Date: Sat 20 Feb 2021

By Steve Whitney

The Sad Demise of Witney Town

On my travels during my time as editor of Team Talk magazine in the 1990s, I visited Witney Town on several occasions and even played on their old Marriotts Close ground.

I was also invited to the new stadium, which was one of the first batch of `out of town` grounds to be built and excellent it was too if a little lacking the traditional stadium feel.

So, it saddened me when the club folded in 2001 and then again in 2013 after a short-lived attempt to revive senior football in the town, which is a thriving market town – the largest in West Oxfordshire.

Known a the `Blanketmen`, Witney Town spent 28 years as a Southern League club from 1973, including seven seasons in total as a Premier Division club, finishing fifth in 1983/84 when they possessed one of the league`s top scorers in Peter Hutter and Southampton`s 1976 FA Cup-winning goalkeeper Ian Turner between their sticks.

The original club were formed in 1885 as Witney Football Club, they were almost immediately successful in local circles of the football world and within fifteen years of their formation, they had won the County Senior Cup three times.

They played in the Oxfordshire County Senior League and produced one of the finest amateur full-backs of that era, Herbert Smith.

He moved to Oxford City where he won a number of amateur international honours with England and was a member of the Great Britain side which won gold in the 1908 Olympic Games.

Other players who progressed from the club in later years included Frank Clack who in the 1930s joined Birmingham City, and David Moss who went on to enjoy a good career with Luton Town and Swindon Town.

The club reformed as Witney Town in 1922 and played in the Oxfordshire Senior League, winning the championship five times over a number of years.

But it was since the end of the Second World War that the club's greatest strides were made, particularly when they became founder members of the Hellenic League in 1953.

For twenty years, they reigned supreme in that league, winning the championship no less than eight times, coming runners-up a further three times, and never finishing lower than eighth position.

This success bred ambition and the club applied for membership of the Southern League in 1973 and were successful at the first attempt.

During their first season at the higher level, the club finished in sixth place in Division One (North), and by the end of the 1977/78 season, they added that division's championship to their list of honours.

Season 1978/79 witnessed the club's debut in the Premier Division of the Southern League, and they finished a creditable tenth.

At the end of this season, the formation of the Alliance Premier League took place, and the Southern League was re-organised into a Midland and Southern section with Witney being placed in the Midland section.

A successful spell of results towards the end of the 1981/82 season brought the club a final eighth position, and with the re-organisation of the leagues, they were placed in the Premier Division for season 1982/83.

The Premier Division proved to be a tough competition, and after they had finished fifth in 83/84, they finished 17th which was a relegation spot. However, they received a last-minute reprieve with the summer demise of Hastings United.

There was another relegation escape the following season when they again finished 17th, but with the increased numbers being admitted into the competition, their Premier Division status was retained.

However, it was by then almost inevitable that the drop would overtake the club, and they suffered relegation for the first time in their history at the end of the 1987/88 season.

By the end of the 1991/92 season, the club's fortunes took another twist with the move from Marriotts Close to a new purpose-built stadium at Downs Road, Curbridge.

Having moved, the club through no fault of its own, ran into financial difficulties. Having fought off a winding-up petition, it was then resurrected as a limited company in March 1993 to secure its future.

The club then went through another purple patch, narrowly missing promotion two seasons in a row.

In 1992/93, they finished third after one of the most exciting run-ins for years, then came even closer the following season, with heartbreak on the final day when they needed just a point at Sudbury Town to earn the second-placed spot. Sudbury won the game 2-1 and they took the second spot themselves.

There was some success though, as Witney won the Oxfordshire Senior Cup for the first time in 21 years after defeating Peppard in the final and they retained the trophy in 1994/95, beating North Leigh.

A disappointing 1995/96 campaign saw the appointment of former Cheltenham Town boss John Murphy as manager, and he steered Witney to sixth place in 1996/97.

However, he left the club in the summer taking with him almost his entire squad of players to rivals Trowbridge Town, leaving Witney with a difficult rebuilding job.

The task was admirably undertaken by Andy Lyne (pictured), who returned to the hot seat for a second spell, and he steered the Blanketmen to a very respectable eighth place, and masterminded the lifting of the Oxfordshire Senior Cup, beating Oxford City on penalties in the final at the Manor Ground.

