When Robert Maxwell tried to merge Reading and Oxford into a super club

The current nightmare faced by Reading supporters should leave any true lover of the sport feeling cold. Putting any club allegiances to one side, you can only have sympathy for the plight of the club under the ownership of Dai Yongge. The recent on-pitch demonstration that caused the abandonment of their match against Port Vale shows just how desperate these fans are to highlight their predicament.

Enough is enough. Struggling at the bottom of League One, Reading fans would most probably accept relegation if it paved the way for a new owner at the club. It would be the first time since 1983 that the club suffered the fate of falling into the bottom tier of the Football League. Coincidentally, back then the future of Reading was hanging in the balance.

When the news broke on Saturday 16 April 1983 of a possible merger between Oxford United and Reading, it was met with a mixed reaction. The brainchild of Oxford’s chairman, Robert Maxwell, the proposal envisaged a new super club called the Thames Valley Royals, with a new stadium to be built situated between Oxford and Reading.

Maxwell was adamant the move was necessary. “I think we have to consider the future of both clubs,” he argued. “It is in the best interests of the club, players and supporters that we secure league football in the area by establishing one substantial club.” Unsurprisingly, his ideas were met with disdain.

The Oxford United supporters’ club issued a statement pointing out that they were “completely against this crazy and unworkable idea”. The Reading supporters’ club chairman, Michael Habbitts, agreed. “It is a crackpot scheme. Reading fans will not travel to watch a joint side and this will kill off professional football in the town.”

The Guardian’s David Lacey added weight to the argument. “To deprive two struggling league clubs of their respective identities in favour of something that sounds a speedway team and expect the fans to come along, even if matches are still played at Oxford and Reading, sounds highly optimistic. Indeed, as a method of killing off two Football League clubs at one stroke this scheme surely has few rivals.”

Maxwell’s scheme had been discussed between the two clubs and the Football League for a few months, yet it was only towards the end of the 1982-83 season that the news was released. With Oxford attempting to gain promotion from Division Three and Reading struggling to stay in the same division, it inevitably raised a number of questions.

Oxford fans make their feelings clear about the proposed merger on the SOS (Save Oxford Soccer) March To The Match before the match with Reading in April 1983. Photograph: ANL/Shutterstock

How would the league structure be impacted if the clubs merged? What would happen to both squads involved in the merger? Who would manage the new club? It soon became clear that these factors had been taken into consideration during the previous months.

The Thames Valley Royals would play in Division Three if Oxford failed to gain promotion. If Reading were relegated then five clubs would come up from Division Four, meaning 23 clubs would play in the bottom tier, a proposal that infuriated Alliance League representatives. Jim Smith would manage the new team with Reading’s Maurice Evans as his assistant. The new club would play alternate home matches at Elm Park and the Manor Ground, until the new stadium was built

All player contracts would be honoured, although this was little reassurance to Reading players. With only two of their 15-man squad having contracts ending after the current campaign, the prospect of being without a club was very real.

Smith was one of the few positive voices heard in relation to the plan. “I’m excited about the move and I hope the supporters of both clubs will accept it. I think it is the way football will go for many smaller clubs in the future.” The football League president, Jack Dunnett, sounded optimistic: “It is a bold and imaginative move which I shall be watching with interest.”

Under the plan, Maxwell – who held 19% of the shares at Reading – would buy £220,500 worth of shares from Reading’s chairman, Frank Waller, and two board members, thus gaining the controlling interest at the club. Enter Roger Smee and Roy Tranter. A former Reading player and a successful businessman, Smee had attempted to buy the club off Waller in the previous October, and immediately raised concerns about the share dealings. Recently appointed to the Reading board, Tranter responded with a legal challenge.

“Mr Maxwell’s proposal does not amount to a merger between Oxford and Reading,” Smee stated. “It is for a takeover of Reading by Oxford. The only people who will benefit in Reading are the three directors who were party to the deal. The other half of the Reading board and Reading supporters are totally opposed to this idea.

“It is ludicrous that a 21-year-old, financially ailing league club should solve its problems at the expense of a 112-year-old club which is in the black at the bank,. It is my intention to offer Reading chairman Frank Waller more money to keep Reading FC alive than Robert Maxwell has offered to kill it.”

An Oxford fan keeps her protest headband on during the highly charged Division Three match against Reading. Photograph: ANL/Shutterstock

At a press conference at Lancaster Gate to confirm the merger on 22 April, Waller was presented with a high court writ by Tranter’s solicitor, preventing the sale of the 20,000 shares that the chairman had purchased in late 1982. Waller argued that the shares had been sold but other shareholders had not been given the chance to purchase additional shares, potentially breaching the Companies Act.

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Maxwell was furious. “You can take it from me that this will go through because it is what is best for football,” he protested. “The directors are making asses of themselves. If they don’t agree they should do the honourable thing and resign.”

Maxwell had backing from his own board – although they wanted the new club to be called Thames Valley United – and the press conference was expected to confirm the next stage of the deal. Didcot was mentioned as a possible site for the new £10m stadium, with restaurants and family entertainment facilities to be included. But these plans were now facing a major obstacle.

As the days progressed, both sets of fans mobilised. A Save Oxford Soccer group was set up and Oxford’s home match against Wigan on 23 April was disrupted as fans staged an on-pitch protest. The kick-off was delayed for 33 minutes, with fans voicing their disgust at the deal. “Oxford United loyal not Thames Valley Royal” declared one banner. “Knickers, Maxwell” another stated. Very few fans it seemed were interested in Maxwell’s offer of a season ticket for life for coming up with the best name for the new club.

Maxwell, watching from the players’ tunnel, called the protest “a bloody disgrace” adding that “these hooligans can play their dirty games elsewhere”. Undeterred, approximately 500 Oxford fans marched from the city centre before the match against Reading on 2 May – Reading won 2-1 – although police advised against a repeat of the on-pitch protest.

Reading fans also marched through the town centre before their match with Millwall on 30 April, carrying a coffin decked in the team colours. To compound their sadness, they then watched their team throw away a three-goal lead, a crucial blow in their fight against the drop. But would relegation matter if the club was soon to disappear?

Fortunately both clubs lived to fight another day. Friday 13 May was far from unlucky as news filtered through that the merger plans were in tatters. Waller resigned, along with the board members John Briggs and Leslie Davies, with the path open for Smee to take over as Reading chairman.

“Frank Waller committed himself,” a disgruntled Maxwell said. “He said he represented 51% of the shareholders and he had the consent of the board. Unfortunately due to some tangles he does not have 51%.” Maxwell made noises about continuing his plans to gain control of Reading, but Smee’s appointment as chairman ended his hopes.

Reading narrowly failed to stay up at the end of the 1982-83 season. However, the battle may have been lost but the bigger war had been won. “Things will start to bubble here now but the public will have to be patient,” Evans noted as the merger collapsed. His comment proved to be right for both clubs.

Oxford gained consecutive promotions and won the 1986 Milk Cup under Evans’ management. Reading were promoted twice in three seasons. Out of the darkness of the Thames Valley Royals came some light. We can only hope that the current situation at Reading can be resolved in similar fashion. Relegation would be tough to take. But it may be a small price to pay if Yongge departs and the supporters have their club back.

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