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Varsity Heartbreak

Tom Winnifrith
Saturday 16 March 2024

You get a different class of chant at the Oxford Cambridge women’s football match. Held in a 12,000 seater stadium, that of Cambridge United, more than 1,500 folks crammed into one stand made some noise. “I’d rather go to Durham than Oxford” they chanted. That is far more genteel abuse than that which daughter 2 and I used to hear at the old Upton Park.

As it happens her mother and her mother’s best friend went to Durham having been deemed chaff not wheat by the Oxbridge examiners and they were sitting next to me and took this abuse in their stride. Cambridge won three nil and were the better side. Some of my daughter’s chums were there in the stands holding placards with her name on it. That was good to see. I hope they were with her after the game.

My daughter had her name and photo in the programme and lined up with the team shaking hands along the line at the start.  But she was one of six on the bench and unlike the other five stayed on the bench all game. Showing a generosity and bravery I would not have done she ran onto the pitch with the rest of the dugout after the final whistle and high fived the coach, team huddled and celebrated with the rest of them. Knowing how she’d be feeling I’d walked down to pitch side before that final whistle and as she wandered off there was a big hug or two. She was devastated but had been hiding it well.

She has played every game this season, playing when called to even when sick. She missed only one training session (her Birthday and Cousin’s wedding being a fair excuse). She has been the top scorer this season. In the last game before the Varsity match she scored two so is in decent form. With unlimited subs, why the hell could the coach not have given her 10 or 20 minutes at the end with his side already three nil up and cruising?

Daughter 2 sacrificed a lot for that man: she missed blues basketball matches to play soccer. She and I travelled vast distances so she could do both sports on the same day. The coach knew that but on the big day just left a player who had played every game on the bench as, with the game won, other players were subbed on for 10, 20 or 30 minutes.

I chatted at length by email to my pal Doc who was a big time basketball coach after the game. We talked about the brutality of selection in competitive sport but also about how coaches have some responsibility to young athletes. Why not just ten minutes? Some athletes will be broken by events like that. Not, I hope, my daughter but some will be.  

I sent a long email to daughter 2 on what we all do next. It is her call. If it was me I’d try out for the Cambridge United women’s team who are in their first ever FA Final (The Plate) and having a good season in the 4th tier. They did offer her the chance to try out with training in the Autumn but for some reason I missed that email. I’d try out for the United and if that worked out tell the University team to piss off and work harder at basketball where we are, thanks to Doc, looking at summer camps. If there was no joy at United maybe call it a day on serious soccer, focus on basketball and try a bit of rowing for fun. Both her mother and I rowed a bit, her mother a little more than me, but at  six foot tall and being incredibly fit, daughter two is built for rowing in a way that her mother (less tall) and I (a bit,er, heavy) were not. 

My daughter is braver and more generous of spirit than I am. She is a better person than I am and so may try again with the university soccer team looking to build on an incredible first year of sporting success, without resentment. It is her call and I will support her whatever she does and do what I can to enable it. Yesterday was devastating, a real sporting low. I know that is how sport goes but none the less it hurt her. After the tens of thousands of miles I have driven for her to train and play basketball and soccer over the years maybe I am too heavily invested in this to be utterly objective . But it really hurts.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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