Saturday, 16 June 2012

A History of Amateur Football in Oxford Part 1

It is perhaps unusual that professional football came late to Oxford – with no team playing professionally in the city until 1949 – while geographically and culturally similar towns such as Reading and Swindon had professional teams from the mid-1890s. The lack of a professional outfit in Oxford disguises the fact that football was every bit as important and popular in the city during this time as it was in those neighbouring towns. However, whereas professionalism became an accepted part of football in much of the rest of Britain from the late 19th century, in Oxford the traditional values of amateurism proved to be far more deep-seated.

Oxford's association with the game stretches back to before the existence of football as we now know it. In the mid-19th Century, before the creation of the FA, there were no commonly agreed rules of football. While 'football' was popular throughout the country, it was a violent mob sport, with no agreed pitch, no time limit, no team numbers and no real rules. It was in the public schools that the early codification of the game began, but instead of agreeing on a common set of rules, each school formulated its own code, resulting in a vast array of different forms, from the Eton Wall Game to Winchester football. This caused problems when public school graduates arrived at Oxford or Cambridge, with players struggling to agree on the rules of the game. Whereas some schools favoured kicking, others favoured handling, some allowed hacking while others did not, and as a result Oxford became a melting pot of the various public school football codes. Consequently, when students gathered to play football in University Parks, they would have to draw up a list of rules for that match, which would be pinned to a tree.

Oxford University: FA Cup winners
It was these problems that eventually led to the foundation of the FA in 1863, with the aim of establishing a universal set of rules for the game. In 1874, the FA Cup came to Oxfordshire for the first (and, so far, only) time, when Oxford University became the second team to win the competition, at their second attempt. In its early days, before the advent of professionalism, the FA Cup was dominated by 'gentleman' clubs, comprised of wealthy public school alumni. Oxford University proved to be among the strongest of these and would reach the final on three other occasions between 1872 and 1880. However, they and the other gentleman teams of the era were soon to fall by the wayside as professionalism began to creep into the game, and with the legalisation of professionalism in 1885, amateur clubs would never again be serious FA Cup contenders. Gentleman amateur clubs such as Oxford University would not simply adopt professionalism in order to compete; for them, amateur sport was an ideal and to pay players was to go against the very spirit of the game. As a result of the FA's 1885 ruling, football essentially became divided between the professionals and the amateurs – a schism that marked English football for much of the 20th Century.

The educational institutions which had created the early organised versions of football maintained strong sporting connections with their local communities and, as a result, the development and nature of the game in those areas mirrored that of the local public schools. For example, schools which favoured the handling code – such as Rugby in the East Midlands, or Cheltenham/Marlborough in the West Country – correspond roughly with the modern-day heartlands of rugby union. In Oxford, the influence of the University was profound, and the many clubs that subsequently formed in the city shunned professionalism and were staunchly amateur in nature – even working class football clubs such as Cowley and Pressed Steel would remain strictly amateur.

However, there was one local club that stood out above the rest: Oxford City. Prior to their formation, football in Oxford was primarily the domain of the University (most local 'football' clubs had followed rugby rules in the mid-19th Century), but the 1880s and 1890s saw the formation of many local clubs, with Oxford City eventually emerging as the foremost of these (after a brief challenge for supremacy from Oxford Cygnets). But while the enthusiasm for the professional game had spread to the South with the formation of the Southern League in 1894, Oxford's principal club had no interest in joining their newly professional neighbours, and for much of their early history declined to participate in any league.

1906 Amateur Cup winners (from City Stats)
In the early years of the 20th Century, City began to earn national recognition as one of the strongest amateur sides in the country. In 1901/02, they reached the 1st round proper (the final 32 teams) of the FA Cup, holding Second Division Lincoln City to a draw in front of 4,500 at the White House Ground before bowing out in the replay, as well as reaching the final 16 of the Amateur Cup. They went all the way to the final the following year, going down by a single goal to Stockton after a replay. A sign of the shift in Oxford's footballing power came in 1905, when City secured their first win over the University in what had become a biannual 'town v gown' match. The Amateur Cup made its way to Oxford in 1906, making City one of the first Southern-based teams to win the competition (and the first of those not won by an Old Boys team). Played in treacherous northern conditions, City emerged 3-0 winners over Bishop Auckland and returned home to a heroes' welcome. With Oxford routinely featuring in the later rounds of the FA Amateur Cup, the city was nationally known as a hotbed for the amateur game. The England amateur team, formed in 1906, hosted Germany at the White House in 1909, inflicting what is to this day the Germans' record defeat – a 9-0 thumping!

