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Three's a crowd

Piers Pennington  takes on the mysteries of the Didcot triangle, with three teams that lurk around the periphery of the big time

Look at a map of England, go left from London and you’ll come across a footballing desert stretching across Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Somerset. Only three oases of league football offer succour to the parched lower division journeyman and many a camel towards the end of its career has found refreshment in Oxford, Reading or Swindon. In the middle of the three lies Didcot, the railway junction which links them, and this has persuaded some to call this area the Didcot Triangle.

I moved to Oxford in September 1965, missing by a few weeks their first competitive match with Swindon, a 0-0 draw which attracted over 20,000 to the County Ground. Oxford were in only their fourth season in the League and had just been promoted to the Third Division, while Swindon had dropped from the Second to join them. I’m not sure if that first meeting was re­garded at the time as a local derby, but by the time Swin­don achieved their memorable win over Arsenal in the 1969 League Cup final the rivalry was well established and I was given a hard time at school for revealing my plea­sure at the out­come, having always hated Arsenal.

Quite why there should be this mutual loathing re­mains a mystery to me and I have never been able to take it very seriously. Surely the point of a local derby is to be able to mock your rivals at work or school on the Monday morning. But nobody from Oxford would ever have any reason to travel the 20-odd miles to the home of the enemy other than to watch the game, and I’m sure the reverse is true as well. I’ve only ever met two Swindon supporters and that was in London.

Perhaps in somewhere like Kingston Bagpuize there are families torn asunder by split loyalties to the yellow and the red, but somehow I doubt it. Nevertheless, look at any fanzine or website of the two clubs and you will find endless expressions of hatred, invective and depressingly unoriginal songs “to the tune of Nick­nack Paddywack” lovingly reproduced.

Reading tend to get a bit left out in all of this and they appear to have some difficulty in deciding who they really don’t like. They used to have a thing about Aldershot, but clearly that’s no longer an option. Wy­combe might offer some potential if anybody could work out where the place is or if anybody supports them enough to bother. Reading fanzines make plaintive references to the Pox and the Swine, but nobody’s really listening. The only truly convincing animosity to be found is directed at their former managers Mark McGhee and Tommy Burns.

However, in any examination of relationships between Reading and Oxford, the ample figure of Robert Maxwell is bound to surface. On March 16, 1983, the then owner of Oxford announced that he was on the verge of taking a controlling interest in Reading, which would lead to a merger of the two clubs. Home games would alternate between the Manor and Elm Park until a new ground could be built, Didcot being the favoured site. The new club would be called Thames Valley Royals. Both sets of supporters were united in outrage at the proposal and when the teams met at the Manor on May 2 the whole ground joined together to let Captain Bob know what they thought of his scheme. A few days later the Reading chairman resigned and Maxwell failed to acquire the shares he needed. Oh, and Reading were relegated.

This was the start of a brief period when Oxford threatened to establish themselves as the dominant team of the three. For 20 years or so the clubs had drifted up and down the lower divisions without making too much of an impact, but suddenly Max­well’s money and some shrewd purchases by Jim Smith saw Oxford win back-to-back championships and start the 1985-86 season in the top flight, something neither Reading nor Swindon had achieved in 65 years as League clubs. Swindon, indeed were languishing in the Fourth that year, with Reading in the Third. In a further twist, Oxford had appointed the former Reading manager Maurice Evans to take over when Smith decided he’d had enough of Maxwell’s interference and moved to QPR.

It turned out to be a year of celebration for all three clubs. While Oxford visited Wembley for the first (and probably only) time, winning the Milk Cup in some style against Jim Smith’s new team, and then survived in the First Division with a last match victory over Ars­enal, Reading were winning their first 13 games and walking away with the Third Division championship, while Swindon managed to am­­ass 102 points to win the Fourth.

Within a couple of years, Oxford’s dreams of becoming the permanent apex of the triangle faded as Maxwell con­centrated his resources on his new toy, Derby County. Now it was Swindon who were top dogs – disgracefully denied their place in the First Division in 1990 because of “financial irregularities”, they finally made it to what was by that time the Premiership three years later under Glenn Hoddle. No amount of prayer could have kept them there for more than one season, so Glenn departed for Chelsea and Swindon slid down the hypotenuse. Then it was Reading’s turn. Foolishly they chose to finish runners-up in 1995, the year when only one team gained auto­matic promotion to the Premiership. Even more fool­ishly, they threw away a 2-0 lead and missed a pen­alty in the play-off final against Bolton. Two years later, after Swindon and Oxford had finished first and second in the Second Division, the three clubs all met for the first time in 15 years, neatly finishing between 17th and 19th – an equilateral triangle once again.

This year they’re together again (although one division lower) but it looks like being the last time for a while. Reading have the Mad Stad, a top-of the-range hatchback of a new stadium which regularly pulls in crowds over 10,000, and an enthusiastic if ego­tistical chairman prepared to spend money on proven performers like Martin Butler and Jamie Cureton. If they don’t go up this season they’ll probably be able to buy their way up next year.

Swindon, while they boast in Danny Invincible the footballer with the best name ever, show few signs of halting their slide. Karren Brady’s dad may have rescued them from bankruptcy but talk of a new stadium somewhere on the outskirts of town seems far-fetched, particularly in the light of their recent attendances of just three or four thousand.

Oxford are in an even sorrier state. Work may have restarted on the rusting bones of their new ground at Minchery Farm, but whether by next season they’ll have a team capable of playing in it looks questionable. The way they’ve been performing this year, the surprise is not that they have so few points but that they’ve managed to acquire any at all with a ragbag of free transfers, loans, youth players and in Steve Anthrobus a “striker” who has scored two league goals in 40-odd games.

Those few fans who remain are worried about staying up next season, having already writ­ten off this campaign. Their only hope is that Swindon will be dragged down too. Firoz Kassam put in just enough cash to keep the club afloat but shows no sign of releasing any funds for players, which made Joe Kinnear’s brief role as a talent spotter somewhat superfluous. The area can ill-afford to lose any of these League clubs but for one at least the Conference, if not extinction, is looming.

From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month

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