Oxford won the 126th Varsity football match on penalties after a pulsating 1-1 draw at the Abbey Stadium on Friday night. A stunning 90th minute free kick from James Kelly forced the shootout in which a brilliant save from Dwayne Whylly, and five flawless shots from the Dark Blues, ensured a famous victory.
Despite the excellent condition of the pitch both sides seemed to struggle early on and the game was scrappy and nervy. It was Oxford who managed to take the early initiative, creating three clear cut chances that really should have been taken. First centre back Elliot Thomas sent a header woefully wide from close range, then just three minutes later the same player had another header cleared off the line and eventually scrambled away by the desperate Cambridge defence. Oxford’s best chance of the half fell to Adam Zagajewski minutes later. Having found himself completely free in the box he failed to connect with his header at all, giving the light blues another huge escape.
Oxford were made to pay for their wastefulness in front of goal on the half hour mark. In one of Cambridge’s first forays forward, Matt Stock cleverly turned Thomas in the box and went to ground. Referee Lee Mason showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot to give what was a clear penalty. Mark Baxter stepped up to calmly slot home and put Cambridge into a lead they barely deserved. Oxford appeared rattled by the goal and nearly conceded again soon after, Whylly having to acrobatically tip Baxter’s swirling corner over the bar.
After the half time break, Oxford continued to dominate, but could not find the breakthrough they needed. Despite plenty of possession they were unable to convert it into any goal scoring chances. As the sides tired both managers brought on substitutes. The energetic Ben Quigley came on for Oxford, offering some solidity in midfield and allowing Julian Austin to move into a more forward thinking position. Despite this good intent every Oxford attack was comfortably dealt with by the impressive Cambridge backline.
Oxford were leaving themselves open at the back and the lightning fast Danny Kerrigan was causing major problems on the break for the dark blue defence. With only a few minutes remaining he appeared to have won his side a second penalty when he went down under a clumsy challenge in the area. Premier League referee Mason waved away the loud appeals however, much to the frustration of the majority inside the stadium.
This frustration was even more keenly felt when Mason awarded the Dark Blues a contentious free kick seconds later after a foul on Quigley. But there were no complaints about what followed. Kelly stepped up to curl an unstoppable effort over the wall and into the bottom corner – sending the Oxford players and supporters into delirium. An extra fifteen minutes was therefore required, but the players were obviously exhausted with several collapsing with cramp during the period. It seemed that both sides were happy to accept the lottery of the penalty shoot out.
Quigley calmly put the Dark Blues into the lead, and then Oxford’s second match winner came to the fore. Keeper Whylly flew to his right to tip Baxter’s effort onto the post, the ball dribbling back across the line and away, agonisingly or beautifully depending on where your loyalties lie. Successful penalties from Austin, Laurence Ball and Kelly meant that Cambridge’s Kerrigan had to score his penalty to keep the light blues in the contest.
Once more Whylly flew across his goal to keep the ball out, cuing the Oxford celebrations.
But the drama was still not over. Mason ordered the kick to be retaken because Whylly had moved off his line to make the save, and the second time around Kerrigan found a way past. So it fell to Thomas to take the kick that would ensure dark blue victory. Showing composure that was absent from his earlier chances he calmly struck the ball into the corner, and sent his teammates into ecstasy. Winning a Varsity match is always sweet, but from these celebrations it appears that winning it in this dramatic fashion in your opponent’s back yard may just make it even sweeter.