Oxford will go into Sunday’s Varsity football matches as slight favourites as they aim for a double victory for the third consecutive year.
The fixtures, which will be played at Barnet’s North London home, The Hive, are being played as a double-header for just the second time, even though the Varsity Match is widely believed to be the oldest regular fixture in world football.
They will also mark a first in Oxbridge sporting history: as Cherwell revealed in January, this is the first time in a major sport that the women’s fixture has formed the second half of a double-header.
OUAFC and OUWAFC told Cherwell: “The decision to play the women’s game second was a joint decision with all four teams agreeing: alternating the order seemed the obviously fair way to run the event.”
After underwhelming ticket sales last year, the club is understood to be optimistic about Sunday’s attendance, especially with the fixture returning to Boat Race weekend.
Around 1000 tickets have been sold so far, and they are still available here.
Oxford finished third in this year’s Bucs Midlands 1A, two points off winners Cambridge. The Dark Blues made a strong start to the season, and were top of the league at the end of Michaelmas, but dropped points against the bottom two – Warwick and Oxford Brookes – damaged their title chances.
A postponement to the original fixture meant that the final two games of the season would be against Cambridge, and Oxford knew that defeat was not an option.
But, unfortunately, a 1-0 loss in the away leg meant that the Light Blues sealed the title with a game to spare.
However, a 2-0 victory in the home fixture against the same opposition means that Oxford go into Varsity with the upper hand; and with last year’s hero Dom Thelen scoring twice and getting sent off in that game, it is clear that the Dark Blues are up for a fight.
The Women’s Blues enjoyed a stellar league season after the disappointment of relegation in 2016/17.
The Dark Blues won Bucs Midlands 2B at a canter, ending the season seven points clear of second-placed Warwick, and were defeated just once in the league.
In fact, the Blues conceded only once in their four league games in 2018, and put eight past opponents Northampton in the final fixture to seal the title.
And they were not far away from sealing a rare league-and-cup double: following a convincing run of four wins to reach the final, Oxford were beaten 6-5 by cross-city rivals Brookes in the Midlands Conference Cup, and finished as runners-up.
Their opponents have struggled in the division above – Midlands 1A – this season, finishing fourth out of six teams. Indeed, Cambridge have conceded 26 goals in their ten league fixtures this season: Oxford’s forwards will be keen to test a leaky defence right from the start.
Thelen’s opener in last season’s Varsity sent Oxford on the path to victory, and his goalscoring form has continued in 2017/18. He has netted 16 times in 18 appearances this season, and match-winning braces in derby games against Cambridge and Brookes underline his ability to rise to the occasion.
Slade, who set up the first of Becca May’s three goals in last season’s fixture, will be one of Oxford’s main attacking threats on Sunday. A hat-trick against Bedfordshire was the standout performance in an impressive season for Slade, who will look to make the difference in her second Varsity.
Urwin put in a stellar performance at left wing-back in last season’s Varsity, but is likely to form part of a back three on Sunday. He will look to spray channel balls to wing-backs Jack Witt and Jamie Shaw, and is deadly from a set-piece situation. However, his heading ability will be particularly important: Cambridge’s Stefan Wolf has tested sides all season with his delivery, and Urwin will need to be on top of his game to make sure his corners don’t do too much damage.
Leon, a graduate student, is vastly experienced player. She spent 2016/17 playing for Sunderland in the Women’s Super League, and previously enjoyed a stint with Chievo Verona in Italy. Leon has been a vital addition to the Blues squad this campaign, and although she will likely start up front, her role goes beyond simply finding the back of the net: the majority of Oxford’s attacking moves go through her.
Witt was the match-winner in Brookes Varsity with a wonderful, curled effort from the edge of the box, but it is his energetic running and defensive ability that will be put to the test on Sunday. If he is tasked with marking Ben Bolderson, Cambridge’s diminutive attacking midfielder, then Witt will have a busy day defensively; if Bolderson is on the other flank, then it will be Witt’s responsibility to push on and help out in attack.
A rock at the back, Hooper has captained the Blues with credit in 2017/18, and will lead the side out in what is her third Varsity. Her side conceded only eight goals in ten league games, and is part of an experienced defence that contains fellow returning Blues Lucy Harper and Claudia Hill. Hooper’s defensive nous will be crucial, but her creative ability may also prove important: she impressed in Brookes Varsity when playing the ball out from the back.
Oxford squads to play Cambridge:
1. Sean Gleeson, Exeter
2. Jamie Shaw, Hertford
3. Leo Ackerman, Somerville
4. Laurence Wroe*, Pembroke
5. Cian Wade*, Green Templeton
6. Sam Hale*, Worcester
7. Mohamed Eghleilib, Harris Manchester
8. Wulfie Bain*, Brasenose
9. Dominic Thelen*, Wycliffe Hall
10. Till Wicker, St Catherine’s
11. Takahiro Tsunoda, Wolfson
13. Jack Witt, Hertford
15. Alex Urwin*, Exeter (captain)
17. Tom Faktor, Pembroke
18. Harry Langham, Wadham
20. Matthew Naylor, Merton
1. Anna Garcia, Madgalen
3. Claudia Hill*, Linacre
4. Kiah Rutz, Kellogg
5. Maddie Hooper*, LMH
6. Issy Stainsby, New
7. Lucy Harper*, St Peter’s
8. Helen Bridgman*, St Hugh’s
9. Mary Hintze*, Trinity
10. Beverly Leon, Green Templeton
11. Sherona Claro Forrester, Linacre
12. Ellana Slade*, Trinity
13. Louise Nolan*, Wadham
15. Erin Robinson, Oriel
16. Katie Plummer*, Wadham
19. Brigid Lahiff, Regent’s Park
20. May Martin*, Hertford
* denotes returning blue