Women's football captain confident unflappable Blues will end losing streak

Image credit: CUWAFC

3-1 Oxford. An afternoon of opportunities rued. A final sucker punch in the 85th minute. A third consecutive Varsity defeat in this historic first double-header at Barnet F.C. Dejection was etched across the Cambridge women’s faces, scattered about the pitch, slumped, hands disconsolately fixed on hips. They had confounded expectations and dominated the Varsity, but were left wanting the final touch.

Fast-forward 12 months, and things are looking decidedly more optimistic. Recently-relegated Oxford have been slugging it out in the BUCS second tier, while the newly-promoted Light Blues have held their own in Midlands 1A, pipped to third spot by Worcester on goal difference. Captain Katy Edwards, now in her third year studying Veterinary Medicine at Jesus, speaks to me with a glint in her eye. She knows she has a special group of players on her hands.

“There’s an incredible rift between the leagues in quality so there were some underlying worries [when we were promoted],” the central midfielder tells me, indeed Cambridge suffered consecutive relegations from the division in 2012-13 and 2014-15. “You’ll go from winning six, seven nil in the league below to losing two, three nil in the league above. And we were losing a lot of team members.

“But we’ve had an incredible intake. I’ve played with them for six months now and they are such a good group of girls. They give everything and there’s so much talent on that team. I could name five or six players who do things that you look at and think how have you done that. It’s insane, the standard is incredible. [Our fourth-place finish is] pretty incredible considering Nottingham are winning it and their sports funding is unbelievable.”

Edwards gushes with superlatives for her teammates. She even puts a positive spin on their recent BUCS Trophy heartbreak at the hands of 1A rivals Worcester. “We hit the post, we hit the crossbar, we had it saved off the line,” she said. “It ended 2-2 and we just lost [4-2] on penalties. It’s all about performance and playing well. And a National cup quarterfinal? I’ll take that.”

For all the success this season, that tie was a ghostly apparition of last year’s Varsity though. Come Sunday, with Oxford threatening to secure an unprecedented fourth consecutive Varsity double, performance has to turn into leads. Edwards, the industrious heart of this new look Cambridge side, will need to lay it on a plate for the likes of Isabel Luetkenherm and Liz Ashcroft. The pressure is on – although you wouldn’t have thought it.

“I don’t get nervous until I step onto the pitch,” Edwards admitted. “Then once you kick-off you’re just in your zone. You play your football, forget about the stands, forget about the supporters.”

After my dramatic vision of last year’s Varsity, England Euro 2016-esque for histrionic despair, I was a little disappointed. But you get the sense that Edwards doesn’t have much time for the typical Varsity drama. “Some girls are ex-junior internationals or ex-county level players,” she shrugged. “They’ll have played big games. I’ve got friends who used to play Arsenal on a regular basis, one of the girls is an ex-Wales U17s. A lot of the girls have a lot of experience playing at a high level, they’re pretty unflappable.

“In terms of the build-up of the stands, the music, the players, the parents, people screaming at you from the side of the pitch, yes this’ll be one of the team’s biggest games. We as Cambridge put a lot of emphasis on the Varsity match. But the league games are almost more important because they determine where we play next season. In terms of the atmosphere it’s probably the biggest game. In terms of the standard and how much it actually means, maybe not.”

What the Varsity does have, though, is the weight of occasion – and that is what makes all athletes tick. As much as we ridicule the showy blue blazers, there is a genuine, quiet pride amongst Blues for what they do. “It’s [the Varsity’s] got so much tradition behind it,” Edwards said animatedly. “It’s different because it’s the one game all your friends and family will make an effort to come watch. It’s the one game where we’ll all get given our own kit that’ll have our names and numbers on the back and that we can keep as a memento of what we’ve done this season. It’s the game that we’ve spent ages building up, and we’re playing in a stadium.”

Preparation these final few days is as much about team-bonding as honing match sharpness. “We always print out bits of card with your Varsity profile picture,” Edwards explains to me. “Before the game we’ll go and have a team dinner and everyone will write a note from the season to each other. So at the end you get a card with all of the 15 players you’ve spent your season with saying good luck you’re going to smash it, loved playing with you this season and all that kind of stuff.

