Forgotten Grounds: The Imps and the Manor Ground, Oxford

A footballing venue only visited by Lincoln City over a twenty-year period was the previous home of Oxford United, the Manor Ground. It was situated two miles from the centre of the university city in the leafy suburb of Headington, writes Malcolm Johnson.

Oxford United were formed as Headington in 1893 by a local vicar and a doctor as a way for the cricketers of Headington Cricket Club to maintain their fitness during the winter break. From 1899 they competed in the Oxfordshire District League Second Division which was renamed the Oxfordshire District Junior League in 1919.

The club became Headington United in 1911 after merging with Headington Quarry. They had switched between various grounds in Headington, one of which would later be the site of the Manor Ground, and had no regular home until 1913, when they were able to purchase Wootten’s Field on London Road. This was redeveloped in 1920, forcing the club to move and a new permanent home was found in 1925, when they leased the Manor Ground site also on London Road. The football pitch had a seven-foot slope from corner to corner and the venue was used for cricket in summer, with bowls and tennis also taking place there.

In 1921, the club had been admitted into the Oxon Senior League where they remained until joining the Spartan League in 1947. Two seasons later during which time the ground ceased to be used for cricket, Headington were elected to the Southern League and turned professional becoming the first such club in Britain to install floodlights which were used for the first time in December 1950.

On turning professional, a small stand seating 180 was built in the south west corner of the ground with dressing rooms underneath and the Osler Road terrace opposite the main or Beech Road stand was covered.

In 1957 the supporters club provided £33,000 for the cost of a new 1600-seat main stand and two years later came up with another £10,000 for the purchase of the ground

In 1960, the club was renamed Oxford United in order to give it a higher profile and after winning the Southern League championship for two years in a row was elected to the Football League to take the place of the defunct Accrington Stanley. In preparation for this the London Road Terrace at one end was covered – again paid for by the supporters club – and work began on extending the Cuckoo Lane End terracing. Also, a small stand holding 100 was constructed next to the corner stand and was reserved for club staff.

Image result for manor ground oxford

After Oxford started their first Football League season in 1962/63 with an away match at Barrow it fell to Lincoln City to provide the first opposition at the Manor Ground in front of an attendance of over 10,000. Winger Albert Scanlon became not only the first Lincoln City player to score on the ground but also the first ever visiting player to do so in a Football League match as the home side got off to winning start with a 2-1 score-line.

Having successfully gained re-election to the league Lincoln were back towards the end of the following season in a game which saw the 18-year-old Jim Grummett make his debut playing at centre forward. However, neither he nor anyone else was able to score for City in a 2-0 defeat. The previous February had seen the Manor Ground attendance record set with 22,750 present for an FA Cup Quarter Final game with eventual Wembley finalists Preston North End.

September 1964 saw another 2-0 victory for the home side in front of a crowd of 10,772, the highest ever for a City match on the ground. Placed second at the time Oxford were to finish the season in that position as the two clubs went their separate ways – City to seek re-election again, while Oxford went on to gain further promotion three years later and spend eight seasons in the Second Division (now the Championship) until relegation in 1976.

City, in contrast to Oxford remained in the fourth tier, surviving three further applications for re-election until a record-breaking season under manager Graham Taylor saw the two clubs meet for the first time in Division Three. The game at the Manor Ground in October 1976 against an Oxford side managed by former City full back Mick Brown produced what was to be City’s only win at the venue thanks to goals from John Ward and Percy Freeman securing a 2-1 scoreline that was aided by a penalty miss by Oxford full back John Shuker.

The win in 1976 consolidated City in fourth place but they were unable to sustain a real promotion challenge so were back again a year later under the management of George Kerr. This time Oxford inflicted a 1-0 win on a City side rooted to the foot of the table without a league win in the season so far. There were City debuts for centre half Clive Wigginton, newly signed from Scunthorpe United and striker Alan Cork on loan from Derby County who was also making his Football League debut and was to go on to enjoy great success with Wimbledon.

