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There’s something unmistakably romantic about Cuckoo Lane – and not just the name. Perhaps it’s because it seems to emerge from such a completely unremarkable place – a residential cul-de-sac – before it begins its snickety ascent of Headington Hill. Perhaps it’s the sense that it goes back nearly a thousand years, further in time than the walls and buildings which flank it. Perhaps it’s the thought of all the feet that have walked this way before …

Photo by Andrew Turner (shootingstreet.co.uk)

For this must originally have been a Sunday path to St Andrew’s Church, Old Headington, one of a series of tracks braiding their way across the hillside. And for seventy-six years, from 1925 until the opening year of the twenty-first century, it was also a Saturday pilgrimage route – to the home of Oxford United Football Club: the Manor Ground. It’s hard now to believe that goalposts and floodlights once stood close by, let alone terraces and nearly two acres of smooth green turf. In these days of mega-stadia, TV franchises, sponsorship deals, and WAG-filled Ferraris, it is important not to lose track of an important part of Oxford’s sporting history.

Headington FC was how it all started, a village club formed in 1893 – with its HQ in the Britannia Inn – by the vicar of the said St Andrew’s Church together with a local doctor. It absorbed Headington Quarry FC in 1911, turned professional in 1949 and, in 1960, was renamed Oxford United.

Two of its most colourful characters from Manor Ground days featured regularly in Private Eye: Captain Ron ‘The Tank’ Atkinson, later manager of Manchester United and perma-tanned TV pundit, was the prototype for medallion-wearing ‘Ron Manager’; while another figure who loomed even larger was Robert ‘Cap’n Bob’ Maxwell. Publishing tycoon, denizen of Headington Hill Hall (plus helipad) and owner of Oxford United, Maxwell sought to amalgamate his team with local rivals, Reading FC, to form a new club, ‘Thames Valley Royals’. His aim was to halve costs and generate greater ticket revenue by moving to a bigger stadium in Didcot. In this his business instincts were correct but his sense of tradition grotesquely awry.

Oxford United reached the heights of the old First Division in 1985 and, on 20 April 1986, achieved the greatest moment in their sporting history, defeating Queens Park Rangers 3-0 at Wembley, to lift the Milk Cup in front of over 90,000 spectators. Alas, they only managed to stay in the top league for three seasons (despite defeating Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in his first game as manager). Then ‘The Boys from up the Hill’ plummeted down the league, and their finances took a similar turn for the worse.

Things have stabilised recently and they are slowly working their way back. Club and ground have been relocated to a purpose-built, more car-friendly (some say soulless) site in the South East of Oxford, the Kassam Stadium, just outside the ring road. The old, sunken, snickety lane, which for so many years echoed to the sound of football chants, is now a quiet place once more, perfect for an afternoon stroll, possibly accompanied by the sound of a distant cuckoo. Meanwhile, over the hill and far away in OX4, Yellows fans gather at their favourite pub, The Blackbird.

POST SCRIPT:

A final, extraordinary, Oxford-related football fact, which has nothing to do with cuckoos but astonished us when we discovered it recently. It concerns England’s greatest football rivals, Germany.

On 13 March 1909 an international match was held between the two teams (both amateur at that time). The venue chosen was Oxford: an arena known as the White House Ground (closed in 1988 and long since demolished) just off the Abingdon Road. It was home to Oxford City, Oxford’s top club at that time.

England won 9-0. No penalties were involved.

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Remarkably, we have in our midst Julian Lawton Smith. Best known as the statistician, historian and archivist of the Oxfordshire Cricket Board, Julian also happens to have a famous sporting ancestor.

Herbert Smith, captain of the England (amateur) football team versus Germany in 1909, was my grandfather. I attach a signed portrait of him, together with a photograph of the cap he received and a copy of the match programme from that day. Readers may be surprised to discover that, although the Football Association undertook to supply shirts, the England players were ’requested to provide themselves with dark knickers’. – JLS

As for the ground itself, Liz Woolley once again provides invaluable local knowledge.
Martin Brodetsky, Oxford United club historian, programme compiler, statistician and fount of all Yellows-related knowledge, makes a fascinating point about the club logo.

The ox-head that features on United’s badge was originally designed by the famous TV anthropologist, Desmond Morris, who was also a lover of football, a director of our club, and a prolific artist. In coming up with the design, he explained:

‘I replaced the old bull with a simple, powerful bull’s head with a fiercely determined expression as if he was charging straight at you. The simplicity of the design meant that, not only could it easily be copied by fans, but it also showed up clearly at a distance, even when worn as a badge on the player’s kit. Other clubs often have badges which are so complicated that you have to be very close to them to see the details and I wanted to avoid that.’

Apparently, the inspiration for his design was the ox-head of ancient Minoa. His suggestion was adopted with enthusiasm, and has been used on shirts from 1979 to the present day, with a variety of wording and surrounding crests – MB

The anthropological / zoological work of Desmond Morris featured twice more in Feedback we received following our recent story about Oxford’s footballing heritage.

Martin Brodetsky mentions Desmond Morris. As well as his best-known work, The Human Zoo, he wrote a book based on fieldwork he undertook at the Manor Ground during his time as an Oxford United Director. It’s called The Soccer Tribe (1981) – Jack Kellner

Desmond Morris lived for many years at Sunnyside, 78 Banbury Road, the house formerly occupied by James Murray, first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. I interviewed Desmond there in 2018. During the course of our conversation he mentioned that he had compiled a glossary of football terms, much of it supporters’ slang including the terms ‘nutmeg’ and ‘wellie’ (https://public.oed.com/blog/in-conversation-with-desmond-morris-part-two/ Start at 6:18) He kindly donated a copy of this fascinating document to today’s team of Oxford lexicographers. – Peter Gilliver

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