We live among a golden generation of eccentric owners. The manner in which football clubs are run has now become a narrative as ingrained into the game as the results on a Saturday afternoon, as more and more moneyed thrill-seekers search for their next cash cow, adrenalin rush, or both.
Robert Maxwell, who owned Oxford United from 1983 until his death in 1991, certainly wasn’t English football’s original eccentric owner*, but he may be the most overlooked. Known better for his ownership of the Daily Mirror and his mysterious death on board his private yacht in 1991, Maxwell oversaw one of the most tumultuous periods in the club’s history.
His control of the club was a tale of extremes. Based at the rickety Manor Ground in Headington, Oxford was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and closure with enormous debts when he bought it in 1982. His heroism, though, soon came with almighty catch April of the following year – the club was to be merged with nearby Reading, who were in a similarly precarious financial situation, and rebranded as the Thames Valley Royals.
The gratitude that many Oxford fans felt towards Maxwell for rescuing the club quickly evaporated. Outrage and scorn poured from both sets of supporters. “Our fans can’t stand Oxford fans,” said the chairman of Reading’s Supporters Trust, “and I can’t see them travelling to Oxford to watch a new team.” One Oxford fan likened Maxwell’s called proposal the “kiss of death” to professional football in Oxford, whilst another claimed he would not watch the new team “if they played at the end of my street”.
A week later, as Wigan visited the Manor Ground, a supporter sit-in in the centre circle delayed kick-off for 30 minutes. Maxwell, adamant that the deal was the only option to save both clubs from oblivion, was unrepentant. “If they want to become supporters of someone else, they’re entirely welcome,” he told the BBC. “Nothing short of the end of earth will stop this deal going through.”
However, in the end it was not the end of the earth that scuppered Maxwell’s plans, but an administrative error. Roger Smee, a former Reading player and opponent of the plans, read the club accounts from the previous year and noticed that three of the club’s directors had issued shares to themselves when they didn’t own a majority. Smee acted fast. Along with another dissenter, Reading director Roy Tranter, he prevented the sale of the unissued shares through the High Court. Maxwell’s key allies at the club were forced to quit and the proposal was killed.
The expected end of the affair might have been for Maxwell to walk away from the club, but he stayed on and debunked his own theory that the club would collapse by leading them into profitability. The club achieved two successive promotions and entered the First Division for the first time in their history for the 1985-86 season in April they won the League Cup after defeating QPR 3-0 at Wembley, with future Liverpool and Ireland stalwart Ray Houghton among the scorers.
Two years later, Maxwell’s ruthlessness, which nearly claimed the souls of two football clubs, was put into practice on his own manager. If you’ve ever wondered why, when watching or listening to Mark Lawrenson put the world to rights on the BBC, that the former Liverpool man doesn’t give it a go himself, the answer may be that he came up against Maxwell and lost. Hard.
Lawrenson had joined Oxford almost immediately after ending his playing career with Liverpool in March 1988. The club, though, were in a rut, and the first time manager was unable to save them from the drop into the Second Division.
The next season began well under Lawrenson, with striker Dean Saunders leading them to sixth in the table. Lawrenson had agreed with Kevin Maxwell, the club’s chairman – and Robert’s son – that Saunders could be sold if Oxford failed to win promotion. But the first-time manager was about to learn that Maxwell Snr was not a man given to keeping promises.
Lawrenson, writing in the Independent in 1995, said he was preparing for home game against Blackburn Rovers when he received a phone call from Kevin. Saunders, he was informed, was free to talk to Derby County, a club now chaired by Robert. Lawrenson immediately travelled to London for a meeting with both father and son, where Lawrenson protested – or ‘blew his top’ as he wrote – but was told bluntly that the player’s sale was ‘none of [his] business’. The decision had been made.
‘The next day, the Monday, I went into my office to tender my resignation, to be told I was being sacked… the whole episode had lasted less than 48 hours,’ he wrote. He was told he’d been shown the door for the discussing the issue with the press. Though Lawrenson wrote that he’d done nothing of the sort and simply given a no comment answer, the game was up. Lawrenson’s managerial career never really recovered. After leaving Oxford he spent a brief period in charge of Peterborough United, but was gone in just over a year and shortly after began the punditry career we all know so well.
Under Maxwell, Oxford rose to heights that they have never achieved since, but like Portsmouth after them, the club’s periodic success was built on a house of cards. When the businessman died, presumed to have fallen of his yacht off the Canary Islands, he was discovered to have been stealing from his companies’ pension funds to prop up their share price. Oxford were forced to sell off players to stay afloat and only saved themselves from relegation from the newly-created Division One with final-day victory at Tranmere Rovers.
Maxwell’s ownership of the club – an era dubbed the ‘Glory Years’ on the club’s website – remains the most successful in terms of the club’s standing, and the Milk Cup trophy, as it was known then, still adorns the trophy cabinet in the Kassam Stadium. But his legacy is that of a man who obliterated one manager and nearly obliterated two football clubs.
Let’s see Assem Allan try that one.
*That title is arguably held by Bob Lord, the Burnley butcher (his work background rather than a serial killer moniker) who among other acts called Manchester United’s players “teddy-boys” three days after the Munich disaster and at one game had an opposing chairman escorted out of the ground at half-time following an argument.