If it didn't matter so much to so many people, you could have been forgiven for sniggering at the state of English football at the start of the 1985/86 season. Banned from Europe due to the events of Heysel, with no TV cameras at matches due to a row between club chairmen and the BBC/ITV bosses, the game seemed to be dying a slow death. Not even the ScreenSport Super Cup could revive the flagging fortunes of football (I am being sarcastic), as attendances dipped and the sport became as marketable as a Sinclair C5. Football may have came home in 1996 and evolved into the well-oiled PR machine that we witness today, but ten years earlier the sump had well and truly fallen off the sport, leaving it juddering and grinding to a halt on the hard shoulder.
There were some positives though; at least back in 1985/86 the League Cup was taken seriously by one and all, especially without the extra distraction of European football for the big boys. Even so, the identity of the teams that reached the semi-finals was not totally expected. Liverpool were there naturally, looking to win a competition that they had made their own from 1981-84, but Aston Villa were a sad shadow of the team that had started the decade in such glorious fashion, and you could probably have got good money on Oxford United and QPR making the final four at the start of the cup campaign.
Oxford's rise to the top had been one of the success stories of the 1980s. Successive promotions in 1984 and 1985 under Jim Smith's management (more of which later), were punctuated with cup shocks, as the Manor Ground hosted wins over the mighty Manchester United and Arsenal during both title winning seasons. Their first season in the top flight was understandably a struggle. Under the new regime of Maurice Evans, the team was constantly flirting with the drop zone, although solace was found yet again in the Milk Cup. A 4-1 aggregate win over Fourth Division Northampton was followed up with three successive 3-1 wins at the Manor Ground; beating Newcastle in the third round, cup holders Norwich in the fourth, and Portsmouth in the quarter finals. The two-legged semi-final against Aston Villa highlighted the rise and rise of John Aldridge; his brace in the first leg at Villa Park enabled Oxford to return home with a 2-2 draw, and Aldridge became provider in the second leg, laying on goals for Les Phillips and Jeremy Charles in Oxford's 2-1 win, which in truth flattered Villa. 'LORDS OF THE MANOR' declared the Daily Mirror, as the press went to town over Oxford's relatively quick ascent to the top (they were still a non-league side in 1962). Unless you were Swindon fan, it was hard to begrudge them their success.
If Oxford's route to the final had been relatively kind to them, then the journey followed by QPR was anything but. Their 8-1 demolition of Hull in the second round was a mere warm-up for the dangers that littered Rangers' path to the final. A 1-0 win away at Watford was proof that QPR were not solely reliant on their artificial surface at Loftus Road, though it did give them a slight advantage. So after beating Nottingham Forest 3-1 at home, Rangers must have been kicking themselves after letting Chelsea leave their patch with a 1-1 draw, and fearful that they had let an opportunity slip. However, a combination of style and determination, along with some comical goalkeeping antics, saw Rangers leave Stamford Bridge with a famous 2-0 extra time victory over their West London rivals, setting up the daunting task of taking on treble chasing Liverpool in the semis. Home advantage aided Rangers in the first leg, Terry Fenwick's goal giving QPR something to take up to Anfield, although many felt the 1-0 margin still might not have been enough. On a night of incredible drama, Paul Barron saved a Jan Molby penalty (the bog standard dodgy decision always awarded to the home team at Anfield during the 80s), before Steve McMahon gave Liverpool the lead. But in a rare moment of Scouse incompetence during the 85/86 season, Rangers were quite literally given a helping hand, as own goals from Ronnie Whelan and Gary Gillespie, either side of a Craig Johnston strike, gave the London side a 3-2 aggregate victory, and left the ITV audience stunned at what they had just seen. After disposing of their fierce rivals and then the eventual double winners in the last two rounds, surely Oxford would not provide too big an obstacle? Thankfully football is anything but predictable.
Rangers had reached the final under Oxford's former manager Jim Smith. Smith had been the architect behind Oxford's double promotions, but left the club in the summer of 1985, after negotiations over a new contract stalled; Smith wanted £50,000 a year whereas club chairman Robert Maxwell offered £45,000 (just as well Jim wasn't driving at the time, as he may have swerved off the road, hey Ashley?). Circumstances more than anything prevented Smith getting the contract he desired. On the night talks began, Maxwell had invited Smith to London to discuss the deal, but their conversation was abruptly interrupted due to the breaking hell that was Heysel. It would take a month for talks to resume, but by that time QPR had approached Smith about their managerial vacancy, and Maxwell did little to keep his man - according to Smith, Maxwell stated: "If you want to go, you go," hardly the attitude to display to a man who had done so much for the club. So after three glorious years Smith was on his way, fated for his April 20 date of destiny with his old club. "Now I would like to meet my old club Oxford in the final....That will be the icing on the cake for me." Smith's words after QPR's semi-final win were heartfelt, but come the final whistle at Wembley he probably wished he had signed that contract after all.
