Having recently regained League status, Cambridge United host Oxford this Saturday. In footballing terms, the Varsity cities have little rivalry. Beyond the Boat Race and rugby, sporting encounters between their universities lack profile. But 166 years ago, Cambridge students drafted the first rules of football and played by them on Parker’s Piece, a park by the university buildings. Now both the city and its football club, the U’s, are acknowledging the historic and contemporary significance of students in the game. Chris Hunt explains.
This weekend Cambridge United meet Oxford United in League Two – an Oxbridge sporting fixture without the inherent rivalry of rugby, the Boat Race or even blind wine tasting.
The university football club of either city may be among the very oldest in the world – Cambridge just edge it historically – but the annual varsity match-up, once staged at Wembley, is now a minor event played elsewhere. The most recent, at Craven Cottage, attracted just 3,000 friends and fellow students. And yet this fixture has an annual heritage dating back to 1873.
The perennial Cambridge rivalry is between town and gown. In fact, it was the university that heavily influenced the early game – in fact, football as a whole owes much to this bucolic domain of academia.
Soon the locals of Cambridge town had their own football teams too, first Cambridge City, originally Cambridge Town, then neighbouring Abbey United, today’s Cambridge United: the U’s.
Now back in the Football League after exactly a decade in the Conference, the U’s are meeting their Varsity-city counterpart in the professional game since that fateful season of 2004-05.
Oxford were one of only seven teams Cambridge beat that campaign, 2-1, thanks to a last-minute goal by Shane Tudor. It wasn’t enough. With debts of nearly £1 million, the U’s not only faced Conference football but also administration.
Richard Caborn, then Minister of Sport, personally intervened to stop the taxman from folding the club for good.
That was ten seasons ago. Now they’re back in the 92, Cambridge United are hardly setting League Two alight but newly named chief exective, former first-team coach Jez George, has laid out a vision for the club’s future.
Among recent developments has been deeper integration between football club and university. As well as help on the coaching side, other initiatives in this ‘growing partnership’ include allowing freshers discounts on admission to Saturday’s clash with Oxford.
Cambridge itself is also beginning to acknowledge the university’s historic links with the game – albeit modestly in a city with a typically ambivalent attitude towards the national sport. Though budgetary considerations nixed the erection of a statue in 2013, a plaque has been mounted onto the side of a waste bin behind Pizza Hut on the corner of Parker’s Piece.
It was on this plot of land, beside some of the most prestigious seats of learning in the Western World, that the so-called Cambridge Rules of 1848 were first put into practice.
The game had developed in the public schools of England, each with its own version of ‘football’. When this generation of schoolboys passed through Cambridge University, the problem became apparent when games turned into chaos.
As HC Malden, one of the men who drafted the first rules, wrote: ‘The result was dire confusion as every man played the rules he had been accustomed to at his public school. I remember how the Eton men howled at the Rugby men for handling the ball’.
In October 1848 a meeting was held at Trinity College. Undergraduates from Eton, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Rugby and Winchester, plus two students representing the university, established a set of rules.
The students who played by them on Parker’s Piece subsequently took them around the country after they had graduated, forming football clubs and helping the sport – and the rules – take hold.
Eventually the Cambridge Rules became the most significant influence in the creation of the modern rules of Association Football, drawn up by the FA in 1863.
The university’s influence continued, with the Cambridge University team of 1882 first fashioning a style of play that encouraged passing over individual dribbling skills, often employing these tactics in the earliest varsity games against Oxford. As a result, Cambridge University are regarded as the first ‘combination’ side, each player allocated a position on the pitch and teamwork encouraged. Indeed, the team of 1883 was the first to introduce the 2-3-5 pyramid formation, soon adopted by all football teams for the best part of a century.
As another plaque, bolted onto a tree in 2000, indicates: ‘Here on Parker’s Piece, in the 1800s, students established a common set of simple football rules emphasising skill above force, which forbade catching the ball… these Cambridge Rules became the defining influence on the 1863 Football Association rules’.
Cambridge United v Oxford United, R Costings Abbey Stadium, 12.15pm, Saturday October 11.