Monday night’s televised FA Cup first-round tie between Oxford City and Northampton Town will not be the first time the two managers have met in competitive action – although their previous encounter came in the oddest of circumstances.
In March 2004, City’s David Oldfield, then a player-coach up the road at Oxford United, had been put in caretaker charge following the departure of the manager. His first game was against Mansfield Town, managed by his fellow Manchester City alumnus Keith Curle, these days at Northampton. Not that it was a meeting to last long in the memory.
“A storm had hit the country and the wind was blowing so badly, we got called in to the referee’s room at half-time and were told he was abandoning the game,” Oldfield recalls. “Never happened to me before or since.”
Thus was his time in charge at Oxford United limited to 45 minutes: a permanent appointment was made the following week. And when he returned to the city to take up a part-time position managing United’s non-League neighbours, he must have thought he was jinxed. Because within a week of arriving, the first lockdown was called: he only saw his new side play one league game before the season was curtailed. Once more his management ambitions were put on hold.
“No, it never occurred to me I was jinxed,” he says, as he sits in the boardroom at City’s Court Farm ground, on the eve of the second national lockdown. “Though now you mention it …”
Oldfield first seized footballing attention with a match-winning performance in a fixture involving a rather more renowned City and United. As a 21-year-old striker just signed by Manchester City, he scored twice in one of the club’s most celebrated victories, a 5-1 derby defeat of Sir Alex Ferguson’s United in November 1989.
“It feels such a long time ago, it was in the Eighties for heaven’s sake,” he says. “But still people remind me of it. Every time the anniversary comes around, I get a call or two.”
So new was he to Manchester when he made his mark, the Australian-born centre-forward was more familiar with the infamous United drinking team of the time than he was his own colleagues.
“When I first went there, City put me up in a hotel,” he recalls. “The bloke who ran the place was friends with Viv Anderson, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside. I’d go to train at City and come back and find those United boys in the bar and we’d sit around with half a lemonade – or whatever – and talk for hours.”
Oldfield’s time in Manchester, however, was almost as short-lived as his time as Oxford United manager. He was soon on his way to Leicester, then Luton, Stoke and Peterborough. Throughout his career, though, he harboured an ambition to coach. After his brief moment at Oxford United, he worked in the academy at West Bromwich, then as assistant to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at Burton and Queens Park Rangers. But he wanted to become a manager. Initially, despite his memorable contribution to Mancunian football history, he found it difficult to land a role, applying to countless clubs before Oxford City appointed him. Finally he was in charge.
“The ultimate difference is picking the team,” he says. “As an assistant you can contribute, but it’s the manager’s decision. I know how hard that is now. We’ve got a small squad, so it’s a pretty consistent selection. But there’s three or four itching to come off the bench who deserve their chance. Keeping them motivated is a big challenge.”
Though not quite as sizeable as the one he faced in trying to build a squad in lockdown. But it seems to be working. Since the National League South season belatedly got under way in October, he has faced almost as many FA Cup games as league fixtures. Success in both suggests, despite often only having one training session a week, his influence is making a mark.
“I’ve long had an idea of how I wanted to play,” he says. “I knew we had to be as fit as possible, I knew we wanted to pass the ball, but with good decision making. We want to be a club where players can come in and project themselves up the ladder.”
One of last season’s players who projected himself in a rather unexpected direction was centre-back Finn Tapp, who, without the club’s permission, entered and then won the most recent series of Love Island. He appears now to have wider ambitions than the National League South. But Oldfield is undaunted.
“I’m very interested in feel, the environment around a place. I’m demanding but I like to think I’m caring, trying to look after players as people. And I realise for them this tie, live on television, is a big opportunity.”
But he appreciates however sizeable the opportunity, and however substantial the financial contribution it can make to club coffers badly compromised by lockdowns preventing it hiring out its 3G pitch, this Cup tie will take place in artificial circumstances. “The real disappointment is not having the crowd here to share the occasion,” he says. “I don’t feel I’ll be a proper manager until I’ve walked through the bar rammed with supporters after a game. That sense of belonging, that sense of togetherness, we just need it back so badly.”