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New Stadium for Oxford United F.C.

Sam Day goes into depth in his report on Oxford United's new stadium plans.

After inevitably leaking on social media the day before, Oxford United Football Club released a statement last Monday which finally outlined long-awaited plans for a proposed move to a new ground, with the League One team hoping to complete their relocation in time for the beginning of the 2026-27 season. If final approval is received, a new sporting complex will be built across 45 acres of land on the present site of Stratfield Brake sports ground, located just to the north of the Oxford ring road on the southern fringes of Kidlington. In addition to a modern, technologically-advanced 18,000 seater stadium, which would be by far the largest such facility in Oxfordshire, an illustrative masterplan published concurrently by Oxfordshire County Council reveals plans for adjacent conference, restaurant, and hotel facilities, as well as the possible construction of a new ice rink, which may function jointly as a large-capacity indoor arena.

As with almost every major construction project in the football world, the planning phase is likely to be characterised by complaints, controversy, and aggravation. After two decades of searching and two failed relocation attempts, Premier League club Everton are at last building a modern stadium on the Merseyside waterfront to replace the aging Goodison Park, but have simultaneously contributed to the loss of Liverpool’s UNESCO World Heritage status in the process. Similarly, in the lower-leagues, the likes of Darlington, Barnet, and York City have all suffered drama, delay, and ultimately a fair dose of dejection in their pursuit of new stadia over recent years, despite plans originally being greeted with much fanfare and optimism. Given this, why do Oxford United feel the need to relocate? And perhaps more importantly, do the benefits of moving outweigh the potential drawbacks?

To understand the situation that Oxford United currently find themselves in, it is necessary to sketch out a brief history of the football club. Founded in 1893 by clergymen of St Andrew’s Church in Headington, the U’s have spent the majority of their existence playing under their original moniker: Headington United. Only in 1960 was their name was changed to its present form in an effort to raise the profile of the club, as part of a successful attempt to gain Football League membership via the archaic re-election process. These Headington roots are reflected in the location of United’s spiritual home, the Manor Ground, which stood for more than 75 years on a site between Sandfield Road and Osler Road in the heart of the East Oxford suburb. For anyone unsure of their Oxford geography, this is next door to John Radcliffe Hospital and just over the London Road from the Headington Shark. Despite considerable on-field success during their first two decades as a Football League team, by 1982, the now Third Division club found itself heavily in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. Fortunately however, salvation arrived in the form of Robert Maxwell, Oxford’s very own multi-millionnaire business tycoon and publishing boss, who famously lived and worked in the palatial Headington Hill Hall. Maxwell was the father of the now notorious Ghislaine, who was herself installed as a club director whilst studying at Balliol aged just 22, and who still retains shares in OUFC to this day.

Almost immediately after taking ownership of the club, Maxwell recognised the limitations of the old Manor Ground, which, despite its great charm and character, resembled little more than a ramshackle collection of stands, terraces, and scaffolding, bolted together like some sort of architectural Frankenstein’s monster. Nevertheless, intense fan-pressure scuppered his ill-advised proposal of a merger with local rivals Reading FC to create the Thames Valley Royals, which in turn prevented the realisation of plans for a new stadium in Didcot for this hybrid team. Instead, with Maxwell’s millions behind them, the “still-in-Oxford” Oxford United flew up the leagues during the mid-80s, and eventually spent three years in the First Division (equivalent to today’s Premier League) during a golden era capped by victory over Queen’s Park Rangers in the 1986 Milk Cup final at Wembley. Sadly for Yellows supporters, these glory days couldn’t last forever, and after relegation back to the second Division in 1988, the future of the club was again plunged into doubt upon the mysterious and unexplained death of Maxwell – reputedly an MI6 and Mossad spy – in 1991 after a late-night fall into the Atlantic from his super-yacht Lady Ghislaine, moored off the Canary Islands. Investigations after his death soon uncovered that Maxwell’s business empire had itself been racking up humongous debts. Scandalously, the late football club owner had only prevented its collapse by thieving hundreds of millions of pounds from the pension funds of his employees at the Daily Mirror. Oxford United were subsequently declared insolvent in the aftermath of this affair, and remained in financial dire straits throughout the 90s until their takeover by London hotelier Firoz Kassam in 1999.

Many of the problems associated with the present-day Kassam Stadium – and ultimately the proposed move to Kidlington – can be traced back to its namesake, who finally oversaw a move away from the half-derelict Manor Ground in 2001. Kassam’s chief motivation for owning Oxford United appeared to be greed, as the hugely-valuable land owned by the club in Headington was almost immediately sold to a healthcare company for £12 million – double the amount Kassam had paid for the stadium the year before. The old site is now occupied by the private Manor Hospital. To replace the Manor Ground, the Yellows started playing at Kassam’s new stadium in Blackbird Leys, on the south-eastern edge of the city. However, from the very beginning it was clear that this was not a match made in heaven. After first overcoming a supposed “gypsy curse” placed on the team by an aggrieved traveller who had been evicted from the site to make way for construction vehicles, it quickly became clear that the new owner had under-invested in the construction and maintenance of the new ground. If anyone reading this has ever had the misfortune of visiting the Kassam (perhaps for your Covid vaccination, or for a JCR committee team building trip to the escape rooms next door – cheers Brasenose!) this should have been immediately obvious. Most glaring is the complete absence of a fourth stand behind the western goal, the result of Kassam’s money drying up as Oxford tumbled out of the Football League in the mid 2000s. Ironically, this cruel omission leaves the Yellows with a uniquely three-sided stadium, despite representing a city famous worldwide for its quads.

