This article originally featured on Tale of Two Halves on January 4, 2019
Ever had the idea of getting into the Football Manager database and merging two clubs into one? Ever wondered if two clubs relatively close to each other would be better as one great club?
Well before Football Manager was ever considered as a concept, one businessman had the idea of merging two clubs.
Can you imagine being told your club does not exist anymore and you are now joining with your neighbours? I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
In 1982 one Robert Maxwell had this idea and it almost became reality.
Merge Oxford United and Reading and create one great club, Thames Valley Royals.
Born Jan Ludvik Hyman Binyamin Hoch into a poor Jewish family in Czechoslovakia in 1923, Maxwell led an eventful existence. He fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to France. Joined the Czech Army, then later fought for the British Army. During the Second World War, he lost most of his family in Auschwitz.
He became a British citizen, changed his name and then became an MP for six years at the end of the sixties.
He made various attempts to buy media companies, only to find his past counted against him. In 1984 he bought Mirror Group Newspapers.
In 1982, however, he made his first foray into English football.
1982 and Oxford United were in the third tier of English football. They were facing closure because of debts owed to Barclays Bank. Maxwell came to the rescue. He paid off the debts, saved the club and for a while was the toast of the city.
What the fans didn’t know was that he embroiled the club in one of his companies. This only came out when he drowned in 1991 and for a while, the club was perilously close to extinction as it was part of the Maxwell estate.
Perhaps they should’ve known it was going to be complicated. He was kicked off the board of one company as he was artificially inflated the share price by using other family businesses.
By the end of the 1983 season, Oxford’s push for promotion was faltering and Maxwell, ever the entrepreneur had a great idea.
Mergers are commonplace in business. Companies merge all the time. There’s usually upheaval, especially for employees. Sometimes a takeover is dressed up as a merger as one side realises the other has more power and influence.
Football clubs rarely merge. There have been plenty of plans down the years, but the public backlash has been so severe and strong no one has ever had the nerve to try it.
Let’s face it there must be plenty of cities in England which would be better with one big club rather than two struggling ones. Nottingham, Bristol, Sheffield?
But to just ditch a club for the belief they would be better off alongside their rivals is a step too far for many fans in this country. We don’t even want to entertain the idea of ground-sharing. Football is such a tribal sport, often the team you hate most is the one you’re closest to, geographically.
Maxwell was just one of these people who believed anything was possible and he didn’t care who disagreed. He would win them over through sheer force of personality. Coupled with the fact he believed most people were not as ambitious as him, too cautious and would need to see something working before they believed it was a good idea. So why not go ahead and they’ll soon come round?
Thames Valley Royals
The first time anyone publicly heard of this idea was during Grandstand when the results were coming in, in mid-April towards the end of the 1982-83 season. This is how we used to find out the results back then. There was no panel of people watching screens telling you what was happening. You either had to listen to the radio or just wait for the results to be read off the “vidiprinter”. This had the advantage of the presenter being as shocked about some of the scores as we were.
David Coleman was in the chair and suddenly he announced he had sensational news for Reading and Oxford United fans. Then he announced the two clubs were to merge. The new club would be called Thames Valley Royals and that was that.
Maxwell’s statement announced a merger as they were both suffering financially and this would ensure ‘they’ could continue, albeit as one rather than two. He announced a deal had been agreed with Frank Waller, Chairman of Reading and he was recommending it to the board. There was to be a new stadium built, probably at Didcot and until then the two clubs would play at alternate grounds.
Jim Smith, manager of Oxford United, would manage the new club with Reading manager Maurice Evans, as his deputy. Both Manor Ground (Oxford’s home ground) and Elm Park (Reading) would be sold with the proceeds going to finance the new club. The statement also said the Football League gave its principle support.
Initial Reaction was hostile
Straight away both sets of fans were against the idea and had no hesitation in making their feelings known.
The Chairman of Reading Supporters Club summed up their feelings when he explained:
“Our fans can’t stand Oxford fans and I can’t see them travelling to Oxford to watch the new team.”
Oxford Supporters Club also weighed in with:
“This scheme is crazy and unworkable.”
Former Oxford captain, record appearance holder with the club, Ron Atkinson, then-manager of Manchester United stated:
“Mr Maxwell obviously believes if you add 6,000 United fans to 6,000 Reading fans you’ll get 12,000 supporters for the new club. You won’t”
There were few people who had a good word for the plan. One of the lone voices of support came from Jack Dunnett, President of the Football League, who called it “a bold and imaginative move”.
Jim Smith also sounded keen, but then he wasn’t losing his job.
Only one choice
A couple of days later Maxwell expanded on his statement:
“Oxford United has only one choice. Either it becomes part of something bigger and more modern on a beautiful site with a new stadium and a leisure centre, within a reasonable distance of our people, or else there will be no Oxford United possible at the beginning of next season.
“If they wish to oppose it they can get themselves a new chairman for Oxford United and let somebody else pick up the tab. The option they have is to have the Thames Valley Royals to carry on the great tradition of Oxford United and Reading football – or to have no football in Oxford.”
He also added, for those opposed to the plan:
“Attempts to stop the merger would be like trying to make The Thames run backwards.”
Kept in the dark
Maxwell had clearly been cooking up this idea behind the backs of many on the Oxford board. But despite this, they unanimously voted in favour of the deal. Their only addition to the plan was that the new team should be called Thames Valley United rather than Royals. Another kick in the teeth for Reading supporters. The Oxford board appeared to fully buy Maxwell’s assertion there was no other possible option open to them.
Oxford fans were particularly vocal in their distaste for such an idea. They didn’t care for the idea of mingling with Reading fans, travelling further to see their team or the loss of their beloved club’s identity. The whole concept had presented them with a dilemma, though. Maxwell had saved their club a year before yet they never once believed he was planning this for their future. Maxwell obviously held the view that as saviour his followers would just listen to anything he suggested. Oh, if only these pesky football supporters would behave as customers of other business, eh?
