-an-hour mark. Up to that point we’d been buoyant but disciplined, more than a match. A few concentration lapses and we were at sixes and sevens; but up steps Simon Eastwood to perform a formidable rear guard. Mitrovic, the main culprit, is surly from the first whistle, Nelson roughed him up and he didn’t seem to recover. It’s all very well being a Diego Costa-type, but if the trolling knocks your composure then it’s a waste of time.

Eastwood takes the glory but this is John Lundstram’s game. Lundstram is a central figure in this year’s team. Last year, he was one of many outlets we had to win games. This year we’re more of a single unit with Lundstram the central cog; if he’s off form then we become reliant on the moments of skill from Maguire or others. When he’s on it, everyone performs.

There are two Lundstrams, one is the diesel, where the game passes him buy for 20 minutes while he gets going. The other is tenacious from the first minute. He makes his own luck, puts people in their place and dictates the game from the off. On Saturday, he was the latter, an early challenge sets the tone, and he owns the game from thereon in.

Half time offers another threat. Against Barnsley in the JPT it killed us, legs became heavy, minds more tired as the adrenalin ebbed away. But we manage the break and they’re the ones looking lethargic. Maguire, Dunkley, Hemmings; a complete sucker punch. 1-0.

Mitrovic shows a glimpse of guile dragging Edwards 10 yards into the box before stumbling and falling to the floor. It was a penalty, albeit cynically won. The Serb grabs the ball but the game pivots on Eastwood’s brilliant save. Minutes later, Nelson rises to nod home and make it 2-0; he’s been slower to this year’s party, but he’s starting to fill the massive gap left by Jake Wright. Newcastle fans who have been noisy throughout head for the exits just like, well, just like Sunderland fans do.

Martinez comes on and plays like a new pair of shoes, he looks good but doesn’t quite fit with everything else. It reminded me of David Rush’s debut against Leyton Orient in 1995. He came on, looked lively but undisciplined, we conceded from a corner because he neglected his defensive duties, then a minute later went down the other end and scored the winner. Martinez is a like that, keen, frustrating and ultimately effective. 3-0.

Rarely are FA Cup wins so comfortable, was it a shock? Only in the way a tombola is; you know you can get something out of it, it’s just a pleasant surprise when it’s Bells’ Whiskey rather than a bottle of shampoo.

Exeter 2 Us 0

I can’t be the only one who raised a rye smile – of sympathy or mirth – to the news that Kevin Keegan has gone back to Newcastle.

Flamboyant new owner and fan buys football club and brings back messianic manager for a second spell. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Mike Ashby is Nick Merry and Keegan is Jim Smith.

Like Smith, Keegan has come back to a very different club to the one he left. Expectations are without boundaries, because people have focussed only on the strengths of the man and ignored the weaknesses. The media has been voracious in its acceptance of the move – not least because of the fantastic story arc that’s available – returning messiah, return to glory days or tragic disaster, ignominious exit.

Smith had to contend with a club that had a fragile ego (where before there was none), a wage cap and a championship or bust success criteria. Newcastle are one of many rich, but not super rich, Premiership clubs; they’re working at capacity and expectation is of silverware and league titles. All different to the club Keegan left.

It’s neither Keegan nor Smith’s fault; their job is to take on a team, risk their reputation and make them successful. It’s owners that need to choose carefully and both went with their hearts more than their heads.

It gave our predictable and impotent defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday some degree of irony.