SEVENTY-FIVE years after it first opened with a flurry of excitement, Oxford Stadium is fenced-off and forlorn, its future uncertain.
But while the greyhounds and the Cheetahs have gone, there are still plenty of people who believe there is still life in this old dog yet.
The Blackbird Leys venue has a history that reads like a soap opera and boasts more ‘sequels’ than a Hollywood blockbuster.
Opened in 1939 by Lord Denham, it hosted some of the country’s most prolific greyhound racing championships and has also been home to speedway, with local team the Oxford Cheetahs winning three British League titles.
But this prime piece of city real estate has also been repeatedly mooted as a possible development site. And in 2012, its owners, the Greyhound Racing Association, closed it, claiming it was no longer viable.
The latest turn of events in the Oxford Stadium saga is news that it could be given a new protected status, which will make it harder for developers to step in.
The city council is investigating making parts of the stadium a conservation area, giving it the same level of protection as some of the most historic parts of the city.
A public consultation has been launched and if the council approves the status, campaigners hope this will scupper the latest plans by Galliard Homes to build 220 homes on the site – and result in its opening for public and sporting use once more.
Oxford East MP Andrew Smith heads up the Save our Stadium Campaign. He said: “Oxford Stadium is a great facility, which can cater for such a range of activities – dance, karting, motorcycle training, church and social activities as well as greyhound racing and speedway.
“And as the wonderful support for the campaign to save the stadium has shown, there is enormous support and goodwill for the stadium right throughout the county, and beyond.
“One of the reasons is that so many people have warm memories of good times at Oxford Stadium.”
Throughout its history, Oxford Stadium has been saved on many occasions by a last-minute investor. Rumours still abound that Steventon farmer Robert Tyrrell hopes to buy the stadium and is being helped by Nick Budimir, a friend of football manager Harry Redknapp.
The stadium was built in 1938 on the site of a ‘flapping’ (non regulated) track where owners could turn up and run their greyhounds around an oval. The rear wheel of a jacked-up car was used to drive the lure around the track.
A main grandstand building was erected and the stadium joined the regulatory governing body of the NGRC (National Greyhound Racing Club).
But the track was to have more threats to its future than a cat has lives – starting in 1944 when a fire devastated much of the stand.
A new one was built and in the early 1950s the Bristol Stadium company took over, changing the grass track to sand in 1967.
Development first reared its head in 1973 when a private firm submitted plans for 112 new homes and 288 car parking spaces on the site. The same year, race nights were peppered with powercuts due to a national power crisis, and stadium manager Clarke Osborne even bought in a £10,000 generator from Holland.
When the city council bought the stadium for £235,000 soon after, it finally looked like development was inevitable – until a fierce campaign to save it sprang up. Letters of support for the stadium flooded into the Town Hall and the council gave the campaigning committee two months to come up with a new promoter, or see it closed.
The official Save our Stadium (SoS) campaign was launched and a 27,000-name petition presented to the council, while Tory MP Michael Heseltine called for a public meeting.
The campaign put in a bid for a 10-year lease of the stadium and raised £12,000 in their first month – but were still £70,000 short.
Amazingly, councillors seemed impressed by the strength of public feeling and granted SoS a reprieve in the shape of a two-year lease, despite getting a better offer from Bristol Stadium.
Volunteers rallied to help run the stadium, but the Bristol company hit back by refusing to lease them their machinery. And for the first time since 1939, the stadium was forced to close, shutting its doors in January 1976.
Eighteen months later a white knight arrived in the shape of Northern Sports, which showed an interest in taking over, but the struggle wasn’t over. The council rejected the £185,000 takeover bid and gave the MDs just five days to come up with £300,000 or see council houses built on the site.
Five hundred more protest letters poured into the council offices and marches were planned on the Town Hall. All seemed lost.
But Northern Sports came up with a last-ditch offer of £250,000 and the council accepted. The stadium was safe again and in the coming years prospered. A 1986 rebuild made Oxford one of the biggest provincial tracks in the country – but there was more drama when ‘saviours’ Northern Sports went into receivership.
More years of turmoil followed before The Greyhound Racing Association took over in 1999.
But neither love nor money could save the doomed stadium and the last greyhound meeting was held on December 29, 2012, in front of a capacity crowd.
Respected Greyhound trainer Gilly Hepden was at the track for the last race night. The 60-year-old owner of Chase House Kennels, near Chipping Norton, said: “I had been racing there for 15 years and after the last race there was nothing to mark it, we all just went home. It was very sad.
- Gilly Hepden with In Top Gear and Lolly the greyhounds
“It was a good track and people knew each other – there was an almost country village-feel to the place.
“My highlights were getting to the final of the Pall Mall Stakes two years running. That was a real achievement.
“We would have stayed on there if we could, but we were lucky to be given a place at Swindon, where we are still racing.
“But Oxford Stadium was somewhere special to a whole lot of people like me and especially to the people of Blackbird Leys.”
Speedway: the family sport that made gods of its stars
ROB Peasley, 40, from Woodstock, works in customer services for a publisher, and dreams of watching speedway again at Oxford Stadium.
“I’m a second generation Oxford Cheetahs fan, so I was a fan from a very early age. That happens a lot in speedway; a true family sport.
- Rob Peasley
“The mid-to-late eighties were a great time to be a fan of Oxford Speedway. I was a teenager during this period.
“Oxford Cheetahs had always been a ‘Cinderella’ club. But the stadium owners, Northern Sports, took over the running of the club, and suddenly not only we were elevated back into the top flight, also we had these fantastic world-class stars such as Hans Nielsen and Simon Wigg.
“We won the British League three times (1985, 1986 & 1989), and numerous other trophies as well. The stadium was packed every week.
“The second leg of the 1985 Knockout Cup Final stands out as a special meeting. Oxford United were also playing that Wednesday, but it didn’t stop a crowd of 6,000-7,000 squeezing into our stadium to watch the Cheetahs against Ipswich Witches.
“It all came down to a nerve-tingling final-heat decider. Simon Wigg and Troy Butler missed the start, but came back to take the 3-3 we needed to clinch the cup.
“Thousands of people spilled on to the track and centre green. I shook hands with Hans; he was like God to us Oxford fans.”
Oxford Mail sports reporter, John Gaisford, spent much of his career covering sport at Oxford Stadium. He said: “The loss of Oxford Stadium left a big hole in my life, as well as many sports fans in Oxford and surrounding counties. Greyhound racing first took place twice a week, with eight-race cards. It became very popular – you could have your two shillings on the Tote or a four-shilling forecast.
- John Gaisford
“But over the years, the stadium reached another level, attracting famous personalities as well as top trainers and hounds. It was firmly on the map – even though a provincial track.
“The big races held there, such as the grade one Pall Mall Stakes, Trafalgar Cup and the oldest race in the sport, the Cesarewitch, are now a thing of the past.
“On the speedway front, Oxford Cheetahs supporters have been left out on a limb since Stadium owners – the Greyhound Racing Association – refused offers to continue running the sport in 2007.
“Any new owner could step in and resume speedway and greyhound racing given the chance, but it is now down to the city council.”