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Univ Football Day 2024

People playing football on field with 775 in gold on it2024 is a special year for University College, it being the 775th anniversary of its founding, and events throughout the year are benefitting from the celebration of this impressive milestone. The 17th Annual Football Day was given (more than) a touch of celebrity, as The Master arranged for *two* football legends to join us: Chris Hughton and Garth Crooks. The excitement generated by the news of their attendance pushed participant numbers up markedly from the previous year, with 2 teams returning to the action after 1 or more years away: the John Davis “80s Blacks”, and the Nigel Holmes early 2000s “Yellow Vets” (previously the “Dark Blues”). There was some anxiety with a week to go – a lot of pitches up and down the country were underwater, including one just up the road, after one of the wettest Februarys on record, but Robbie’s sterling work meant that our pitches were, as always, in perfect condition on the day.

The preparation done, the day arrived. At 10 am, the setting was, even more than usual, a joy to behold. Julie and her team at the college were busily putting the finishing touches to the scene, with garlands of balloons on the gazebos, and a large 775 had been emblazoned on the grass by the rugby posts. The weather was even good. Well, it wasn’t raining; well, not too much at least.

The refs, Rob and Richard, arrived in good time, to be briefed by referee organiser Alex Watson, although they both politely declined his makeshift yellow and red (or was it pink?) cards, trusting (perhaps optimistically) on the good nature of the players, and (very reasonably) on their own ability to control them. A few non assigned players were floating around at this point, looking for a team, and were quickly snapped up by various captains eager to strengthen their benches, or make it to 11 before the first game.

The games kicked off at 11am, with The New Reds (captained by Alex Watson) facing the MCR (Jack Saunders) on the near pitch, and the Greens (Sean Ogilvie) vs the New Grads (James Raftery, non-playing this year due to an impending date with the London Marathon) on the far pitch. The New Reds, though trophy winners at every tournament since 2018 and therefore a hot tip before the tournament, were 3-0 down within 5 minutes. As Alex put it afterwards: “It turns out that 35 to 38-year-olds without a warm-up will struggle against 25 to 28-year-olds with a warm up”. 3-0 it remained, the MCR putting an early marker down, while the Greens and the New Grads had to settle for a point a-piece after a 0-0 stalemate.

In the second round of games, the MCR edged out the New Grads 1-0, while the New Reds, now sufficiently warmed up, beat the JCR (Tim Auth) by the same one goal margin. Just a single goal was scored in the next 4 games: the JCR beat the New Grads 1-0, but the Greens drew a blank against both the MCR and the New Reds, and the JCR v MCR local derby / grudge match also ended scoreless.

The final round of the Youth group stage saw the JCR beat the Greens 1-0 in yet another very tight match, while the New Grads scored their first win (and goals) against the New Reds, beating them 2-0. At the final count, the MCR won the group, undefeated and without conceding, and progressed to the Gerry Fitzsimons Cup along with the JCR and the New Grads. The New Reds lost out on goal difference and went to the Bill Sykes Cup along with The Greens, who had not at this point managed to score a goal.

The Vets tournament began at 12.45 with, as mentioned above, a welcome return for the Davis 80s XI and a first appearance in the senior tournament for the Holmes early 2000s XI, who had secured a brand new yellow kit to mark the occasion. The first round of games was cagey, but saw two narrow 1-0 wins, one for the 90s Reds (led by Matt Clothier and the absent-this-year Aman Mahal) v the 80s Blacks, and one for the Yellow Vets v the 70s Oranges (captain Bob Gamble). The author managed to score for the Reds but injured himself in the process and contributed little else for the afternoon (though still on the pitch for a good part of it). The cagey theme continued in the second round, with two more very tight games, the Oranges equalising in the last minute to make it 1-1 after falling behind to a Sacha Grimsditch wonder strike for the 90s Reds. In the other game, the Yellow Vets squeezed past the Blacks 1-0. The floodgates opened in the final match though, with more goals (7) in these two games than the previous four combined (5), the Reds falling apart against the Yellows (0-3), and likewise the Blacks against the Oranges (0-4).

At this point the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. That is, Garth and Chris arrived, with College Master Valerie Amos. Sir Robin Butler was also in attendance. As was later mentioned at the presentation, it’s a likely bet that none of the players on show had ever played in front of two such well known ex-professional players. In fact, it would be safe to claim that they aren’t accustomed to playing in front of any spectators at all. In short, this was an incredibly unusual experience. Nevertheless, both Chris and Garth were keen to get to the pitch-side as quickly as possible to sample the talent on display, where they met the players, enjoyed the football and ambience, and tactfully declined the inevitable requests for them to join the fray on this side or the other. Their presence made for a wonderful atmosphere, and we are all very grateful that they took the time to come along.

