Oxford United: a history

October 11, 2017

Oxford United began life as Headington in 1893, adding the suffix United in 1911 after merging with Headington Quarry. The club was founded by Rev John Scott-Tucker, the vicar at St Andrew’s Church in Headington and a local doctor named Robert Hitchings who thought that a football team was a way for the cricketers of Headington Cricket Club to maintain their fitness during the winter break.

Headington had no regular home until 1913, when they were able to purchase Wootten’s Field on London Road but this was redeveloped in 1920 forcing the club to move. A permanent home was found five years later when they purchased the Manor Ground site on London Road. The facility was used as a cricket pitch in the summer and a football pitch in the winter. In 1899, six years after their formation, Headington United joined the Oxfordshire District League Second Division, where they competed until the outbreak of the First World War; the Second Division was renamed the Oxfordshire Junior League after the resumption of football in 1919. In 1921 the club was admitted into the Oxon Senior League and their first season there included a 9–0 victory, with eight of those goals coming from P. Drewitt. This remains a record for the highest number of goals scored by an Oxford player in a first-team match.

United spent two seasons in the Spartan League in 1947 and 1948, finishing fifth and fourth respectively. It was around this time that the cricket team left the Manor and moved to new premises. A move into professional football was first considered during the 1948–49 season. Vic Couling, the president at the time, had applied for Headington to become a member of a new Second Division in the Southern League. Although the plans were postponed the First Division was going to be expanded by two clubs with Headington and Weymouth being elected. Headington played its first season in the Southern League in 1949, the same year they turned professional. In 1950 Headington United became the first professional club in Britain to install floodlights, They initially played in orange and blue shirts, but changed to yellow home shirts for the 1957–58 season. The reason for the change is unknown. In 1960 the club was renamed Oxford United to give the club a higher profile.

Two years later in 1962 the club won the Southern League title for the second successive season and was elected to the Football League Fourth Division, occupying the vacant place left by bankrupt Accrington Stanley. Two successive eighteenth-place finishes followed before promotion to the Third Division was achieved in 1965. A year before the promotion, Oxford became the first Fourth Division club to reach the sixth round .of the FA Cup but have not progressed that far in the competition since. Oxford won the Third Division title in 1967-68, their sixth season as a league club, but after eight years of relative stability the club was relegated from the Second Division in 1975-76.

In 1982, as a Third Division side, Oxford United faced closure because of the club’s inability to service the debts owed to Barclays Bankbut were rescued when businessman Robert Maxwell  took over the club. In April 1983 Maxwell proposed merging United with neighbours Reading to form a new club called the Thames Valley Royals with home games being played at Didcot. Jim Smith would have managed the club and been assisted by Reading boss Maurice Evans. The merger was called off as a result of fans of both clubs protesting against the decision. Furthermore, the Reading chairman stepped down and was replaced by an opponent of the merger. Maxwell also threatened to fold the club if the merger did not go through.

Oxford won the Third Division title in the 1983-84 season under the management of Jim Smith, who also guided them to the Second Division title the following year. This meant that Oxford United would be playing First Division football just 23 years after joining the Football League. Smith moved to QPR shortly after the promotion success and made way for chief scout Maurice Evans, who, several seasons earlier, had won the Fourth Division title with Reading.

Oxford United finished eighteenth in their first season in the top flight, avoiding relegation on the last day of the season after defeating Arsenal 3–0. They also won the League Cup, known at the time as the Milk Cup under a sponsorship deal. As winners, Oxford would have qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup had it not been for the ban on English teams that had resulted from the previous year’s Heysel Stadium disaster. After beating Aston Villa in the semi-final 4–3 on aggregate, and went on to beat QPR 3-0 in the final at Wembley. The 1986-87 season saw Oxford United narrowly avoid relegation and stay in the First Division. Robert Maxwell resigned as chairman in May 1987, to take over at Derby County handing the club to his son Kevin. Maurice Evans was sacked in March 1988 with Oxford bottom of the First Division.

