Banbury United’s genesis is to be found in Spencer Villa, a works club formed in 1931. Friendly matches were played on a ground on the town’s Middleton Road. The club joined the Banbury Junior League for the 1933/34, and easily won the championship at their first attempt. They amassed 37 points out of a possible 44, winning their last ten games without conceding a goal. Changing their name to Banbury Spencer in 1934, they moved to their current ground for the start of the 1934/35 season when they competed in the Oxfordshire Senior League. This too they won at their first attempt. During the season they were elected to the Birmingham Combination for the start of the 1935/36 season, taking the place of Rugby Town.
Although most competitions, including the Birmingham Combination, were suspended at the outbreak of the war, a few continued into the 1939/40 season. Amongst these was the Oxfordshire Senior League, to which Banbury returned to again finish as champions. After the war, Banbury resumed in the reformed Birmingham Combination and turned professional in the 1946/47 season. In 1947/48, with attendances averaging 3,500, they finished runners-up in the league and reached the first round proper of the FA Cup for the first time, losing 2-1 at Colchester United, who were at that time a Southern League club. The next season the ground attendance record was broken when 7,160 turned up to see Banbury lose to Oxford City in the third qualifying round of the FA Cup. The same season also saw Banbury reach the final of the Birmingham Senior Cup, losing 1-0 to Nuneaton Borough. Banbury’s manager at this time was Jimmy Cringan, who had joined them in 1936 and was to remain ‘The Boss’ for no less than 25 years until his retirement in 1961.
The status of the Birmingham Combination began to decline in the early 1950s as clubs defected to the stronger Birmingham & District League and to other regional leagues. At the end of the 1953/54 season, the league disbanded and, along with most of its remaining clubs, Banbury joined the B & DL. In 1959/60 they reached the final of the Birmingham Senior Cup for the second time, again losing to Nuneaton by a single goal. In 1961/62, Banbury reached the first round of the FA Cup for the second time, travelling to Third Division Shrewsbury Town and losing 7-1.
The B & DL expanded further and renamed itself the West Midlands League for the start of the 1962/63 season. Around this time, the club’s owners indicated their wish to cut their links with the club and so in 1965 a group of local businessmen bought the club. Banbury Spencer became Banbury United. The new owners were ambitious and were looking to a higher grade of football. Former Chelsea, West Ham, Arsenal and England player Len Goulden was installed as manager. United finished third in the league in 1965/66 and during the summer were elected to the Southern League, taking the place of Deal Town. Significant improvements were made to the ground. Floodlights were installed and the famous old railway coaches that had been used as changing rooms were ripped out and replaced by a new clubhouse.
United then embarked on an unbroken 24 season run as members of the Southern League. They came close to league honours in 1967/68 when they finished in seventh place in the First Division, just two points and three places behind Rugby Town, who were promoted to the Premier Division. In that season, they won the prestigious Midland Floodlit Cup and Tony Jacques scored 62 goals in all competitions, a club record which still stands. The first round of the FA Cup was reached twice more; in 1972/73, United lost 2-0 at home to Barnet, then a Southern League club, and the following season, after a 0-0 draw at home, they lost 3-2 away to Fourth Division Northampton Town in a replay, Northampton’s winner coming very late in the game after Banbury had twice levelled the scores. United twice reached the last sixteen of the FA Trophy, losing 1-0 in a replay to the mighty Hereford United in 1970/71 and, in 1973/74, by the same score in a second replay to eventual Southern League champions Dartford.
From the late 1970s, however, United’s fortunes declined sharply as debts mounted. Before it became commonplace to do so, plans were drawn up to sell the ground, clear the debts and build a more conveniently situated new stadium. Sadly these plans came to nothing and financial losses became so serious that by the summer of 1984 the club was all but bankrupt. The ownership of the ground was given up as security against the club’s debts. On the field, the team was also struggling, finishing in the top half of the table just twice in twelve seasons after 1978. Only the expansion of the Southern League saved United from relegation in 1985, when they finished second from bottom of the eighteen-club Midland Division. In 1990, however, there was to be no escape as United finished 21st of 22 and on the 5th of May were relegated for the only time in their history. During the summer of 1990, the owners of the ground threatened to sell and for a brief period United all but closed down and were on the verge of extinction. When the threat was eventually withdrawn, the club was rescued by a tiny band of volunteers and started the 1990/91 season in the Hellenic League.
Those fans who expected a quick return to the Southern League were to be disappointed. Only in 1993/94, when they finished third, did United make look like making a serious promotion challenge. The financial position again became difficult in the mid-1990s but from 1997 onwards, a revived and expanded committee brought about such an improvement in financial circumstances that the club was ready to aim for promotion. Former Oxford, Newcastle and QPR player Kevin Brock, who had played a handful of games for the club at the start of the 1998-99 season and whose father had been a Banbury Spencer player in the 1960s, was appointed first team manager for the 1999-2000 campaign and he quickly assembled a strong squad. After a modest start to the season, United’s form improved during the autumn but when they lost for the second time in their last league game of 1999, they entered the New Year no less than nineteen points behind leaders Highworth Town. What followed broke many of the club’s playing records. In just eight weeks, United overhauled Highworth with a run of 13 consecutive victories. They remained unbeaten until the end of the season, winning 20 out of 22 games. A 3-1 victory at Wantage Town on the 26th of April clinched the Hellenic League championship with two games remaining. United’s final total of 92 points was at the time a Hellenic League record, as was their winning margin of 13 points.
