Oxford triumph in dull Varsity clash after keeper Nick Baker keeps out a penalty before Luther Sullivan secures the spoils for the visitorsCambridge 0Oxford 1
In 1988, the 53 year old tradition of staging Varsity football at Wembley came to an end. As the annual contest between Dark and Light Blue continued to descend in a spiral of declining prestige it was felt the falling attendances were not large enough to justify a day trip to the home of English football. Just 7,000 people turned up that year to witness Cambridge take victory; a sorry figure when compared to the heady days of the 1950s when 100,000 fans would pack the Wembley terraces to see the two teams clash beneath those famous towers.
What then can be said of the 826 unhappy souls whose strained voices rippled round Cambridge United’s empty Abbey Stadium one cold night last Hilary Term? A pitiful figure for a fixture that has as much history as the FA Cup Final. A number that looks even more pathetic when compared to the 50,000 Varsity supporters who still make the yearly pilgrimage to Twickenham every December. Perhaps the Oxford student looks to find greater gratification at the end-of-term bop or in the classic ‘entertainment’ offered by a night of Comic Relief, rather than ninety minutes in the cold and a decidedly dodgy hotdog.
The Oxford players, at least, were willing to treat the contest with all the commitment and energy that history demands. Their victory, over a Cambridge side classed as favourites beforehand, was rarely pretty, but Oxford’s grit and determination meant it was never anything less than deserved. Those who feared the poor turnout may impact on the players could not have been more wrong.
For sixty minutes, however, those who decided to stay in Oxford would have been thankful as the erratic performances of both sides betrayed their nerves on the big stage. Oxford started tensely, too often looking for the killer pass and relinquishing possession too easily. Had it not been for the heroics of keeper Nick Baker, they would have found themselves out of the contest before the half hour mark.
His first contribution was a penalty stop from Cambridge’s Alex Mugan. From a short corner Mugan was felled clumsily in the area. He picked himself up only to see Baker at full-stretch to prevent a certain Cambridge goal and deny him a place in the history books. He continued to prove his worth to the Blues with another superb save moments later. With the ball crashing around the six-yard box Baker leapt at the feet of Chris Turnbull and halted the Light Blue defender in his tracks before it was finally scrambled clear.
Baker’s heroics did not exactly light the Dark Blue touch paper, but they did seem to rouse Oxford from their first half slumber and for the rest of the game they looked the more assured side. They kept the ball better in midfield and the two wingers started to get more joy down the flanks. The Cambridge right back, in particular, looked positively terrified of the trickery and pace of Ricky Tavares.
It was his counterpart on the right flank, however, who would have the most impact on the second half. Without the antics of Baker, Luther Sullivan would surely have taken the Man of the Match award and it was his goal on the hour mark that sent Oxford into raptures. A long ball from Jack Hazzard was brilliantly controlled by the winger and, with raw and frightening pace, he forced his way into the area before coming back onto his left foot and delicately curling the ball into the top corner.
It was a brilliantly simple goal that had been on the cards for a while. Indeed, the unusually subdued Jamie Forrest should have given Oxford the lead ten minutes earlier, but, in an almost identical position, his shot dribbled wide.
Oxford had further chances to settle the game through Nat Armstrong and, most notably, James Perkins, whose shot from the edge of the box was well saved by Duncan Heath in the Cambridge goal. As it was, though, Sullivan’s solitary goal was enough as Oxford, despite late anxiety, hung on for victory. It was far from a spectacular triumph but it is not as if the Dark Blues will care. Their name goes into the annals of history and, after all, no-one was there to see it.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005