The very existence of an England amateur team was symptomatic of the increasing schism occurring at the time within football. As the professional game continued to grow in strength, the amateurs became increasingly marginalised and formed their own breakaway association – the Amateur Football Alliance – in 1907. When Oxford City chose to join the FA-affiliated Isthmian League instead of the newly-formed Southern Amateur League, some of their members chose to breakaway and form a new club to compete under the auspices of the AFA. However, the AFA proved to be less than successful and by 1914 had been absorbed once again into the FA's governance, while the breakaway Oxford club disbanded and its members rejoined Oxford City after three seasons of mixed success. However, in the midst of such upheaval, City were again able to reach the final of the FA Amateur Cup in 1913, losing to South Bank in a replay, after drawing at the first attempt.

The outbreak of war would throw up a big problem for football and it was one that would have far-reaching consequences for amateur football across the nation. While the nation's rugby clubs instantly suspended operations and nationalistically encouraged their members to get involved in the war effort, football – at least at the upper levels – initially chose to continue, sparking national outrage. Most of Oxfordshire's amateur clubs, such as Headington, Henley and Didcot shut down, but Oxford City continued, to much consternation in the local press. When the Oxfordshire FA suspended its competitions, football in the county effectively stopped for the duration of the war. Disgruntled by football's continuation during the war, the middle class (who were mostly involved in elite amateur football) turned its back on football and public schools began to take up rugby instead. This weakened amateur football considerably, but the professional game continued to strengthen. When the FA Cup final moved to the newly-constructed Wembley Stadium in 1923, crowds swelled to unprecedented levels, and the Football League expanded to 88 teams.

Despite this, in Oxfordshire football was booming. City were getting their highest attendances ever (An FA Cup tie against Norwich attracted a then-record crowd of 6179), while several other local clubs began to look beyond their usual local competitions and began competing nationally in the Amateur Cup. One thing we can surmise from this is that in Oxford the amateur game was not merely a middle class pursuit, but captured the imagination of a wider demographic. The Oxfordshire Senior Cup began to expand during this time, as the Oxfordshire FA ended its distinction between 'Senior' and 'Junior' clubs and local clubs, no doubt encouraged by City's poor form at the time, became increasingly ambitious.

Cowley FC, 1922
Two of those clubs were Headington and Cowley, who developed a fierce rivalry during the 1920s as they jostled for position within Oxford's football scene, and matches between the two began to attract large and vociferous crowds. When the two clubs met in the 1922 final of the Oxfordshire Senior Cup, they set a new competition attendance record of 3,200, and attracted 3000 to the final of the Oxford City FA in 1920. Cowley reached the 1st round proper of the Amateur Cup in 1922, losing out on a replay to FA founder members, Civil Service FC. Cowley began to develop their Holloway ground in the late 1920s, while Headington moved into the Manor in 1925, a sign of the increasing ambition of some of the local amateur clubs.

However, Oxford City remained the city's premier club throughout this period and continued to attract healthy crowds, even despite their reduced stature in footballing terms. Large crowds descended on the White House for matches against Sporting Lisbon (a win) and Gillingham (a defeat), but despite the consistent local support for the club they would continue to struggle throughout the 30s. Cowley, who had for a brief while been considered the city's second team while they were in the Spartan League, found themselves in financial trouble and playing to poor crowds, but Headington continued to grow, and this contrast in fortunes was exemplified when Cowley were left with little choice but to sell their wooden stand to Headington as they sought to expand the Manor Ground.

The outbreak of World War Two would disrupt Oxfordshire football (an eagerly-anticipated first FA Cup meeting between City and United was cancelled due to the outbreak of war) and after hostilities ceased Britain – and Oxford – would be culturally a very different place. Professional football would arrive in the city for the first time soon after, but the city's love affair with the amateur game was still far from over...

Read part 2 here.

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