There is an Oxford – Oxford, Mississippi – where the sport of ‘football’ and the home town Ole Miss Rebels draw a cult following, a crowd of tens of thousands of people to watch at every game. Not in this Oxford.
On the last Wednesday night practise before the Varsity Bowl game against the Cambridge Pythons, the Oxford Lancers are suiting up outside the community centre behind the station on Botley Road. No lights, no grandstands, no changing rooms. The only football posts around here are eight feet tall and twenty-four feet wide.
This doesn’t seem to bother the team as they prepare. Unlike their counterparts across the pond, where local glory, scholarship opportunities, and decades of tradition are enough to make anyone want to run head first into someone twice their size, the players on this college football team have simpler motivations: camaraderie, love of the sport and the prospect of beating Cambridge.
How could it be otherwise? Though football (of the American variety) is developing a decent following here, there is no football culture like there is in the US. Most of the Lancers are British, and all of them found the game independently. For many, Oxford is their first opportunity to suit up and join a team.
Some, like Wide Receiver Zak Carroll, are taking the chance to play a sport they grew up with. Originally from Missouri but doing part of his degree here, I asked if he played college ball at home, “No” he chuckles wryly, “I’m not good enough for that. It’s been good to get to play here.” Millions of dollars of revenue, huge TV audiences and borderline professional student athletes often comes at the expense of amateur, community football beyond the high-school level in the States.
After warming up as a squad, the players split into two teams to practise the punt phase of the game, a play where one side kicks to a player on the other, usually one of the fastest and most elusive on the team, and proceed to try and knock them down at full speed. Although the players are under strict instruction not to hit too hard to avoid unnecessary last-minute injury, there is enough intensity to make you see the brutality of this phase.
Following this, the squad breaks up into individual position drills: footwork and agility for the Defensive Backs and blocking schemes for the Offensive Line. This close to the Varsity Bowl the coaches are walking a fine line between dealing up intensity and protecting players from flaring up niggling injuries. Regardless the intent is palpable, particular in an aggressive one-on-one blocking drill done by the Wide Receivers.
Taking a team of mixed experience to a competitive Bowl game, as Head Coach Adam Goldstein has done, is no small task. Often short of a full squad due to the inevitable injuries and essay crises, his players sometimes have to learn the fundamentals of multiple positions to fill in and adapt.
Some, clearly veterans of the sport act as secondary coaches, showing the less experienced players the technicalities of hand placement and footwork or explaining the nuances of a certain strategic point. Canadian postgrad Rob Main takes responsibility for training up the Offensive Linemen, the big guys whose responsibilities include protecting the passer and clearing space for the ball carriers.
Last reps of individual drills complete, the team unites again for scrimmage: a play-by-play simulation of an actual eleven-a-side game. Here the complexities of the sport become tangible. Led by Quarterback Will Szymanski, the offensive team needs to work completely in sync, with blockers forming a solid wall, pass catchers or ball runners knowing their assignments, and Will knowing exactly where to distribute the ball for the unfolding defensive strategy. It’s no wonder the team meets for strategy sessions on top of a couple practise sessions per week. Having grown up around football in Michigan, Will seems perfect for the job, managing the huddle, co-ordinating plays and completing some deep passes. Led by Josh Allen, the defence is equally poised, using effort of skill to apply constant pressure to the Quarterback, disrupt passes and hunt down the ball carrier.
“Last snap.” Quarterback Will Szymanski calls out to the huddle signalling the final play of the final practise before taking the field on Friday. Whatever the result, it’s a testament to the Lancers that amidst Oxford’s most hectic social and academic term, they’re still out here playing football. No crowd, no scholarships, no tradition. Just the team, the sport, and beating Cambridge.