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© Chris Byrne 2010

In The Beginning (2)

In February 1897, at a meeting held at the Three Cups Inn, in Queen Street, Oxford City was relaunched as a club based on individual membership rather than as a representative team. Gordon and Jennings remained at the helm, and entered them in both Cup competitions once more for the season 1897/98. They were also invited to join the Second Division of the Southern League, but turned down the opportunity, presumably on financial grounds and the inherent problems of travelling.
Instead they did join the new Oxford and District League, Division 1, with matches against Abingdon, Culham College, Witney and also...Oxford Cygnets! There was a feeling that this new improved set-up would allow the club to progress and become established as the premier football club in Oxford.
By the start of the 1897/98 season, Oxford City had acquired the use of a field in Grandpont for matches and practice. This was not the White House Ground, which first came into use for training purposes in the following season, but Mr Archer’s field on the other side of the railway line, some distance from both the Abingdon Road and the Botley Road. Some of the colleges also used this field. The owner let it for hay during the summer, which meant that the club could not get on it until mid-September, and had to vacate in March. There were no changing facilities or stand. The club kit at this time was white shirts and blue knickers, with not a hoop in sight – as yet.
This was a mixed season. There were early exits in the Cup competitions. City lost their English Cup 1st Qualifying Round tie 3-1 at home to Freemantle of Southampton, a useful side, and later fell at the same hurdle in the Amateur Cup 2-1 at Burnham. They did finish fourth in their first season in the Oxford and District League, no doubt taking some pleasure in beating Cygnets 3-0 on 4th December. Encouraging portents of future success came in April 1898, when City again reached the Final of the County Cup, losing 2-0 to Witney, who had home ground advantage.
The 1898/99 season began with the AGM at the Three Cups Inn, situated on the north side of Queen Street, about four doors down from Carfax Tower. The office holders and Committee were recorded in the Minute Book:-
President: George W Gordon. Vice-Presidents: Lord Valentia MP, G.H. Morrell Esq., MP, E.T.Hatt Esq., Councillors Kingerlee and Dodd. Hon. Secretary and Treasurer: Joe Jennings. Hon. Assistant Secretary: F. Bates. Captain: W.E. Blackall. Vice-Captain: G.R.W. Dickinson. Captain of Reserves: C. Kingerlee. Vice-Captain of Reserves: W. Floriday. The Committee consisted of the above together with J.R Benson, E.H. Balgrove, W.L. Jones, F.G. Ridgway, R.P. Thomas, W. Sounday and T. Gribble.
Several members of the Committee were players: it was a relatively young set-up. Benson, one of a number of school teachers in the club (he was later to become Headmaster of South Oxford Senior School), had formerly played for Aston Unity and Aston Villa. He lived in Marlborough Road. A season ticket for matches at Grandpont would cost 5s (25p). Crowds, as far as we can tell from the low gate receipts, were sparse, and City made ends meet by getting in donations and sub-letting the ground at 5s a time to St Catherine’s Society for 13 matches each season.
At a Committee meeting a few days after the AGM, a historic decision was taken: to change the club kit from white to blue and white striped shirts. The 2” stripes were to be ‘ the manner of West Bromwich Albion’. Although Albion were already using the familiar vertical stripes, it is clear from later evidence that City were to use horizontal stripes – the famous hoops were to be used for the first time.
City’s ambition was again shown by the quality of the friendly matches arranged for the season: Upton Park, Marlow, Newbury, Aylesbury and Barking Woodville. The Upton Park fixture took place a week before City’s English Cup visit to Eastville Wanderers, and their team may have included the legendary Ted Payne, whose boots were to cause a ‘shamateurism’ controversy (magically filling with expenses money, allegedly!). Upton, whose team were to represent Great Britain in the 1900 Olympic tournament, beat City, but only 2-0.
City had better luck at Eastville, where they defeated the Wanderers 3-1 in the 1st Qualifying Round: their first ever English Cup victory. History was also being made back in Oxford where the Reserves side were playing their first fixture in Division 2 of the ODL- against a team called Headington! They lost 5-1, but won the away fixture later in the season 2-1, travelling up by tram from the Three Cups, the club HQ.
In the 2nd Qualifying Round, City once more encountered Freemantle, travelling down to the South Coast, but returning with a 2-1 defeat to consider. They also lost 4-2 in the 3rd Qualifying Round of the Amateur Cup at Aylesbury United, having beaten Thame away in the previous round. Thame later knocked City out of the 2nd Round of the County Cup, by 4 goals to 2.
Witney were a bit of a bogey team for City in the ODL. They won both fixtures, aided no doubt by their two star players, William and Herbert Smith, aged 22 and 20 respectively. City were to find an interesting solution to this problem in February 1899, by signing them both up as members: the OFA ordered City to make an exchange deal with two of their players!
City were becoming adept at the social niceties of the game. They managed to invite the Aston Villa team, who were visiting the University XI, to be guests at a concert in aid of club funds, and £8 was raised.
