Swindon versus Oxford: The birth of a rivalry

After 8 years, 8 months and 12 days – or 274,572,000 seconds if you prefer – the rivalry with Oxford United will be reignited this Sunday afternoon, like one of those trick candles that won’t blow out.

Swindon versus Oxford is one of those intensely local, yet underrated derby games that is rarely appreciated and understood outside of these parts. Here is a match full of passion and with its fair share of violence on and off the pitch over the years.

The hatred began because of the 29.9 miles separating us down the A420, but there is more than just pure geography to the divide between us. Even Oxford’s recent descent to non-league and back hasn’t seen the intensity or anger subside, and to some extent it’s getting stronger and stronger with the torching of STFC onto the Kassam Stadium pitch and getting all Tony Hart with pink paint. So what were the key events that turned this fixture into the most eagerly anticipated and fiercely contented match for supporters of both sides?

It took until the 1960s for the clubs to first lock horns in a competitive game. Unlike Oxford, Swindon Town were one of the early football pioneers, having been founding members of the Southern League and happily contesting derby games against original foes Reading since 1892. Compare that to the then Headington United, condemned to the far reaches of non-league football, playing games in the Oxon Senior League (from 1921) and later in the Spartan League. With Headington not participating in their first FA Cup tie until 1931 there was always such a gulf in class and little prospect of meeting other than in friendlies. Postwar expansion in football and reorganisation of the Southern League allowed Headington United a place in the newly formed Second Division in 1949 where they would become successful and stay, later renamed Oxford United, until 1962.

With Swindon’s railway works, flat caps and terraced housing providing little competition for Oxford’s dreaming spires and warm glowing Cotswold stone, it was the prestige of having a professional League club to support and the community that built it that enabled all Swindonians at least some bragging rights over our neighbours. All that changed when Accrington Stanley resigned mid-season in financial turmoil. As the reigning Southern League champions Oxford were in prime position to gatecrash the Football League, blitzing the other 25 non-league hopefuls seeking election, polling 39 votes to take their position in Division Four for 1962/63. Whether Swindon voted in favour of Oxford I seriously doubt…

At this point Swindon had been members of the Football League for 42 years since the founding of Division Three in 1920/21, but with no promotions and more flirtations with re-election over the years something needed to change to reassert Town’s footballing dominance and to keep civic pride intact.

Strangely the events post Oxford’s election to the League in 1962 coincided with the creation of the modern STFC and safe to say had an invigorating effect on our outlook. Bert Head’s youth policy came to fruition in 1962/63 to propel Town to a first Football league promotion into Division Two, proving the not long out of the Southern League upstarts had a long way to go to threaten Town’s pre-eminent position. As Oxford fell two divisions behind, it would take another two years, a first relegation for Swindon and a first promotion for Oxford to set up a first League encounter in 1965/66 in Division Three.

From the moment Oxford joined Town in Division Three the pressure was intense upon manager Swinodn Danny Williams to return the club to Division Two and maintain the ‘natural hierarchy’, as seen by those at the County Ground. Swindon retained the upper hand on their new rivals in these early encounters. After a 0-0 stalemate in the first League meeting the next five encounters yielded Swindon 2 wins, 3 draws and only a solitary goal conceded. The problem was that superiority wasn’t going to last forever and when it hit, it hit hard.

Oxford secured a second promotion in six League seasons and in doing so took the Division Three title in 1967/68 to overtake Swindon for the first time. Considering Town had managed just a single promotion without any silverware in 47 years, this unstoppable rise of a team not long out of the Southern League was unbearable, incensing the fans and shaking the club from top to bottom.

Again like 1962/63 we were inspired, perhaps indirectly, but there’s no doubt the motivation to equal and then better Oxford was and is always there. Desperate to put right a wrong the result was instant, gaining promotion with the League Cup tucked under our shoulder in 1969 to join Oxford in Division Two.

Always one to ram the dreaming spires down your throat

A burgeoning rivalry needed more than pure resentment and jealousy at Oxford’s rise from the Southern League. While there was trouble at games throughout the sixties, it needed a single game to provide that shot in the arm to stir up the hatred flowing in both directions.

Unfortunately for us it was Oxford who struck in September 1969 with their first competitive victory. As League Cup holders Swindon faced a Third Round trip to the Manor Ground. With both sides now in Division Two it represented the most closely fought match so far, but surely Swindon had the momentum. With Town siting higher in the table, having already tasted success in beating AS Roma to secure the Anglo Italian Cup Winners Cup and putting out a side featuring ten of the eleven starters from the previous year’s final, it was Swindon’s game to lose, and lose we did 1-0 before a record Manor Ground League Cup attendance of 18,193.

The result was significant, making a lasting and telling impact. So much so you won’t read about it in the ‘official’ story of Swindon Town The Robins, as if its been erased from our collective memory.

I could go on and tell the story of later years, the hooliganism, top flight football for both sides and of course Joey Beauchamp which brought the rivalry to a new generation, yet those formulative events were the vital components in creating and intensifying the hatred staring each way down the A420.

Back in December 1966 when Oxford United Secretary Ken McCluskey was questioned how hard was it to adjust to League football he commented “But we’ve done it, and now we feel we are accepted everywhere as a League Club”. Fast forward to 1983 when reports of Robert Maxwell aiming to extend his Thames Valley Royals amalgamation to north east Wiltshire earned a stinging rebuke from Town Chairman Cecil Green “We do not need anybody from a club just out of the Southern League to take us over. It’s just sheer damn sauce.”

Some things never change…

Chim chimney, chim chiminey, chim chim cher-oo…

—-

Header photo courtesy of Victoria Ellie  

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