Rough guide to
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Rough guide to... Oxford United
1 June 2004
In a nutshell
The Wolves of Division Three. Think they're too big for the division, but have fallen apart two seasons running, blowing promotion.
Their finest hour
The obvious finest hour was the 3–0 victory over QPR in the Milk Cup final at Wembley in 1986. It could be argued, though, that the previous two years, with consecutive championships in the third and second divisions, were finer still. Jim Smith's team of Ray Houghton and John Aldridge and Billy Hamilton is now a distant but happy memory for Oxford fans.
The real hatred is Swindon. Sometimes taken to absurd degrees, the songs about Swindon carry on and on and on, often leaving no room amongst the chants for any that actually support Oxford.
There's a longer held but less strongly felt antipathy with Reading, which is weakened further by the clubs' respective positions. Back in the days when Robert Maxwell was chairman, he once proposed merging Oxford and Reading as the Thames Valley Royals, which didn't help feelings between the clubs.
These days, with Swindon and Reading in higher divisions, the return of Wycombe to the third adds some spice, but Oxford tend to look patronisingly down on the Chairboys, as they do with their closest rivals last year, Cheltenham – the game against whom they comically tried to hype as the "Cotswolds Derby".
A season of two halves. Truly living the cliché, for the first half of the year Oxford romped along almost completely unbeaten, top of the table, smashing everything put in their way with the astonishingly ugly long ball game fancied by then manager Ian Atkins. Five at the back, three defensive midfielders, and the giant Julian Alsop up front. Unfortunately, this being rather a simple game plan, the second half of the season saw Oxford found out. The situation wasn't helped by Alsop's flying elbows and fantastic collection of red cards.
A run of 15 games with one desultory victory saw a fantastic decline to mid-table mediocrity. Halfway through the run, and with a degree of chaos bordering on farce, Ian Atkins jumped ship/was pushed/was poached/sacked/suspended/who knows... off to Bristol Rovers, to be replaced by famed sex offender and coach Graham Rix, who promptly started playing nice football and still getting beaten. The losing run ended only in the final game of the season, when nobody cared any more.
Who's the Dadi?
If he's still around after the close season's coming and goings, the class of the field at Oxford is Dean Whitehead. Having come up through the youth team, he suddenly matured last year into an intelligent player. Good from the dead ball, fast, creative (by Division Three standards) – a right-footed midfielder worth watching.
Elsewhere it's hard to know who'll be staying and who'll be going and who'll be coming with the usual merry-go-round of one-year contracts in the third division. Almost certainly still around will be the immense Alsop, who looks far better with the ball played on the deck, and can be good entertainment, frighteningly slow, incredibly violent with the elbows (not helped by the fact that he's six foot five wide, and about as tall). Young Chris Hackett is a fans' favourite. A fast, fast winger, like many third division wingers what he gains in pace he loses in the fact that he can't dribble or cross. Still liable to scare enough defensive carthorses to win a few penalties.
Danny Brown is a skilful but slow left-footed midfielder. Steve Basham is a fairly mobile and talented striker, but very lightweight and never quite regained the form he once had at Preston. Mark Rawle can be brilliant or totally anonymous, but is usually injured. Youngster Jamie Brooks has been out for two years after developing Guillain-Barre syndrome. If he recovers his form of three years ago, where he was reputedly on the verge of a move to Arsenal, then he'll be a force to be reckoned with, playing behind the strikers.
The rest of the team are either unknown because they're anonymous lightweights, or unknown because they haven't been signed yet.
At some point Oxford will begin to creep back up the league, with their newish (albeit three-sided) ground bringing in a bit more cash than the decrepit old Manor. Whether this will happen in 2004–05 is less certain. Yet another manager, and yet another season of high expectations, looks likely to result in Oxford getting into the play-offs for the first time in their history. A guess at somewhere around fifth, then, but it all depends on quite how many people Rix still knows from his days at Arsenal and Chelsea and whether he can find someone willing to lend him a quality young defender.
Having gone from a ground with seven stands to one with three, Oxford may have had the largest ever drops in numbers of stands of any club in Britain.
United also have one of the most embarrassing sets of celebrity fans anywhere, withTimmy Mallet, Desmond Morris and Jim Rosenthal at the top of the list. Add to that Richard Branson occasionally being seen at matches and Tim Henman proclaiming an affinity (when he's not proclaiming himself a Manchester United fan), and it's a wonder that any Oxford fans dare show their faces.
Oxford were the victorious team in Alex Ferguson's first game in charge of Manchester United, back in the days when they were good.
The official site is often full of the usual boring PTV nonsense, but is occasionally brightened by tales of webmaster Chris Williams' disastrous travels to away games. Then there's the local paper, the Oxford Mail; but probably the best source of information is the website of United fanzine Rage On.