For the last few weeks, the always marvellous Football Attic has been running a knockout tournament to find the greatest shirt sponsor of all time. For me, the two greatest didn't even make the start line; the one that started them all: Liverpool's Hitachi shirts, and the fantastically absurd Talbot kit of Coventry City. But, despite this Wang has only gone and bloody won it. But, like Ringo Starr not being the best drummer in the Beatles, I'm not sure it's even the best sponsor we've ever had. Here's the top four.
In a futile resistance, occasionally people will equate Oxford results to productivity at the Cowley car plant in the way people do with Sunderland and their local Nissan factory. This is probably more wishful thinking than anything. There have been, from time to time, rumours that BMW might take over as shirt sponsors propelling us into a new era of unbridled glory but the closest we've ever got to a proper working class manufacturing sponsor was Unipart.
Taking over in 1991, the Unipart sponsorship marked a break from the Maxwell era. We didn't achieve much; the 1996 promotion stands alone on the Unipart-era honours board, but I did my A Levels, moved away to do a degree, came back, got a job and most importantly of all, became a season ticket holder all during their tenure. It was a time of Joey Beauchamp, Matt Elliot and Phil Gilchrist, and, of course, The Manor. It was said that Chris Allen could only perform when he had a Unipart advertising hoarding to run at. It was the only way he knew where he was or when to cross it. it wasn't quite the glorious years of the mid-eighties or the collapse of the 2000s; it was a decidedly more 'normal'. But, as my life changed from boy to man, perhaps some normal was just what I needed. There were some decent times punctuated with some great times; wins over Swindon, pushing Chelsea to the last minute at the Manor, a couple of minor giant killings. Having lived through the Conference years, you kind of hanker for that normality.
In the end, Unipart was synonymous with Oxford United to the point where it was almost invisible. It wasn't a brand, but a piece of decoration. As integral to the shirt as the ox's head. Which is the point at which sponsorship becomes pointless. It seems right that Unipart's departure came just as the Kassam Years were ushered in. I still don't know for sure what Unipart sell, but I know I'd buy one of their products if I needed to.
On the other hand, they were fantastically loyal in continuing to support the club at a time when it barely deserved the support of the fans, let alone a commercial shirt sponsor. Everything else around them changed; owners, managers, players, even league statuses, but they stayed constant. In 2009 their little brother Plumbase was emblazoned on the club's away shirts; like Buildbase's mum had told him to share his toys. Apart from that, they were only constant during that period, so in a sense, Buildbase became like the wizened season ticket holder.
It was kind of fitting that the last time we saw Buildbase on an Oxford shirt was later at the Conference play-off win at Wembley; our final farewell to the darkness. They sponsored us for 9 years, and finally, after nearly a decade of patience, they got what they thoroughly deserved; some recognition for their loyalty. Although I'm sure the withdrawal was a commercial decision based on Bridle's greater finances and the recessionary collapse of the construction sector, but I like to think that it was just a stylishly enigmatic departure, like the Littlest Hobo; there was a voice that kept on calling them... It was a poetic and fitting exit.
When we were promoted to the top flight everything changed; we reverted from royal to navy blue; our shirts were a plain, pale yellow, kits were no longer made by Spall Sports, but by Umbro. We were Establishment. Wang was an exotic appendage. Big clubs were sponsored by, until then, unknown corporations NEC, JVC, Hitachi - a result of the growing competitiveness of Japan in the global electronics market. Wang seemed to fit right in. The logo, a grown-up serif font replaced the bubble font of the previous Sunday People logo which adorned the shirts during the 1984/5 promotion. It was very grown up.
Despite its name, Wang were a US computing corporation. During the 1980s computer corporations were still associated with men in lab coats and horned rim glasses, that made huge computers which controlled other huge computers with the aim of achieving something that nobody really needed, like proving that 1 = Q or something. What Wang hoped to gain from their sponsorship of Oxford is anyone's guess. Wikipedia suggests that the sponsorship coincided with an attempt to aggressively grow, partly driven by one of the founder's hatred of IBM who had treated Dr Wang badly in the 1950s. If it was borne out of a sense of vindictive megalomania then Wang seems a fitting partner for the Maxwell-era of glory.
I remember looking in the back of Shoot! magazine at the adverts for replica kits planning which I'd buy if I ever had any money. I was drawn to NASL kits of New York Cosmos and Detroit Express (I had a picture of Trevor Francis playing for the Express on astro turf). It was like something from another planet, they had their names, nay, logos on their shirts.
When Liverpool broke the mould with their Hitatchi sponsorship. I wanted one. Not because it was Liverpool, but because it had a sponsor. Slowly the trend grew; JVC with Arsenal, Hafnia at Everton, for years you could only wear sponsors on your shirts at games, presumably TV thought that it would effect advertising revenues. But that meant sponsorships had a magical quality about them; you had to be at the game to see one. And, if you got to a game and the teams weren't wearing sponsored shirts you knew they were going to be featured on TV (TV games weren't allowed to be advertised prior to broadcast). It was like code.
The exotic quality of a shirt sponsor in the early 1980s means that Oxford's first ever sponsor; The Sunday Journal is worthy of a mention. It was first worn in a cup giant killing against Brighton in 1982. This was one of Ian Greaves' last games in charge and very early on in the Maxwell era. They didn't last long; for most of the glory years, Oxford shirts would carry a selection of logos from Maxwell's business portfolio. But the glory of having a sponsor was unbridled. For me. As a 10 year old. Now having a shirt sponsor is just part of the business of football, then, it was like living in the future.