Retro Match: When Oxford United won the 1986 League Cup Final

1986 League Cup Final Oxford

April 20th, 1986: Oxford United 3 QPR 0, Wembley

The League Cup in the mid-to-late 80s was a magical competition. Liverpool’s period of dominance where they won four on the spin was over. Teams like Norwich City and Luton Town had their day in the sun, lifting the trophy in 1985 and 1988. And there was a curious pattern of the previous season’s winners reaching the final again only to lose – starting with Luton in 88 and 89 and Forest winning in 89 but losing to Oldham in 90.

In between Norwich and Luton’s victories came another side to have lifted their only silverware in this competition – Robert Maxwell owned Oxford United, who beat Jim Smith’s QPR 3-0 at the famous old stadium. Smith, of course, was the man who had led Oxford to two successive promotions into the First Division for the first time.

The background

The 1985/86 season in English football kicked off with Everton lifting the Charity Shield, First Division Champions Everton beating the 1985 FA Cup Winners Manchester United 2-0 and avenging their Final defeat from months earlier.

Everton had also won the Cup Winners’ Cup under Howard Kendall the previous season, but he was not resting on his laurels. Gary Lineker was signed from Leicester City for £800,000 meaning there was no longer a place for cult hero Andy Gray at Goodison. The Scot moved to Aston Villa having helped Everton to three trophies in his two seasons on Merseyside.

It was the season Ian Wright finally turned pro – Steve Coppell and Crystal Palace gambling on the non-league striker, signing him from Greenwich Borough.

As ever, the First Division season started with optimism at Old Trafford – could this be the season they finally broke their curse and lifted the title? An opening day 4-0 home win over Villa on 17th August certainly saw hopes rise once again, especially with champions Everton going down to a shock 3-1 defeat to Lineker’s old club Leicester at Filbert Street.

Liverpool, of course, were looking to get back to the top of the tree – embarking on their first season under the player-management of Kenny Dalglish following the retirement of Joe Fagan in the summer.

Oxford United were in the First Division for the first time, bankrolled by media mogul Maxwell. They had to wait until the second weekend for their first three points – a 5-0 win over Leicester at the Manor Ground.

Manchester United, under Ron Atkinson, were the early pacesetters – winning their first five matches. There was genuine early belief that finally they were the team to beat.

The early season also saw the sad death of legendary Scotland manager Jock Stein, who suffered a fatal heart attack during the World Cup Qualifier between Scotland and Wales at Ninian Park. The Scottish team were unaware and managed to qualify for World Cup 86 in Mexico where they would be led by Aberdeen manager, Alex Ferguson.

On New Years’ Day, 1986 United led the table by five points from Everton – and they had a game in hand.

Oxford, in their maiden campaign, were fighting against relegation in 19th – QPR, their League Cup Final opponents were comfortable in 14th place. Eventual champions, Liverpool, were still in touch with United – level on points with Everton but 3rd on goal difference.

In January, the FA Cup Third Round took place – and the competition would end with Everton and Liverpool meeting at Wembley.

But, it is the League Cup we are really interested in.

QPR’s journey to the final started comfortable – an 8-1 aggregate win over Hull City in Round 2. This took them to Graham Taylor’s Watford at Vicarage Road where they emerged with a 1-0 win.

Round 4 saw Jim Smith go head to head with Brian Clough, a previous League Cup winner with Nottingham Forest. A superb QPR display on the plastic at Loftus Road saw them win 3-1 before getting past Chelsea in a replay 2-0 after a 1-1 draw at home.

However, it was the semi-final that will remain in the memories of QPR fans for eternity. They were drawn with Liverpool – Kenny Dalglish in a good position to semi-emulate Fagan’s debut season in the Anfield hot seat by winning three trophies.

But, Terry Fenwick scored the first-leg winner at Loftus Road to give QPR a 1-0 advantage heading North. At Anfield, two bizarre own goals from Ronnie Whelan and Gary Gillespie saw the Bald Eagle book his team into a date at Wembley, 3-2 on aggregate.

For Oxford and their promoted Chief Scout Maurice Evans, they got underway with a 4-1 aggregate win over Northampton Town in Round 2. Newcastle United were dispatched 3-1 in Round 3, followed by previous holders Norwich waved goodbye in Round 5, 3-1 at the Manor Ground.

3-1 was the result in Round 6 too, as Portsmouth were beaten at home. This meant Oxford were in the semi-finals for the first time in their history, 20 years after joining the Football League.

