As I wander around the world of English football, I like to introduce my readers to clubs they might not know about. In other words, I invite you to world beyond Manchester United, Chelsea, and Arsenal.
This time, let’s meet Oxford United, who are spending the 2017-18 season in League One, the third tier of English football.
First, yes, it’s that Oxford. The university, the colleges, the dreaming spires, the intellectuals, all of that. But there is this phenomenon called “town and gown,” which is sometimes phrased “town vs gown,” which in the past resulted in some real problems, but which these days is probably more of a subtle cultural divide.
That is, there’s that Oxford, and then there’s the town where the people actually live. And they have a football club — have had one for a while, actually, but we’ll get to that.
Touring the non-football Oxford is both easy and pleasant, and you don’t need me to explain it. Just take a train about an hour from Paddington, and you’ll be there. I’ll point out a few things you might want to look for, then we’ll get on to the football.
The Hop-On-Hop-Off bus is quite good, especially if you catch one with an actual tour guide on it. Otherwise, it’s the usual earphone business. I had nice walks through Christchurch Meadow, down to the Thames, and through various side streets.
The many colleges in town are often closed, but they have hours in the afternoon when they might be open. They’re all basically set up like monasteries, with a central courtyard or garden, and they range from a few dozen students to several hundred.
You can take Harry Potter tours, seeing sites from the films, but honestly, I couldn’t care less unless I get to meet Emma Watson. Research this on your own.
I took a £20 walking tour from Visit Oxford Tours and enjoyed it, mostly as a way to pick a local’s brain for two hours.
I also took a £20 Thames boat tour from Oxford River Cruises, which was nice for a little peaceful break and because the river is nice. It was about an hour.
Had a nice lunch at Buongiorno e Buonasera in Gloucester Green, where I am pretty sure I was the only person not speaking Italian. In the same area there is a board game cafe, with the impossibly English name of Thirsty Meeples.
The covered market, open daily in an 18th Century building, is really cool, and not to be confused with the every-Wednesday outdoor market, which is kind of lame. In the covered market, look for the cake shop, which is my version of heaven.
If you’re in town for a game, look for hotels along Iffley Road (I stayed at the spartan Cherwell Guest House) and Cowley, which also has shops and cafes.
- The Kings Arms looks really cool and old school; it’s been there since 1607!
- The Eagle and Child is where Tolkien used to hangout with CS Lewis. They let mortals in, as well.
- The Lamb and Flag, across Gloucester Green, is owned by St. Johns College and has been there since 1613.
- There is another pub, named something like Land Inn, which is the oldest pub in town, is where Bill Clinton (allegedly) didn’t inhale, where the future Australian Prime Minister set a world drinking record, and whose location, by local tradition, I will not share.
Oxford United’s history follows a generally familiar course among English clubs: ancient founding, early glory, more recent glory, decline, and resurrection. In their case, the founding was in 1893, the early glory was in leagues you’ve never heard of, and the recent glory was in the 1980s, under a manager named Maurice Evans.
They made the top flight in 1986, barely stayed up, but won the League Cup, which was then known as the Milk Cup, and is now known as the EFL Cup or Carabao Cup. Let’s just move on. The point is, 1986 was by all accounts the high-water mark.
Here is that game:
Also of note from that Milk Cup win: Evans, the manager, let his winner’s medal be collected by the club’s 72-year-old physio (trainer). Proper gentleman move, that.
As money became more important in the league, the Us became less so, and they almost went away in the late 90s. In fact, they almost merged with Reading FC, except the fans of both clubs revolted. But they came back from the edge, thanks mainly to their chairman Firoz Kassam, although they dropped out of the Football League in 2006.
They got back into the Football League in 2010, playing the final at Wembley in front of a game-record attendance of 42,000 — 35,000 of them Oxford fans:
The Kassam is an odd place, really; it’s in Oxford Science Park, which is basically a business campus, and the stadium has only three sides, with the open end revealing a bowling alley and a Frankie and Benny’s restaurant. Basically, that’s a British TGI Friday’s and pretty much a sign that your ground is new and has little character.
Outside there’s a statue of what I presume to be an ox, owing to the town’s name (oxen crossing a ford), but it sure looks like a bull to me. Inside, there is a pub of sorts, called the Reception Area, but you can, in fact, get a beer there. The club shop seems to be just a table set up in the corner.
The ultras sit in the East Stand — the bottom of the U, appropriately — underneath banners about the Spirit of ’86. The away fans will be in the north stand, towards the opening. Ticket prices are under £30 for the best seats in the house; I would recommend the Lower South Stand for the view of action and away fans, or the east end to be amongst the singers.
I heard some smack getting talked about Swindon Town and Bristol Rovers, so I would try and get to one of those games. Other nearby clubs, though currently in different leagues, include Reading (Championship) and Luton Town (League Two).
There are a few buses that go close to the stadium from the center, including the one I took, the 3A (return ticket about £4). On Saturdays this one will go the stadium, but on other days it stops in the Science Park, from which you just follow the colors. I recommend this bus because it passes two pubs along the way that might have some atmosphere: The George and The Catherine Wheel, both in Sandford near the Thames.
Otherwise, do your drinking in town pre-game.
After the game, take the 1 or 5 back to town; walk through the nature park to a stop called Spindleberry Close.
My Gameday Experience
… is right here.
Other “Get to Know” Features: