From the university to United – football in Oxford started out as a gentlemanly pursuit and only assumed professional status some 90 years later.
Oxford United had not long gained their modern-day name when they joined the Fourth Division in 1962. Success has since been short-lived, the solitary League Cup win of 1986 following soon after the failed scatter-brained scheme to merge the club with local rivals Reading.
As for Oxford University, the achievements of its Olympic champion rowers, star cricketers and four-minute milers overshadow the brief period of glory of its football team. It bowed out of the FA Cup in 1880, having reached four finals, winning one.
Many of the triumphant side of 1874, including the wonderfully named Cuthbert Ottaway and Walpole Vidal, won England caps. Ottaway led the XI that played football’s first international against Scotland in 1872.
While rival varsity town Cambridge played a significant role in the game’s development, drawing up its first rulebook, Oxford University rewrote the record books. En route to the 1874 final, Oxford beat Wanderers, ending the holders’ previous domination of the competition.
Another early England international, Charles Wreford-Brown, is credited with the phrase ‘soccer’ (from ‘association football’). The ultimate Corinthian, this Oriel graduate was also captain of England and later a major administrator at the Football Association.
Founded in 1882, the globe-trotting Corinthians, disciples of sportsmanship, played only friendly matches and refused to take part in any tournaments. Filled with Oxbridge graduates, the team was at its height in the 1890s, providing the entire first XI for England.
Inspired by the Corinthians, Oxford City were created in 1883, playing invitation games and attracting the best players from smaller local clubs. Soon realising that the Corinthian ethos was only viable for the likes of Charles Wreford-Brown with their own private incomes, City decided to enter potentially lucrative cup tournaments in the 1890s.
Around this time, Headington were formed. Essentially a village team, the forerunners of Oxford United represented an elevated outpost east of town, long-term home of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis either side of the war.
Two prominent Headington personalities, the vicar John Scott-Tucker and parish doctor Robert Hitchings, had formed the local cricket club in 1893. Needing a winter game to keep players occupied, a football team soon followed – Scott-Tucker, then 49, and Hitchings played and scored in an early game against Victoria.
Based at the cricket ground, Headington, later Headington United, moved around the district before settling at Wootten’s Field on London Road. By then Scott-Tucker, previously based at St Andrew’s Church in the heart of Headington, had left for South Africa in bankrupt disgrace, while Dr Hitchings remained a pillar of the community until the 1930s.
Three times FA Amateur Cup finalists, winners in 1906, Oxford City quickly became a big name in the non-professional game. This involved several arduous journeys to County Durham – two finals went to replays, one in Darlington, the other in Bishop Auckland.
While City made occasional progress in the FA Cup, the Amateur Cup retained its gentlemanly allure, even after World War II. Brainchild of Oxford don and eminent scientist Harold Thompson, a combined Oxbridge team known as Pegasus twice won the Amateur Cup in the early 1950s, each time before a 100,000 crowd at Wembley.
Their adventurous style of play, akin to the Corinthians half-a-century earlier, was instilled by later Ajax and Barcelona manager Vic Buckingham, the man who discovered Johan Cruyff. Pegasus soon faded out, losing players to the merged side of Corinthian-Casuals. Their last game came in 1963, against Marston United in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup.
Thompson went on to become the controversial chairman of the FA, and was instrumental in the sacking of Alf Ramsey and shunning of Brian Clough as England managers.
Remaining on London Road until 2001, Headington stirred local controversy by changing their name to Oxford United shortly after turning professional in 1958. The sale of the Manor Ground – formerly Headington’s community sports centre for bowls, tennis and cricket – to the football club fuelled further discontent in 1961.
A year later, Manor Ground welcomed the visiting supporters of Barrow, Workington and Hartlepools as United started their first campaign in the Football League. It was here that The U’s played three seasons in the top flight in the 1980s, later moving to the new-build Kassam Stadium way south of town. Manor Hospital now stands on the old Headington site.
Oxford City, having briefly welcomed former West Ham stars Bobby Moore and Harry Redknapp as managers in the early 1980s, went out of business after being evicted from their White Horse Ground by Brasenose College in 1988.
