Wednesday, 16 March 2011
Teams That Made Us Fall In Love With Football #8: Oxford United 1995-96
Exploring the hearts and minds of the old Division Two, a warm welcome to Magic Spongers for Sam Macrory (with additional memories supplied by Frank Webster).
This piece opens with a confession. I didn’t grow up in a footballing household. Looking back, I cringe to think that my mum phoned the BBC to demand why the football was still being shown when the listings had promised a cartoon, the lack of which left my brother and I devastated. It was May 20th 1989, and the Liverpool-Everton FA Cup Final – which I later learned to be one of the great finals – had gone into extra time. But if that came at the expense of ten minutes of Tom and Jerry, then the schedulers should know better.
My eyes were first opened to football by the 1990 World Cup, and over the next year the BBC video of the tournament was played so often in our house that the tape snapped. I still know the commentary to every game – come back, Barry Davies – by heart, and while names like Lineker, Baggio, Careca, and Benjamin Massing fascinated me, a rather less glamorous side began to catch my imagination. My postcode gave me little choice: Oxford United became my team.
The team has got steadily worse ever since, and frequently they have been utterly rubbish. Even when they are at their best, the style of football seems to focus heavily on endless header rallies, a kick-off tactic which involves a rugby-style possession-seeking punt into the far corner of the pitch, goalkeepers with a chronic fear of roll-outs, and midfielders who appeared to be auditioning for the Peter Reid role of jogging behind an attacking Maradona. And playing against Oxford United could make any lower league journeyman look like the Argentine great.
Oxford’s spectacular fall – over twenty years - from the dizzying heights of the old first division and a Wembley cup final victory into the depths of despair that is the Blue Square Premier League is hard to outdo. But, each season, I return to watch the horror unfold.
It began with a school trip round the old Manor Ground – hosted by Malcolm Elias, the youth team coach who would later unearth Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott at Southampton. A game against Watford, who featured a young David James in goal, followed, and over the next few years my Dad manfully bowed to his sons’ growing interest and escorted us to watch what was then, briefly, a mid-table first division team.
We’d sit in the family stand, with Dad quietly reading his Guardian – embarrassing for his teenage sons, but not as much as when my mother, on a rare foray to the ground, was spotted leafing through Good Housekeeping during Oxford’s 5-3 win over Swindon – before repeatedly asking me to identify John Byrne, apparently his favourite player of the time, or Jim Magilton, an elegant Northern Irish midfielder.
Looking back, it’s astonishing to think that players of the calibre of Byrne and Magilton, ever played for Oxford, while even the lack of appreciation shown to so-called striker Nick Cusack (10 goals in 61 games) now seems badly judged.
By the start of the 1995 season, Oxford were in what was then Division Two and is now League One, but really is the third tier of English football. Magilton, Byrne and even Cusack, had gone on to better things, as Oxford pinned their hopes on 34-year-old Wayne Biggins, a striker firmly in the winding down stages of a recently undistinguished career.
Crucially, the season marked the moment when I graduated from the wooden benches of the family sitting area to the concrete slopes of the London Road stand, which was situated about two centimetres from the pitch, housed a permanently grumpy bookkeeper, and smelled of cigarettes and sweating fans. This was where the big boys went – one from our school claimed to start all the chants, despite his cracking adolescent voice – and the limb-breaking bundles took place, a dangerous land where my Dad and his Guardian would not survive. I was 14 now though, and my time – marginally later than the London Road 10-year-olds who seemed to have been born with tattoos and a rich vocabulary of foul language – had arrived. As a result, the 1995/6 season took its place in one teenage boy’s list of rites of passage moments.
Luckily I chose a rare season of success. Even my tactically naïve brain was able to tell the team was built on two centre halves who were far, far too good for that division: Matt Elliott and Phil Gilchrist. The latter would return a decade later, a slower, heavier, and flawed version, but Elliott remains one of the all-time Oxford greats. A defender who did the ugly stuff – the endless header rallies were child’s play for him – while being able to hit 60-yard passes for the wingers to miscontrol, and score goals that Cusack could only dream of.
The team also contained two fine homegrown midfielders. At the time I thought Chris Allen was incredibly quick but had a terrible end product, but a review of my highlights video suggests I was unfair. Allen moved to Nottingham Forest early that season before falling out of the league by his 30s, while Bobby Ford, a wonderfully gifted midfielder with a range of passing never since seen at the club, later secured a big move to Sheffield United before returning to Oxford, losing interest in the miserable non-football of League Two, and quitting football at 29.
Also in the squad were the sideways passing – and running – trio of David Smith, Martin Gray, and Mickey ‘Mad Dog’ Lewis, while Les Robinson, so old that as a young footballer he had a moustache, was at right back.
But for that team, in that season, it was all about one striker. Not Wayne Biggins, who was soon playing for Leek Town, but Paul Moody, who on first glance played with a lumbering style that made Emile Heskey look like Lionel Messi.