They faced Aston Villa – European Champions just a few years before. Leading goalscorer John Aldridge netted twice at Villa Park to earn Oxford a 2-2 draw before Les Phillips and Jeremy Charles did the business at the Manor Ground to send Oxford through 4-3 on aggregate.

QPR had the tougher road to the final – each team they played were First Division rivals. Oxford faced just two First Division sides.

Jim Smith, the Bald Eagle

Jim Smith had performed miracles with Oxford United in the two seasons before their First Division debut. Successive promotions from Division Three to the top flight had seen his stock rise and, understandably, he hoped to see an improved contract on offer from Maxwell, the club’s infamous owner.

As Simon Burnton wrote in the Guardian in 1986, the 30 year anniversary of the final, Smith had asked Maxwell, to increase his annual salary by £50,000 after the promotion to the top table. Maxwell offered £45,000, and during the stand-off QPR chairman Jim Gregory pounced.

“When somebody got more publicity than him, he didn’t like it and pushed them away,” Smith said of Maxwell, “and I was getting all the publicity. Maybe I shouldn’t have jumped. If I had stayed at Oxford, won the Milk Cup, I would have won two championships and a Milk Cup in three years, and I would have been manager of Arsenal or Manchester United.”

The players were certainly shocked, as described by Trevor Hebberd, Smith’s favourite signing and a player he was quoted as calling “an unsung hero, a man who could do anything”:

“I think we were all very disappointed,”  Hebberd told Burnton of Smith’s departure. “I personally really enjoyed playing with him. He was a great manager and a great personality, and everything was really enjoyable when he was at the club. And it was still Jim’s team. It was strange, really. It would have been great if he was our manager that day, but that’s life, isn’t it? I’m glad we won and he lost.”

Smith, however, was focused ahead of Wembley:

“I’m a professional and I’ve got to set about winning the game, but it would be silly to say that I haven’t still got some thoughts for Oxford,” said Smith in the buildup to the final. “After all, I was there for three and a half years, and they were very good to me. You get close to clubs, and I probably got too close. I would have preferred to meet somebody else in the final.”

Maurice Evans – the Oxford United Chief Scout who became manager

Maurice Evans had previously been associated with Reading Football Club for 25 years – another link between Oxford and the side Maxwell wanted to merge with under the ‘Thames Valley Royals’ moniker.

Reading were third in Division Four when Evans was surprisingly sacked – “I could not understand it,” he later said of his sacking. “It sickened me. I became so depressed that I was ready to give up football for good.” With Reading competing for promotion at the time and in an era when sackings were not as prevalent as they are today, you could understand his shock.

It was Smith who got Evans back into the game, taking him to Oxford as coach and Chief Scout. Evans immediately repaid Smith’s faith by spotting John Aldridge, scoring goals at Newport County. Aldridge moved to Oxford and became an important part of Smith’s ever-rising side.

When Smith left, all eyes were pointing in the direction of Evans as the obvious candidate to continue the momentum. Evans, however, was not so sure – telling Burnton: “I didn’t want to go back into management,” he said. “When the job came up I told the chairman there was no way I wanted it. He kept saying I was an idiot and might never get another opportunity.”

Evans initially started only in caretaker charge – leading Oxford into their first-ever First Division campaign purely on a temporary basis. It was only after their third match, the 5-0 win over Leicester that Maxwell finally persuaded Evans to accept the job formally – naturally leading to a run of one win in the next ten.

The 1986 League Cup Final

There is no doubt that Oxford arrived at Wembley the underdogs. Evans’ side were on another losing streak with no wins in seven whereas Jim Smith’s QPR were flush – unbeaten in eight First Division matches. In fact, Rangers had won five – including a hammering of Man Utd, their title hopes fading and a 6-0 stuffing of Chelsea (the Daily Mirror describing the win as ‘BLUE MURDER’) and drawn three.

Smith was almost worried, saying “I just hope we haven’t peaked too early.”

But, on the subject of “their name is on the Cup”, they were gifted their quarter-final replay victory over Chelsea after Eddie Niedzwiecki went early Rene Higuita on his side and dribbled the ball way out of his area. Obviously, this was not a good idea on the Stamford Bridge playing surface and he lost control, scuffing it to former Liverpool striker Michael Robinson who scored from the halfway line.

QPR then were on the upside of fortune once more in the semi-finals – as mentioned, their two goals at Anfield were scored by Liverpool themselves and Jan Molby missed a penalty.

But, good luck aside, QPR were a decent outfit – still only three years on from Terry Venables leading them to the FA Cup Final, although only England international Terry Fenwick remained in the side from that day.