Going in to the final Smith must have been confident that his new side would beat his old one. In the eight league matches leading up to Wembley, Rangers had won five - including a victory against Man Utd, and a 6-0 win over Chelsea which the Daily Mirror described as 'BLUE MURDER' - and drawn three. Speaking after a 4-1 win at Leicester six days before the final, Smith sounded surprisingly cautious: "I just hope we haven't peaked too early." Oxford on the other hand, had only won once since the Villa semi-final, and the table alone stresses just what a predicament they found themselves in. Injuries to Neil Slatter, Peter Rhoades-Brown, and Billy Hamilton also limited Oxford's selection options ahead of the final, Hamilton's absence due to a lack of fitness after persistent knee problems, resulted in a forward role for Jeremy Charles, although the Welshman was said to prefer playing at centre back. QPR had a full compliment of players to choose from, Warren Neill recovering from a fractured cheekbone just three weeks before the final. Little wonder then that all the experts were predicting a QPR victory. "QPR skipper Terry Fenwick will, I believe, collect the Milk Cup at Wembley tomorrow," mused the Daily Express' Steve Curry on the eve of the final, with the Guardian also backing up the general opinion "...that QPR will win what could be a high-scoring final."
The match, screened live on ITV, took a while to get going. In fact, it looked at one point as if the main highlight of the day was to be the celebrity 7-a-side match before the final, involving the likes of Jimmy Hill, Dennis Waterman, and David Frost. Fortunately in the 40th minute the final finally came to life. Charles flicked a clearance on to Aldridge, who brilliantly released Trevor Hebberd down the left and into the Rangers penalty area. Cutting the ball back on to his right foot, and in turn wrong footing Alan McDonald, Hebberd drilled a shot through the legs of the recovering McDonald, sneaking the ball between Paul Barron and his near post. For a man who had played in every round of the 1978/79 League Cup for Southampton, only to be dropped for the final, Hebberd's goal took on extra significance. Rangers were soon to discover that Hebberd's personal mission to right the wrongs of 1979 didn't end there.
Rangers, it has to be said, simply did not turn up on the day, and as the second half began their supporters could have been forgiven for wondering if the team in front of them was the same one that had overcome the major hurdles of Chelsea and Liverpool to reach the final. In the 52nd minute Hebberd again was at the centre of the move that would lead to Oxford's second. After superb work in his own half, Hebberd latched on to a Ray Houghton through ball, successfully breaking Rangers' offside trap that was about as well drilled as their overall performance on the day. Showing great intelligence, Hebberd surged into the area before cutting the ball back to Houghton, who gave Barron no chance. "You won't see a better goal than that," commented the excellent Brian Moore, and although you could argue the point, you kind of knew what he was getting at.
As the half progressed Rangers did little to indicate that they were likely to get back into the match. They were kindly put out of their misery in the 87th minute, when former Rangers man Charles tapped in after Barron could only parry Aldridge's original effort. The last ever Milk Cup had seen the biggest margin of victory in a Wembley League Cup final, in a match so one-sided that any aliens amongst the 90,396 crowd would have been confused as to which team were languishing at the bottom of the table. Smith neatly summed up Rangers' display: "We were diabolical. We just froze - we were frightened of the occasion." That was probably a kind assessment too.
The climb up the famous 39-steps at Wembley was filled with stirring moments aplenty. Oxford skipper Malcolm Shotton, donning a horned-hat, grinned from ear to ear, understandably so seeing as only six years earlier he had been working in a hosiery factory whilst playing non-league football. Hugged by Robert Maxwell (you can't have it all I guess), he then proceeded to take the cup down the stairs, repeatedly giving a joyous jig of delight, and looking very much like the cat who had got the cream, or the Milk Cup in his case. Hebberd collected the man of the match award, fully cleansing himself of his Wembley heartache. And in a classy moment, Maurice Evans sent 72-year-old club trainer Ken Fish up the Wembley steps to collect his winners medal, humbly declaring that "Ken deserved it more than me. He has been such a marvellous servant to the club." The Daily Mirror headline "Oxford win it in style" was spot on.
Although Oxford were prevented from playing in the UEFA Cup due to the ongoing European ban, this story does have a happy ending. A damaging 3-2 loss the Saturday after the final to fellow relegation rivals Ipswich looked like spelling the end for United, but an equally harmful 1-0 win over Everton (for the Merseysiders championship hopes at least), threw Oxford a lifeline. Entering their final home match of the season, Oxford knew that a win over Arsenal would preserve their Division One status for another season. Luckily for Oxford - and I speak from bitter experience at the time - that Arsenal team were a shambles come the end of the 85/86 season, allowing the home side to swarm all over the reluctant visitors and cruise to a win. The score that day against the team from England's capital? 3-0 of course. How very fitting.