One man and a mad dream - the strange story of Robert Maxwell and the Thames Valley Royals
In 1983 Reading FC nearly ceased to exist. A plan to merge Oxford United and Reading to form a new team called Thames Valley Royals nearly succeeded.
Robert Maxwell’s chairmanship of Oxford United had many demerits – predictability was not among them. In the spring of 1983, United had surely blown their promotion chance. The score from Belle Vue, Doncaster mattered little. The Teleprinter chattered away meaninglessly. Then suddenly the mood changes. David Coleman, not a man noted for his calmness, is on the verge of apoplexy. As the Reading result comes up (a no goals draw with Gillingham) he reports that he has sensational news concerning Reading and Oxford United. A teasing few minutes elapse while Coleman tells the armchair fans who has beaten who. And then the news: ‘Oxford and Reading are to merge. The new club will be called the Thames Valley Royals’. So that was it. United was to be closed down. Oxford United would exist no more.
Maxwell’s statement announcing the plans read: ‘Oxford United FC are to acquire Reading FC by an offer to purchase the whole of the issued share capital (73,000 shares) of Reading FC at a price of £3 a share, payable in cash. Mr Frank Waller (Reading’s chairman) and his colleagues on the Reading FC board holding a majority of the shares have irrevocably accepted the offer and agreed to recommend it to the Reading shareholders’. The scheme, which had the support in principle of The Football League, was to involve the building of a new stadium at an unspecified site. Maxwell indicated that the search for this new site was to begin immediately and that the revenue from the sale of the Manor Ground and Elm Park would be the financial basis of the new club. In the meantime, the two clubs would fulfil their fixtures for the season. It was anticipated that Jim Smith would manage the new club, with Reading manager Maurice Evans as his deputy.
The initial reaction of the fans of both clubs was hostile. Mike Habbits, chairman of the Reading Supporters Club, said: ‘Our fans can’t stand Oxford fans and I can’t see them travelling to Oxford to watch the new team’. Former Reading player Roger Smee, who had unsuccessfully bid for the club the previous autumn, was quick to announce he was considering a fresh offer. Another Reading fan asked ‘How can people identify themselves with a side that does not represent a town but an area? Football has always been between us and them’. A spokesman from Oxford United Supporters Club described the scheme as ‘crazy and unworkable’. Former United captain and then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson commented: ‘Mr. Maxwell obviously believes that 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’. Peter Marsh quit the United board three weeks after Maxwell took over. He called the plan ‘the end of Oxford United’. ‘The way this merger has been done is arrogant and autocratic’. Likewise, reaction in the national press was sceptical. David Lacey in the Guardian said ‘As a method of two Football League clubs at one stroke the scheme surely has few rivals’. It was left to the Oxford Mail to offer Mr Maxwell some words of support, calling his scheme bold and enterprising, if a bit ahead of its time. Other positive comment came from Jack Dunnet, President of the Football League, who called the plan ‘a bold and imaginative move which I’ll be watching with interest’. Jim Smith also sounded keen: ‘I’m excited, I hope supporters of both clubs accept it. This could be the way for many smaller clubs in the future’.
On the Monday following the announcement Maxwell spelt out the logic behind the merger. ‘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’. He also rounded on his critics: ‘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’. Attempts to stop the merger were like ‘trying to make the Thames run backwards’.
The Oxford board of the time (including current director Geoff Coppock) emerged with little credit. Kept in the dark by Maxwell when the deal was being set up, they then unanimously supported the merger at a meeting held on April 20th. Their only suggestion was that the new team should be Thames Valley United rather than Royals (an interesting sidelight on the affair was the attempts made by supporters and writers alike to match the name Thames Valley Royals with the correct sport. Speedway, netball and gridiron were all mentioned. A Reading fan suggested it sounded like an American ice hockey team, the Oxford Times thought the Thames Valley Royals sounded like an obsolete Berkshire yeomanry regiment. No one thought it sounded like a football team). As to Mr Maxwell’s main proposal, Vice-Chairmen Desmond Morris, Bill Reeves and Les Town, together with the other directors, offered not a whisper of protest. Morris explained: ‘The alternative is zero’.