Mick Brown was still in charge of Oxford by the time of the Imps’ visit at the end of April the following season, but City had changed managers twice. Willie Bell who had replaced Kerr had guided the club to a finish two places above Oxford, but after a disastrous start to the 1978/79 season he had himself been replaced by Colin Murphy. ‘The Murph’ had been unable to change City’s fortunes and they were to spend almost the whole season in bottom place. City’s goal in a 2-1 defeat came from Mick Harford, the first in a run of five in five games for the 20-year-old. Only 3,497 were present for the game which was the lowest to see City play there.

Relegation was soon confirmed for City but after two more seasons under Colin Murphy they were back in the third tier to visit Oxford in the autumn of 1981. Although I’d been to a match once before at the Manor Ground, I made the long-ish journey to see City play there for the first time. Now with Ian Greaves, another ex-Imp, in charge Oxford were in eighth place, while City who had made a moderate start to life back in the higher division were ten places below them following three defeats in a row. That run came to an end thanks to a goal from Derek Bell in a 1-1 draw that included two penalty saves by goalkeeper David Felgate, one of them in the 90th minute. The game marked the last appearance by former Notts County defender David McVay who was partnered by left back Wayne Turner, on loan from Luton and making his first appearance.                                                

With both teams narrowly missing out on promotion, City by one point and with Oxford one place below them, I was back at the Manor Ground just over a year later with Oxford now managed by yet another ex-City player in Jim Smith. Unfortunately the long journey was a wasted one as fog closed in after about half an hour of the match causing it to be abandoned 20 minutes after the break, with those of us on the open terracing behind the goal unable to see as far as the half-way line – although we probably wouldn’t have minded too much about only seeing a third of the play if City had preserved the 0-0 scoreline.

At the time of the abandoned game City were top of the division with Oxford down in 10th, but by the time the game was replayed the following March off-field troubles had caused City to slip to 5th, two places above Oxford. With an already small squad hit by injuries City were forced to field youngsters Gerard Creane and Gary Strodder and went down to a 1-0 defeat. The season ended with their positions more or less reversed from the one before as both teams missed out on promotion again.

1983/84 saw City visit the Manor Ground on the first day of the season and what was to be their last game there also saw their heaviest defeat. There were debuts for close season signings Keith Houghton, Ross Jack and John Thomas and loanee full back Rob Johnson but a disjointed performance saw City well beaten 3-0. At the end of the season City finished in mid-table while under Jim Smith Oxford embarked on a rise of two promotions in a row to the First Division.

With Oxford United’s arrival in the top flight the amount of seating was increased with the construction of two covered stands at one end of the Osler Road side giving a total ground capacity of 9,500.

In 1988 Oxford were relegated after three seasons in Division One, and were back in the third tier again in 1994. Meanwhile, the Taylor Report had been published calling for the improvement of football stadiums but with redevelopment of the Manor Ground with its areas of terracing too costly, in June 1995, the board of directors unveiled plans for a new 16,000 all-seater stadium at Minchery Farm on the outskirts of the city.

Oxford were promoted back to what was then Division One (now the Championship) in 1996 and construction work on the new £15 million stadium was begun in the early part of 1997. However, it was suspended later that year due to the club’s financial problems before being resumed in 1999 following a takeover deal.

The club then suffered relegation to League One in 1999 and found themselves back in the fourth tier two years later. The last league match at the Manor Ground took place on 1st May 2001 with a 1–1 draw against Port Vale and the club moved to the Kassam Stadium which has since been the venue for meetings with Lincoln City which resumed in the first season at the new ground.

The Manor Ground was sold for £12 million and was quickly demolished with the site now being occupied by a private hospital.

Excluding the abandoned match in 1982 Lincoln City played a total of nine games at the Manor Ground with the fairly miserable record of one win, one draw and seven defeats. Goals scored totalled five, with two scored on only one occasion and five games when none were scored. 15 goals were conceded with no clean sheets being kept.

City’s goals at the ground were scored by five different players, and, apart from Albert Scanlon, they could all be counted among City’s most successful strikers of the last 50 years – John Ward, Percy Freeman, Mick Harford and Derek Bell.

1 Comment

  1. Just to say the photo at the top shows Glenn Cockerill in action during the game in October 1982 before the fog closed in.

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