Season 1998/99 was a mediocre one for the club, although they did have a memorable afternoon in mid-October when they pushed FA Cup heroes Stevenage Borough all the way in a Third Qualifying Round tie, leading their far more illustrious opponents for most of the first half before going down 2-1.

The club also enjoyed their best-ever run in the FA Trophy, reaching the Third Round for the first time in their history.

In the league - a satisfactory eleventh position was achieved, but the big disappointment came in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup where the holders were knocked out by Carterton Town in the quarter-finals on a freezing March evening in very dubious circumstances.

For the 1999/00 season, Witney concentrated their thoughts very much on the future and have, through much hard work, established an excellent youth policy which it hoped in time, would rival the best youth set-ups in the area and bring on some much-needed new talent.

That bore a little fruit as, now under ex-Swindon Town, Gloucester City and Cheltenham Town midfielder Brian Hughes, who had assisted Murphy, Witney finished 14th in the Southern League Eastern Division in 2000/01.

But that proved to be their final season.

Chairman/owner Brian Constable received no offers (he apparently wanted £350,000) from any interested parties to take over the running of the club and informed the Southern League that the club would not be fulfilling its position in 2001/02.

The town of Witney quickly acted, and Witney United FC was formed in 2001 by a group of Witney Town supporters following the demise of their beloved club.

Intent on bring senior football back to the town the group registered Witney United FC with the Oxfordshire Football Association in 2001.

For almost a year they had little else other than the name! There was no ground, team or manager.

The club set itself a challenging business plan that targeted a return to Southern League football within five seasons.

Finally, after much challenging work it all came together. In 2002 Witney United gained a lease on the original Witney Town stadium and were accepted into Division One (West) of the Hellenic League.

In their first year, the club struggled to attract local players and finally finished 15th.

The second season saw the club move forward finally finishing the season in fourth place and gaining a surprise, last-minute, offer of promotion to the Premier Division.

Under the management team of Alan Clark, Steve Paish and Spencer Keyes, the team proved it could hold their own - finally finishing a creditable 11th out of 22.

The club also competed, for the first time, in the FA Vase, winning through the first three rounds before eventually losing to Deal Town away.

Further success was achieved in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup where Witney finally fell to Oxford City in the semi-finals.

The 2005/06 season saw United enter the FA Cup for the first time under its new guise where they were very unlucky to bow out after a replay against Southern League high-fliers Clevedon Town.

The FA Vase brought similar disappointment as they went out to Truro City at the second hurdle.

In October 2005 Alan Clark resigned as manager and Spencer Keyes stepped up from assistant manager to replace him.

Keyes's first management move was to recruit Peter Lamont as his number two and the side went from strength to strength and a top-six finish was claimed on the very last day of the season to round off an excellent season.

United entered 2006/07 with a certain amount of optimism in their bid to bring Southern League football back to West Oxfordshire.

A lack of consistency and too many draws saw them slip away from the leading pack and eventually finish sixth for the second season running.

The club did, however, reach the Challenge Cup final before losing 2-1 to Hungerford Town.

In the close season, Keyes stood down as manager and United moved quickly to appoint the experienced Andy Lyne.

Lyne`s homecoming was well received by the fans who hoped he could work his magic for a third time at Marriotts Stadium.

This saw United have their best-ever season since formation finishing an excellent fourth place in the league and pushing the promotion contenders for long periods of the season.

The 2008/09 season saw United go one better finishing in third place in one of the tightest title run-ins for years whilst also reaching the last 32 of the FA Vase.

In 2009/10 United again challenged for the title before finishing in sixth place.

The 2010/11 season saw a decline in the club's fortunes, both on and off the field, and they just escaped relegation, ending up one place above the trap door.

June 2011 saw Tom Amer elected as chairman, and with it, the club reverted to their historic name of Witney Town.

On-the-field the problems continued though, this time finishing in the relegation places.

Only Henley Town's forced demotion ensured that Premier Division football would continue the following season.

The summer of 2012 saw possibly the club's most ambitious move yet, with the appointment of Justin Merritt as manager, along with an enviable backup staff of Justin Lee, Eddie Denton, Paul Davis and Andy Lyne.