The tournament format was, as ever, a little on the Byzantine side, with all nine teams qualifying for the knock-out, and any team in theory having the chance to win either of the tournaments (the Gerry Fitzsimons Cup and the Bill Sykes Challenge Cup). The first knock-out game saw a play-off between the bottom ranked teams of each group, the Greens and the 80s Blacks, which saw a convincing win for the Greens and an exit for the Blacks. Although this was not the glorious return hoped for by the Blacks, we very much hope they will be back to have another go next year (and for years to come).

And so to the semis. In the Bill Sykes Cup, the New Reds swatted away the Old 90s Reds 3-0, who had steadily declined after a promising first one and a half games. In the second semi, the Greens beat the Oranges, who, conversely, got better and better as the tournament progressed, and were looking like possible finalists. But after a Green free kick into the box was cleared and the danger seemingly averted, an improvised lob back across goal from Josh Broughton broke the Oranges’ hearts. Just minutes from the final, this was another great tournament for the Oranges.

In the Gerry Fitzsimons Cup on the near pitch, the Yellow Vets sampled the joys of playing against the Youth 5 years on from the last time, to be soundly beaten by a strong JCR 3-1, while the MCR beat the New Grads even more convincingly: 5-1 (it had finished 1-0 just a few hours earlier).

The finals kicked off, a few minutes after schedule, the JCR lining up against the MCR in the Gerry Fitzsimons Cup on the near pitch, with the Greens facing the New Reds in the Bill Sykes Cup on the far pitch, an exact repeat (bar the pitches) of the fourth round of the Youth Group Stage (to save you the pain of having to check up above, both games had ended goalless). Both games were again as tight as tight can be.

On the far pitch (Bill Sykes / Greens v Reds), there were good chances for both sides before Greens released Oli Crossley who needed two attempts to bundle in what turned out to be the winner. 1-0 to the Greens. Alex Watson said afterwards, “Our first outing without a trophy in six years will be filed as a disappointment. But the silver lining in our particular cloud was the fact that all four goals we scored were glorious hits from outside the box – including one each from our (notional) centre-backs. Three arrived in our semi-final, which kept us wondering: in all the football seen by our illustrious semi-final onlooker Chris Houghton, will he ever have been treated to such long-range precision?”.

On the near pitch (Gerry Fitzsimons / JCR v MCR), there was nothing in it, until an incident in the penalty box which saw the JCR appeal for, and receive, a penalty from referee Rob Rickman. Duly converted, the MCR had little time to respond, and the JCR were victorious.

The focus moved immediately to the pavilion, where the teams, spectators and celebrities gathered for the cup presentation. A number of thank yous were given, and I would like to repeat here: To Rob and Richard for superb refereeing performances – no need for those yellow and pink cards; to Julie Boyle and her team at the college for the huge amount of work that went into organising this very special “775” version of our event; to all of the captains for ensuring enough players on their teams arrived on the right day at the right place (not as easy as it might seem); to the first aider Chris Maskell; to the players; to the Master, Garth, Chris and all spectators; to Andy Carroll and Dan Keyworth for their key input and guidance; and, of course, to Robbie and his team for their brilliant work and continued support – without every one of these contributions this event couldn’t happen.

It was now time for the awards ceremony, which featured a new prize this year: the “Golden Shinpads”, awarded to the tournament’s highest scorer (or scorers). The first winners were Gus Woods from the MCR and Dan Merry from the Oranges, the latter of whom, it was noted, particularly by Garth and Chris, clearly did not look like he met the expected age criteria for an Oranges Vet – he appeared to be at least 30 years younger than someone in their 60s, in short because he is.

After Tim Auth and Sean Ogilvie received and lifted their respective Cups, Chris and Garth posed for photos with the victorious teams in front of the rugby posts, after which they were also requested to join the also-rans for the same. Chris quipped: “I don’t want to be seen with losers”, but he gallantly did all the same, to their delight.

The football over, attention turned to the rugby, where further heroics were on display as England beat Ireland with the last (drop) kick of the game, following which representatives from at least four sides pushed themselves to perform one last feat of the day, polishing off the set menu at the Tribe Curry House on Cowley Road barely 2 hours after their not insubstantial hog roast. A number of players then stayed at the College, so rounding off a perfect day.

Peter Chambers (1989, Maths)


Photos: John Cairns

Published: 9 April 2024

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