Gradually supporters of both sides rallied in opposition. Demonstrations were held in both towns, legal challenges mounted and objections were voiced in every conceivable mode of media available at the time.
At the next Oxford home game, there was a sit-down protest on the pitch. It all went peacefully until Maxwell appeared, then some couldn’t resist telling him what they thought of him. The kick-off was delayed by half an hour. There was no real trouble, although you could understand if there was.
Ironically, at the start of May, the visitors to Manor Ground were none other than Reading. Again a protest march was planned. Oxford tried to disrupt this by bringing the kick-off forward to the morning but to no avail. Despite the protests, Maxwell still arrived for the game. He made his point the supporters wouldn’t have a club to support if he hadn’t been paying the bills. But once again he showed how little he understood the psyche of the supporter or football in general.
Reading won the game thanks to two late goals and that really was the end of Oxford’s promotion hopes for another year.
During this whole process as well as fending off abuse from Oxford fans, Maxwell was trying to gain support from the City Council. There were local elections imminent and some councillors saw an opportunity to gain votes based on their perception of what the public wanted. There was still no consensus as to a suitable venue for this brave new club as the season heading towards a climax.
It didn’t take a genius to work out when you merge two clubs together you don’t just suddenly have a squad of forty players. Instead of goalkeepers at Reading and Oxford, there would be just one first choice. This, of course, would be replicated throughout the team so naturally, some players were concerned for their jobs. Oxford were way ahead of Reading in Division Three, in fact, they were at opposite ends of the table, so it was the Reading lot who had more concerns. At the time, Reading’s star striker was Kerry Dixon, who later moved to Chelsea. It was rumoured Jim Smith attempted to calm the Oxford players by claiming the plan was only being cooked up so they could get Dixon on their books. Needless to say, the morale in both dressing rooms could be described as nervous.
Whilst it was all happening over at Oxford and much of Maxwell’s focus was based there, things were getting a little messy at Reading. Chairman Frank Waller, who had done the deal with Maxwell without anyone else knowing, wasn’t in control of the club as much as he let on. It emerged he did not have a controlling number of shares and therefore just transferring them to Maxwell wouldn’t have given them the power to do whatever they wanted with the club.
Roy Tranter, only recently appointed onto the board of Directors at the club, issued an injunction denying Waller opportunity to transfer his shares to Maxwell. There was a hearing in The High Court and it issued a further injunction preventing trading of the shares until mid-June.
This effectively ruined the whole plan. The Football League needed clubs to confirm their squad lists by 21 May. Yet Jim Smith had no idea what team he was managing, let alone who he’d have at his disposal.
Eventually, there was an extraordinary shareholders meeting and Tranter and Roger Smee, a former Reading player, managed to wrestle back control of the club. Smee went on to become Chairman of the club before John Madejski took over.
Finally the end
Maxwell, staring an insurmountable hurdle in the face, eventually backed down. He retained a 19% stake in Reading. Publicly, he tried to save face by stating he would only give up plans for a merger once he was ‘satisfied the club had a genuine means to save themselves’. He was still seeking a new ground for Oxford, threatening;
“If a stadium is not found I will cease my connection with the club and that will be the end of Oxford United.”
But by then no one was particularly interested in any threats or statements from him. The first the Oxford fans heard of this was when they read it in the press on the final day of the season. They won that match but were one place away from promotion in the end. Reading, on the other hand, were relegated to Division Four.
The whole thing failed on two counts. Maxwell completely misunderstood football supporters and Waller did not have as much power as he either knew or would have people believe. Ultimately you had two men who believed they could do what they wanted with their clubs. How wrong they were.
Oxford won Division Three the following season, with Reading also bouncing straight back from Division Four. Jim Smith then masterminded a second successive title win when Oxford won Division Two in 1984-85 to get into English football’s top table for the one and only time in their history. Smith left through a contract mix-up but Oxford spent three seasons in the top flight. His replacement? Maurice Evans. They won the League Cup in 1986 during a wonderful period of success for a club who were toying with extinction a few years before.
Maxwell resigned as Chairman in May 1987 to take over Derby County. He handed control of Oxford to one of his sons, Kevin. Maxwell Snr wasn’t finished with manipulating things with Oxford when he controversially sold Dean Saunders to Derby in 1988 for £1m. Maxwell Jnr paying £1m to Maxwell Snr?
Reading won Division Three in 1986 and Smee remained Chairman until he sold the club to Madejski. Madejski built a new stadium, named after him, for the club in 1998. He rescued Reading from receivership and the club made it to the Premier League in 2006. Madejski said of Maxwell;
“When he was alive I offered him £5 per share. When he fell off his boat I got them for 10p. Funny old life isn’t it?”
Oxford United too got their own brand spanking new stadium. In 1999 Firoz Kassam bought the club took over its debts and set about completing a new stadium on the edge of the city. Due to the club’s financial problems they didn’t move in until 2001. Ironically despite all Maxwell’s assertions about the Manor Ground they remained there throughout their period of success in the eighties.
Football club mergers rarely work, especially in England. Fans are just not like any ordinary consumers. Down the years, mergers between Brentford and QPR failed. There were even plans for Fulham Park Rangers and even Brighton and Crystal Palace flirted with a get-together. All to no avail.
Maxwell didn’t know any of this, but then it’s doubtful he’d have listened if anyone told him.
In 1991 Robert Maxwell died in mysterious circumstances when he “fell off a boat” near the Canary Islands. The subsequent fall-out as his estate was dealt with sent shockwaves throughout the business world. Many in football just felt it confirmed what they thought of the man.