With a host of talented players signing forms in the close season, it looked like better times were on the horizon.

But problems with the ground and other off-field issues saw the club decline further and after lengthy discussions in 2013 between the Hellenic League and club trustees, no-one came forward to take over, and the club folded after playing a few of their last fixtures at Carterton`s Kilkenny Lane ground.

The stadium was left empty until 2016 when plans were passed for 257 homes, a 62-bedroom hotel and 40,000 square feet of employment space on the site.

West Oxfordshire District Council’s lowlands committee agreed to the proposals submitted by Witney Holdings, for the mixed-use scheme on the stadium in Downs Road, Curbridge.

An online petition started by local man Dan Skidmore with more than 500 names had been launched but the developer gave more than £1 million towards leisure and sport provision elsewhere in the district.

And senior football has yet to return to the town of Witney.

During their Southern League days, Witney had some very well-known managers.

Bill Foulkes managed the club in the Southern Midland Division from July 1979 to March 1980.

The famous former Manchester United skipper (pictured) was a survivor of the 1958 Munich air disaster and went on to lead the Reds to European Cup glory in 1968 against Benfica.

Capped just once by England, he was a one-club man who went on to play over 580 times for United.

After retiring from playing in 1970, Foulkes joined United's coaching staff.

Later in the 1970s, he held coaching appointments with New York Cosmos, Chicago Sting and Tulsa Roughnecks in the North American Soccer League.

After managing Witney, he again returned to the States to coach San José Earthquakes for a year.

Following this he managed Norwegian clubs, Steinkjer FK, IL Bryn, Lillestrøm SK and Viking FK.

Between 1988 and 1991, Foulkes managed Japanese side FC Mazda, returning to England in 1992.

He sadly died in November 2013 at the age of 81.

One of Foulkes` immediate successors as manager of Witney was Wilf Tranter.

It was rather an ironic appointment to follow Foulkes as he was a former Manchester United team-mate!

And the irony doesn`t end there.

Tranter (pictured in Baltimore Bays squad) signed for United as an apprentice straight from school in May 1960 and became a professional 23 months later.

He was only 19 when he made his only first team appearance in March 1964.

And the man he replaced in the team? Bill Foulkes!

Tranter helped United to a 2-0 win over West Ham United, marking Johnny `Budgie` Byrne out of the game!

After failing to break into the first team again, he was given a free transfer in May 1966 and moved to Brighton & Hove Albion.

He made 47 appearances for the Seagulls and also spent a summer in the United States with Baltimore Bays in the North American Soccer League.

They were coached by former QPR boss Gordon Jago and had the likes of Tranter`s ex-Manchester United team-mate Dennis Viollet in the team.

In 1969, Tranter moved to Fulham and spent three years at Craven Cottage, playing behind the likes of Johnny Haynes, playing 23 times before venturing back over to the USA in 1972, this time with St Louis Stars.

After returning to England in the Autumn of 1972, Tranter joined Southern League Premier Division side Dover.

He then went into coaching, firstly as Bobby Smith`s assistant at Swindon Town, where he played a part in them reaching the League Cup semi-final.

After managing Witney, he had one season in charge at Banbury United and then later took over from Gary Goodwin at Hungerford Town.

He finished with the game as he had business interests in property development and care homes.

An earlier manager was Oxford United hero Tony Jones.

The forward signed for United in 1959 after being on Birmingham City`s books as a youth and made his first team debut that year in a Southern League Premier Division game against Poole Town in their final year as Headington.

He played the last of his 355 games for Oxford in 1967 in the Third Division against Shrewsbury Town, having notched exactly 100 goals.

He then had a two-season spell in Wales with Newport County, playing 54 times, scoring 9 goals, before returning to Oxfordshire with Witney in 1969, firstly as a player and later as manager.

Pat Quartermain was a team-mate of Tony Jones at Headington/Oxford United and was his boss at Witney for a while.

The full-back initially supplemented his footballing income in the Southern League by working as an apprentice toolmaker, but in 1958 he had to give both up to do his National Service in Cyprus.

Two years later he returned to his work and to Oxford and became a full-time professional when United joined the Football League.

He also went on to make over 300 appearances for the U`s and, like Tony Jones, also departed in 1967.

