Cambridge came agonisingly close to winning the match in normal timeImran Marashli/Varsity

University of Cambridge 2

University of Oxford 2

Oxford win 5-3 on penalty shuffles

Men’s Blues Varsity Match, Southgate Hockey Club

Only penalty shuffles could separate Oxford and Cambridge in a dramatic and riveting men’s Varsity match on Sunday afternoon at Southgate Hockey Club. The culmination of the hockey calendar see-sawed endlessly throughout, but it was the goalkeeping heroics of Oxford’s George Oyebode at the end of a long series of shuffles that ultimately proved to be the difference between the two sides.

No quarter was given across the pitch in an engrossing opening half an hour of hockey, exemplified by water-tight defences that were seldom made to defend facing their own goal and seldom allowed runners to elude their markers in behind. Both teams used the aerial option effectively to gain territory in the face of high-intensity pressure, and whenever either side broke through via the by-line there was always a covering defender to keep the attacking waves at bay.

Flashes of individual trickery from Oxonians Andrew Oxburgh, Thomas Barrett and Henry Taylor were well marshalled by the solid organisation of Cambridge’s defence, led by Peter Akyol and Matt Cockerill. For Cambridge, captain Thomas Jackson and Edward Bottomley on the right flank threatened to escape the clutches of the Oxford defence at times, but neither side could find a defender’s foot in the D or a shot on goal to test the keepers. Bar occasional sparks of brilliance, the game had yet to ignite.

That changed in an instant near half-time as Oxford turned up the heat. Andrew Fanthorpe was denied brilliantly by a sliding Fergus Flanagan when he found himself with space in the middle of the D, but the resultant scramble produced the game’s first short corner. And Oxford took full advantage, Noah Francis producing an unstoppable drag flick into the bottom left corner to draw first blood. Cambridge won a short corner of their own soon afterwards, but when nothing resulted it meant that the Light Blues ended the half behind and encapsulated the fine margins on which such a match hinged.

Not feeling sorry for themselves, Cambridge came out roaring in the second half. Henry Rudd led the charge, his powerful dribbling and quick restart forcing Ryan Kavanagh off for a green card offence and earning a short corner that forced Oyebode into the first of several outstanding saves. But Cambridge were not to be denied: more great work from Rudd and Nipuna Senaratne brought the Light Blues to the threshold of the Oxford D, and a deflected drive looped over everyone to the lurking Jackson at the far post for the equaliser.

The game, so tightly locked for so long, now began to open up as Cambridge had to soak up some intense Dark Blue pressure. Alexander Copestake seemed to be in for Oxford only to be denied by a last-ditch reverse-stick sliding interception, while a fierce shot from Fanthorpe was narrowly deflected over Flanagan’s bar after the latter saved another short corner. The Caian was called into action again to thwart Jadon Buckeridge and Oxburgh, the second a remarkable double-save after he had stopped the initial short corner.

Despite these dicey moments for the Light Blues, they earned a goal out of nothing when a reverse-stick drive was deflected in the D and made its way to a Cantabrigian stick at the back post. Although Oyebode did well to block the first effort, the square ball presented Hugo Parry with a simple finish to turn the game around and give Cambridge a 2–1 lead.

But the lead was short-lived. Oxburgh’s endless enterprise on the left flank eked out a crossing opportunity on the by-line, and a combination of Flanagan and Akyol could not clear the ball immediately, allowing William Mooney to bundle the ball over the line and restore parity.

The Dark Blues harnessed their momentum to finish the match in the ascendancy, but could not find the winning goal. Cambridge were limited to counter-attacking play, and Ben Dudgeon came close with an off-target cross-goal shot, but it was Oxford who turned the screw towards the end. A Francis tomahawk was superbly saved by Flanagan, and he was denied again when his drag flick was deflected over in the last play of normal time. After 70 enthralling minutes of high-octane hockey, only penalty shuffles could decide the two teams’ fate.

Pin-drop silence descended upon Southgate Hockey Club.

It was the goalkeepers who distinguished themselves in the first 10 of a torturously long series of penalty shuffles. Most players attempted to shield the ball on one side before shifting over to the other and rounding the keeper, but often fell afoul of two inspired goalkeepers or the side-netting. Kieran Gilmore and Copestake scored for their respective sides to make it 1–1 after four shuffles, but then it was a tale of two keepers: Oyebode was on top form to thwart Jackson, Dudgeon, and Pyman, while Webster’s tomahawk variation was off target, but Flanagan was equal to the challenge to deny Francis, Conor Magowan, and Kavanagh.

So, on to another set of 10 shuffles we went. Oxford skipper Kavanagh gave his side the lead for the first time after Flanagan couldn’t clear his lines following a save, whereas Oyebode, crucially, scrambled the ball out of the D after denying Jackson again. 2–1 then became 3–1 when Copestake outmanoeuvred Flanagan, and now Cambridge were really under the cosh, with barely any margin for error. Gilmore, however, kept his cool and outfoxed Oyebode to keep the Light Blues in it. But now, in complete contrast with the first 10, the shuffles were being converted regularly, with Francis, Dudgeon and Magowan all scoring to leave the score at 5–3.

Hush descended once again as Pyman advanced to take his shuffle, needing to score. His first shot on the turn was blocked by Oyebode and, desperately scampering to retrieve the ball, the eight-second period ended to seal a most dramatic of wins for Oxford and Oyebode’s man of the match award.

Cue Oxford’s cathartic pile-on celebration and utter dejection for the Light Blues. Nevertheless, after winning five out of the seven Varsity games this year across all teams, Cambridge University Hockey Club can hold their heads up high.

CUHC: Flanagan, Akyol, Jackson (c), Webster, Cockerill, Rudd, Watts, Pyman, Senaratne, McNab, Larman, Gilmore, Hesketh, Dudgeon, Bottomley, Brooks

OUHC: Oyebode, Kavanagh (c), Buckeridge, Lilley, Williams, Francis, Magowan, Fanthorpe, Copestake, Oxburgh, Mooney, Jones, Taylor, Talbot, Morrison, Barrett