Meanwhile, rapid progress had been made off the field. A secure lease was negotiated for the continued use of the ground and plans were drawn up for improvements, including the construction of a new stand. This was built in just seven weeks, with work being completed on same day that the Southern League inspection team were due to visit. Their decision was favourable and promotion was guaranteed if the team could win the league. They did and Banbury United were back in the Southern League almost ten years after leaving it.
Hopes were understandably high on their return but United did not make the best of starts in 2000-01, taking ten games to register their first win and flirting briefly with relegation. Their results in the first half of the 2001-02 season were much improved and at Christmas they were eighth, but in the New Year they slumped alarmingly, winning just three of their last 20 games and avoiding the relegation places by just four points. Final positions of thirteenth and fifteenth may have been disappointing but after the dark days of the 1990s, United’s return to the SL was nevertheless regarded as a fine achievement.
Prospects of better fortunes in 2002-03 were dealt a severe blow when Matty Gooderick, the leading scorer for the three previous seasons, broke a leg in a pre-season friendly match. Kevin Brock turned to Oxford United for a replacement and signed Norman Sylla, a 19-year-old, French-born reserve team striker. The campaign began with three straight league defeats and an injury crisis. Sylla scored just once in his first five games – and then lit up Banbury’s season. After scoring four times in the second half of an FA Cup replay at Berkhamsted, he went on a scoring spree as United soared up the table with an 18 match unbeaten run, a club record in the Southern League. Twice they led the Eastern division and attendances rose rapidly: not since 1973-74 had United led a Southern League table, averaged more than 400 per league game, recorded a league attendance of more than 1,000 (versus Salisbury), or totalled 10,000 in all competitions. Despite fading in the second half of the season, United’s final position of eighth was their best in the Southern League in 25 years. Sylla’s final haul of 41 goals in all competitions matched Gooderick’s 1999-2000 total, the best since Jacques’ record-breaking season 35 years earlier.
The plans for the long awaited restructuring of the non-League Pyramid were announced during the spring of 2003: United were guaranteed promotion to the Premier division of a reformed Southern League if they could finish the 2003-04 season at least seventh, or take eighth place and win a play-off. That looked unlikely when Norman Sylla departed for the Conference and the team made a dismal start to the season, taking just one point from their first four games and suffering a humiliating 6-1 FA Cup defeat away to Wroxham of the Eastern Counties League. Their form improved markedly after that and by December they were fifth but they fell away again over Christmas and the New Year; when they lost at King’s Lynn in February, they had slipped back to ninth, having played four or five more games more than all their promotion rivals. In his programme notes for the following home game, manager Kevin Brock wrote: “...with 12 games to go...I think we need to win 8 or 9...to finish in the top seven...” He was very nearly correct – United won eight and finished eighth. They beat rivals Bashley, Burgess Hill and Stamford, and in their penultimate game, at home to Folkestone, an injury-time winner secured what turned out to be a priceless win, for they lost their last match at Erith & Belvedere, a defeat which could have left them with nothing had other results gone against them. As it was, Banbury faced a home play-off against Sutton Coldfield Town of the Western Division. The game was to be played on Monday May 3rd, just two days after the match at Erith – and that came less than 48 hours after United had won the Oxfordshire Senior Cup for the first time in 16 years, beating Oxford United’s reserves in an exhausting final on the lush Kassam Stadium pitch.
And so to the play-off. Banbury’s players showed no signs of their previous exertions as they dominated the match for long periods. Yet they could not score and when Sutton Coldfield took the lead in the second period of extra time, the home supporters could have been excused for thinking that was that, and that the efforts of the previous three months were about to come to nothing. The players saw it differently and a Jason Allen equaliser with less than five minutes to go looked to have taken the match to a penalty shoot-out until full back turned centre forward Wayne Blossom headed the winner in the second minute of stoppage time, and that was that.
The 2004-05 season was anticipated as keenly as any in the history of the club – indeed probably even more than 2000-01, when United returned to the Southern League from the Hellenic League. Although the Premier division was not as strong as it had been before the summer’s restructuring, it was nevertheless a considerable step up from the Eastern division and presented the club with its biggest challenge since first joining the Southern League in 1966. United were equal to that challenge – just. After five games, they were bottom of the table with just one point but six wins in the next seven weeks saw them rise to ninth place. Thereafter, it was a struggle and by February, United had sunk to within one place of the relegation zone, before a late improvement saw them to safety with a game to spare. After all, having waited for 38 years, United didn’t intend giving up in a hurry their hard won Premier division status.
With a squad strengthened significantly by signings in the summer of 2005, Banbury started the 2005-06 season well and although suffering setbacks with some serious, long-term injuries, they remained in with a genuine chance of making the play-off places until the beginning of March when they fell away. Nevertheless, their final position of seventh was an improvement of no fewer than ten places on the previous season and one that gave them great hope for 2006-07. However, 2006-07 was a big disappointment. After a promising start, form was erratic The worst losing streak for more than 16 years took United close to the relegation zone in March before a late run of good form saw them to safety, but it was troubles off the field that made the headlines. Cuts were made to the playing budget shortly after the end of the season, and manager Kevin Brock resigned, citing the budget cuts as his reason for leaving. Several players followed him out. Long-serving defender and captain Kieran Sullivan was appointed manager and he successfully steered United to a top half of the table finish in his first year.