Revived by supporters, City made their way back up the amateur rungs, gaining a new ground, Court Place Farm, close to the Manor Ground. Oxford United provided the opposition for the first match there in 1993, a friendly in front of 1,800.
Six years later, more watched City’s epic replayed FA Cup match with Wycombe Wanderers, switched to the Manor Ground, than United’s home tie with Morecambe there two weeks earlier. City had twice held Wycombe a draw at Adams Park, the second game abandoned due to a fire alarm right before a penalty shoot-out.
Oxford City currently play in the sixth-tier National League South. To reach Court Place Farm on Marsh Lane, bus Nos.14/14A run half-hourly (not Sun) from Oxford train station via Magdalen Street in the town centre. Admission is £12, £6 for seniors, £3 for students and free for under-16s.
The nearest pub, the Red Lion, is a well run traditional village hostelry, with real ale and darts teams, on Oxford Road parallel to Marsh Lane.
Heathrow is the nearest airport to Oxford 74km (46 miles) away. The airline bus runs from Terminal 5 and Heathrow Central Bus Station to Oxford bus station at Gloucester Green (£23, same/next day return £25, period return £30, journey time 80-90min) every half-hour. From Oxford, services depart from bay 7.
Oxford Bus Company’s X90 runs from London Victoria (Buckingham Palace Road, stop 7) to Oxford Gloucester Green every 15-30min (£15, same/next day return £18, period return £20, journey time 100min). The Oxford tube runs from Victoria (Grosvener Gardens, stop 10A) to Gloucester Green every 10-30min (£15, same/next day return £18, period return £20, journey time 115min). Each service is practically 24hrs.
Gloucester Green is by the centre of town. Oxford train station is a little further out, a 10min walk away. Direct, regular services leave from London Paddington or Marylebone (1hr journey time, £25, advance as cheap as £5). Direct from Birmingham New Street, trains run every half-hour to Oxford, taking just over 1hr and costing £14-£19. Direct hourly from Manchester Piccadilly, it’s 2hr 45min, cheapest tickets £30-£38.
Oxford Bus and Stagecoach Oxfordshire provide most local transport, each with their own fare systems. A Dayrider (£4) is valid for services run by both companies. If you’re coming by train, a PlusBus supplement (£4) to your ticket allows you to use Oxford Bus, Stagecoach and Thames Travel routes. All three companies run to the Kassam Stadium, too far to walk from town.
001 Taxis (01865 24 00 00) provide transfers from Heathrow (£70-£75) and Luton (£85) among other airports.
There are now two hotels by the Kassam Stadium. The Holiday Inn Express offers comfortable chain-hotel accommodation and a handy pre-match bar, not for away fans in colours, though. On the other side of the ground next to the Ozone Leisure Park, the £12 million, 103-room Hampton by Hilton Oxford opened in time for Christmas 2015.
Lodgings in town tend to be upscale and/or boutique – and expensive. Being refurbished from January to March 2017, The Head of the River is both a comfortable if pricy hotel and a homely pub, with a picturesque Thames setting.
Luxury establishments include the Old Bank Hotel, with its contemporary art and marble bathrooms, and the five-star Macdonald Randolph, where Oxford’s most famous detective solves cases in the Morse Bar.
Refurbished during 2016, The Buttery comprises 16 rooms above Oxford Campus Stores on historic Broad Street. Again, not cheap – for pretty much the same price, you can have 24-hour room service and quality brasserie cuisine at equally central Malmaison, set in the converted prison of a medieval castle.
Convenient for the train station close by, the Royal Oxford Hotel is a friendly three-star – with rates well into three figures, breakfast extra.
Town and gown meet in the many pubs around the city centre, most of them tourist-friendly and broadcasting sport.
Tucked in off the High Street, Chequers has plenty of 16th-century character while the Kings Arms dates back to 1607 a and shows sport. The Wig & Pen is also football-friendly, meal deals its main attraction.
If you’re coming in by bus, the Eurobar is a handy place to watch the game, shown in HD on eight TVs and one large projector screen. The hotel above is pretty basic. Nearer the train station, the more traditional Oxford Retreat has five screens and a year-round garden. It’s open until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays – good to know, given the recent closure of nearby nightclub/sports bar Wahoo. The pub opens Wed-Sat inclusive.