The reaction of United supporters to the plan showed them at their very best. Schoolboys at Cheney and Chipping Norton organised petitions. Jackie Davies and Steve Daniels spearheaded the Save Oxford Soccer (SOS) campaign. The Oxford Mail was filled with passionate letters eloquently arguing against Maxwell’s scheme. Travelling costs, loss of Oxford United’s name and identity, and fears of conflict between supporters of Reading and Oxford were all mentioned. But the dominant theme was anger and sadness that the club in which people had invested such passion, emotion and loyalty would be wiped out.
Alan Potter: ‘The proposed merger of Oxford and Reading would be the kiss of death to professional football in Oxford’.
V. Chown: ‘I find it despicable that Mr Maxwell, a short time ago hailed as the saviour of the club, should now become the destroyer’.
Simon Jaggs: ‘Maxwell saved Oxford last year – now he seems to be trying to kill us’.
M. Jones: ‘I will not follow Thames Valley Royals or whatever their name is if they played at the end of my street’.
While many supporters acknowledged Maxwell’s contribution in saving the club, they were adamant that his new plan spelt the death of professional football in the city and the death of Oxford United. Against this, a handful of fans sided with Maxwell. They pointed to the benefits of a new stadium and foresaw competitive success for a newly merged club. And others pointed to Oxford City Council as the villains, due to their failure to supply United with a new ground. But the overwhelming reaction, in Reading as well as Oxford, was clear: Maxwell’s scheme would be a disaster.
Very swiftly the affair was running along three parallel courses as Robert Maxwell blustered and bullied, the supporters of Reading and Oxford campaigned, and interested parties from Reading got together to mount a legal challenge to the scheme. Elsewhere others were debating the site of a new stadium. The Mayor of Didcot was keen for the new club to locate there, on a site originally intended for Didcot Town. Others in the town objected, citing hooliganism as a possible problem. Wallingford was another idea, this going down like a lead balloon with the affluent Thames-side commuters.
Best of all was the idea of Don Bush from Croydon who foresaw the Royals playing at Aston Upthorpe. ‘If coats were used as goalposts and a bingo hut attached to the pitch… one feels survival could be assured, bearing in mind that for every home match probably at least 200 curious locals might be swollen by a fan from Reading and Oxford (carefully segregated of course) who felt like a day out in the country. Actually, I have tried chanting ‘Thames Valley Royals’ in the bath but it seemed to lack a little inspiration’.
Before the Wigan match, SOS organised a successful sit-in demonstration on the Manor pitch. Speeches were made and banners waved, the mood good-natured and determined. Only when Maxwell himself arrived did things turn a little sour, as he was showered with invective and spit from a small group in front of the director’s box. The match was held up for thirty-three minutes, and then in a surreal game devoid of passion Wigan were beaten 2-0. The event proved a perfect display of how supporters can organise to influence the running of the game. Maxwell saw things in a different light, he called the protests a ‘bloody disgrace’. ‘These hooligans can play their dirty games elsewhere’ he roared. In fact, United fans showed how a demonstration could be both passionate and peaceful, and the police responded with sensitivity and tolerance.
It is perhaps ironic that every fan on the pitch would now be liable to arrest under the Taylor legislation. There was also a protest march organised before the Reading game at the Manor. The Oxford board tried to disrupt the demonstration by moving the match to a morning kick-off, but it went ahead regardless. Not a man to duck a confrontation, Robert Maxwell turned up at Gloucester Green to meet the protesters. Responding to cries of ‘Maxwell Out’ he said ‘I have complete understanding and sympathy with you. I’m sorry you have to take it out on me. If I did not pay the bills you would already have shut down’. At the match two late goals gave Reading the points, ending United’s promotion bid.
Within days of announcing the merger, and against a background of impending local elections, Maxwell entered into complex negotiations with the City Council over a new stadium. On April 20th he met council leaders concerning a site at Blackbird Leys but this idea was quickly rejected by Maxwell himself. Maxwell reiterated his old preference for Marston but Council leader Albert Ramsay ruled that out.
With stalemate again reached, the next major twist occurred on April 30th, the day United played at Lincoln. In a surprise move, Albert Ramsay promised to negotiate with the Co-op over a stadium site at Botley, conditional on Labour still being in power after the elections. He also stipulated that the £6 million stadium complex would be under City Council control, not Maxwell’s. Tory leader Janet Todd was quick to denounce the plan as a ‘pathetic scrabble’ for votes, and Ramsay was opposed by West Ward Labour councillors John Power and Phyllis Starkey.
