The funeral of Margaret Thatcher might as well have been the funeral of the 80s. That was our decade, as distastful as it may feel; Oxford United’s glory years were Thatcherite. So what’s her lasting legacy on the club?
Whilst it galls me to say it, Thatcherism did a lot for me personally, we moved down to Oxfordshire and into Michael Hesteltine’s constituency a year after she came to power, entering a bunker of safety from her pernicious policies.
Although died in the wool liberals, my parents took advantage of the privatisation of the nation’s assets by buying and profiting from BT, Gas and other privatisations. This provided the financial stability that they enjoy today and one day, I assume, I’ll inherit.
In 1979 Oxford United were somewhere between going nowhere and going under. Robert Maxwell and Jim Smith changed all that, of course. But I question whether we could have done it without Thatcherism.
Thatcher saw football as part of the ‘enemy within’. It was rife with social disorder, which had been allowed to fester as police forces were stretched in the 1970s and hooliganism was largely written off as naughty boys letting off steam.
But, Thatcher couldn’t stop football, unlike the unionised insurgents – miners and print workers – the fans were too disparate and unorganised. She had a good go, though, with her attempt to introduce membership cards. Only the disasters at Bradford and Hillsborough sobered everyone up.
She did, however, succeed in ghettoising the game. Football was the country’s badlands; and although she never toppled it as the country’s national sport, it was strangled to the point that many of its former giants were either crippled or severely handicapped. Football poverty became a central issue. Charlton were early victims, and Middlesborough, others limped along. It had the effect of levelling the playing field and giving the likes of Oxford, Wimbledon and Luton the opportunity to thrive.
Football wasn’t cool, and nobody had the foresight to see its potential in making money or galvanising communities. Robert Maxwell did, however, in the book Rags to Riches he bemoans, with a high degree of prescience the fact that football didn’t ‘get’ TV. The cororally being that if it did, then it would make lots of money. Which it did, of course.
Maxwell wasn’t a Thatcherite politically, but he was philosophically; he was belligerently individualistic and happy to crush those weaker than him. He thrived in the 80s business environment. Furthermore, he wasnt concerned about cowtowing to Thatcher and was happy to invest in football.
So, we were a beneficiary of Thatherite policies, but in the same way, we were victims. The failure to address the problem of hooliganism eventually lead to British clubs being banned from European football in 1985, preventing our own European campaign after the Milk Cup win in ’86.
Football’s position as a backwater meant that its growth as an industry was stymied. Gaining planning permission for football grounds was almost impossible, it was just a way of attracting violence into a neighbourhood. As a result, we were stuck at the Manor, which was woefully inadequate for our purposes in the mid-80s. And the Draconian approach to crowd control meant that the ground was festooned with cages.
Which brings us to her single biggest legacy. As part of these ‘ground improvements’ an iron fence was constructed down the middle of the London Road. Its aim was to obstruct the movement of fans within the stand, thereby reducing the opportunity to cause mass trouble. Oxford fans adopted a call and response chant proclaiming their allegiance to the left or right side of the fence. That song is still sung today, over 20 years later. As each year passes, the origins of the song will fade, even though it will continue to be sung loud and proud. It is, in essence, a slave song from the fans reclaiming its own terrace from the authorities who had defiled it with its cages and steel bars. If Thatcher left one thing with Oxford United; that was it.