Oxford United

Thirty years after the seminal season of 1985-86, Oxford United regained third-tier status in a memorable campaign that also saw a return to Wembley.

With the club shop full of memorabilia relating to the League Cup win of 1986 (‘Proud History, Bright Future’), United not only achieved runners-up spot in League Two with 86 points but reached the final of the Football League Trophy, a ding-dong 3-2 defeat to Barnsley in front of a 59,000 crowd.

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Oxford United club shop/Peterjon Cresswell

In the 15 years between Oxford gaining promotion and dropping out of the third flight in 2001, the club nearly went under, sunk by spiralling debts and spending four seasons out of the Football League.

Oxford United first claimed Football League status in 1962, replacing cash-strapped Accrington Stanley. Ironically, it was Accrington who jumped into the spot left by relegated Oxford in 2006.

Pre-1962, Oxford had been Headington United, previously simply Headington, a community club based at the village of the same name east of town. Formed in 1893, Headington had mainly stayed in the local leagues, overshadowed by the Amateur Cup wins of Oxford City and post-war Oxbridge team Pegasus.

Based at the Manor Ground, Headington were renamed Oxford in 1960 and won the Southern League two seasons running. Under captain Ron (‘The Tank’) Atkinson, with Tony Jones scoring the goals and John Shuker a stalwart in defence, Oxford beat Blackburn 3-1 in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup in February 1964. A record crowd of 22,750 then crammed into the Manor Ground for the visit of eventual finalists Preston North End.

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Kassam Stadium/Peterjon Cresswell

Promoted to the Third Division in 1965, Oxford leapfrogged over local rivals Reading and Swindon to win the league in 1968. Getting the best out of Scottish international Hugh Curran in his later years, United stayed in the second tier until 1976.

Struggling with poor form on the pitch and with debts off it, United welcomed the arrival of media mogul Robert Maxwell in 1982. That same year, the manager Jim Smith arrived from Birmingham. Buoyed by the ‘Bouncing Czech’ and steered by the ‘Bald Eagle’, Oxford began to climb the Third Division.

It was then that Maxwell hit upon the hare-brained scheme to merge Oxford with Reading, to form the so-called Thames Valley Royals based in… Didcot. With each set of supporters communally rebuffing the best-laid plans laid down by a man born in Slatinské Doly, Smith got on with the job.

Thanks to a forward partnership of 1982 World Cup hero Billy Hamilton and later World Cup goalscorer John Aldridge, capped by Northern Ireland and Ireland respectively, Smith’s Oxford gained back-to-back promotions to claim a first-ever top-flight spot in 1985.

Maxwell’s reward for his high-achieving manager was the same modest contract terms – prompting Smith to join QPR.

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Oxford United club shop/Peterjon Cresswell

Under the gentlemanly stewardship of former Reading stalwart Maurice Evans, Oxford made their top-tier debut, winning through to the final of the League Cup to face… Jim Smith’s QPR. A bargain-basement signing by Evans, midfielder Ray Houghton was the key to Oxford’s 3-0 victory.

In the league, goals from Aldridge helped The U’s beat Manchester United in Alex Ferguson’s first match in charge, and Arsenal in the last, relegation-saving game of the campaign.

Despite goals from Dean Saunders, Oxford failed to stay up in 1987-88. Saunders was then sold to Robert Maxwell’s new club Derby – by his son, new United chairman Kevin Maxwell.

Despite valiant efforts by Brian Horton, and a returning Maurice Evans, Oxford failed to revive, their financial affairs entangled in the mess left behind by Robert Maxwell’s mystery drowning off the Canary Islands.

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Kassam Stadium/Peterjon Cresswell

With Blackbird Leys chosen as the site for a new stadium to replace the crumbling Manor Ground, the club needed to clear its huge debts. In stepped slum landlord, Tanzanian-born Firoz Kassam, who sold the Manor Ground, built the new stadium, named it after himself, and added an adjoining leisure complex. Funds for new players, however, were in short supply.

The move to the Kassam Stadium in 2001 coincided with a drop to Division Three. In 2006, the unpopular Kassam sold the club – but not the stadium – to life-long Oxford fan Nick Merry. Bringing back the totemic Jim Smith, Merry failed to prevent Oxford slipping out of the Football League.

Smith immediately took United to the Conference play-offs, only for his side to lose on penalties to Exeter. Smith’s replacement, Chris Wilder, eventually took the club back up in 2010, the 3-1 play-off win over York witnessed by 30,000-plus Oxford fans among a crowd of 42,700 at Wembley.

Under Wilder, then Gary Waddock, The U’s came close to a League Two play-off place, but not close enough. Former Manchester United youth player Michael Appleton needed two seasons to finish the job. Goals from Kemar Roofe, signed from Appleton’s former club WBA, proved decisive in Oxford’s high-scoring promotion campaign of 2015-16.

With Roofe sold to Leeds for £3 million, it was down to Scottish international striker Chris Maguire to keep Oxford on an even keel in League One in 2016-17. Current manager Karl Robinson will do well to keep hold of Gavin Whyte, a highly rated winger recently called up to the Northern Ireland squad.

