Sunday, 17 June 2012

A History of Amateur Football in Oxford Part 2

Our look back at the history of amateur football in Oxford continues. Don't forget to read part 1 if you haven't already.

Britain emerged from the War a different nation entirely and football was to feel the effects of this cultural shift massively. Professional football, which had been going from strength to strength, found itself in the midst of a boom, and attendances would reach an all-time high over the following decade as football would emerge as a central part of Britain's cultural rebirth during the immediate postwar optimism. The amateur game, an increasingly fading remnant from a now-bygone era, found itself squeezed out of the public consciousness somewhat and experiencing something of an identity crisis.

Nonetheless, Oxford remained a strong base for amateur football, as Oxford City went close to winning the Isthmian League in the first postwar season. However, for a time Oxford appeared to be in danger of being overshadowed by Banbury as the central focus of football in Oxfordshire. Banbury Spencer, who came out of nowhere to become one of Oxfordshire's leading clubs in the 1930s, took the decision in 1946 to adopt professionalism, and had some immediate success in their first season in the Birmingham Combination, finishing second in the league and reaching the 1st round proper of the FA Cup for the first time. It appeared as if Oxford's clubs would be overshadowed and lose status if they continued purely as amateur concerns, as talented local players continued to drift away from the area to join the professional game.

Headington United recognised this and, seeking a higher standard of competition, joined the Spartan League in 1947. In response to these recent developments Oxford City seriously began to consider turning professional, holding a meeting in the Town Hall to discuss the idea, but the motion was defeated because of the perceived low status of the Southern League and concerns that landlords Brasenose College would refuse to allow professional football at the White House Ground. Sensing the opportunity to establish themselves as Oxford's leading club, Headington announced their intention to turn professional soon after at the club's AGM in July 1948.

Clearly this would mark a pivotal point in Oxford's footballing history, but the values of amateurism were far from dead in the city, and as it had led the way in establishing the sport locally back in the 1870s, it was the University which would lead amateur football's renaissance in the 1950s. Pegasus FC were formed in 1948 by future FA Chairman Harrold Thompson for “the encouragement and improvement of Association Football at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge by the formation of a joint team” and represented one final throw of the dice for amateurism as an important part of football in the public consciousness. Within the universities, football's status had dwindled since the golden days of the 1800s, and the sport was held in much lower regard than rugby or cricket. Initially players had to be either in residence at Oxford or Cambridge, or to have been in residence within the last year.

The public interest in the club was huge, to the extent that they were immediately granted an exemption to the 4th qualifying round of the Amateur Cup and their very first match (a 3-1 win over Enfield) was televised. Their progress in the cup was swift, as they reached the 4th round before bowing out to eventual winners Bromley in front of 12,000 (then a record crowd for any match in Oxford) at Iffley Road. Already they had established a reputation as one of the strongest amateur teams in the country and would continue to play to capacity crowds at Iffley Road for several years.

Meanwhile, Headington's decision to turn professional was not initially a popular one, drawing much negative comment in the local press. To compound their problems, their debut season in the Southern League was not exactly successful, as the club finished 21st in the table, winning 15 games and losing 24. To make matters worse for the professionals, Oxford's amateur teams were to attract unprecedented national attention in 1951 in the FA Amateur Cup, as they were to meet in the quarter finals in a hotly anticipated town vs gown battle. The match was “the talk of Oxford” and Pegasus would go on to win 3-0 in front of a sold out White House crowd.

Their semi-final against Hendon was a true cup epic, the initial encounter (in front of 26,000 at Highbury) was drawn 1-1 as Hendon missed a last minute equaliser, with the Pegs winning through to the final by scoring two last minute goals in the replay. Pegasus' support extended far beyond the university, and the whole of Oxford decamped to Wembley to see Pegasus take on Bishop Auckland in the final, in front of a record Amateur Cup crowd of 100,000. The involvement of Pegasus in a national final so soon after their formation was a major national story at the time and there was no doubt which side was the neutrals' choice going into the game. The masses were not disappointed, as Pegasus emerged 2-1 victors to bring the cup back to Oxford for the first time since 1906.

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Pegasus would repeat their achievement two years later, another Wembley sellout witnessing a 6-0 thrashing of Harwich & Parkeston. However, the Cup was arguably won way back in the third round, when Pegasus beat amateur giants Corinthian-Casuals 1-0 in a tense game at the Oval. If the meeting of Pegasus and Oxford City in 1951 was a battle for supremacy in Oxford, this tie was billed as a battle for 'Corinthian' supremacy. Furthermore, this match would shed light on a situation that would eventually come to destroy the Pegasus club. The relaxing of the aforementioned 'One Year Rule' in 1949 had opened a divide between the Oxford and Cambridge representatives that would eventually tear the club apart, and Cambridge players refused to turn out for Pegasus after they had been more than a year out of university. In 1953, eight Cambridge old boys, who had previously played for Pegasus, turned out for the Corinthian-Casuals.

If Pegasus' rise to the top was swift, their decline was a rather drawn-out affair, and though the club continued its strong showings in the Amateur Cup for a few years (4th round in '54, quarter finals in '55), they would lurch from crisis to crisis for the remainder of their existence, hamstrung by a series of defections to the Corinthian-Casuals and often struggling to raise a competitive team.

Gradually, bit by bit, professionalism was creeping into one of amateur football's traditional homes. When Headington United and Oxford City met in the FA Cup for the first time in 1951 huge crowds turned out to both the initial match (a 2-2 draw) and the replay (a 3-0 victory for United). Headington had clearly established themselves as the superior force and would go from strength to strength in the years that followed, completing the Southern League and Cup double in 1953 and retaining the Cup the following season. The club applied unsuccessfully to join the Football League in 1952 and it became clear that Headington would have to change their name to reflect their status as Oxford's leading club, and a name change to Headington & Oxford FC was considered. Headington would first come to national attention in the 1953/54 season, with a fantastic run to the 4th round of the FA Cup which brought First Division Bolton Wanderers to the Manor, as well as winning the Southern League again. In contrast, Oxford City had to apply for re-election to the Isthmian League in 1952 and 1954.

The biggest nail in the coffin of Oxford's amateur football came with Oxford United's election to the Football League in 1962. The club had changed its name in 1960 and the change reflected the now-sizeable difference in status between United and City, being ratified by the Oxfordshire FA and national FA despite City's protests. City continued in the Isthmian League much as they had for the many preceding years, but crowds had over time migrated from the White House to the Manor. Pegasus were finally put out of their misery in 1963, as their internal conflicts finally killed 'the last of the great amateur teams'.

The FA formally ended the distinction between amateurs and professionals in 1974, but the battle in Oxford was over by then. That said, there continued to be strong support for the values of amateurism for many years, as noted by United manager Gerry Summers in 1970:
The trouble here, however, is the community of a university town as a whole is not professionally minded. But in spite of an amateur bias we're making friends slowly.”

Headington Amateurs, founded in the Brit in 1949 (the same year that Headington United adopted professionalism – is this just coincidence?) continue to compete in the Hellenic League to this day.

One thing that is clear is that Oxford's footballing history extends far beyond the professional game. Beginning in the days of the game's birth when it was introduced to the city by the University, Oxford saw the rise of an amateur powerhouse in the early 20th Century, a competitive local league scene, and hosted the last of the great amateur clubs. Oxford's football history goes way beyond the considerable achievements of United in the 80s. It has, in fact, been a notable footballing city for many years and will continue to be for many more.

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