This first season in a competitive framework, albeit local, was most instructive to the City team and Committee, and gave them some experience in planning ahead.
The Oxford City story now moves on to the start of the 1899/1900 season. As Churchill said, “it was the end of the beginning”, as well as being the prelude to a new century.
There were some serious discussions within the club about its future development. A firm decision was made not to enter the 1st XI in the Oxford and District League. City were hoping that a new league catering for the top clubs of the three counties would be formed. In the end however, nothing came of this, and there was still no desire to join the Southern League because of the travel cost.
The Reserves were still to play in Division 2 of the ODL, and as a growing list of friendly matches was being accumulated, it was decided to print fixture cards for the first time, a move towards match day programmes, although the earliest known to the club is a team sheet for the 1902 English Cup match against Lincoln City.
Preparations for the new season were hampered by delays in getting on to the Grandpont ground, and they could only manage a hastily arranged practice game at the SS Philip and James ground. On 30 September 1899 the team travelled by train for their 1st Qualifying Round English Cup game at Reading Ramblers. They drew 1-1, but lost the home replay 3-1. In the same round of the Amateur Cup City were drawn away at Harrow Athletic, and again let the train take the strain. Bumping along country roads as they would do to play a friendly at Witney was not the ideal way to prepare. The tactic obviously worked, as City won 2-0, and this brought a home tie against Chesham Generals as a reward. The Generals had reached the 2nd Round Proper of the English Cup back in 1886/87, so had a well-earned reputation, but City won 1-0 in front of 150 spectators (hardly the thousands they would be entertaining in a few years’ time), and made ready for the 3rd Qualifying Round at Wycombe Wanderers on 18 November. City’s first ever match against Wycombe (then in Division 2 of the Southern League) ended in a 2-0 defeat.
As City were unable to ‘concentrate on the league’ they embarked on a series of friendlies against Old Malvernians, Clapton, Maidenhead, Woodford and West Norwood, all top class amateur sides. These games were ideal curtain raisers for the County Cup, which around this time was officially renamed the Oxfordshire Senior Cup. Starting with a 10-1 demolition of the Banbury works team, Britannia, City worked their way through to the Final, held on the new University Ground at Iffley Road, and on 24th April 1900 they beat Culham College 2-0 to lift their first piece of important silverware.
Probably the greatest step forward in the brief history of Oxford City FC occurred at the start of the 1900/01 season. The club had realised the difficulty of continuing at Grandpont, and had arranged with the Morrell Trustees, tenants of Brasenose College, for the use of the paddock behind the White House Inn. There were still some access restrictions, but it was a good proposition, there being room for the development of facilities. Some work was necessary to culvert a ditch running across part of the future playing surface near St Matthew’s Church, and this would enable important fixtures to be played there, the ground otherwise not being wide enough.
Because of this work, the pitch was not ready until October 1900. The first game on it was a Reserves fixture against Abingdon on 13th October. The home debut for the 1st XI was a friendly on 17th November against Balliol College, which ended 5-2 in favour of City. The next would have been a 3rd Qualifying Round Amateur Cup game against Maidenhead Norfolkians, but City had lost their 2nd Round match at Harrow 2-0 on 10th November.
In the 1900/01 English Cup City entered at the 2nd Qualifying Round, but received a bye to the 3rd Qualifying, the furthest they had yet reached. Here they were drawn to play at home against the professionals of Reading, at that time in the 1st Division of the Southern League. This would have graced the new White House Ground, but Reading offered a substantial inducement to switch the tie to Elm Park. Conceding home advantage was a pragmatic decision (and quite a regular feature of the Cup in its early days), and as it was the 4-0 scoreline was not the disaster it might have been. For several years afterwards City played against Reading in friendlies.
Some tangible acknowledgement of the rapid advance being made at city came in the form of an invitation to Guy Dickinson, one of City’s best players, to play for the Corinthians. This was a real privilege, and the nearest thing to national honours before the introduction of amateur internationals in 1906. He was just one of many City players to receive wider recognition, and would have be one of the first names on the Club’s Honours Board (if they had had one!). There would need to be a special one for Senior Cup successes: in 1900/01 City again won the trophy at the expense of Culham College, winning 3-1 at Botley.
So by the end of the season Oxford City had established a growing reputation in the higher echelons of the amateur game, despite being unaffiliated to any major league. They had the nucleus of a very competent team, and a club structure which gave strong support. Above all there was a new ground capable of development as a good quality stadium. The events of 1901/02 were to reinforce their new reputation, and bring City much greater and more vociferous local support, the springboard to real success.

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