Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
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, Marsh Lane, 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 Marsh Lane, bus 14/14A runs half-hourly (not Sun) from Oxford train station (stop R4) via George Street (stop B3) in the town centre, journey time 15-20mins. Admission is £12, £6 for seniors, £2 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.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Heathrow is the nearest airport to Oxford 74km (46 miles) away. The airline bus runs from Terminal 5/Heathrow Central Bus Station to Oxford bus station at Gloucester Green (£23 single, journey time 80-90min) every half-hour. From Oxford, services depart from bay 7. The same bus also serves Gatwick North-South (£28 single) 135km (84 miles) away every 2hrs, journey time 2hrs 30mins.
From London Victoria bus station (Buckingham Palace Road), the Oxford tube bus runs to Gloucester Green every 12-20mins (£11, return £17, journey time 1hr 30mins).
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 (average advance single £15, 1hr journey time). Direct from Birmingham New Street, hourly trains to Oxford take just over 1hr, advance singles £20-£25. Direct hourly from Manchester Piccadilly, it’s 2hrs 45mins, average advance single £50.
Adding a PlusBus supplement (£4.20) to your train ticket allows you to use Oxford Bus, Stagecoach Oxfordshire, Arriva and Thames Travel routes. The Kassam Stadium is way south of the city, too far to walk from town. Oxford Bus and Stagecoach share various combined ticket options.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
Town and gown meet in the many pubs around the city centre, most of them tourist-friendly and broadcasting sport.
Typical are St Aldates Tavern, with quality ales and food, and the nearby Royal Blenheim, also an outlet for the local White Horse Brewery. Picturesquely set by the water as its names suggests, The Head of the River is both a pleasant pub with a wide terrace, and a comfortable lodging.
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.
One of two Wetherspoons in the town centre, The Four Candles takes its name from the Ronnie Barker gag – the comedian was a pupil at the school that once stood here. The Swan & Castle is more modern.
If you’re coming in by bus, the Eurobar is a handy place to watch the game, although the hotel in the same building is now more the focus of operations. Nearer the train station, the more traditional Oxford Retreat has five screens and a year-round garden. It’s open until late on Fridays and Saturdays, midnight through the week.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
There are 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. Refurbished in 2017, The Head of the River is both a comfortable if pricy hotel and a homely pub, with a picturesque Thames setting.
Refurbished in 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, its Platform5 Café echoing its heritage as a railway hotel.