They had Robinson in attack, a former European Cup winner in his time at Anfield. He regularly lined up alongside Johnny Byrne, an Eire international and Gary Bannister – on a goalscoring roll. Robbie James was another danger in the side that liked to play good football.

Oxford also had some names in their side – names that would go on to play in two World Cups for the Republic of Ireland. Aldridge, as mentioned, was signed from Newport and Oxford could also call on Ray Houghton. Both would eventually move to Liverpool and see their careers move up levels.

And, in Hebberd, they had the player who would be awarded Man of the Match at Wembley.

The Us did have injury worries –  Neil Slatter, Peter Rhoades-Brown and Billy Hamilton would all miss out meaning that Jeremy Charles would start in attack instead of his preferred position of centre-back. Paul Warhurst, anyone?

QPR were favourites though, leading to the Daily Express’ Steve Curry predicting that  “QPR skipper Terry Fenwick will, I believe, collect the Milk Cup at Wembley tomorrow,” and the Guardian also endorsing the popular opinion “…that QPR will win what could be a high-scoring final.”

Oxford went 4-4-2 and QPR 4-3-3.

Oxford started with Alan Judge in goal behind a back four of Dave Langan, Gary Briggs, Malcolm Shotton (c) and John Trewick. In midfield, they had Houghton, Phillips, Kevin Brock and Hebberd. Leading the line was Aldridge and Charles – Andy Thomas was named on the bench.

Smith chose the following side – Paul Barron in goal behind a back four of Alan McDonald, Warren Neill, Fenwick (c) and Ian Dawes. Martin Allen, Steve Wicks and James made up the midfield three with Robinson, Byrne and Bannister upfront. Leroy Rosenior was sub.

The game was shown live on ITV but, in fairness, took some time to get going – the 1980s Sports Blog commenting that the match was in danger of being overshadowed by the celebrity 7aside that preceded kick-off.

Just before halftime though, it sprung into life. Charles, the target man, flicked on to Aldridge – ever the willing runner. Aldridge found Hebberd who attacked the area – cutting back on to his right foot and sending McDonald the wrong way. His shot was then perfectly placed through McDonald’s legs and beat Barron at his near post.

It was a moment of redemption of sorts for Hebberd. He had played every round of Southampton’s 1978/79 League Cup run only to be dropped for the final. Keen to make the most of finally getting a chance at the spiritual home of football, Hebberd was a man on a mission.

As the second half got underway, Smith’s previous caution of “peaking too soon” was looking particularly psycic. QPR were struggling to get into the game at all and Oxford were taking control.

Hebberd was heavily involved once more, doing well in his own half before finding Houghton. Houghton released Hebberd behind the QPR defence but, critically, followed his run. Hebberd ran into the area before sliding the ball back to Houghton – an important and unselfish decision as Houghton made it 2-0.

Brian Moore, commentator for ITV gushed: “You won’t see a better goal than that!” in a rare moment of commentary hyperbole from the great man.

QPR were done and there was no way back for the Bald Eagle’s charges. Oxford toyed with them, in total control before putting a cherry on the League Cup cake in the 87th minute – emergency forward Charles tapping home after Aldridge’s frustrating personal afternoon continued with Barron saving his initial shot.

The 1986 League Cup was Oxford’s – their first and only major trophy to date.

Smith was clinically to the point post-match: “We were diabolical. We just froze – we were frightened of the occasion.”

Shotton climbed the steps in a horned hat to lift the cup – a fantastic turnaround for the man who was working in a factory just six years before and playing non-league.

The Daily Mirror – though not sure whether it was Steve Curry admitting his error ran with “Oxford win it in style” and, in fairness, they did.

Just four years after nearly going bust, a short time after nearly being merged with Reading, Oxford were lifting a major cup at Wembley. Football, indeed, bloody hell.

What happened next

Attention switched to staying in the First Division – Evans safely navigating Oxford home on the last day with a 3-0 win over the Arsenal.

They stayed up again the following season before Maxwell Sr handed the club over to his son, Kevin.

Evans was sacked in 1988 with the side rooted at the bottom of the First Division table. Ex-Liverpool star Mark Lawrenson was appointed but could not keep the club up before being sacked shortly into the new season following a falling out with Maxwell Jr. The chairman had sold Dean Saunders to Derby (owned by Maxwell Sr) for £1m, unknown to the rookie manager.

And for that, we can than Maxwell for giving us 20-30 years of Lawro on the BBC…