Midweek fixture – My first game

My first Oxford United game was on the 27th December 1975, I was three years old and as legend has it, spent most of it staring at the floodlights while standing on the London Road terrace. 

The result is a matter of record; a 2-1 defeat to Southampton with a goal from Mick Tait in front of 12,004 fans. Beyond that, I know virtually nothing; there’s no video of the day and it’s not exactly an event etched into the collective memory. It may have been my first game, but it was of little importance in the great scheme of things. 

In the great void of my memory, I’ve managed to conjure up a mental image of me standing amongst spindly men in frock coats and top hats, like something out of a Lowry painting. It’s an image of something generically old fashioned, although more likely, given the fashion of the day, I would have been surrounded by men in voluminous bell bottom jeans and denim jackets covered in badges.

Bohemian Rhapsody was number 1, the country was mired in the Northern Ireland troubles and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. Two days after the game, the Sex Discrimnation Act came into force. Different times. 

I will never see that first Mick Tait goal, in fact, I’d never even seen a photo of the game, assuming all records of the day were consigned to history, never to be unearthed. Then it dawned on me that a record must exist; a programme for the game must be out there somewhere and, perhaps, for the game after, at home to Bristol City, thereby opening up the possibility that I might be able to piece the story of the day together. 

Programmes served a different purpose back then; they were the primary communication channel with fans and much less of a commercial vehicle. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before, almost every game in history has a programme, and I’d never thought to seek these ones out. It took about two minutes to find them on ebay.

The reason I was there, almost certainly, was because we’d have been visiting my grandparents over Christmas in Abingdon. All my early Oxford United experiences happened around that time of year, perhaps it was my dad’s attempt at some early bonding, though I suspect it was just a way of getting some relative peace and quiet from the family.

Played just two days after Christmas, the game was the second of a double header; the previous day we’d lost to Luton 3-2 at Kenilworth Road (Southampton had beaten Bristol Rovers at The Dell). We were in 20th position of Division 2 and would eventually succumb to relegation, Southampton were fourth and would go on to win the FA Cup the following May beating Manchester United 1-0. Of the eleven that started that day, ten started at Wembley with just Peter Osgood replacing Hugh Fisher who dropped to the bench. 

The programme around that time was in the style of a tabloid newspaper which would have been too large and cumbersome to read at a game. The photos were in black and white but its editorial felt more independent than the programmes we know today. Nowadays, everything has to be exciting and positive; back then, there was a more measured approach, the good and the bad reported in equal measure. 

The crowd was obviously swelled by the Christmas holidays, it was twice the average gate for the season. Oxford wore blue and yellow stripes, a two year experiment which was abandoned at the end of that season. The idea was resurrected when we returned to the Football League in 2010, much to the dismay of many Oxford fans. Personally, I quite liked those stripes, perhaps that first game left an indelible impression on me.

The real buzz before and after the game was an FA Cup third round tie away to Manchester United, which was to be played the following Saturday. The match report talks about Derek Clarke scoring a spectacular opener before Manchester United pegged Oxford back with two disputed penalties. The decisions so incensed the Oxford hierarchy that the club lodged a formal complaint about referee George Courtney. Mick Brown melodramatically said “All I have is a broken heart after Manchester”.

Both club’s had finished in mid-table the previous season, but were obviously heading in different directions; Oxford had sold Dave Roberts and Hugh Curran, and there was little hiding the pressure manager Mick Brown was under. His programme notes see him in the classic survival mode of a manager – poor results are the result of bad luck rather than bad management. Despite relegation, these were less reactive times and Brown would survive another three and a half years. The club’s AGM had been held earlier that week with shareholders complaining about the board’s short-termism, and its decision to close the club’s youth hostel, rather than questioning the manager.

Southampton featured England striker Mick Channon, who was the league’s top goalscorer, but the most famous person on the pitch may have been the referee. Improbably, the man in black was Jack Taylor who, despite being described in the programme as a Wolverhampton butcher, had refereed the 1974 World Cup Final and received an OBE in the New Year Honours the previous year. Taylor’s main claim to fame in that final was awarding the Dutch a penalty after 60 seconds. From Beckanbaur and Cruyff to Peter Houseman and Bobby Stokes, it’s hard to imagine why, with a full programme of domestic football on at the same time, that Taylor – who was considered to be amongst the best referees of all time – might be assigned such a game of limited significance. 

As for the game itself; Mick Channon created the opening goal in the 26th minute giving an opening to Bobby Stokes, who scored the winner in the FA Cup final, to shoot via a Colin Clarke deflection through Roy Burton’s legs. A second goal, another deflection, this time off Nick Lowe made it 2-0.

Oxford’s response came in the second half attacking up the hill towards the Cuckoo Lane End. Tait’s goal, which according to the non-bias assessment of the programme’s editor, was the ‘pick of the bunch’. Tait broke through, leaving Southampton defenders David Peach and Peter Rodriguez trailing to lift the ball over the goalkeeper to make it 2-1. 

Mick Brown claimed that as both were own goals, it was a clear sign of his endless bad luck. Late on, with Oxford pressing, goalkeeper Saints ‘keeper, Ian Turner, pulled off a world class save, Derek Clarke hit the bar and Mick Tait nearly doubled his tally. But, ultimately it was all for nought.

Nestled away in the London Road a bewildered and probably very cold three year old headed off with his dad back to the car and to Welford Gardens in Abingdon. The end of one journey and the start of another.

Oxford UnitedSouthampton
Roy Burton, Les Taylor, John Shuker, Nick Lowe, Colin Clarke, Billy Jeffrey (Peter Foley), Peter Houseman, Steve Aylott, Derek Clarke, Andy McCulloch, Mick Tait (1)Ian Turner, Peter Rodrigues, Mel Blyth, Jim Steele, David Peach, Hugh Fisher, Nick Holmes (1), Jim McCalliog, Mick Channon, Paul Gilchrist, Bobby Stokes (1)