Oxford is a city that is known across the world, in large part, because of its prestigious university, but it also has a rich sporting heritage. In addition to being the birth place of Tim Henman and Martin Keown, the annual boat race is a British institution, watched by millions, that the city's university is a key part of. Although football may not be a sport that you associate with the historic city, Oxford United are down in history as one of the 23 winners of the English League Cup. Sadly their place amongst the footballing elite was short lived.
The club was founded in 1893 under the name Headington United before adopting the Oxford United name in 1960. In 1962 the club really began to put itself on the map as it was elected into the football league's fourth division following the bankruptcy of another club. They quickly proved themselves as a formidable team and after just three seasons as members of the football league, they had already won promotion to the third division. Fast forward three more seasons and the club had won promotion again, they were fast becoming a highly respected team.
An unstable period followed that saw relegation, financial difficulty, a takeover and the fighting off of a proposed merger but it was the mid-1980's when Oxford United really made their mark on English football. Under the management of Jim Smith (the younger readers amongst you may remember him as the Derby County manager in the late 1990's), they were able to win the third division for the second time in their history in the 1983-84 season. The following campaign, they also won the second division meaning that Oxford United would be in the top tier of English football for the first time in their history.
Smith had brought back to back promotions to the club but rather than stick around, he opted to take over at Queens Park Rangers, a move which would prove to have later significance in their history. In the 1985-86 season, the first division campaign was extremely testing as you would expect for a team who had just won two promotions in a row. They avoided relegation on the last day of the season by defeating Arsenal but it was their cup heroics that really made the headlines.
The League Cup, or Milk Cup as it was back then, may not be seen to have the same prestige as the FA Cup but it is still counted as a major title in English football. Oxford United, as well as dealing with the rigours of top flight football for the first time in their existence, managed to avoid relegation and win the League Cup in the same season. The club were putting themselves in the history books almost every season in the mid-80's and defeating Queens Park Rangers (managed by Jim Smith) in the cup final was another heroic chapter in their story. The U's had the likes of John Aldridge and Ray Houghton in the team that day and despite Smith admitting in the press that he probably knew ten of the Oxford players better than he knew his own, he could not find a way to beat them. Oxford United won 3-0 in front of more than 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium, a day that will never be forgotten by their fans.
Unfortunately for the club, things would never be that good again. They were excluded from the UEFA Cup for the 1986-87 season (all English clubs were banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster) and in 1988 they found themselves relegated to the second tier. Of course Oxford now had a greater stature in the game and as such had recruited Mark Lawrenson as their manager, however his time in charge was short lived after he was fired following disagreements with the chairman over the sale of Dean Saunders. The club struggled on through change of ownership and financial problems with another relegation and promotion but could not find their way back up to the newly formed English Premier League.
By 1999 the club had amassed debts of around £15 million and were taken over by Firoz Kassam. Despite his efforts to clear the debt and complete the construction of the new stadium, by 2001 the club were back in the third division, the fourth tier, where they had started in 1962. Their fall from grace was not over just yet however as Kassam decided to sell the club in 2006 with their football league status hanging on by a thread. The new owner, Nick Merry, tried to reinstate the glory days by bringing back Jim Smith as manager for his second spell but the great escape was not possible and in the summer of 2006, Oxford United had been relegated to non-league football. This relegation saw Oxford enter the history books once again but this time on a rather sour note. They had become the first former winners of a major trophy to be relegated from the football league.
From competing in the top division of English football and winning the League Cup to dropping out of the football league completely, never has there been a tale in English football depicting such a steep fall from grace. Portsmouth and Bradford City have both come close in recent times but although they fell as far as the fourth tier, they didn't have to experience non-league football. Since 2006 the club has actually been on an upturn again, such is the rollercoaster ride that is Oxford United. They spent five years in the Conference National before winning promotion back to the football league and after five years in League Two, they won promotion to League One. Non-league football will be a distant memory now, but so too will that League Cup win.
What the future holds for the club is anyone's guess. Darryl Eales is the current chairman and has only been at the club for two years but has already overseen a promotion in that time. The team has bedded into League One football quickly and are in no danger of an immediate return to the basement league and so one must ask, what next? Meteoric rises up the leagues are rare but if Oxford United were to reach the Championship in the next few years it would mark a significant, and hugely respectable, rise from the non-league game. The club have been on the brink of financial ruin and relegated out of the league but have also experienced the big time, the big players and the big silverware.
The next chapter, if their history is anything to go by, should prove to be thrilling at the very least. I can only imagine how many emotions the fans have felt over the last 30 years but at this particular time, the club is moving in the right direction. Etching their name on a major trophy again will be much more tricky in this day and age but everywhere you look in football there are underdog stories. Whatever the future holds, they will always be one of the clubs that won the English League Cup, a feat that the likes of Everton and West Ham United are still yet to achieve.
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