28 Years Later … the Milk Cup nightmare lives on

The film ’28 Days Later’ and the follow up ’28 Weeks Later’ depicted a desolated, post apocalyptic London with a handful of human survivors feeling totally lost whilst they wandered amongst the devastation. For many Rangers fans that was precisely how we felt on 20th April 1986, after the 3-0 Milk Cup Final defeat versus Oxford United.

For the past 28 years many of us have wondered why Rangers were so awful that day, against what was a fairly unremarkable opposing side. Earlier this year Michael Hollamby and I met and interviewed the former long serving QPR Club Secretary, Ron Philips. Ron was well loved by Rs fans for his wit, his writing style and the award winning programme that he developed from his appointment in 1966 until his departure in 1989. The interview will appear in full later this year, but one story that he told us about that game in 1986, Rangers last visit to Wembley, can now be shared – 28 years later.

“QPR had a splendid run in the Milk Cup – thrashing Hull City and beating Division One giants like Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Chelsea. Eventually they played Oxford United in that years Milk Cup Final and, in view of their excellent form, they were the outstanding favourites. In the event however they played like zombies, sleep walking through the entire game, with the unavoidable consequence that they were whipped by Oxford 3-0. To add insult to injury it was the ex-Rangers player Jeremy Charles who scored Oxford’s third goal.

I sat beside Ernest Saunders in the Directors Box (yes, he of the Guinness Share Manipulation Fraud). Mr Saunders, in his pre senile dementia days, was attempting to put together a bid to buy QPR on behalf of Guinness, after which he would probably have become a Rangers director. His memory at that time was first class, but I can imagine he would have wished for amnesia after he witnessed Rangers’ performance that day. As it was he could not conceal his impatience with the QPR players. After we conceded the second goal he got up and said to me “They surely cannot expect us to watch any more of this!” . Then he walked out: an unheard of gesture at a Cup Final!

Years later, I discovered the reason for the team’s poor performance that afternoon. It has always been the custom for football players to be given sleeping pills the night before a big game. On the night before that Cup Final, many of the Rangers players were so nervous that they were given three Mogadon tablets each to ensure that they slept well. One Mogadon tablet usually does the trick. A dosage of three tablets probably ensured that they were still fast asleep and dreaming when they took to the pitch that day.

I now wonder how different events might have been if only that sleeping pill dosage had been reduced. Rangers would almost certainly have won the Cup Final, the merger with Guinness would probably have gone ahead and QPR would now be under completely different ownership.”

After Ron relayed this story Michael and I pushed him to name the person who distributed the tablets that night. Ron, being the highly professional man he is, would not name the person and would only tell us that they are no longer alive.

Mogadons are less well known nowadays than they were in the 1980s. They were tablets containing the active ingredient nitrazepam. As nitrazepam remains active in the body for many hours, drowsiness and muscle weakness can result. It can impair concentration and alertness and this may last into the next day.

So, now we know why it looked like Rangers were half asleep that day 28 years ago.it’s because they were! Was the Rangers manager on the day, Jim Smith, also somewhat dazed and confused? Well you can determine that:

“Talking of proud moments, when I led QPR out at Wembley for the 1986 Milk Cup Final, I felt immensely proud that my team had made it – Oxford not QPR. We were in the tunnel for an age before the game and there was more banter between me and the Oxford lads than my current team – I knew them a lot better than my own lads. I couldn’t really lose that day. People say I looked dejected and shell-shocked, but the reality was that my team had won the Cup, with the greatest respect to Maurice Evans and I couldn’t celebrate with them, for obvious reasons. It was a bit like getting married and divorced all in one day!”

Most definitely a day to try to forget.

Martin Percival

11 thoughts on “28 Years Later … the Milk Cup nightmare lives on

  1. Hmm, an interesting (if entirely unsubstantiated) story. But I think you’re being less than generous to the deserved victors that day.

    “I now wonder how different events might have been if only that sleeping pill dosage had been reduced. Rangers would almost certainly have won the Cup Final”

    Really? Oxford played you off the Wembley pitch with a masterclass of passing football that day, which many teams would have struggled to live with.

    Still, you might have made a better game of it I suppose.

    Up the Manor!

    Altogether now: “Crying at Wembley, we saw you crying at Wembley…”

    • @ Jon B

      It must be a right pain to have your big day written off by the opposition crying foul, and Oxford certainly deserve respect for what they achieved. However I have to point out that in the league that season QPR won at home and drew away, scoring 3 goals in each match and with an aggregate score of 6-4. So it’s no surprise that Oxford played good passing football and scored goals but that’s a long way from saying that QPR, on anything like form, could not have lived with it. The fact that we barely managed an attack all game is quite out of character and indeed Oxford’s free flowing style could be expected to leave opportunities for counter-attack. At the very least a goal or two against Oxford’s pretty porous defence should have been on the cards.

