Football: Sheppard's delight is an early flight home

Tim Collings talks to the Oxford City stalwart with reasons to dream
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The Independent Online
THERE MUST be easier ways of grabbing the FA Cup headlines, but few could be as extraordinary as that which left Oxford City bewildered by fire alarms after extra time at Wycombe Wanderers on Tuesday night. The ball was on the penalty spot and City, of the Isthmian League First Division, were about to begin a shootout they believed would carry them into the second round and a home tie with Wigan Athletic.

Then, like the cavalry arriving over the hill in a black-and-white western, smoke at the back of the stands forced their first-round replay, in which they had conceded ground advantage, to be abandoned.

"That got 'em out of jail all right," said Oxford City's club secretary John Sheppard, a veteran of 24 years' service and once a 16-year-old hopeful playing in the youth team of the early Fifties, besotted by dreams of footballing glory in the city of dreaming spires. "Once it went to penalties, it was anyone's game. We had a great chance to beat them and go through. Now, who knows? But, we will give it our best shot at The Manor..."

Sheppard has lived the Oxford City story for most of his life. Yet, even after half a century of obsessive loyalty, this past week and the prospects for the next put everything else in the shade as surely as neighbours and rivals Oxford (nee Headington) United, despite all their financial difficulties, have eclipsed City's struggles in more recent years.

If City, in their second replay at United's Manor Ground, succeed in winning on Tuesday night it will put Sheppard, a garden maintenance man one year away from retirement in his everyday life, in a dilemma. His pre-booked holiday by coach to Germany, including a trip to Koblenz and a James Last concert in Frankfurt on Friday night, will be under threat.

"I booked it some time ago, never expecting all this to happen," he said, adding that City are scheduled to be away in the league next Saturday. "Now I have to organise the game on Tuesday night, travel to Germany on Wednesday and, if we go through, fly home from Germany early on Saturday instead of coming home on the coach. But I am not complaining. It's just the way it has worked out and this cup run has really got the city buzzing. It is nice that there is a lot of media interest in us, for a change, and not United. They get their fair share. But it is very good of them to let us play at the Manor, of course, and we are grateful to them for that."

Like United, whose chronic difficulties in relocating to their new Minchery Farm ground have been beset by planning and financial problems, City, Oxford's original football club, have suffered many ups and downs. Sheppard played a key role, together with the club chairman Mick Woodley, in helping the club rise from the ashes 10 years ago when it was virtually closed down and ceased playing football. For a club created in 1882 - and founder members of the Isthmian League - this was a blow to their pride from which they made a near-miraculous recovery.

"We lost the lease on our ground in 1988," Sheppard explained. "It happened when Brasenose College reclaimed it from the club's former directors. For two years, we didn't play at all, but we kept the committee going and, in 1990, we started again, playing on local parks. From there we went through the South Midlands League and got back to the Isthmian. We had some help from the city council finding a ground to match the standards needed at Court Place Farm. We've been in the Isthmian ever since, mostly in the Premier Division, but in the First the last couple of years."

Having conceded ground advantage for their replay, after a 1-1 draw at Wycombe in the original tie, Sheppard said the club decided to take the second replay back to Oxford, and the Manor, as a way of thanking their fans for travelling twice to support the manager Paul Lee's hard-working team. "We could have won the first game; the second went to penalties and both were away," he said. "So we deserve another go. It is a real team effort with us."

As City prepare for Tuesday night, Sheppard is reluctant to draw attention to the club's last foray as far as the first round proper, and for good reasons. "We played Bourne-mouth," he said. "We drew at home and then lost the replay 8-1 at Dean Court. A bloke called Ted MacDougall scored six, I remember."

That was 29 years ago when many of the current team were not born and Oxford United were Football League fledglings with a cup-fighting reputation. This time, he hopes, the tale has a happier ending even if it means an early-morning flight home from Frankfurt.