Varsity Football – Cambridge beat Oxford

Felix de Grey 14 March 2012

The Cambridge Blues won their first Varsity match in four years, edging Oxford 4-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw at Cambridge City‘s Pro-Edge Stadium. Already promoted from the BUCS League, the win will be received as the crowning glory of the Blues’ fine season. After man-of-the-match Rick Totten had stepped up to slip his side’s decisive fifth penalty home, the magnitude of the ensuing celebrations left one in no doubt about the importance riding on this annual fixture.

In truth, Cambridge should never have let the game get as far as the shoot out. Driven by the surging runs of Captain Paul Hartley, they played relentless football throughout. Yet for all their dominance, and just when it looked like they would cruise to victory, the otherwise impressive Totten provided the game’s flashpoint. At 2-0 up his headed own goal proved to be the catalyst for an almighty shift in momentum, worthy of any great rivalry. After Oxford had swept back, it was fitting that his winning penalty should then prove the difference between the two sides. His redemption was complete.

It was the mirth of the Oxford fans, impressively loud throughout, that was the first to take a blow. On 32 minutes, James May slipped a through ball into the feet of Danny Kerrigan. Although the forward appeared to scuff his shot, it had just enough momentum to take it past Tom Haigh, the visiting goalkeeper. It was the turn of the home fans to celebrate, as the entire Light Blues team rushed to congratulate the goalscorer. Shell-shocked, Oxford became increasingly ineffective and last year’s player of the year Ezra Rubenstein cut an isolated figure on the right. Cambridge were in the ascendency, at last looking dangerous in the final third, and it was only a matter of time before they scored another. Ten minutes to be precise. A throw in from full back Ant Childs on the right was chested down by Haitham Sherif. He placed a deft touch into the path of skipper Hartley who arrived on the edge of the box to curl home Cambridge’s second.

2-0 up going into the second period, Cambridge looked to continue where they left off. Totten’s work down the right flank was threatening a breakthrough but a rare lack of composure from Kerrigan when through on goal prevented a third. Totten himself hit the bar soon after but in the titanic goalmouth scramble that ensued Cambridge were unable to fashion a clean shot on goal. Down at the other end, Oxford were creating little of note and Healy’s long throws were dealt with comfortably by the Cambridge defence.

That was soon to change though as the Dark Blues won an innocuous looking free-kick in their own half. As had been their tactic for much of the game, they used this opportunity to send over an early cross. Totten was the unwitting victim. With ball arriving at pace, he could do little but divert it beyond his own keeper. Suddenly Oxford were back in the contest and it was Cambridge’s turn to panic. The Light Blues passing was interrupted by an increasingly scrappy playing surface and their confidence appeared to be sapping. Both teams were tiring as the game opened up, but, inexplicably, it was Oxford who profited when it mattered. Having looked solid for the previous 80 minutes, Cambridge’s defenders somehow allowed substitute Sam Donald to dance through a series of weak tackles. Just when the angle looked to conspire against him, Donald squeezed a low shot past the Blues’ Stef Karakashian at the near post.

For all their dominance, Cambridge had let a two goal lead slip; their soft underbelly exposed at the most inopportune moment. Since extra time was dispensed with, it was straight to penalties. So often referred to as a ‘lottery’ it was no luck, but an amalgamation of nerve and skill that saw Cambridge through. After Oxford’s Anthony Beddows had missed his side’s fifth, responsibility fell to Totten to send the home fans and players into raptures. Dancing under the spray of champagne post game, they will feel it has been worth the wait.

In spite of this match’s great tradition – this was the 128th edition of the Varsity football – there are still questions about its relevance in an age when the Premier League is so dominant. It is alleged that 50 000 showed up at the Oval to watch the teams compete in the first ever match in 1874. Indeed, even four years ago, this fixture would have been played at Fulham’s Craven Cottage, on the banks of the Thames. Considering that the Varsity Rugby match still demands the use of Twickenham, one is left under little illusion as to the pecking order of university sport. Not that it mattered to those 715 hardy souls who did pack the tiny ground. With little separation between the Oxford and Cambridge fans, the repartee between supporters ebbed and flowed as the game grew in excitement.

Felix de Grey