Regardless, if one can put aside thoughts of the pitiful western fence for a moment, various other aspects of the Kassam are far from ideal. First, the three stands that do exist were built out of cheap, concrete breeze blocks, and retain a kind of brutalist feel, particularly from the inside. Consequently, the place lacks a great deal of character and atmosphere. Furthermore, the Kassam is inconveniently located about 300 yards away from the Oxford Sewage Treatment Works, which brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “crap game of football” when the wind blows in the wrong direction. However, perhaps worst of all is the financial situation, as Kassam still owns the stadium, despite relinquishing ownership of the football club in 2006. For the privilege of playing their 23 home matches per season at this soulless arena, Kassam charges the club’s current owners approximately £1 million a year, a substantial money drain that severely hampers the club’s potential for development on and off the field. To make matters worse, until this season the club made no money from food and beverages sold inside the stadium on matchdays, which represented a considerable loss of income, particularly given the severe lack of places to eat and drink nearby. 

The decision to move away from Blackbird Leys is made even more palatable to many stakeholders by potential plans in store for the Kassam site after the football club vacate it. Firoz Kassam’s seemingly spiteful decision to rent out his stadium to OUFC at extortionate rates is somewhat borne out of understandable frustration, as this land is ripe for property development. Once the football team head elsewhere, it is widely hypothesised that Kassam will sell the land to construction companies for a large profit, enabling the building of potentially hundreds of houses on a new brownfield site. The same fate befell the White House Ground, home to Oxford City FC until 1988, which was also sold to developers by landlord Brasenose College after they evicted the city’s second club from their quaint old premises, which were formerly located behind the White House pub on the Abingdon Road. This therefore is a win-win situation for both Kassam and the County Council, who are currently struggling to deal with perhaps the worst housing crisis in the UK. A 2015 study led by University of Oxford professor Danny Dowling found that the average house price in the City of Dreaming Spires was 16 times higher than the local average wage, a ratio larger even than London. This property price squeeze is the inevitable consequence of limited housing stock in a city whose population is quickly expanding. In 2011, Oxford City Council predicted that at least 24,000 new homes were needed by 2031 in order to tackle this growing issue, however, property developers are increasingly hamstrung by the greenbelt which strangles Oxford, preventing construction on most green space outside of the ring road. Consequently, the potential emergence of a large brownfield site on the edge of the city would be a desirable outcome for both the city and county councils.

Finally, if you contrast my previous description of the Kassam with the blueprints for a new venue at Stratfield Brake, the decision to move becomes even more obvious. Populous, the American architectural firm chosen to carry out the construction, have a strong reputation for building impressive new stadia of comparable size, including Minnesota United’s stunning Allianz Field which opened in 2019 after less than 30 months of building work. This venue includes a safe-standing terrace, steep intimidating stands with potential for expansion, and even its own on-site brewery-cum-pub. Another opportunity arises with the possible construction of a modern ice rink/indoor arena next door to the stadium. Although Oxford United have acknowledged that these are only “indicative plans” that have not been officially submitted, relocating the current ice rink from its present site on Oxpens Road would solve a big headache for the city council, who have earmarked the undeniably miserable Oxpens area (another victim of post-war town planning decisions) for a major £1.5 billion overhaul over the next 15 years. In addition, a large indoor events centre on the new site is likely to be greeted enthusiastically by university bosses, who have long desired a similar such venue to host conferences and other flagship events. Put together, this range of factors suggests that the recent decision to leave the Kassam is a sensible one for most involved.

Having established that OUFC have good reason to move away from their current home, one wonders whether Stratfield Brake is the right location to move to? A cynic would argue that Oxford are merely swapping one out-of-town new-build for another, given that both the Kassam and Straftfield Brake are – as the crow flies – about four miles from Carfax, Oxford’s traditional centre-point. Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why a site closer to the city centre would be unfeasible. Most obviously, a quick glance at a map of Oxford reveals that there isn’t too much green space available within the city limits. The only places of any substantial size are Port Meadow – common land which hasn’t been built upon for thousands of years – and various other meadows either side of the Botley Road and the Marston Ferry Road. Here, the clue is in the word “meadow”. Oxford is handily situated at the confluence of the Thames (or Isis) and the Cherwell, and is mostly as flat as a pancake, so these areas flood regularly. Not ideal for a football stadium. Consequently, OUFC have been forced to look exclusively at locations outside of the ring road. Incidentally, my own team Wycombe Wanderers have almost the reverse problem, as pretty much everywhere in High Wycombe is on a steep hill. Wanderers’ old pitch at Loakes Park had an amazing 11 foot slope from one side to the other!