However, Moody – who merits just a seven word entry on Wikipedia – had the season of his life, an extraordinary campaign that included three hat-tricks, one within just 15 minutes after coming on as a substitute, and 24 goals. The team’s style was simple. Get the ball to Moody, and see how far he could run with it – the ball was never quite under control – before he hit it as hard as he could towards the goal.
But just as important as the football was the – admittedly rose-tinted – way we watched it.
Match day began with headers and volleys with my friend Frank – not a retired 1950s footballer, despite the name, but an OUFC fan since the age of six – who lived round the corner from the ground. At 2:45 we ran the gauntlet of the dreaded Cuckoo Lane away end to pick up the programme – Mike Ford’s ‘Captain’s Column’ was a must-read – and made our way to the ramshackle prefab of the Manor Ground.
Highlights included an astonishing sloping pitch (six foot from one end to other), the never-functioning scoreboard, trees behind the away stand which were filled with turnstile-avoiding locals, and the long delays as balls were sent flying into the gardens of local houses, requiring one ball boy to find a new ball while his mate rang doorbells and asked – on behalf of a professional football club – for his ball back. In hindsight, it seems to belong to a black and white era of high-speed rattles, white horses, and toothless fans in flat caps, rather than the 1990s.
Minutes after full time we’d be back in Frank’s front room for tea and toast, tuning in to watch the match highlights. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the best south central side of them all?” When Tim Russon, the Partridge-esque presenter, hooks you in with lines like that, it’s little wonder that we’d sprinted home so fast.
“Denis Smith, the Oxford wizard, stirred the pot”, he announced after the Swindon away game, the climax of an excruciating conjuring-themed analogy which included ‘Harry Houdini’ left back Mike Ford and “magician” midfielder Bobby. “Were the United defenders dazzled by the illuminations?” at Blackpool? Only Russon knows, but despite his flamboyant wordplay, the team was stuttering around the mid-table mark at Christmas.
Then manager Denis Smith pulled off a memorable transfer coup. Homegrown hero Joey Beauchamp was signed from local rivals Swindon on loan, later permanently for a bargain £75,000. Eighteen months previously, the absurdly talented Beauchamp had left to join Premier League West Ham for more than 10 times that fee, famously failing to play a game for the Hammers after the 60-mile commute left him overcome with homesickness.
The move delighted both us fans and Joey, and that April he scored a goal against Blackpool which would be voted the greatest in the Manor’s history. The team won 14 of their last 19 league games, an extraordinary run which included a three-nil home win over Swindon, in which Beauchamp scored against his old a team, six-nil win over Shrewsbury, when all six goals came from headers, and a three-nil win at Wycombe, a result which Moody famously celebrated by performing the most unlikely of handstands while journeyman winger Stuart Massey swung deliriously on the crossbar.
On the last game of the season, Oxford needed to beat Peterborough to take the second promotion slot, annoyingly behind champions Swindon. I braved the London Road, but stayed law-abidingly rooted to the spot as fans charged on to the pitch to celebrate a 4-0 win. Moody was among the scorers, celebrating in extraordinary hip-shuddering fashion.
It was 10 years since that glorious Milk Cup triumph turned Wembley yellow and blue, but the club at last seemed to be heading towards more glory days. Work on a new stadium was underway, Denis Smith was highly-rated, and Beauchamp, Moody, and Elliott looked set to take the club back to where, in all honesty, it didn’t belong.
Instead Matt Elliott joined Leicester for a club record sale of £1.6m the following season, while Moody moved to Fulham and broke both his legs. (He returned to Oxford in 2001 – by then the team was playing at such a low standard that even a semi-crocked Moody bagged 13 goals.) Saddest of all, Beauchamp retired with a toe-injury and developed a drink problem.
A decade after their promotion triumph, Oxford fell out of the league – Smith had returned for a disastrous second spell - and ended up playing in a soulless three-sided ground on the outskirts of the city. Financially precarious since the Maxwell family – the minute’s silence after Sir Bob’s death in 1991 was aborted after about 20 seconds – ran the boardroom, the club spiralled into debt and was taken over by a chairman with a penchant for sacking managers, not-renewing playing contracts, and egotistically naming three-sided grounds after himself.
Perhaps the 1995/6 season was the final hurrah of a football team which had spent much of its existence over-achieving, but there is hope.
After four long years playing in grounds that made the Manor seem like the Emirates, OUFC returned to Wembley for a victorious play-off final and left the Blue Square Premier League.
Reassuringly the current goalkeeper still hates short goal kicks, and all kick-offs still begin with a rugby style punt into the furthest corner of the pitch, but at least Oxford United are back in the football league. If only it had a Paul Moody, a Nick Cusack, or even a Wayne Biggins to take them a little higher. We didn't know how lucky we were.