Former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson was named as Oxford’s new manager but was unable to prevent relegation back to the Second Division. He was sacked three months into the 1988-89 campaign after a dispute with the chairman over the £1 million sale of striker Dean Saunders to Derby County; who were owned by Robert Maxwell, father of the then Oxford United chairman, Kevin Maxwell. Following Robert Maxwell’s death in 1991, his personal estate, including the club, became insolvent. After a long search for a new owner BioMass Recycling Ltd took over the club and Brian Horton was named as Oxford’s new manager, remaining in charge until September 1993. Horton led United to mid-table finishes during his management spell. Oxford, now in the renamed Football League Division One briefly restored Maurice Evans as manager, before appointing Denis Smith. Despite Smith’s efforts, Oxford were relegated to Division Two at the end of the 1993-94 season.

Oxford finished seventh in the following season and in the year after gained promotion by finishing runners-up to rivals Swindon town despite not winning an away game till the end of January. Robin Herd, co-owner of the March Racing Team, took control of the club in 1995. In June of that year, the board of directors unveiled plans for a new 16,000-seat stadium at Minchery Farm to replace the dilapidated Manor Ground. The club had hoped to move into the new stadium near the Blackbird Leys housing estate by the start of the 1998–99 season but construction was suspended during the preceding season because construction company Taylor Woodrow had not been paid for the work already undertaken.

The 1996-97 season saw Oxford finish seventeenth and  despite Smith’s departure to West Bromwich Albion in December 1997, United finished twelfth the following season under his successor, and former captain, Malcolm Shotton. During October 1998 the backroom staff at the club went unpaid due to United’s financial situation with the new stadium and the threat of administration caused a group of fans to set up a pressure group called Fighting for Oxford United’s Life (FOUL). The group began to publicise the club’s plight through a series of meetings and events, including a ‘Scarf of Unity’, which was a collection of scarfs from various clubs which was long enough to stretch around the perimeter of the pitch. Chairman Robin Herd stepped down to concentrate on his engineering projects, and in April 1999 Firoz Kassam bought Herd’s 89.9% controlling interest in Oxford United for £1, with which he also inherited the club’s estimated £15 million debt. Kassam reduced the £9 million of the debt to just £900,000, by virtue of a Company Voluntary Arrangement  by which unsecured creditors who were owed over £1,000 were reimbursed with 10p for every pound they were owed. Secured creditors were paid off when Kassam sold the Manor to another of his companies for £6 million. Kassam set about completing the unfinished stadium, gaining planning permission for a bowling alley, multiplex cinema and hotel next to the stadium, following a series of legal battles which were eventually all settled. The season ended with relegation back to the Second Division.

Oxford’s poor form continued into the 1999-2000 season and, with the team in the relegation zone, Shotton resigned in late October. After a few months with Mickey Lewis as player-manager, former manager Denis Smith returned to the club, managing a twentieth-place finish, one place clear of relegation. Smith’s second spell didn’t last long, and he was replaced by David Kemp a few weeks into the following campaign. At the end of the 2000-01 season Oxford were relegated back to the Third Division after a 35-year absence, conceding 100 goals along the way. They suffered 33 league defeats, the second-highest number of league defeats ever endured by a league club in a single season.

Oxford began the next season with a new manager and a new stadium, with the relocation to the Kassam Stadium completed after six years of speculation. Former Liverpool and England defender Mark Wright was given the manager’s job but resigned in late November after being accused of making racist remarks to referee Joe Ross Wright’s successor, former Rovers boss Ian Atkins was unable to make an immediate impact and Oxford finished in 21st position in the league, at the time their lowest-ever league position. The following season went much better and United missed out on the play-off places by one place and one point. Fifteen wins at the start of the 2003-04 season  saw Oxford top of the table at the end of January. However, Ian Atkins was sacked in March after agreeing to take charge at the Memorial Stadium. His replacement Graham Rix, could only manage a ninth-place finish at the end of the season, and was sacked the following November. Oxford replaced him with Argentine Ramon Diaz, who managed the team to a mid-table finish. Diaz and his team of assistants left the club at the beginning of May 2005 after being banned from the ground by the chairman following failed negotiations. Ex-England midfielder and former West Bromwich Albion manager Brian Talbot signed a two-year contract to replace Rix but he found little success and was sacked in March 2006, with the club in 22nd place. He was replaced by youth team coach Darren Patterson..

