While the Varsity Boat Race on Saturday afternoon was giving the security staff present a busier afternoon than they might have been expecting, there was another meeting of Oxford and Cambridge courtesy of the humorists at the Southern Football League, who scheduled the match between Oxford City and Cambridge City. Andrew Cherrie travelled down to the Oxford City Stadium to see a dead heat between two of the stalwarts of the leagues Premier Division, who are both still chasing play-off places at the top of the table.
There was a point approaching just over the half way mark on Saturday where it seemed as though Oxford were destined to pull into an unassailable lead. Setting a frantic pace and exerting all the pressure upon their Cambridge counterparts, the sheer power and athleticism of the boys in blue proving superior to anything that those in white could rustle up. Cambridge toiled and struggled and bravely managed to find the resolve to earn themselves a result that many watching would have considered as an unforeseen outcome. Oxford and Cambridge fought an unrelenting physical battle, with each side striving for the same fundamental accolade: escape from the Evo-Stik League Southern Premier Division. Jugs of Pimms and criminally overpriced Jack Wills hoodies were thankfully absent at Court Place Farm on Saturday afternoon as Oxford City took on Cambridge City in what was dubbed by one enthused onlooker as ‘a bit like the boat race but not as good’. Whether by sheer coincidence or due to some clever sod on the Southern League fixtures panel aligning the two, the second clubs of Oxford and Cambridge kicked off just minutes after the ill fated 158th varsity boat race had drawn to a close.
Oxford City are an exceedingly well run club for this level, with the recently revamped Community Arena sporting gleaming 3G artificial pitches which compliment City’s status as a fully recognised FA Charter Standard Community Club and excellent recreational facilities housed within the underwhelming yet perfectly sized Court Place Farm. After City were forced into exile by the termination of their lease on the historic White House Ground in 1988, oblivion beckoned with the club forced to field a side in Oxfordshire’s Youth League before successive promotions and numerous financial backers meant City were able to move into the new ground on the outskirts of the Oxford in 1994. Under the stewardship of chairman Brian Cox, however, City have subsequently become the model of a modest non-league club working well within their financial means, with links to the community being the fulcrum on which to balance. Mix fortunes have followed in recent years, with sporadic runs to the FA Cup proper and a place in the top tier of the Southern League accounting for the most notable of successes.
The 2011/2012 season, however, could well mark the final passage of City’s resurrection. Managed by former Oxford United player and caretaker manager Mike Ford, the Hoops have made a sustained push for promotion heading into the dying embers of the season. Coming into the weekend four points off leaders Brackley with a game in hand, Oxford have attainable aspirations of reaching the heights scaled by opponents Cambridge City for four seasons between 2004 and 2008, the Conference South. The Lilywhites delighted in being just one level below neighbours United during that period, but a failure to meet FA Ground Regulations meant a demotion which they have yet to atone for. However, with City of the Cambridge variety lingering around the play-offs, the stakes in this encounter were far higher than the trivial nonsense occurring some 60 miles east along the Thames.
A prevailing myth which circulates without foundation around the rest of the country is that the people of Oxford and Cambridge actually give a monkeys about the boat race. They don’t. At all. As the teams emerge, those who were huddled around the TV in the clubhouse quickly forget about the chaotic events unfolding on the waterways and stream onto the terraces for the day’s main event, pints of hugely delicious and dangerously drinkable Brakspear Oxford Gold in hand. With Oxford United in action the previous evening, a healthy crowd of 367 is present, composed in part of 30 or so visitors intent on stirring varsity tensions with a hearty vocal performance behind the goal. In the second period the away contingent make a great effort, with a variety of flags strewn upon the back of the stand and occasional outbursts of chanting perhaps putting some Football League followings to shame. Whilst loyalty and dedication are ever present features of supporting a club at this level, genuine exterior displays of fanatical culture is often lacking – Cambridge City fans seem intent on changing this. A small pocket of Oxford fans at the opposite end counter with what appears to be a blue smoke grenade, but its timidity leaves the majority of those in the ground thinking the staff in the kiosk just behind the goal have overdone the burgers.
The match itself did the belie the lively antics on the terraces. Oxford begin the brightest, trying in vain to play a neat passing game on a bobbly pitch against combative opponents. Two vastly experienced Football League veterans in the shape of Oxford’s striker Steve Basham and Cambridge centre-back David Theobald cancel on another out, with the most promising passages emerging from Oxford’s younger components. Declan Benjamin, a powerful centre-midfielder who made his Oxford United debut aged just 16, pulls the strings in the middle of the park and fires into the side netting from close range, with both himself and half those watching certain the ball went in. Cambridge are pushed back by Oxford’s vigour, 3-5-2 providing a flexible system with plenty of pace and width but lacking in ruthlessness. Cambridge’s only chance of note in the first-half comes as Robbie Nightingale stings Oxford keeper Jason Mooney’s palms.
And what big palms you have Mr Mooney. Despite his 6ft 9” frame, the goalkeeper on loan from Wycombe Wanderers showed good handling and agility to repel the sporadic Cambridge attacks. Most impressively however, Mooney was able to give 367 people simultaneous neck cramps as he contrived to smash the ball from penalty spot to penalty spot with enormous bouncing bomb drop kicks which panicked the startled Cambridge back line on numerous occasions.
Originally going with three up top, Cambridge soon reverted to 4-4-2 in the second half after being swamped by Oxford’s five in midfield, offering greater resistance against an increasingly offensive Hoops attack. Mark Bell weaved his way through the Cambridge defence but fluffed his lines at the vital moment, whilst a barrage of corners could not be converted by the home side. Oxford replaced the injured Basham with highly fancied striker Felipe Barcelos with five minutes to go, watched by the likes of Fulham and Reading of late. His first contribution was to break beyond the Cambridge rearguard with the freshly introduced Lilywhite substitute Neil Midgley in pursuit. Midgley had clearly taken heed of the youngster’s star potential and engaged in an attempt at premature shirt swap, presumably looking to secure a piece of memorabilia before Barcelos makes it to the big leagues. With the Oxford man through on goal and wrestled to the ground, Midgley was shown a straight red just minutes after coming on.
Midgley’s dismissal was the final piece talking point as Oxford were left with insufficient time to attain full authority with their man advantage. The Cambridge players applauded their traveling throng and would have left happiest having secured a vital, hard fought point which keeps them well within the play-off mix. Oxford meanwhile will have been disappointed not to have capitalised upon their superior possession and wealth of chances, dropping six points off leaders Brackley. However, for the often forgotten clubs of academia’s most famous city rivalry to be involved in a fixture with so much at stake and so much interest shown is a testament to the salience of both sides within their local communities. The eyes of the world may have been fixed upon the the shambolic scenes upon the Thames, but for the natives of Oxford and Cambridge only one battle truly mattered.
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