The History of Oxford United and Influential Figures

It is a source of pride for many that, in 2001, Oxford United football club finally moved into a home worthy of the club’s stature, The Kassam Stadium. The club now has a state-of-the-art facility, but in the beginning, the club was based in much more modest surroundings and was known as Headington United until 1960.

So here is our quick guide to the history of Oxford United FC and the people who were instrumental in the change in fortunes and we have a separate article giving stats and club records.

headington hill, the start of The History of Oxford United football club
View of Oxford from South Park on Headington Hill in east Oxford

The History of Oxford United

The Early Years as Headington United

Oxford United was formed in 1893 as an amateur club named Headington and was locally known as “the boys from over the hill” and started by Revd John Scott-Tucker and Robert Hitchings for the young men of the Parish to play as the cricket season had finished.

They lost the first game on the quarry recreation ground against Cowley Barracks, but recorded the first win on 13 January 1894 against Victoria with both founders scoring.

Headington United Football Club was formed in 1911 by the merger of the team and Headington Quarry. The club moved from Junior to Senior football in 1921, when it joined the Oxfordshire Senior League and moved into the Manor Ground in 1925.

United joined the Spartan League after World War II, but in 1949 the club became a semi-professional unit by becoming a member of the Southern League under manager Harry Thompson. In December 1950, Headington United became one of the first Football League clubs to use floodlights for a match with local rivals Banbury Spencer.

In the hope of one day hosting League football, The Manor Ground underwent extensive ground improvements, including the construction of the Beech Road stand, one of the most advanced stands of its time.

1959: The arrival of Arthur Turner and the Atkinson brothers and professional status

Arthur Turner was appointed head coach 1st January 1959 to kick off a decade of success, helped by the arrival of two club legends.

The 1959/60 season saw two Aston Villa youth players join the club. Ron Atkinson was 20, and younger brother Graham Atkinson was allowed to play too until he signed when he turned 17. Both stayed at the club for their playing careers and became club record holders that have stood until this day.

Wing-half Ron captained the club to promotion from the Southern League to the old second division and became the record appearance holder with 562 games. Graham’s 107 goals (77 league goals) still stands as Oxford United’s top scorer and he also has the honour of scoring the first goal in a league game against Barrow.

1960: The name change to Oxford United

In order to appeal to the entire city and increase national recognition in 1960, the club’s name was changed to Oxford United.

In 1962, Oxford United ascended to the Fourth Division of the Football League after Accrington Stanley folded.

1962 to 1982: League Football

Further careful planning continued, and their manager, Arthur Turner had the honour of leading Oxford United into the Sixth Round of the FA Cup in 1964 – the first of only four clubs from the Fourth Division to do so.

In the Fourth Division, Oxford finished in the last promotion place in 1965, thereby gaining entrance to the Third Division, where the club remained for two seasons until it won the championship under Arthur Turner’s leadership with Ron Atkinson as captain.

In the 1975/76 season, Oxford United suffered their first relegation in their entire history after eight consecutive seasons in Division Two.

1982 to 1990: The Maxwell years

Two managers came and went before Jim Smith arrived in 1982 to later lead the team to two promotions and into the old first division and top tier of English football in 1985. In his second spell as manager in 2006 he also managed the team as they were relegated to the football conference.

But arguably the plaudits for both success and failures go to controversial millionaire publisher Robert Maxwell who lived in Headington Hill Hall. Arguably he initially saved the club from bankruptcy in January 1982 to kickstart the golden era by hiring Smith but almost merge with Reading as Thames Valley Royals in 1983 much to both fans chagrin.

John Aldridge joined in 1984 to fire the club to the 1984/85 Third Division Championship by scoring 30 league goals. A year later, the club won the Second Division title, bringing the club to Division One of the English Football League for the first time.

No club has ever won the third and second division championships in consecutive seasons, making Oxford United’s accomplishment unique in English football history. But Maxwell failed to improve Smith’s contract so he left to join QPR.

Under chief scout Maurice Evans the club brought in Ray Houghton and battled hard to survive in Division One in 1985-86, with relegation was finally avoided when they won their last game of the season. The club had a great end to the season when they won their first major cup, in front of 90,396 spectators. They won the Milk Cup final after beating Jim Smith’s Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Wembley Stadium in April 1986. Evans famously gave his winners medal to long-serving physio Ken Fish.