On 21 March 2006, Firoz Kassam sold the club, including its debts, for approximately £2 million to Florida-based businessman Nick Merry, who had played for United’s youth team in the mid-1970s. Merry immediately made changes to the club, including the hiring of former manager Jim Smith. Despite signing five new players on his first day in charge, Smith was unable to prevent relegation at the end of the 2005-06 season and after 44 years in English league football Oxford were relegated to the Conference becoming the first former winners of a major trophy to be relegated from the league. Coincidentally Accrington Stanley the club whose bankruptcy in 1962 allowed United to be elected into the League, was one of the two clubs promoted to replace them.

Jim Smith was retained as manager for the following season, and it started positively for Oxford, with 14 wins and 8 draws from the opening 25 games. A run of eleven league games without a win followed, and saw United drop to second, where they remained until the end of the season. On Boxing Day 2006 a crowd of 11,065 watched United draw 0–0 with Woking at the Kassam Stadium, at the time the largest-ever attendance for a Conference game. Oxford qualified for the play-offs by finishing second  but lost on penalties in the semi-final to Exeter City.

In November 2007 Jim Smith resigned as manager and first-team coach Darren Patterson returned as manager. In a lacklustre season which included defeats to Droylden and Tonbridge Angels, camouflaged by a belated run of eight wins in the last eleven games, Oxford finished 9th , a full ten points off the last play-off place.

In October 2008 Nick Merry stepped down as chairman to be replaced by Kelvin Thomas] who had been part of the management team at the time of Merry’s takeover. Just under two months later, Patterson was sacked after a poor run of form, and was replaced by former Halifax Town manager Chris Wilder. Following Wilder’s arrival the team won 15 of the remaining 21 league matches that season but a 5 point deduction for fielding an unregistered player resulted in a seventh-place finish, four points and two places short of the play-offs.

Oxford led the table for most of the first half of the 2009-10 season but dropped into the play-off  places after a poor run of form, finishing third. They beat Rushden & Diamonds over two legs to advance to the play-off final where they defeated York City 3-1 and returned to the Football League for the 2010-11 season. They finished their first season back in 12th place.

The team spent much of the 2011-12 season in or around the playoff places, and achieved the double over rivals (and eventual champions) Swindon Town for the first time since the 1973-74 season but they failed to win any of their last seven matches and finished the season in 9th place, two places and four points outside the play-offs.

Chairman Kelvin Thomas stepped down during the 2012 close season and was replaced by Ian Lenagan.  The 2012-13 season was blighted by injuries and patchy form: after opening the season with three wins and briefly heading the table United lost their next six games, a pattern of inconsistency that was to continue throughout the season. United finished outside the play-offs for the third consecutive season, but manager Chris Wilder was given a further one-year contract in April 2013. Some Oxford fans were unhappy about the decision to renew Wilder’s contract, having pressed for his sacking during the second half of the 2012–13 season.

After another bright start, Oxford led the table several times in the first half of the 2013-14 season but in January with the club faltering though still in the play-off places Wilder resigned as manager to take up the reins at relegation-threatened Northampton. Mickey Lewis subsequently became the caretaker manager for a second time and in March former Rovers midfielder Gary Waddock was appointed the head coach of the club, leaving his job as Head of Coaching at MK Dons. Under Lewis and Waddock, Oxford slipped out of the play-off places in the final few weeks of the season, finishing a disappointing eighth in the table, nine points off the last playoff place.

In July 2014, Waddock’s contract was terminated after a change of ownership and he was replaced by Michael Appleton. Waddock’s surprise sacking ensured he had the worst record of any Oxford manager, winning only once and losing seven times in his eight games in charge of the club. After an indifferent first season under Appleton, Oxford achieved promotion to League One in his second year in charge, finishing the 2015-16 season in 2nd place with 86 point, one place above an also promoted Rovers. They also reached the final of the Football League Trophy at Wembley, only the club’s third appearance at the national stadium, but were defeated 3–2 by their League One opponents Barnsley. In 2016-17  Oxford finished 8th in League One, four points short of the playoff places, and again lost in the final of the now re-named Checkatrade Trophy this time to relegation-bound Coventry City. Appleton left the club to become assistant manager at Leicester City and was replaced by Pep Clotet, formerly assistant manager at Leeds United.

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