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Kassam Stadium/Peterjon Cresswell

Stadium

Named after the man who built and still owns it, the Kassam Stadium still feels like a bodge-it-and-run job. It comprises three unconnected sides, the West End goal left open for balls to bounce off the cars parked in rows behind it. Beyond is Firoz Kassam’s leisure complex, £50 million of cinema and leisure outlets beside a £15 million football stadium.

Without input from the former owner and chairman, however, Oxford might still be playing at the dilapidated Manor Ground and watching the interest pile up on their unpaid bills to constructors. Work here at Blackbird Leys started in 1996, five years before Kassam’s millions allowed the new stadium to be completed and the club’s old home sold.

The final outcome passed muster for Oxford’s long seasons in the fourth tier and National Conference. With United now in League One, it may just be time for the club to look at filling the large gap behind the west goal and giving the overall look some kind of coherence.

Capacity is 12,500, all-seated. Away fans are allocated the nearest sectors of the North Stand to the open West End. Home fans fill the Oxford Mail Stand. The two-tier South Stand contains executive boxes, the club offices and ticket windows – the club shop is set beside a gym in the Ozone leisure complex across the car park.

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Oxford United transport/Peterjon Cresswell

Transport

The Kassam Stadium in a residential area known as Blackbird Leys, past Oxford’s southern outskirts, and way too far to walk from the station or town. The most regular connection from both to Blackbird Leys is the Stagecoach No.5 that sets off from stop R2 outside Oxford train station, calls at Speedwell Street and St Aldates Tavern in the city centre then heads to the junction of Pegasus Road/Knights Road, the stop called Spindleberry Close. Journey time is 30min from the station, 20min from town, but add 10min to that for busy match-day traffic. There are more services from town (every 10-15min) that the station (every 15-20min). Once at Spindleberry Close, turn left down Knights Road, then the stadium is signposted past a BMX track down a footpath, allow 5-7min.

Also from St Aldates Tavern in town, the less frequent Stagecoach No.12 runs to Acacia Avenue, just behind the Holiday Inn, and slightly closer to the stadium.

In a recently introduced alternative, Oxford Bus Company No.3A runs every 30min on Saturdays from Bonn Square by the Westgate Shopping Centre in town right to the Kassam Stadium, journey time 25min. Mon-Fri it serves the Science Centre, stopping by the pre-match George pub 5-7min walk from the Ozone leisure centre.

The sat nav code for the Kassam Stadium is OX4 4XP. There are 2,000-plus free parking spaces available, around the ground and the cinema/leisure complex opposite. The post-match wait for traffic to clear can be a long one. If they are full, usually the case at least 30 minutes before kick-off, don’t use the grass verges around the ground as you’re likely to receive a ticket. Near the Oxford Science Park, the Royal British Legion (OX4 4LZ) at Lakefield Road, Littlemore, also offers match-day parking. It’s a 7-8min walk to the ground, via Minchery Road/Priory Road.

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Oxford United tickets/Peterjon Cresswell

Tickets

The ticket office (Mon-Fri 9.30am-5.30pm, match days 9.30am-kick-off, match-day Sat also for 15min after final whistle) is behind the South Stand. Phone sales (01865 337 533) incur a £1 booking fee, waived for online print-at-home/collect purchases.

Admission is £20-£24, with the cheapest seats in the East Stand home end, the dearest in the upper tier of the South Stand. Away fans pay £21 for a seat in the North Stand. Prices may vary for cup games.

Over-65s are charged £13-£17, students/under-21s £12-£16 and under-18s £11-£14. If accompanied by an adult, under-13s are charged £7-£9, under-7s £5, free in the Family Area.

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Oxford United club shop/Peterjon Cresswell

Shop

The well stocked club shop (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, match-eve Tue 10am-kick-off, match-day Sat 11am-kick off & after final whistle) is separate from the stadium, round the corner from Frankie & Benny’s, by a gym in the Ozone leisure centre.

Souvenirs include gym towels, pint glasses and fade mugs, all carrying OUFC’s signature bull. You’ll also find pocket umbrellas, autograph books and T-shirts bearing the somewhat graphic image of a bull mauling a robin with the caption, ‘6 in a Row’. They take the Swindon derby seriously round here.

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George Inn/Peterjon Cresswell

Bars

The only bars close to the stadium are at the Holiday Inn – usually open to home fans/neutrals only – and at the bowling alley in the Ozone leisure centre, where you’ll also find a branch of Frankie & Benny’s and other chain restaurants.

The nearest pub, The Priory & ?, once popular on match days, has been closed since work started on the Hampton by Hilton hotel. Its future remains as uncertain as its name.

Therefore, the best option is the traditional George Inn on Sandford Road, a 7-10min walk from the ground, behind the Science Centre. Sensible away fans should be served and there’s plenty of sport on TV, too. There’s a quicker way to reach it behind the Priory & ? though it’s easy to get lost – from the nearby church, follow St Nicholas Road then turn left at Priory Road. Veering right, you should find the stream behind the Ozone leisure park, with the stadium the other side.


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