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The bizarre plan to merge two EFL clubs

In this article, we take a look back at what was a very bizarre plan to merge two EFL clubs, before it went on to fail spectacularly.

Football fans around the country have hit out this year at the now-failed attempt to create a European Super League.

The plan would’ve seen six of the biggest clubs in England playing against some of the biggest clubs in Europe, though it prompted a major backlash as the worst elements of the sport’s corporate greed came to the forefront.

The response from supporters prompted the likes of Manchester City to pull out, which inevitably led to majority of those who initially signed up to then pull out.

Well another moment that caused a backlash from supporters came 38 years ago, when Reading and Oxford United were taking to the streets for their own protest against a truly shocking example of putting money ahead of fans.

Towards the end of the 1982/1983 season, it was announced the millionaire newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell had bought the club.

Already the owner of Oxford United, Maxwell revealed that he had made a deal with Reading’s owners which would see the two clubs merge.

At the time, these two teams were in the same league as each other, with Oxford finishing fifth and Reading relegated in 21st place.

The duo were also rivals, and unsurprisingly fans very much opposed the idea of cheering on the other.

What would have been stranger is the team name, with the merged team proposed to be known as “Thames Valley Royals”, combining the region and Reading’s nickname of The Royals – with nothing for Oxford supporters. Ouch.

The team would’ve have played at a new stadium, with one possible location being in Didcot, Oxfordshire, leaving Reading’s Elm Park and Oxford’s The Manor Ground empty and no doubt something for the developers to take advantage of.

Thames Valley Royals proposal - Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Steve Daniels

The plan caused anger from both sets of supporters, with Maxwell claiming that it was the only way either club could survive financially would be by carrying out the merger.

Oxford United fans held a 2,000 person sit in at their ground, and Reading fans organised a series of protest marches.

Maxwell met the protests with his usual tact, saying “nothing short of the end of the Earth” would prevent it from going ahead.

Two local businessmen, Roger Smee and Roy Tranter, took on the Royals’ cause and were able to dispute some of the legalities of the planned takeover.

Tranter launched a legal challenge to the sale of some shares to Maxwell, leading to the majority of Reading’s board resigning and Smee taking over the club, which led to the whole thing falling through.

Then-chairman Frank Waller had hatched the plan with Maxwell, but went on to resign.

Smee’s time as chairman led to the takeover by Sir John Madejski who presided over the club’s most successful period which led to the club spending two seasons in the Premier League, including a 7th place finish.

Jon Keen, author of the Reading FC book Sum of the Parts, remembers the bizarre plan to merge the two EFL clubs.

He said: “I remember when it was announced.

“We had been at a terrible game at Elm Park with probably one of the lowest attendances ever, I think it was a 0-0 draw.

“I was on the way back to Wokingham when I heard on the radio of this plan by Robert Maxwell.

“We were just shocked.

“The two sets of supporters were big rivals in those days and there was no way that we’d ever have got together to cheer the other on.

“They were also a much better team and were going up, as we went down.

“I remember there was a protest march in Oxford Road by Reading supporters, and that Oxford fans all went and sat on the pitch.

“Roy Tranter was the man who saved the club with his legal challenge, which gave Roger Smee the time to put together the takeover bid and we’re still here today.”

Another supporter, “Lewy”, recalls: “I was working selling scratchcards at Elm Park when it all happened.

“I think we were on the way back of a game away at Huddersfield when I found out.

“We were just gobsmacked.

“We were c**p and going down, and we thought the only player who’d Oxford would want was Kerry Dixon (who went on to play for Chelsea and England)

“We organised the petition against the idea and we involved in some of the marches.

“A lot of the shops had signs in the windows supporting us and the paper did a great job fighting Maxwell.

“No-one liked it, Reading or Oxford.

“I remember we played them at their place while it was going on and everyone was just singing about how much they hated Maxwell.

“It was a bit of fun and everyone was very happy that it never happened.

“It was a terrible idea, I’ve got no doubt that if it had happened the Thames Valley Royals would be long gone by now.”

Maxwell made Oxford United profitable, and oversaw two successive promotions for the club during the 1983–84 and 1984–85 seasons. The team played in the First Division, then climbed to the top level of English football for the first time during 1985–86, and won its first major trophy, the League Cup, in April 1986.

Despite Maxwell’s reservations about the Manor Ground, the club remained there throughout this time.

Maxwell quit as chairman of Oxford in 1987, when he took control of Derby County and became that club’s chairman; still owning Oxford as well, and installing his son Kevin as chairman there. In late 1987 he attempted to buy Watford from Elton John, prompting the Football League to institute new regulations preventing the major shareholder of any member club from owning more than 2% of another league team.

Maxwell was able to keep his stakes in Derby, Oxford and Reading under a grandfather clause, the new rules prevented him from adding Watford to his football empire, something he accepted.

He retained his football club shares until his mysterious death in November 1991, when he apparently fell off his yacht near the Canary Islands.

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