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© Chris Byrne 2010

In The Beginning (1)

At the start of the 1880s the Oxford football landscape was dominated by the University. An Association Football club was formed among the ‘dreaming spires’ during the 1860s, and between 1872 and 1880 was one of the top English clubs. They won the English (FA) Cup in 1874 and appeared in three other finals before dropping out of the competition in 1880. The team however continued to play against quality opposition.
In the early 1880s there were two other football teams within the University community (apart from those of individual colleges): the United College Servants, and Oxford Cygnets, who were rather more loosely attached to the ‘alma mater’. The ‘Town’, as opposed to ‘Gown’ seemed more interested in Rugby.
As far as the three counties of Berks, Bucks and Oxon were concerned, a few clubs had been established during the early 1870s, notably Great Marlow, Maidenhead and Reading. The first two were paired in the first ever English Cup, in November 1871. Nearer Oxford, by 1882 there were clubs in Newbury, Abingdon, Bicester, Banbury and Thame.
A schoolteacher from Marlow, George W Gordon, a son of the local vet, can be credited with the first efforts at promoting football in Oxford. He came to Oxford in September 1881 and was soon trying to stir up some interest in the game. He was connected with the foundation of the Oxfordshire Football Association in 1884, and was its Secretary from 1892 to 1940 (Joint Secretary from 1938). Gordon is also thought to have had a hand in the development of the College Servants team and Oxford City FC, (President from 1893 to 1906).
Historians prefer to work from recorded facts, but the plain fact is that there is no precise record of the original foundation of Oxford City. Many clubs went through several stages of forming and re-forming.
The local press were not given to much in the way of sports reporting in those days, and no publicity at all for the club has been found before 1884. The earliest record is of an initiative, set in motion by one Sidney Jackson in the autumn of 1884 with a series of meetings and a first fixture, at Bicester on 1 November 1884, which City won 3-2, using some Bicester players to even up the sides!
After this hesitant start to their recorded history, City began to enter local competitions. In 1885/86 they reached the final of the County Cup, losing to Culham College after extra time.
It is still rather unclear what actually happened later in the 1880s, as there is a hint that the club went through a lean spell for a couple of years. By early 1893 however some City players are recorded in the Times as playing for the Oxfordshire FA team: C M Thomas and J R Benson were among the forwards. A certain William Smith of Witney, then 17 years of age, was also in the team. He was some years later to become City’s Captain, and lift the Amateur Cup!
The next mention of Oxford City is the report of a meeting in October 1893, when it was decided to become a “representative” club, meaning that players would belong to other clubs, but be drafted in to play for Oxford City when required. This was the sort of arrangement adopted by two of the most famous clubs of that era, Upton Park FC and the Corinthians, and Gordon’s idea may well have been for City to become a local parallel to the Oxfordshire side.
The other teams involved in this representative consortium were Oxford Cygnets, the United College Servants, Oxford Wanderers and Summertown. Just four friendly matches are known to have been played in this 1893/94 season:-

14th October: Rest of Oxfordshire (on Holywell Meadow) – Lost 2-4
7th November: New College (away) - Lost 1-5
16th December: Marlow (away) - Lost 0-6
13th January: Newbury (away) - Lost 1-3

Not perhaps the most auspicious of beginnings in terms of results, but it should be remembered that Marlow reached the Quarter Final of the Amateur Cup in this, its first year of operation, and only the previous season had appeared in the 1st Round Proper of the FA Cup.
The 1893 consortium worked well for a while. George Gordon, the new President of the club, acquired a Secretary cum Treasurer, Joe Jennings, a college servant who was to become Head Porter at Worcester College. Joe was a useful player himself, and the United College Servants’ team won the County Cup four times between 1886 and 1896.
By the end of the 1893/94 season, Oxford City had formed an ambition to become a senior club. They entered the newly created FA Amateur Cup for 1894/95, and were given a bye into the 2nd Qualifying Round, where they needed to travel to Slough. A 3-3 draw there, creditable in itself, was followed up by a convincing 8-0 victory in the replay, probably staged at the Holywell ground used by several clubs.
City were drawn away to Newbury in the 3rd Qualifying Round. Much earlier in the season they had beaten Newbury 3-1 in a friendly, so were not unduly worried. The match however finished all square at 2-2, and in the replay on 12th December City won 3-0.
Their reward was yet another away tie in the 4th Qualifying Round, this time at Maidenhead. The match was actually played twice. City lost the first game 4-0 but the result was annulled because of an appeal by Newbury arising from the previous round. In the second game, City experienced some difficulty in getting a full team to the venue in time: the weather was to blame. They could only field 8 players in the first half, but it is to their credit that the final score was only 5-0 to the home team. An appearance in the 1st Round Proper would have to wait!
City’s penultimate game of the season was their first ever against an Oxford University side. The match was arranged at rather short notice to give the Blues’ side a run-out before the Varsity Match four days later: the University won 10-0. Some room for improvement was indicated.
For the 1895/96 season, Oxford City entered both the national Cup competitions. Their very first English Cup game was a Preliminary Round tie in October at home against Uxbridge, a strong team in the Second Division of the Southern League, who had been established for some time. Uxbridge won 5-2, and progressed as far as the 4th Qualifying Round, disposing of Newbury, Weymouth and Swindon Town, before losing to Southampton.
This Cup defeat was followed by a number of friendlies which were to act as curtain raisers for the main event of the season, the 1st Round Proper of the Amateur Cup. City had been given one of the twenty exemptions to this stage. Despite their inconsistency, the Club’s potential for success had been noted in the right quarters.
Off the field, City’s ever more crowded fixture list and growing reputation was causing some jealousy within the consortium, and particularly with Oxford Cygnets, who were developing ambitions of their own. This situation led to what can only be described as sabotage. City were drawn away to the Old Carthusians, who had won the Amateur Cup in its first year, and had again reached the Final in 1895, losing to Middlesbrough. This tie was due to be played on 1 February 1896 and was by far the most important fixture City had ever undertaken. Cygnets, several of whose players regularly turned out for City, decided at relatively short notice that their Hospital Cup match on the same day was to take precedence, and refused to release their players for the Amateur Cup tie. Oxford City were therefore unable to field a representative side capable of taking on the Old Carthusians, and had to suffer the embarrassment of scratching, thereby handing their opponents a walkover.
This incident showed in stark detail the disadvantages of the consortium arrangement and the whole representative philosophy. It also knocked the stuffing out of the club members, and according to contemporary reports most of the interest in running the club evaporated, and no football was played for the rest of the season. In fact the final match played by the team in that season was a disastrous visit to Newbury just before Christmas ’85 with a very unrepresentative side when they went down to the Club’s record defeat: 0-14!
So City were close to a complete dissolution, just as they were beginning to establish a credible reputation. There had to be a radical reassessment of the club constitution.
For Oxford City, the 1896/97 season was a virtual wasteland. There was a friendly against Witney in September, which City lost 2-1, and another at West Norwood on Boxing Day which ended in a 1-4 loss. No record can be found of any other matches.
Cygnets took advantage of the power vacuum, entering the English Cup. They had a walkover against Staple Hill in the 1st Qualifying Round and then lost 3-1 to Royal Artillery, Portsmouth. They also entered the Cup in the following three seasons, only finally bowing out once City had become properly re-established.

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