Once it is accepted that the U’s won’t find anywhere to play within the city boundaries, why is Stratfield Brake more suitable than any of the other possible relocation sites around the fringes of Oxford? The key to this answer is accessibility. Unlike the Kassam, which takes a painfully slow 40 minutes to arrive at from the city centre by bus, Stratfield Brake is very well connected to both Oxford city centre and the rest of the country. The buses up to Kidlington from outside the Magdalen Street Tesco travel quickly along the Woodstock and Banbury Roads at regular five minute intervals. In addition, the proposed site is within a ten-minute walk from the new Oxford Parkway railway station, which opened in 2016 and serves passengers travelling directly from London Marylebone. More importantly, the Parkway is only a cheap five-minute journey from Oxford’s central train station, which should make the city centre pubs and restaurants a far more attractive prospect for fans before and after the match, providing a boost for local business. Similarly, Oxford Parkway is also just ten minutes down the line from Bicester, the rapidly expanding Oxfordshire town which harbours its own hospitality industry and a large chunk of Yellows supporters. 

Critically, these regular bus and train links should reduce fans’ reliance on car travel to get to the stadium, which appears to be another major reason behind the county council’s backing of the project. Conservative councillor Liam Walker tweeted last week that the new site will “reduce car journeys and will boost public transport usage”, a message that chimes with recent schemes formulated by the city and county councils, such as the proposed introduction of a Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) which aims to ban all petrol and diesel cars from the city centre. Nonetheless, if some fans do still feel the need to drive to the stadium, Stratfield Brake is perfectly located next to the A34, A40, and A44, is within 15 minutes of the M40 motorway, and has thousands of parking spaces available at both the Oxford Parkway and Pear Tree park-and-ride facilities.

Despite these outstanding transportation links, one group that could potentially be disenfranchised by the proposed move to Stratfield Brake are the thousands of longstanding supporters living in Oxford’s extensive south-eastern suburbs near to the Kassam, including the traditional working-class areas of Littlemore, Blackbird Leys, and Rose Hill. As mentioned already, these parts of town are poorly connected to the city centre, let alone Kidlington, and these fans may soon face much longer journeys to watch their beloved team in action. Fortunately however, some of this consternation should be offset by the anticipated 2028 reopening of up to four passenger railway stations along the Cowley Branch Line of the old Wycombe Railway, which was closed during the short-sighted Beeching Cuts of the 1960s and is currently used only for freight services from the BMW-Mini factory in Horspath. This long-awaited infrastructural project should greatly improve access to central Oxford from these areas. Furthermore, by moving towards Kidlington, the football club exposes itself to a new support base of Oxfordshire dwellers living outside of the city itself (who account for 78% of the county’s population). This statement particularly applies to those residing in the Cherwell district, which contains multiple large settlements across north eastern Oxfordshire, including Banbury, Bicester, and of course Kidlington.

Finally, perhaps the last major hurdle to overcome for supporters of this move is the issue of building on greenbelt land. As mentioned previously, Oxford is completely encircled by the greenbelt, which aims to prevent the coalescence of settlements and urban sprawl into the surrounding countryside by restricting building work around the edges of the city. Damningly, the land at Stratfield Brake was bought by Oxfordshire County Council in 1937 for the sole purpose of retaining green space in the small gap between Oxford and Kidlington. For this reason, the Oxfordshire branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) have already voiced their opposition to the proposals, with a spokesperson claiming that it was “unlikely that [the development] could be justified”, citing inevitable harm from “associated traffic impacts” and the prior existence of “significant pressure from housing development”. In contrast to the CPRE which lacks real influence, a more powerful potential opponent to these plans are the Liberal Democrats, who control a large proportion of the county council and who represent the Stratfield Brake area with the Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon, Layla Moran. Rightly or wrongly, the Lib Dems’ recent successes in parliamentary by-elections have been at least partly attributed by some commentators to a Not-In-My-Backyard approach towards greenfield developments. Nevertheless, in what clearly represents a huge boost to the relocation campaign, the Oxford Liberal Democrats stated on Thursday that they “warmly welcome this proposal [to move to Stratfield Brake]”, perhaps swayed by the potential emergence of a prime brownfield site when the club leave the Kassam. The Lib Dem statement therefore attests to the considerable political will for this project to get the go-ahead.

Overall, Oxford United’s plan to leave the Kassam Stadium in favour of a new site at Straftfield Brake is well-founded, and could provide major benefits for the club’s fans and owners, the county and city councils, and perhaps the university too. Controversy and disapproval are inevitable with major construction projects, particularly when sports teams are involved, but on balance, the Stratfield Brake proposal appears to offer hope of a much brighter future for Oxford’s leading sports team.

Richard Rogerson/ CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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