Blues footballers prepare to face Tabs

first_imgOne month from today, on Saturday 29th March 2008, Oxford take on Cambridge at Craven Cottage in the 124th Varsity Match. Coached by ex-Arsenal and England defender Martin Keown, Oxford are seeking to avenge two successive Varsity defeats, and to end their season on a high after regional playoff defeat at Exeter on Tuesday ended their promotion hopes, despite the Blues in fact winning their league with a heroic victory over title favourites Worcester. The stakes, as always, are high, as the build-up begins to the biggest date in the Oxford footballing calendar. The Varsity Match itself is one of the oldest regular fixtures in world football, having taken place every year since 1873 (with breaks for the First and Second World Wars). It has been played at some of football’s most prestigious venues, including Stamford Bridge, Highbury, White Hart Lane and even at Wembley – as well as at The Oval and The Queen’s Club. Statistically, it remains a tight affair, Oxford having notched up 48 wins to Cambridge’s 47, and having scored 193 goals to their 192. The last two years have seen defeats for Oxford, as Cambridge narrowly triumphed 1-0 in 2006 and then won on penalties last year after the game finished 1-1. Yet despite this impressive heritage, history only means so much. It is this year, this match, this coming 90minutes that is crucial to these players. Striker Alex Toogood was Oxford’s scorer last year, and remembers the experience as blowing him away. ‘It was absolutely amazing – the next five minutes were incredible, it was just like ‘wow’.’ Yet despite this euphoria, Toogood’s main feeling was one of ‘massive relief’, his goal coming as an equaliser to cancel out Cambridge’s early lead. The immense pressure to perform that is heaped upon the players is all too apparent; with so many friends and family coming to watch, as well as thousands of fans who judge players purely on that one performance, the stress involved is considerable. It seems this year that the emphasis upon the Varsity as a season-defining game is being discouraged in the Blues camp. As Toogood says, ‘the main thing is to treat it like any other game, and to enjoy it – we play football to enjoy ourselves, and we’ll play better if we’re enjoying it.’ Last season the Blues had a terrific year, yet were judged by many upon one defeat on penalties. This clearly annoys a lot of players, especially with the fear that it could happen again: as with last year, the Blues have had a great season, winning the BUSA Midlands Conference 1A title at the first attempt after promotion. It would be aggravating to see them judged by many as failures should they again lose in a oneoff game. In his second crack at the Varsity, Toogood is determined to relish the experience. ‘Last year I didn’t enjoy it, because we were all so focused and took it so seriously – my whole family and all my friends were there but I was barely able to look up.’ This time round, the lightning-fast Worcester hit-man is placing much more importance upon appreciating the occasion, and upon the Blues playing good football, working on the base they have built over the season under Keown. ‘He [Keown] has brought a lot of new ideas, got us playing a better style, keeping the ball on the ground and actually passing it around, playing nice football. If we play like we usually do we can easily win.’ This seems like a healthy attitude to take to such a pressured game. Despite so many supporters demanding victory at all costs, the Blues will do far better playing their own stylish brand of football that has brought them success than trying to adapt specially for Cambridge. The current Blues goalkeeper and OUAFC Sabbatical Officer, Nik Baker, is the most experienced of the squad when it comes to the Varsity game, having appeared in it in each of the last three seasons. Despite being ineligible this time round, his experience in the dressing game will surely be crucial to any success. When asked about the pressure surrounding the game, he too saw it as an important issue, but argued that the Blues are used to that kind of situation. ‘With the title run-in, all of our last three games have been must-win matches. We’re as well prepared as we can be, it shouldn’t come as a shock.’ Yet Baker acknowledged that a Varsity game can be a defining moment for any individual – you never know quite how someone will react until they run out on that pitch. ‘It’s just that kind of occasion: some rise to it, some freeze. It’s a real test of character.’ Baker certainly seems to have been one of those to have risen to the occasion. He made his Varsity debut in 2005 as a fresher at Keble, and was man-of-the-match, making a crucial penalty save as Oxford went on to win 1-0. Last year he added further to this reputation, making a series of superb second-half saves before going on to save the first three Cambridge penalties in the shootout. As a result, he knows what he’s talking about when he says that the game is a special experience. ‘It’s bad to define a season by the Varsity match, but it’s the one where everyone’s parents and friends make the effort, and it’s on a big ground. During the season we play in front of fifty or so people – at the Varsity it’s thousands. Everyone will make a snap judgement on that game, so you want to give the best possible account of yourself. It’s a good challenge!’ The Blues are trying to avoid too much special preparation for the game, putting confidence in their ability to win whilst playing their own game. Cambridge will be carefully watched over the next few weeks, but there will be no Allardyceesque ‘war room’ mentality down at Iffley Road. Small details are important, such as arriving early at Craven Cottage and looking round the pitch in mental preparation for seeing it again a few hours later – the only minor difference being the new presence of thousands of screaming fans on all sides. Nothing will be left to chance. Set-pieces will be carefully rehearsed, both attacking and defending, as it is often the small details that are forgotten quickest in the adrenaline-fuelled blur that is the game itself – a potentially crucial difference in a match that is so often decided by a single goal. As Baker says, when it comes to the Varsity, ‘the preparation just has to be that much more thorough’. There is also the ‘Keown Factor’. It was an amazing coup for Oxford to land Martin Keown as coach this season, arising from his desire to gain experience in his hometown whilst gaining his Uefa Coaching Badges. Having made 337 appearances for Arsenal and 594 professional appearances overall, gaining three Premier League titles, three FA Cup winner’s medals and 43 England caps in the process, Keown’s experience and leadership is an invaluable asset for the Blues. As keeper Baker simply states: ‘when he talks, people listen.’ With a reputation as one of the toughest defenders in football, it is easy to understand why, yet Keown’s off-field persona is extremely calm – there is no ‘hairdryer’ in the Oxford dressing room. He brings a huge amount to the team, from the way he demands high-quality, attractive passing football to his wealth of experience and tactical nous that can be called upon on critical occasions – such as the Varsity. As Baker tells us, Keown is able to get the absolute maximum out of his players, ‘demanding that much more from people because of what he’s achieved’; Toogood agrees, saying that ‘having him on the sidelines really makes people put in an effort!’ Come the 29th of March, Keown’s inspiring presence may be a crucial factor when the going gets tough. This week’s loss to Exeter will surely have hurt the Blues. Despite winning their league, promotion to a higher division rested on a playoff system; Exeter now go on to face Leeds in an inter-regional final, whilst Oxford remain where they are. Yet such a defeat has two silver linings: firstly, it means less travelling for a Blues team that already deals with huge timecommitments whilst balancing Oxford degrees, the perennial problem of all top-level Oxford sportsmen. Secondly (and more excitingly), it gives the Blues a massive incentive to end the year on a high by thrashing the Tabs. Tickets for the game can be purchased on the Fulham FC website,, with special deals for OUAFC members. Anyone who has been to one of these games before will know what a special and exciting occasion it is for players and fans alike, and what a great day out it can be. With the boat race on the same day, and Craven Cottage perfectly situated on the River Thames, there really is no excuse not to be there. When all is said and done, one fact remains: as Baker tells us, ‘this is a game we really, really want to win.’by George Kynastonlast_img

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