Arsenal will feel the Kassam Stadium’s winter chill. It is open-cornered, lacks a stand at its west end and on a rough evening the cold can rattle the bones. Were Karl Robinson’s Oxford United not such a slick, highly principled outfit at their best, it would fit the cliche of an FA Cup leveller. But it has nothing on the rickety old Manor Ground and its slope where an earlier iteration of Monday night’s tie brought one of the side’s finest hours.
“We were the sort of team who would hunt you down,” says Steve Perryman, who arrived from Spurs to offer a calm, controlled head in Oxford’s midfield for the later part of the 1985-86 season.
Oxford had no choice but to fit that description: they had climbed from the third tier with two consecutive promotions but were on the brink of instant relegation when Arsenal visited on 5 May. It was the final match of the campaign and while they knew a win would complete a once unlikely escape that outcome still seemed a tall order.
Oxford overran Arsenal. They won 3-0, a scoreline that was not remotely deceptive and perhaps benefited from the fact their opponents’ season had flatlined into an inconsequential seventh place. “A home game, a ferocious crowd and a team that would challenge for every ball” is Perryman’s recollection of the environment and the result completed a year’s work that, after walking the line between success and disappointment, remains a high point in Oxford’s history.
Fifteen days earlier, they had won the League Cup by another thumping three-goal margin, overwhelming a QPR side overseen by the architect of Oxford’s ascent from the lower leagues, Jim Smith. “They did it in such good style, it was one of the best passing displays I’ve ever seen at Wembley. They passed QPR to death,” says Perryman, who was cup-tied and watched from the stands. “Even if league results had suggested otherwise, there was no way it was a bad team.”
The move had been a culture shock for Perryman, who had turned 34 and came off the back of 17 years in Tottenham’s first team. “We didn’t have our own training ground so would use various facilities around the city. There were lots of university pitches,” he says. “We’d get into a minibus and drive around. But there was a camaraderie in the team and you could tell, from the success they’d already had, there was the unity you need to thrive.”
When the day of judgment arrived, Arsenal were exposed within three minutes by Ray Houghton’s fizzing left-footer. Houghton had signed from Fulham that season and also scored at Wembley. His recruitment was a masterstroke from Maurice Evans, who had reluctantly succeeded Smith after the latter’s controversial departure. The gentle-mannered Evans, who had been the club’s chief scout, felt burned by abruptly departing his beloved Reading in 1984, but performed wonders in making Oxford tick.
“He was an incredibly good judge of a player, with a great feeling and a keen eye,” Perryman says. “I never saw him lose his temper. He was a very softly spoken man, but you knew when he was serious. He didn’t really want the job, but his calmness and assuredness stood out for me in that relegation battle.”
Perryman reels off the names of his teammates: “A very committed, resilient bunch with really good players.” He played 17 games for Oxford, leaving for Brentford before 1986 was up, but the achievement was significant even to a player who had won multiple trophies in his 866 appearances with Spurs.
He had also helped Tottenham beat Leeds on the final day of 1974-75 to stay up: Evans had brought him in for that kind of nous. It did no harm that an old enemy was defeated to reach Oxford’s goal. “I remember how much stick I got from the Arsenal fans, you can’t just switch off the rivalry,” he says. “That was pleasing, but staying up was the main thing.”
Oxford were never an easy nut to crack at the 9,500-capacity Manor Ground. “The centre-backs, Malcolm Shotton and Gary Briggs, didn’t take any prisoners and nobody enjoyed playing against us,” Perryman says, a chuckle making clear the understatement in describing a double act of hard men in defence.
They repelled Arsenal’s lacklustre attempts at coming back and extended their lead with a penalty from John Aldridge, whose 23 top-flight goals that season were a phenomenal haul. He and Houghton would later thrive together at Liverpool. A late drive from Billy Hamilton, the Northern Irishman, settled any doubts and sent the old stadium into raptures.
“The place was bouncing,” Perryman says. “When they got a full house in there it could really lift you. It was the culmination of a season’s work for most of these players and we felt like we’d won two trophies.
“Oxford were a smaller club trying to hold their own at the top level: so much effort went in, on and off the pitch, and that was borne out on the day.”
Oxford hung around for another two seasons, but have never looked like returning. They are mid-table in League One so little about that is likely to change soon. Channelling the spirit of 1986 to their windswept modern home, though, might just produce another occasion that resounds through the ages.