In the bleak midwinter: start-of-term reflections as college sport remains on the sidelines

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You take your boots out of your bag and rubber crumbs spill out onto the floor. You shouldn’t be so clumsy next time, you tell yourself, as your radiator finally gurgles into life. Only now are you beginning the feel any sort of sensation in your feet, having trudged home after a narrow loss against your college rivals in the cup.

Wind-swept and exhausted, you collapse onto your bed and check the group chat. “It wasn’t our day but we come stronger next week!”, writes the plucky centre-half who conceded the decisive penalty. “Good shift everyone, we were unlucky, see you all at training on Tuesday”, adds the skipper, who when leaving Maiden Castle you saw cramming balls, cones and sweat-stained bibs into the boot of his car.

Not just them, but hundreds of others who had emerged bedraggled from battle on the asphalts, courts and astroturfs. Whether they won, lost or drew – we now realise looking back – it didn’t matter, for it was the weekend, the best time of the week, the opportunity for camaraderie and contest that made all those late nights in the library worthwhile.

The floodlights beam down, yet no one is there.

In my love letter to college sport back in October, I wrote that one day it would “return in all its glory”. While pitching the piece at a level of hope and optimism, I had no choice but to leave a note of ambiguity with coordinators unable to provide a clear roadmap for its return. Four months on, everything remains hanging in the balance.

I would be lying if I said that sport didn’t motivate me to stay in Durham for an additional year. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Instead, like everyone else in college accommodation, I find myself cooped up in my room, as days come and go like the passing of trains, each feeling the same as the last.

Meanwhile the pitches, no doubt grateful for less chunks of grass being unceremoniously scuffed out of them, remain unused. Referees remain unirked by captains scrambling for that final 20 pence piece at the bottom of their drawstring bag. Each night blankets of frost form on the astroturf, undisrupted by crowds flocking down with gallons of cider that tastes disquietingly like raw onion. The floodlights beam down, yet no one is there.

This isn’t what anyone signed up for, but nor is it anyone’s fault. It is, as we are so often reminded, the persistence of an invisible enemy that makes impossible the things we most hold dear; inserting a sense of vacuity and tedium at the heart of things. College sport is a shining example.

I feel greatly for the captains, who over the summer had been scribbling down their glorious tactical visions on magnetic whiteboards and planning for the year ahead. There will be pages, no doubt, of drills that are yet to be put into practice, and innovative formations that are yet to be tried and tested out on the pitch.

I too feel for the first-years, whose integration into their college sides remains stunted. For now, their engagement must exist broadly in the imagination, with tales told through virtual squares at poorly coordinated welcome drinks.

Finally, my sympathies are directed towards the referees – not only the students looking to pocket a bit of extra cash – but the likes of George Courtney, who enjoy officiating the rough and tumble of student matches so very much.

Four months on, everything remains hanging in the balance.

Mental health has plummeted in this most recent lockdown, which only draws attention to the importance of something like college sport. It is that inimitable, bi-weekly opportunity for social interaction and exercise, strengthening your sense of worth by feeling part of something bigger.

This is, ultimately, what university’s all about: comradeship, self-development and character-building, qualities that are not adequately tested in online seminar rooms where people talk clumsily over each other, their Wi-Fi crashing mid-way through fascinating insights on corn tax in the Early Modern period.

Yet this is all we have. How thoroughly disillusioning. I for one would much rather be on the receiving end of a nasty two-foot challenge.

The only positive that we can extract from this reality is a renewed sense of perspective and a greater appreciation of the joys of college sport. Scraping that stubborn bit of mud from off your boots, waking up at ungodly hours and trekking down to MC in the freezing cold, or getting nasty grazes on your shin all assume a sense of romance to us now if, indeed, they didn’t already.

‘When will it end?’ cries the national consciousness inexorably. ‘When will it all go back to normal?’, children ask their parents. When, indeed, can I rant and rave at the referee for a dodgy offside call, or ask my housemate if I can once again use their frozen peas to put on my swollen ankle?

College sport is Durham’s crowning jewel, yet it is slowly losing its shine. Maiden Castle, an arena ordinarily imagined in my mind as drenched in a golden sepia – a joyous hotbed of fond memories, so fundamental to my university experience – has turned to a portentous grey.

As uncertainty looms at the start of this term as it did the last, I will end this piece in the exact same hopeful yet indeterminate fashion. What I wrote then is as applicable now: “One fine morning college sport will return in all its glory, so just make sure that you’re there when it does.”

Image: Team Durham

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