Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Unusually Intertwined Histories of Oxford and Accrington

For years Oxford United and Accrington Stanley were two clubs, inextricably linked by history, who had never played each other. Of course, all that changed last season when Accrington visited the Kassam Stadium to play out a 0-0 draw in League Two (neither side has ever scored against the other yet). On Saturday, Accrington make their second visit and now seems as good a time as any to revisit the circumstances in which the two clubs came to be joined in the history books.

Accrington Stanley had been members of the Football League since 1921 (an earlier Accrington FC had been founder members of the league), though they had spent almost their entire Football League history in the bottom tier. The club had its best years both on and off the field in the mid-1950s, but just as the club appeared to be going places things started to go badly wrong. After achieving their record average attendance (10,000) in the 1954-55 season, Stanley purchased a new stand from Aldershot Military Tattoo. This proved to be a costly decision, however, and as the team struggled in the league their crowds fell by as much as 3000 in just a year, leading the club toward financial ruin.

Stanley's financial woes finally came to a head in 1962. Their mounting debts led to them being placed under a transfer embargo in December 1961 and, with the club struggling in the league, attendances dwindled to around the 1000 mark, which only served to exacerbate matters. By February '62 the club was in crisis, with the chairman and vice-chairman both resigning from the board as the scale of the debts became clear. The club appealed to Bob Lord, chairman of Burnley FC, who promised to help them. His support was later withdrawn with the revelation that the club had failed to pay insurance for its players and as a result they wrote a letter of resignation to the Football League. The board of Accrington Stanley then attempted to withdraw their resignation after public outcry and support from local businesses, but it was too late. An angry Accrington Stanley attempted to take legal action in order to retain their League status but to no avail, and so a non-league club was guaranteed to be elected to the Football League for the start of the 1962-63 season – a rare occurrence.

A desolate and neglected Peel Park in the late 1960s

The promise of a place being awarded in the Football League led to a larger than usual number of applications, as 26 non-league clubs applied for admission, whereas only 16 had applied the previous year. Oxford, champions of the Southern League, were the obvious choice to be accepted into the League and received 39 votes. Wigan Athletic, of the Cheshire League, were a distant second with 5 votes, and Chelmsford City (also of the Southern League) and Gateshead (then of the Northern Counties League, having lost their Football League status two years previously) each mustered 4 votes.

In all likelihood, it was probably only a matter of time until Oxford were elected into the Football League. The club had first applied for election in 1952 and had applied every year from 1955. The club (then still known as Headington United) was unable to garner any votes when it first applied in 1952 because no one knew where Headington was. A change of name to Headington & Oxford FC was discussed at the club's AGM that year but a change of the club's name was rejected. After this, the club applied every year (except in 1954) but were unable to secure many votes until the late 1950s, accompanying a stronger showing in the Southern League and increasing professionalism off the pitch. After the appointment of former Birmingham City manager Arthur Turner in 1959, Headington received 7 votes, followed by 10 in 1960 and 19 in 1961 – just 11 votes short of the re-elected Hartlepools United.

A Headington United application form to the Football League

Following their expulsion from the League, Accrington Stanley struggled on for four more years in the Lancashire Combination, before folding in 1966. The club was reformed in 1968, though they would never play at the old club's Peel Park ground and since reforming they have played at the club's current home, the Crown Ground. The road back to the Football League was a long one, and for many years the club drifted around the non-league pyramid. With a new millennium came fresh impetus and between 2000 and 2006 they won three promotions, taking them back to the Football League to much fanfare (and of course swapping places with us again, though I'd rather not mention it!).

The modern-day Stanley

It's also interesting to note the contrasting fortunes of some of the other clubs who were competing with Oxford for election to the Football League. Wigan Athletic had to wait until 1978 to be elected into the League, and took their place as a middling Fourth Division club until the arrival of Dave Whelan and his pot of money in 1995, which saw the club rise to Premier League, where it remains to this day. Chelmsford City and Gateshead, who finished with just one vote fewer than Wigan, have never quite reached such heights. Gateshead continued to apply for election back to the Football League, but could never muster more than four votes. As financial rot began to set in, they lost their Redheugh Park ground and were liquidated in 1973. They were reformed in 1977, though they are still without a stadium of their own to this day, playing matches at the Gateshead International Stadium (which around 500 Oxford fans will be quite familiar with, as we played Gateshead in our last season in the Conference, beating them 1-0 away and 2-1 at home). Chelmsford City applied for League membership countless times, but were never elected despite being successful in the Southern League. As a result, the club was never able to push on to the next level and has since fallen away from the top level of non-league competition, suffering a damaging spell of exile from Chelmsford between 1997 and 2006. They currently play in the Conference South and have been challenging for promotion for the last few seasons (Again, they will be familiar to Oxford fans from when we played them a couple of years ago in the FA Trophy).

To look back with the benefit of hindsight raises some interesting questions about how different things may have been for Oxford, had we failed to be elected to the Football League back then. Of the 26 other clubs who applied for election that year, only four of them (Wigan, Hereford, Morecambe and Yeovil) have since reached the Football League, which causes one to wonder how different the history of our club may have been if Accrington Stanley hadn't resigned from the League in March 1962. Oxford United as we now know it may not even exist.


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