“It’s really great for making you proud of what you’re playing for. You’re playing for all these 15 players, you’re playing for your friends and your family. It just makes it really special.”

Edwards is an old enough head to know that this final week is no time for putting in the hard yards – it’s about normalising, especially after the season they’ve had. “We’ll try not to change the way we train too much because that’s the number one way to get injuries,” she said. “We don’t want to build up any pressure that’s not needed. We’ve just got to go on a pitch and do what we do week in week out. When you boil it down it’s just a game of football.” The sentimentality had vanished.  

2.9 million women and girls in the UK now play football in some capacity, making it the biggest team sport for female participation. A far cry from the days when Edwards was cutting her teeth in the sport. “I first started playing for a team when I was eight and people looked at me and went ‘You play football? You’re a girl’,” she said, echoing Eni Aluko’s sentiment during her visit to the Union in November that playing football as a young girl she felt like she was ‘breaking the rules’. “Most clubs now will have a women’s team affiliated. It is much more accepted.”

This sea-change is in evidence on the Cambridge scene too. When Edwards started, the men and women played the Varsity on different days and at different venues. This will be the second year that they will be playing together at The Hive Stadium – a gesture of parity and unity reflected in how CUAFC operates.  “Working with the guys, the men’s captain and their sabbatical officer,” Edwards remarked. “They’re fully behind it, they’re so supportive of us and us of them, it’s one thing”

When I asked Edwards about the number of players on CUAFC’s books, it was clear that participation is similarly booming across Cambridge. “We have 16 members of the first team squad,” Edwards said. “The second team have another 16 which they take to Varsity but will also have another 20 or so that will train with them. And on top of that, pretty much every single college will have a team so that’s probably 10 regular and 10 dropping in and out. There’s a lot of girls who play.

“There’s such a range in [the] standard [of college football]. Me and some of the girls are watching the She Believes Cup and we’re going ‘we trained with you’ or ‘we were coached by you’, you’ve got players of that kind of standard. And then you’ve got girls who have never kicked a football before. Both groups of people learn so much from that. Coaching people to play football you learn so much because if you have to explain how to do something you have to understand it. And then it’s so much easier for the less experienced to pick it up with these girls around. That is what’s really good about the college system.”

Women’s sport at Cambridge is not the concern for Edwards. The big problem, as she knows from bitter experience as a Vet Med and Blue, is facilitating sport full stop. “The University claims to support sport and yet practicals are put on Wednesday afternoons,” she sighed. “I know there are timetabling issues but there should be an option to keep Wednesday afternoons free. If you’ve got to put lectures on them fine, but to put compulsory practicals actually inhibits people from playing sport.” The second team, who lost to Oxford’s ‘Furies’ earlier this month, currently compete in a local Sunday league as many of their players, despite wanting to play for the firsts, are precluded from competition on Wednesdays by their academic commitments.

“With mental health being such a big problem at the moment, sport is one of the best ways to get out,” she said. “If I’m stressed, I go play football. It gives you an hour where you’ve got to just forget about it and it’s so good for giving you some perspective. Cambridge needs to be pushing that more. Whether that’s more funding, speaking to staff to keep Wednesday’s free I don’t know. But something needs to be improved.”

For Cambridge sport, this coming Sunday will be one of its brightest days – a Varsity double-header, an 134-year-old rivalry, four teams in impressive form. And a record to set straight. “The last two Varsities have been so close, unfortunately we’ve ended up on the wrong end of both,” Edwards said. “But Oxford are in the league below so they don’t play at the same speed and standard as we do. They’ll be used to scoring goals so we’ll have to make sure we’re tight in defence, but they simply haven’t been playing at the same standard.

“I’d put money on us. But we have to walk on that pitch wanting it. It’s not over until that whistle goes.” Bring on Sunday.

Kick off for the women’s football Varsity is Sunday 5pm at The Hive Stadium, Barnet. Men’s kick off is 2pm.

Book your tickets on the Barnet FC website

 

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