In big footballing cities like Manchester and Liverpool, young supporters quickly learn to pick a side among the febrile atmosphere of local rivalry. This sees the city carved in half along club allegiances and the eternal tussle for supremacy being renewed with each passing generation.
The situation has always been rather different in Oxford. With a considerably smaller population of supporters, the area is able to sustain just one reasonably-sized club and fans gravitate towards the city’s senior side, with little competition for supporters or league honours to fan the flames of rivalry with Oxfordshire’s other clubs.
Prior to World War Two that ‘senior club’ was undoubtedly Oxford City and local football fans flocked to the White House Ground in their thousands to watch City in Isthmian League action. All of this changed when United adopted professionalism in 1949 and joined the Southern League, with crowds migrating from the White House to the Manor Ground due to the appeal of professional football.
Any ill-feeling caused by the reversal in fortunes of the city’s clubs, however, failed to be converted into a footballing rivalry due to the fact that the sides rarely met in competitive matches. The exception to this came in an FA Cup first round tie in 1951, which pitted the two Oxford clubs against each other for the first time in the Cup. United's position as Oxford’s foremost club was confirmed with a 3-0 victory at the Manor Ground in front of more than 8,000.
United, since then, have become clearly established as Oxford’s Football League team, with many supporters looking to non-league City almost as a little brother to United. In more recent years the two sides have met almost annually for pre-season friendlies, and City marked the opening of their Court Place Farm ground in 1993 with a friendly against their local neighbours. Meetings between the two sides have mostly been good-natured affairs, but tempers flared after a horror challenge from City defender Andy Baird on United’s talismanic striker James Constable in 2009.
On the whole, however, relations between the two Oxford clubs remain friendly, with former United stars often pitching up at City later in their careers. Former U’s favourites Steve Basham, Jamie Cook and Chris Wilmott have all been influential figures for City in recent seasons and can expect a warm reception from both sets of fans when the two sides meet on Tuesday.
But with United and City now separated by just two levels in the football pyramid and recent senior personnel changes at City suggesting a greater ambition to go further still, we could soon see a time when matches between the city’s two sides are more than just friendlies.
This article first appeared in Issue 2 of Off the Ball magazine, which can be downloaded for FREE here.