What to Expect from Varsity 2019
By Bob Melling
As a second year History student with his head stuck in a few too many books on the Byzantine empire, I’ll be the first to admit that I have a rather limited knowledge when it comes to the Keele sporting scene and the upcoming Varsity event.
I knew it was a big sporting showdown between Keele University and Staffordshire University, but that was about as far as my knowledge stretched.
I wanted to get my head around the history of the event, its significance and an idea of exactly what this notorious rivalry means to Keele. So I caught up with AU Officer Amy Holden and Activities Coordinator Maria Eracleous to get the lowdown on what you can expect from Varsity 2019:
What began as just a one sport event in 2001, has developed into an annual multi-sport series, notably hitting the 23 sport mark in 2017, while last year’s event saw the teams compete across 17 sports.
That one sport was football and this Varsity football match between Keele University and Staffordshire University was founded by former coach Keith Harrison and the then Men’s Football 1st Team Captain Rich McPartlin.
With the support of local outfit Newcastle Town FC and local charity The Donna Louise Trust, the event became a definite success, something which is evident in its exponential growth over the years.
Tragically, Richard was killed in a car accident not long after his graduation, but his proud legacy remains, as the Man of the Match accolade is awarded in his name.
Former coach Keith Harrison sadly passed away in 2015, but, like Richard, his influential role in KUFC and in the establishment of Varsity was marked when the sports park was named after him. The number 16 shirt was also retired in his honour and the club continue to raise money for charity in his memory.
For Amy and Maria, this gives, not only the football match but also the entire event, a considerable amount of meaning, as Keele continue to remember the origins of an annual tradition.
Both Amy and Maria see Varsity as “the biggest match of the year”. And although this year will potentially be the tenth consecutive victory and eleventh overall, they hastened to add that Team Keele certainly do not take their opposition lightly.
For the majority of our Keele sporting teams, the opportunity to play their fierce local rivals doesn’t come around all that often, despite the two universities being separated by a mere five miles.
Maria informs me that this is down to league differences, Keele plying their trade in the Northern BUCS League whilst Staffs play their competitive fixtures in the Midlands.
But this lack of contact actually helps to fuel the rivalry. Amy added that many of the Keele teams purposefully avoid playing Staffs, even in friendlies, creating what she describes as a “bigger build-up.”
This intense build-up to the event was further explained by Maria: “Once everyone’s competitive fixtures stop, there’s a lot of going to watch others train to spot any hidden talents that they might have, in order to assess if they need to up their training intensity.”
Varsity clearly holds profound significance for those taking part, “Some teams are training three or four times a week”, Amy revealed, before driving home the point that “Nobody wants to be the team that lose.”
While Staffordshire always tend to win a few, Keele take the majority. Last year, the event was held at Keele University, finishing 13-4, giving the hosts their ninth consecutive victory: “A win in a sport is a point”, Maria explained.
When asked what the expected outcome this year would be, Amy couldn’t help but express her overwhelming confidence: “A win! Always a win!” And when you have a history as illustrious as Keele, I couldn’t help but admire this confidence.
As a self-confessed novice, I also wanted to know a bit more about the rivalry. It may be no Second City derby, but Amy told me “It gets quite intense. There’s lots of supporters, lots of cheering, a bit of booing and even a few chants.”
Moreover, I got the impression that this event isn’t just about individuals. In fact it isn’t even about individual teams, but instead about a cross-sport collective of students playing for the badge on their shirt.
Amy and Maria were quick to underline the importance of teams staying on after they have played their match to support their fellow Keele sporting clubs. Something which undoubtedly adds, not just to the atmosphere, but to the pressure too:
“Especially if one team has won, they will go and watch the next team, encouraging them to do the same.”
Clearly every single game will be a fascinating spectacle, but I wanted to know which games were the ones to watch. The ones with the most potential to surprise.
After some slight hesitation, Maria, who was studying an impressive spreadsheet bulging with stats, pointed out that last year’s Men’s Basketball game was an incredibly tight match, which Keele won for the first time since 2010.
It was an exhilarating game and one which could go either way in 2019, so if you’re unsure of which events to go to, get yourself on that basketball court. Well, maybe stick to the stands.
Admittedly, AU Officer Amy offered a slightly more biased opinion here, but a well-informed one nonetheless.
Amy, a player herself, recommended the Women’s Rugby, especially if you like a tough, physical game. And with a bunch of freshers this year, it’s another one of those results that really could go either way.
One of the headline events is the one that kicked off Varsity altogether: the Men’s Football.
Last year Keele were on the right end of a narrow 1-0 victory in a performance Maria succinctly described as “teeth-grinding.”
But those are the results that can often evoke the best feeling. Winning with a 4, 5 or 6 goal stonking and playing scintillating stuff is great, but snatching a hard-fought victory in the Staffordshire rain gives you a feeling of pure elation.
Quite simply, states Amy towards the end of our discussion, “You don’t get the buzz any other day watching sport.”
If that isn’t enough to wet your appetite and convince you to get you down to Varsity, then the next bit of information will give you no excuse whatsoever.
Minibuses will be running on the days of action (31st March – 3rd April) taking people to and from the venues, which are predominantly at the Staffordshire University Sports Centre, whilst the rugby will be at Newcastle Rugby Club and the football at Newcastle Football Club.
The only ticketed event is the Men’s Football on the Monday night (1st April), but Maria informed me that this will be around the £3 mark.
Indoor events at Staffordshire Sports Centre will be restricted access, simply due to the limited capacity, but live streams will be available too.
So if you want to help Keele get over the line and make it the big ten, you know what to do: “Any support to any sports would be really, really appreciated. Anyone that gets down, you start ramping up.”
For more information, head to:
https://keelesu.com/activities/au/varsity/ and check out the @ ‘Team Keele’ Facebook page along with the ‘Staffs vs Keele | Varsity 2019’ event page.