His playing career wound down at Southern League Premier Division Cambridge United under Bill Leivers and he played a part in the team winning the title at the end of the 1969/70 season – they were duly elected to the Football League that summer.

Quartermain (pictured) took charge of Witney in 1971/72 and briefly had as his coach former Oxford team-mate Ron Atkinson, who left in November 1971 to become player-manager of Kettering Town - and the rest, as they say, is history!

Quartermain was succeeded by Dick Spiers the following season and he took over as manager of Clanfield, guiding them to runners-up in the Hellenic League and League Cup winners in 1973/74.

Yet another former Oxford player of the 1960s, Rodney Smithson also spent time in charge of Witney from 1975.

Smithson started his career with Arsenal but spent the majority of his five-year spell at Highbury in the reserves.

The wing-half made just 2 first-team appearances in his Gunners career after joining as an apprentice in July 1960.

Smithson had initially joined the club as a groundsman a year earlier but was recruited to the playing staff and turned professional in October 1960.

It took more than two years for him to make his senior debut, however, when he started in a 3-1 win over Fulham in September 1962.

His second and final appearance came in the same month, but this time ended in a disappointing 3-0 defeat to Bolton.

Smithson made 63 appearances in the Football Combination and featured 81 times in the Metropolitan League.

He was given a free transfer to Oxford in July 1964 and went on to play 174 times for the U`s, scoring 6 goals before being released in 1975 when he took charge of Witney in the Southern League Division One North.

Yet another former Oxford player from the 1960s and 70s, John Shuker also had a spell in charge of the Blanketmen, although much later than the rest.

Born Eccles, Shuker (pictured) was playing junior football in his native Manchester area when an Oxford scout spotted him, and he was invited to the Manor Ground for a trial.

He was signed as an amateur in 1960 and turned professional on the club`s election to the Football League.

Versatile enough to make his debut at centre-forward, Shuker became a very fine left-half before dropping back to play as a left-back from 1969 onwards, succeeding Ron Atkinson as captain and making a club record 529 appearances in total, scoring 47 goals.

He is another to have gone on to manage Hellenic Leaguers Clanfield and then in May 2000, Shuker was appointed as director of football at another Hellenic League side Milton United.

And then in August 2001, Shuker was appointed as manager of the new Hellenic League Witney Academy, staying until February 2002 when the club folded after months after problems with player availability.

Shuker was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s in 2017 and sadly died in December 2019.

Right-back Dick Lucas was actually born in the town of Witney and joined Oxford United as an amateur in 1963 before signing professional forms in 1965.

He went on to make 219 appearances, with 4 goals, between 1965 and 1975.

He was signed by former Wolves and Northern Ireland star Derek Dougan for Southern League Premier Division side Kettering Town but only had one season at Rockingham Road before moving to Aylesbury United, who had just won a place in the Southern League Division One South.

He played 49 games for Aylesbury before retiring from playing to concentrate on his domestic appliance business in Banbury.

He was tempted back into football by becoming manager of Witney in the Southern Premier Division in 1983 where he had a couple of seasons in charge.

Bicester-born forward Peter Foley was spotted by Oxford manager Gerry Summers while playing for Bardwell Boys in the Bicester Boys League cup final at the age of 14.

He was selected to play four times for the Republic of Ireland youth team, and under-21s and was selected to play for the full side in a friendly at Malta, but Oxford needed him for a vital league game and so he had to withdraw from the squad.

Then-West Bromwich Albion manager Ron Atkinson offered United £100,000 for Foley (pictured), but United turned it down and went on to make 321 appearances and become Oxford`s fourth-highest scorer with 90 goals.

He went on to play for Bulova in Hong Kong, Iggesund HIF in Sweden and Exeter City, where he made a short League comeback after a season with Witney as a player in 1985/86.

He played and managed Witney again, and then moved on to Brackley Town and thence Marlow, who, ironically, he managed when they beat Oxford 2-0 in the FA Cup First Round in 1994.

He followed this with spells as manager of Oxford City, Thame United, Didcot Town and Ardley United.

Get Stuck In!

Southern Football League, Volunteer and help out your local football club!

Get involved with your club!

Most clubs are looking for volunteers. Find out more on the button below:

Pitching In Southern League

All the news and results in one place.