The poor 12 months in the First Division were repeated as Aldridge moved to Liverpool (scoring 90 goals in 141 games) and in came Dean Saunders from Brighton to replace him, with his 6 goals in the final 12 matches saw relegation avoided in the penultimate game. Midfielder Houghton moved to Liverpool and Maxwell Senior also left the club in May 1987 and son Kevin took over.

And with the club bottom in March 1988 (in the third season), Evans was sacked. Inevitably United were then relegated back to Division Two with Mark Lawrenson as manager, before he was also fired following the disputed sale of Dean Saunders from Kevin Maxwell’s Oxford United to his father Robert Maxwell’s Derby County. He was succeeded by Brian Horton in 1988 and the team performed quite well under him, with not much money available to build the team.

Into the 90s: Post Maxwell 

It was apparent the flamboyant Maxwell had money troubles and he sold off some companies to cover some debts. But it was only after his death in November 1991, that United’s future was in jeopardy once more. Not only did the banks recall their huge loans to collapse the family fortune, but it became apparent theft of pension funds.

From a footballing perspective, it was a fortunate that the team won on the last day of the season, ensuring their position in the new Division One (formerly division 2), which had just been established with the arrival of the Premier League.

The club was bought by Biomass Recycling in 1992, but in 1993, they failed to avoid relegation, and the club were demoted to Division Two again. Horton went to Man City, with Denis Smith taking the helm for 4 seasons and local hero Joey Beauchamp was sold to raise some much need finances.

In the 1994/95 season, they started well, but results dipped after Christmas, and they just missed out on the play-off positions and ownership changed to Robin Herd and the March Racing Team.

During the 1995/96 season, they managed to transform their performances in the second part of the season after the return of Joey Beauchamp, and they managed to grab a promotion spot on the last day. Additionally, Oxford received final approval for the construction of a new 15,000-seat stadium at Minchery Farm in the southern part of the city.

In the 1996/97 season, they were able to finish in around the mid-table position in their first season back in the First Division and again finished 12th the next year. However, the 1998/99 season proved difficult for the club as they suffered from financial difficulties, which led to their unfortunate demotion to Division Two on the final day of the season.

2000 to 2010: The Kassam era

Firoz Kassam‘s acquisition of Robin Herd’s shares was completed just before the end of the season. In order to ensure financial stability and advance relocation plans, he immediately began working on them.

The team were able to stay in the division in the 1999/2000 season but, unfortunately, were relegated to the third tier of English football the next season. It was a bitter end to the final year at The Manor Ground.

From 2000 to 2006, Oxford United had their ups and downs in the Third Division but eventually they succumbed to too many bad performances, which led to them being relegated to the Nationwide Conference at the end of the 2005/06 season.

From 2006 to 2010, they stayed within the Conference league, but under Chris Wilder they managed to grab a third-place play-off spot in the 2009/10 season, and they went on to win the Finals in front of 33,000 fans at Wembley against York City to claim a spot back into the Football League.

2010 to the present day

United’s first season back in the Football League ended with them finishing 12th in League 2, just five points adrift of the play-offs, and they missed out on the playoffs again the next season. They unfortunately missed out on the play-offs once again in the 2012/13 campaign. Wilder was replaced by Michael Appleton in 2014.

Eventually, they were able to seal promotion to League One in 2015/16 thanks to Kemar Roofe (who scored 26 goals in 49 games before a record £3m sale to Leeds), as well as reach the Football League Trophy Final, losing to Barnsley at Wembley.

The following season, United lost to Coventry City in the 2017 Football League Trophy Final, the club’s second consecutive appearance at Wembley and Appleton’s last as manager. Current manager Karl Robinson joined in March 2018.

COVID-19 prematurely terminated the 2019/20 season in March, leaving United in fourth place in League One on points-per-game. This qualified Oxford for the play-offs in the Football League for the first time. However, they lost in the final to Wycombe.

The U’s again reached the play-off in 2020/21 before falling short in a two-legged semi-final against Blackpool, while in 2021/22 they once again missed out on the play-off despite scoring the same number of goals as Champions Wigan Athletic.

Oxford United Individual Records

Most Total Appearances562 Ron Atkinson 1959-71
Most Football League Appearances473 John Shuker 1962-77
Most Total Goals107 Graham Atkinson 1959-74
Most Football League Goals77 Graham Atkinson 1962-74
Highest Scorer In A Season43 Bud Houghton 1961/62
Highest Football League Scorer In A Season30 John Aldridge 1984/85