U Beauties: When Oxford United Won The Milk Cup On This Day In 1986

On this day in 1986, Oxford United won their first, and to date only, major trophy at Wembley
06:55, 20 Apr 2022

The mid-1980s were halcyon days for Oxford United; a glorious period which was encapsulated by a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon at Wembley on April 20th 1986 as the club won their first, and to date only, major trophy at Wembley.

With terrace violence rife, clubs banned from playing in European competitions and next to no televised matches due to an ongoing dispute between club chairmen and TV bosses, the game was on its knees; yet the dark days of English football would provide one club with the brightest period in their history.

Oxford had been struggling in English football’s third-tier with the very real threat of bankruptcy hanging over the club before newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell came to their rescue and saved the Us from obscurity in 1982.

Just a few years later and manager Jim Smith, aided by Maxwell’s millions, was guiding his side to two successive promotions, as Oxford United stunned the world of football by reaching the First Division for the first time in their history in 1985.

The joy was only short-lived, however, with Smith announcing that, after failing to negotiate a new contract he would be taking the reins at QPR with reports at the time suggesting that he wanted £50,000 a year with Maxwell drawing the line at £45,000.

Rather than giving in to Smith’s demands, Maxwell instead appointed his chief scout and youth development officer, Maurice Evans, to the role of manager in a huge gamble as United prepared to make their top-flight bow.

In the league, at least, Evans and United struggled in that first season as they welcomed the giants of English football to the Manor Ground, a quaint but dated stadium they had called home since 1925 which was flanked tightly by tree-lined streets and smart semi-detached houses.

It was a different story in the League Cup, a competition that had recently undergone something of a revamp following a ground-breaking deal with the National Dairy Council to become the first major cup competition to bear the name of a sponsor.

After beating Northampton Town 4-1 on aggregate Oxford then overcame Newcastle United, holders Norwich City and Portsmouth to reach the semi-finals where they would eventually despatch Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate to reach the twin towers for the first time ever.

As fate would have it they would play Jim Smith’s QPR at Wembley, they had overcome Liverpool to set up something of an awkward meeting between the side he had left at the start of the season and his new employer. “I would like to meet my old club Oxford in the final, that will be the icing on the cake for me,” Smith had declared earlier in the competition.

As it happened, Smith probably wished it had been anyone but his former side that he was facing at Wembley as his Rangers team, who had recently recorded impressive wins over Manchester United and Chelsea were completely outplayed by an Oxford side battling relegation.

A first-half strike from Trevor Hebberd put United in the driving seat before goals from Ray Houghton and Jeremy Charles put the contest beyond doubt as a sea of yellow swept around Wembley to acclaim the club’s finest hour.

Having overseen the club’s greatest day, Maurice Evans, who had only been in charge for a matter of months, insisted that long-serving trainer Ken Fish go up to the royal box with skipper Malcolm Shotton to collect the trophy in an incredible act of kindness.

Despite avoiding relegation in the final weeks of 1985/86 season, that sensational afternoon at Wembley would be as good as it got for Oxford United, who were eventually relegated from the top-flight in 1988.

Four more relegations followed as Oxford went from Wembley winners to the basement of English football in the space of just two decades before dropping out of the league entirely into the National League as they spent four years in the footballing wilderness.

Since their return to the EFL in 2010 it has been steady if not spectacular progress for the U's, spending six years in League Two before achieving promotion to League One in 2016. Currently 7th and in the hunt for a play-off spot, there is genuine hope among some Oxford fans that the good times are not too far away.

But for those who recall April 20th, 1986, the memories of that glorious occasion are becoming ever more distant by the year. 

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