On May 6th Labour was returned to power at the Town Hall. Save Oxford Soccer called on the council to take a controlling interest in United. Spokesman Peter Marsh said: ‘The group believes responsibility for League football in the city, and the development of valuable community resources, should rightfully be in the hands of the elected representatives of the people of Oxford’. The group also called on the council to implement its pledges with respect to Botley Road.
OPPOSITION FROM READING
But while these moves were taking place in Oxford, the ultimately decisive events happened in Reading. As early as the 19th of April it had been revealed that Frank Waller did not, in fact, have a controlling number of shares. Maxwell insisted that this was no problem, but even at this early stage, it was apparent that a big crack had appeared in his plan.
On April 22nd, as Frank Waller left a press conference at the F.A., he was handed an injunction by Reading director Roy Tranter’s solicitors, forbidding the transfer of shares to Maxwell until early in May. When the High Court sat on May 3rd the merger was put on ice. Referring to Waller and his partners, Leslie Davies and John Briggs, Mr Justice Harman said ‘So they have just issued themselves enough to get control? Charming’. He issued an injunction preventing further trading in the shares until June 13th. This effectively left the Royals dead in the water. With the Football League requiring clubs’ retained list of players by May 21 how could Jim Smith plan the Thames Valley Royals side?
On the 6th of May Maurice Evans enquired how he was to plan given the general air of uncertainty. The Football League had no doubts, he was to plan ahead for a new season as Reading manager. Six days later the Reading board met. With the merger deal now looking a non-starter, the men behind it came under pressure from the other directors. After a five hour meeting, Chairman Frank Waller and fellow directors Davies and Briggs quit. The 20,000 shares that they had bought to take control were to be returned to the club. Without these shares, Robert Maxwell could no longer count on the support of the Reading board. His dream of the Thames Valley Royals was dead.
THE END OF THE AFFAIR
And so the whole miserable affair drew to a close. As with all Maxwell failures a marked lack of publicity at the end contrasted with the clamour which arose at the start. Those United fans travelling across London to see United win at Southend would only see a small paragraph in the Evening Standard telling of the end of Maxwell’s plan.
In Oxford, the story was back, for the last time, on the Mail’s front page. Still, Maxwell continued to bluster: ‘If a stadium site is not found I will cease my connection with the club and that will be the end of Oxford United’. ‘I will not give up my interest in a merger until I am satisfied Reading have a genuine means to save themselves’. But now it seemed Maxwell was talking to himself, no-one else was listening. There was little jubilation among United supporters at the outcome, rather a quiet sense of relief. Jackie Davies summed up: ‘I am relieved that the merger is off but I am still concerned for the future of Oxford United’.
Ultimately the merger failed not because of the protest that erupted in the two towns, but simply because Frank Waller and his associates could not deliver. To speculate: what would have happened if Maxwell had acquired the requisite Reading shares? Would he have seen sense? Or would he have blundered on?
As Tom Bower demonstrated in his portrait ‘Maxwell, The Outsider’, a clear strategy was rarely apparent in his business deals. Many were disastrous failures but quickly forgotten as Maxwell focused his energies elsewhere. In 1988 the Dean Saunders affair proved his readiness to ride roughshod over the wishes of supporters. There is a strong chance that if Maxwell had gained control of the Reading shares the deal would have gone through. Robert Maxwell simply could not, or would not understand the way football works, the town rivalry and competition, the partisanship.
Maxwell attacked opponents of the merger for their parochialism, completely misunderstanding their support of this active tradition. Tradition not as nostalgia for a false sepia world of Hovis adverts, but as a living, growing phenomenon, with roots in the past that evolve into the future. When you follow a football side it is not like preferring Asda to Tesco, or different brands of cheese. In the chaos that followed Maxwell’s death the question was often asked: who would you support if United went under? The answer for many people was simple: no-one.
In 1967 there was a plan for Brentford and QPR to merge, but Brentford fans successfully blocked this. Later fantasies of Brighton and Palace sharing at Gatwick, and Fulham Park Rangers foundered on the simple fact that football clubs are rooted in place, rooted in community. But Maxwell did not know this. He didn’t want to know.
This story originally appeared on 1st April 1993 in Rage Online – an independent voice of Oxford United Supporters. STAR is grateful for their permission to reproduce this story here as part of our RFC heritage. STARs own tribute for the contribution made by Roy Tranter was recorded on a plaque, unveiled by Sir John Madejski in 2010, situated outside the Ticket office at the Stadium.