David Oxley: The outsider who changed the face of British Rugby League

David Oxley

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

The game could still learn from the man who told us “to be ourselves once more”

The arrival of David Oxley as the RFL Chief Executive, almost 50 years ago, took everybody in the game by surprise. Those running the game in the 1970s knew that the game had big problems with declining attendances and virtually no media profile outside of the North. They had even tasked a group of management consultants with coming up with a plan to remake the sport to reflect modern consumer demands. But the self-interested nature of the clubs and its traditions meant that rapid change was never likely to come. 

The Salford Chairman Brian Snape, who also chaired the Rugby League Council, alluded to the game’s problems when he declared that it was now “an old game with “too many old men in it”. So when he was tasked with finding a new Chief Executive for the sport, he stipulated that any candidate had to be under the age of 45. One morning, David Oxley saw the advert hidden away at the bottom of the Daily Telegraph jobs page, “More out of curiosity than anything, I applied”

Rugby league outsider

David Oxley was a complete rugby league outsider. An Oxford graduate with a degree in English Literature, he was destined for a successful career as a leading educator in Britain’s public schools, having worked at schools in York and Dover. Although he was originally from Hull and had maintained an interest in the fortunes of the game, he had played rugby union at university and had virtually no contacts within the sport. And in the 1970s, rugby league didn’t take too kindly to outsiders. Because while there was lots of talk about change, clubs were still run by ex-players and local businessmen who had been around the game their entire lives. 

The smart money for the role was on the former Leeds player Bev Risman, whose father Gus had been a legend in the 1920s. But when the 36-year-old David Oxley arrived for his interview, he impressed upon the selection panel the stark realities of the games image outside of the North. He presented a two page briefing note and outlined the ten steps he would instigate to save the sport. His communication style triggered something in the club chairmen who were tasked with deciding the appointment. In the end, Oxley saw off Risman by one vote. 

The tales of Oxley’s arrival at Chapeltown Road in 1974 have since entered rugby league mythology. On his first day in the job, he said he had been taken aback by the drabness of the surroundings and the lack of energy and dynamism around him. He would forever recall how his new assistant had asked why someone would give up a steady job at a public school “I don’t know why you have taken this job because we won’t have jobs in a year or so”. Oxley’s early remarks, however, signalled that he was going to change that: “No game can live on memories alone. Whilst honouring the past, we must consolidate the present, plan for an imaginative future and, above all, learn to be ourselves once more”.

Turning point in the game’s history 

His appointment proved to be a decisive turning point in the games history as it moved on from the 1970s into the 1980s. Oxley embarked on an eighteen year stewardship of the game which took it into the new professional age and onto the back pages of national newspapers again. Recognising that the game had not equipped itself for the demands of the new media age, his first appointment proved to be his most significant. He approached David Howes about becoming the sports first public relations officer and together they would set out the agenda for the decade. 

The first steps “the two Davids” took were to go out and sell the game to its existing supporters again. They both undertook a tour of the heartlands, accepting any invitation that came their way and hijacking supporter events wherever they club. The mood on the ground was bleak. The pair didn’t have much cash in the early days but they had passion. “We had enthusiasm, we were new blood and it seemed to help people galvanise themselves and believe in the game” Oxley later reflected. Howes put it more succinctly: “What we were, in fact, was a couple of door-to-door salesmen selling nothing more than slices of optimism”.

Any optimism, whether real or imagined, came crashing to a halt with the force of the 1982 Kangaroos. The way in which the Australians introduced a different type of rugby broke the last remaining ideas about “British exceptionalism” into a million pieces. Oxley instigated, with Phil Larder, a radical overhauling of the game to focus teams on speed, fitness and, eventually, professionalism. “There is plenty of evidence that training at many clubs has changed little since the fifties” he argued. “It’s obvious that we need more sophisticated training methods”. He pushed for a lifting of the overseas ban on Australian players to speed up the revolution. 

Expansion and London

Expansion too, became part of the agenda. The arrival of Fulham provided a much needed boost to the game and put the sport on the radar of the national media again. Expansion soon followed in areas such as Carlisle, Cardiff, Kent and Nottingham, all of which were seen as huge failures. Those projects would remain the most contested area of his governance of the game in the 1980s, as the game struggled to establish a strong domestic club in London.

“We have to decide once and for all whether we are serious about establishing a a team in the capital and not just paying lip service to it as a good thing” he argued in 1992. He believed that the game needed to engage in some “positive discrimination” for expansion: “That requires additional and considerable extra funding for the south and altruism and far-sightedness from the clubs in the north”. 

While the expansion into London never took off in the way that David Oxley had promised, he did deliver on his aim to create bigger and better events for the sport. Oxley and Howes understood that the game needed to be played on the biggest stage to attract more attention. The decision to take a the First Ashes test to Old Trafford in 1986, at the expense of keeping it “in house”, was a gamble and many predicted that it would fail. It turned out to be a record test crowd, and marked the moment that the game began to confidently sell itself to the public again on a national scale. The gamble of taking the First Test in 1990 to Wembley paid off when another record crowd turned up to witness Britain finally beat Australia at home. 

By the beginning of the 1990s, his time was up. His retirement in 1992 was a national news story. Tributes poured in across the game and across Fleet Street for helping to repair the relationship between the game and the people. He was described in the Daily Mail as the man who spent “two decades targeting the convert and winning over numbers of which Billy Graham might be envious”.

His legacy

And it was fitting that Oxley’s final act before his retirement (forced on account of him being 55) was to oversee the 1992 World Cup final. Another record crowd, with millions of people watching across the globe signalled that the game was on the cusp of a new professional age. A marketing campaign, centred around Martin Offiah, captured the imagination of the entire country and set the sport on its course for Super League a few years later. His successor Maurice Lindsay accepted that Oxley had been the “most articulate and presentable administrator in any sport in the country” in the 1980s. 

Oxley’s death on Sunday reminds us that the 1980s were a critical period in shaping the game as it is today. His was the era in which the sport was revived in the popular imagination as it turned from amateur to professional. While not all his ideas were successful, there is little doubt that he fostered a mood of ambition and new thinking within the game. He also wasn’t afraid to listen to those who had different views to him. A telling quote came after the 1982 Kangaroo tour when everybody within the game had an opinion about what needed to be done.

“The time to worry,” he argued, “will come when people no longer think deeply about rugby league or bother to argue its issues: for then no one will care”

As the game embarks on another period of uncertainty, this time with the arrival of IMG, perhaps the most fitting tribute to David Oxley would be for the game to foster the spirit of debate, renewal and ideas again. 

Anthony Broxton is a cultural and political historian, best known for his writing on Labour history and rugby league for national publications such as The Times, The I, The Critic and Prospect. His first book Hope and Glory: Rugby League in Thatcher’s Britain will be published in late 2023.