The story of the Thames Valley Royals is not one to scare your children with as the BBC Radio Oxford documentary; The Team That Never Was suggests. That said, it’s a really worthwhile listen. It didn’t really appeal to me originally, I thought I’d heard the story, and what more can be said about a something that appeared momentarily 30 years ago. Rather than a simple re-hashing of old material, the station managed to get many of the key names from the story to contribute – an impressive piece of work, and assuming that the link is still working, you can listen to it here.
It opens in March 1983 and a 1-0 win over Doncaster; Robert Maxwell had been at the club for just over a year. Jim Smith’s revolution was taking shape, building a team capable of challenging for promotion from Division 3. But Maxwell wasn’t really into building slowly, he wanted to make giant leaps forward and with the council continuing to stall over a new stadium, he decided the only way forward was to merge Oxford with Reading to form a new team playing in a vomitus combination of yellow, blue and cerise; they’d be called the Thames Valley Royals and be based in Didcot.
Maxwell’s justification was that businesses that aren’t sustainable can only survive if they merge. He was sort of right on that; consolidation is an inevitability in almost all industries, even though most mergers fail due to insurmountable cultural and operational challenges. It was certainly true that Oxford couldn’t sustain their development while they wallowed at the Manor and Reading were in an even worse state, threatened with relegation at the rotting Elm Park.
The aftermath of the announcement was predictable. Maxwell continued to force the rational economic argument; threatening to close the club if he doesn’t get his way. The fans response is predictably emotional. These were two irreconcilable positions; as we later learned from Firoz Kassam, you can’t turn a ruthless business man with winsome stories of belonging, spirit and nebulous concepts of right and wrong.
Jim Smith and the players scrambled to cover their own backs. Smith announced the news to his team as ‘great news’. Manager’s do that; 20 years later by Sir Alex Ferguson reversed his position to support of the Glazers when they eventually became his boss at Manchester United. Mark Jones and Alan Judge’s responses are muted, Jones; on the margins at Oxford feared for his future, Judge, who was at struggling Reading and couldn’t see a future for himself in the new set up.
The documentary threatens initially to follow a audience appeasing line about the mighty strength of Oxford United fans’ spirit in overturning the tyrannical Maxwell. It’s clear that the ramshackle amateurs who opposed the move were nothing against the megalomaniac. Despite a peaceful sit-in during a game against Wigan, the general consensus was that most of the fans were intimidated by Maxwell’s presence and despite attempts at fighting him, generally they came off second best.
The story quickly turns, it becomes apparent that the failure of the merger was not down to the fans or even Oxford United, it was due to the Reading board and some technical misdoings from Maxwell acolytes at Elm Park. The second part of the documentary goes into this in some detail, which is necessary, if a little turgid. There are no dead bodies, which is a surprise given just how underhanded the Read board had been. As a brooding drama it would probably benefit from some moody lighting, Benedict Cumberbatch and a sexy, but brilliant, female lawyer in dark rimmed glasses to give it a bit more punch.
In the absence of such luxury, Radio Oxford drafted in self-styled Oxford United novelist Peter Tickler to speculate as to what might have happened had the merger been successful. It’s not a bad idea, but I would say that. But this quickly becomes irritating; Tickler’s lyricism makes him sounds disconcertingly like Stuart Hall and his wild, presumably tongue in cheek predictions of a 12 year old Joey Beauchamp playing in the first Royals game and then them winning of the FA Cup against Manchester United makes the whole thing as irritating as it is pointless.
As a counterbalance, however, there’s a twist in the telling of the story that’s so good I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t got round to listening to it. It leads to the most interesting part of the story; the aftermath and in particular a completely different complexion on one particular aspect of the saga.
In a sense, the whole episode is prescient, Maxwell was right that clubs needed to change to succeed, but the merger approach was never going to work. In some senses, he eventually did merge some parts of Reading with Oxford; Maurice Evans – manager at Reading – was pivotal in our later success and Judge, of course, was in goal at Wembley. MK Dons found out that franchising is difficult without significant collateral damage, but Manchester City and Chelsea’s owners have found that buying up a bankrupt brand and create a new club behind it is the only way forward.
Thames Valley Royals was a test case; for the future of football and, some say for Maxwell to test the resolve of the local council in wanting a football club in their city. The story, if not quite as terrifying as it was portrayed is none-the-less a salutary tale.