      Whether the fault lies with Smith’s blatant lack of interest in motivating his team to beat “his” Oxford or an overdose of mogadon, I don’t know. The mogadon story sounds weird but its from a pretty respected source and the performance we witnessed was so out of character that I think there may be something in it.

      • One final thought. The common ground with this story and the comments of players, especially Johnny Byrne, is the extreme nervousness of the players. I’d suggest that calming those nerves was exactly the job Smith, as an experienced old-fashioned manager, was paid to do. Compare and contrast with Alec Stock’s famous half-time team talk when 2-0 down at Wembley.

  2. Jon – if I put myself in the shoes of an Oxford United fan I can absolutely see your point of view. I can assure you that the piece is not intended to be derrogatory to Oxford United. A question that many Rangers fans have been asking themselves for 28 years since our last visit to Wembley is why were we so bad that day? The Rangers team had beaten Chelsea 6-0 3 weeks before – a Chelsea team that at the time were up at the top of the table – and also drawn 3-3 at The Manor Ground in a game that many people felt they were unfortunate to only draw. I suspect Swindon Town’s youth team would have given Oxford more of a fight that day! The story is indeed unsubstantiated, but Ron Philips is a highly professional, greatly respected person and so the story carries a lot of credence for those reasons. Plus it helps explain why Rangers were so poor that day. Good luck to Oxford (and Gary Waddock!) for 2014-15.

  3. Must confess as an Rs supporter I also feel you were less than generous in describing the Oxford team. I was only looking at their team that played the other day and there were more than a few players of quality.
    Well we’ve had Mogadon and False Fire Alarms to ruin two finals so hopefully there is nothing to come to haunt us after Saturday.
    I think it was that Final that I can remember the team walking a circuit of the pitch before the match and they did not look as though they were sleep walking!
    Surely someone would have noticed the signs, unless of course the entire staff were also tripped out! I am also surprised something was not said immediately after the game or in subsequent weeks by at least one team member.
    All very strange and hopefully this is not a wind up!

  4. I think Oxford were good enough to get to the final so deserve respect.
    However their league style and results that season if I recall right was bang average.

    I hated Oxford that day and still do I don’t care if they played like fecking Brazil I’m biased.

    They ruined what should have been one of the best times of my life.

  5. Interesting take on it, Martin! We certainly played like a team affected by some sort of chemical intervention that day. The obvious rumour doing the rounds in the aftermath of the debacle was that Rangers had been on the booze the day before. (John Byrne’s take on our calamity, of course, in his excellent interview with Joanne Connolly in AKUTRs, was that nerves had set in due to Rangers changing their normal match routine; by being ensconced in their hotel for a couple of days, rather than the usual overnight stay. I think that it wouldn’t have done any harm if Ron Phillips had named his insider source, given that the informant is said to have departed this mortal coil, but I do wonder if he is being just a tad mischievous with this tale. Ron always had a flair for telling a story, though, and I am really looking forward to reading the full interview. I would agree that Oxford did have some useful players in that team, particularly Ray Houghton, who Rangers had agreed a fee for with Fulham but then somehow contrived to let slip through their fingers (very unlike Jim Gregory, who was obviously losing his touch.) I would say that the Oxford team played to the absolute peak of their ability in the Final whilst the Rangers side, to a man, underperformed alarmingly and gave the lamest [non] performance I have ever seen by any team in a Cup Final. I must admit that I never did like Jim Smith and, when I read that extract from his rather ropy autobiography, it just confirmed that my instincts about him were right. Maybe he was just being honest about how he felt on the day, but I thought that was an appalling admission by him and, if that was, indeed, Smith’s mind-set on the day, what kind of mixed messages was he transmitting to his team before the game, I wonder? That abject day really does need exorcising, but which Rangers team will turn up on Saturday, I wonder? The team that has performed as if they were on (a milder form of) Mogadon all season, with their slow tempo, and tendency to aimlessly pass sideways and backwards? (Certainly, they spent most of the season sending the supporters to sleep!) Or the fully committed team who played with such indomitable spirit in the second leg of the semi final? Again, we are going to Wembley with a manager that I am none too enamoured of. Of course, if ‘Arry attains promotion with this under-performing team, he can rightly say ‘job done’ and it would be churlish to the extreme not to acknowledge his achievement and congratulate him on it. However, I will always reserve the right to question the methods that have been employed this season. Well, here’s hoping, COYRs…..!!! Oh, and terrific piece, Martin and Michael. Love the 28 Days Later references, by the way……

  6. Just another thought – perhaps the unnamed quack – or whatever capacity the medication supplier was employed in – will come to be regarded with the infamy that Michael Jackson’s Doctor of choice has attracted? Given this new revelation, do we have recourse to retrospective action and have the final declared null and void??!!??

  7. I was a much younger man in 86 and it was an awful day, we were all confident and just wanted to see Rangers play well and win.
    My take on the final back then is the same as it is now.
    The players thought they had already won the cup and didn’t turn up.
    Oxford did and Oxford won.

    I wish I had taken 6 Mogs before the game and another 6 at halftime!

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