The Oxford Women’s Blues took on the Tabs in the 36th Women’s Varsity Football match on the 13th of March 2022. The historic Abbey Stadium in Cambridge was swathed in alternate patches of enchanting navy and murky green as OUAFC and CUAFC supporters filled the stands. After a tense 2-2 draw in normal time, the Dark Blues came out on top 4-1 in penalties.
Captain Maddy Kowalenko and new head coach Kaveh Fatemian led the squad of 20 players, which includes Club President Alessandra David and Women’s Vice-President Alice Nichols. Previously restricted by the pandemic, the Blues were able to enjoy their first uninterrupted season in two years. They narrowly missed out on the top position in their BUCS league, made the cup semi-final, and won the Brookes Varsity match 5-0. Victory against Cambridge is the highlight of an impressive season. With this back-to-back Varsity win, which follows a decisive 3-0 triumph in 2021, the team closes the gap between Cambridge’s tally of 20 victories against Oxford’s 13 (now 14). This success is all the more impressive in light of the fact that the Blues played the first half without their coach. Kaveh welcomed his first child, a boy named Arya, the day before the match. In his absence, the team appointed Ellana Slade, a veteran player, to act as head coach on the day. Kaveh then surprised them by showing up at half-time and staying until the end of the match. Double congratulations to him on the birth of his firstborn and the Blues’ win.
The game kicked off at 1:30pm in rainy conditions. Cambridge looked dominant in the first few minutes, with some nice sequences of passing and a shot just wide of the goal. Oxford’s first chance came when Iona Bennett’s cross found Grace Molloy, who hit the cross bar in the 8th minute. Erin Robinson smashed the rebound into the back of the net, but the goal was chalked off for offside. Just five minutes later, David pounced on Molloy’s well-placed pass down the left flank and fired a beautiful strike past the Cambridge goalkeeper from the edge of the box. 1-0 Oxford.
Undaunted by this early setback, the Light Blues pushed into Oxford’s defensive third. In the 20th minute, just after putting a shot over the bar, Cambridge’s Erin Davies tapped in a cool pass from Isobel Boothroyd for the equaliser. The two sides traded attacks for the remainder of the first half, with Cambridge perhaps looking like the more dangerous team. Oxford did well to defend five corners and a couple of shots on goal. After playing well in the first half, goalkeeper Iona Ffrench-Adam injured her finger saving a corner and was replaced by Emmie Halfpenny. Taiye Lawal’s interceptions in the midfield disrupted the Tabs’ momentum, and defenders Roza Bailey, Alice Nichols, Bells Wordsworth and Francisca Vasconcelos proved an impenetrable wall. Ultimately, both defences held firm, and the teams headed into the tunnel for half-time level at 1-1.
Following consistent Cambridge pressure in the first few moments of the second half, Davies broke through the Oxford defence and used her left foot to hammer the ball into the top right corner in the 47th minute. Cambridge settled comfortably into their lead, calmly working the ball in their own half and maintaining possession with ease. There were a nerve-wracking 25 minutes for Oxford fans as they watched the Dark Blues struggle to equalise. Somewhat scrappy play from both sides saw more balls hit over the stands than shots. In the 71st minute, Robinson capitalised on a defensive fumble to skilfully put the ball past the Cambridge goalkeeper, eliciting a roar from the OUAFC stands. Oxford were back in the game. This sensational, much-needed goal was a fitting end to Robinson’s career at OUAFC, during which she oversaw the merging of the Oxford University Men’s and Women’s football clubs and acted as Club President in the 2020-1 season.
In the last 20 minutes of play, substitutes Sofia Aujla-Jones and Emily Hoyle came on for the Dark Blues. The defences held strong in the face of solid chances on both ends. Oxford goalkeeper Emmie Halfpenny did well to keep her nerve as a Cambridge corner led to a shot just over the bar in extra time. Despite both teams’ best efforts to snag a winner in the dying minutes of the game, the score was 2-2 at full time. The crowd got to their feet and the Oxford team huddled together as they prepared themselves for a penalty shootout.
The Dark Blues and Light Blues stretched out along the halfway line, their arms around their teammates. Stepping up to take the first penalty, Grace Molloy sent the Cambridge keeper the other way as she buried the ball in the top left corner. After a Cambridge goal, Captain Maddy Kowalenko calmly positioned the ball before scoring in the top right corner. Oxford keeper Emmie Halfpenny saved the next penalty. Club Women’s Vice President Alice Nichols placed her penalty in the top left corner, out of the Cambridge keeper’s reach. Halfpenny saved her second penalty to set up Alessandra David for the winner. David, a former Club Women’s Vice-President and the current Club President, has played on the Blues squad for three years. With the final kick of her OUAFC career, David scored in the bottom left corner to win the 36th Women’s Varsity match.
Oxford fans erupted into applause as the team celebrated together before running to their supporters in the stands. Exhibiting great sportsmanship, the teams applauded each other as they collected their medals and Mandy Wainwright of CUAFC presented the trophy to the captain. Overall, the game was incredibly even; both sides played impressive football and should be proud of themselves. It is no doubt disappointing for the Cambridge team to concede defeat on penalties. Ultimately, however, the Tabs failed to turn possession into convincing chances. Halfpenny’s heroics in goal and the fantastic Oxford penalties also merit credit for the victory. At the end of the day, Oxford handled the penalty shootout, which took place under the watchful eyes of the 2,000 strong crowd, with more composure than Cambridge. The Dark Blues thoroughly deserve the Varsity trophy, which is the crowning achievement of the 2021-2 season.
The captain Maddy Kowalenko is eager to remember Charlotte Maple and Olivia Walk, who made the squad of 16 but did not play, and the rest of the team: Ellana Slade, Amelia Levitt-Smith, Daisy Connolly, and Jessica Cullen. The consistent effort and commitment of the entire squad throughout the whole season put the Varsity squad in an ideal position and contributed to the win. Oxford University is very proud of the Blues and their victory at the 36th Women’s Varsity football match.
Image Credit: Kane Smith