By Matt Styles
It was a blustery Durham night and the stage was set. In his final year Jack Bramley captained Grey C, who, before he guided them to promotion, sat in the fourth tier of the college football pyramid.
To set up a historic quarter-final derby clash against Grey B, his side would first need to overcome a Mildert C side who had won twelve from twelve in the division above. There was a dead-ball free kick around forty yards out, an uncannily similar range from which he had audaciously scored against Cuth’s A in the previous round. Surely not, his teammates thought to themselves. Surely not again.
With the scores tied at 2-2, the skipper stepped up and fired the ball into the box with pace and purpose. There was an air of inevitability about this, as though the forces of nature were smiling on the underdogs and directing the ball magnetically toward the top-left corner of the Mildert goal. Time stood still as the ball travelled through the air, set on its course, before finally finding its way into the back of the net.
The underdogs had done it, and bodies piled upon captain Bramley – his name now immortalised in GCAFC folklore – in a moment of euphoric, uncontrollable frenzy. The newly built track crumb had never seen anything like it, as passions spilled over and celebrations continued long into the night.
Moments like these are what make college sport so special: the camaraderie, the socials, the unpredictability, the drama. It is an integral part to university life for so many, with its benefits on physical and mental well being well-documented.
“I can’t imagine how my time at Durham would have been without college sport,” reflects the geography alumnus. “I could speak for hours about how important an experience it was and how enjoyable I found it.
“It provided me with some of my fondest memories during university, but more importantly it was what kept me going through the tougher periods. Despite it being player led, I still managed to learn a great deal and develop not only as a player, but as an individual.”
It may seem trivial to some, but leaving college sport behind is no easy thing to reconcile. There are fears about a sense of purpose being lost after years of emotional and physical investment, as you recollect particular moments and memories that may never be recaptured. Entering the big wide world of work is daunting enough; being plunged onto a long and portentous road that represents all work and no play.
Jack found all of this disconcerting at first, but he believes that there is life after college sport. For him, Sunday League football has acted as a more than worthy substitute, as it maintains that sense of escapism and community spirit, and he is keen to emphasise its level of sophistication beyond the automatic associations of rough and tumble, magic sponges and rash two-foot tackles.
“There certainly is life after college sport. Whether you want take football as seriously as possible and push yourself, or continue with the focus being on the great social side of sport which college sport can offer, it is certainly out there, and you will need it more than ever when leaving university and entering the ‘real world’.
“Sunday League is not all hangovers and getting kicked at the expense of the opposition’s enjoyment like it is often portrayed. There are still high technical and physical demands, and also plenty of elite, high calibre sides with ex-professionals and players on wages.
“But most importantly there is something for anyone and everyone, meaning inclusive football just like college sport. If sport has helped improve your time at university then I would definitely recommend signing up to a team when you leave. It is important to keep active, and I have sport as a focus and way to escape from work.”
Jack is the chairman of Northamptonshire-based side Tove Valley, who boast their own line of merchandise as well as a series of lively social media platforms. Seeing how extortionate 5-a-side leagues are, he decided to set up a Sunday League team with some close friends – leading a group of like-minded and committed players who love their football.
His role as chairman is to oversee and run the club on a daily basis, covering all admin tasks while managing and coaching the first team. They are constantly expanding as a club, with a link to a junior football already established and additional men’s teams planned for coming seasons.
He has found coaching particularly rewarding, and is now working towards his Level 2 coaching badge while volunteering at junior football sides and summer football schools.
“I do feel fortunate to be part of a new side which is set up to ensure a certain team atmosphere and philosophy, which is very similar to that of my side at Grey. There is the added benefit of there not being the inevitability of departures, with no final years to consider, so a real bond within a side can be formed.”
Though Jack has moved on to a fulfilling new footballing adventure, sport at Durham will always hold a special place in his heart. He sees college sport as a formative experience, one integral to personal development.
He now works for Network Rail, and has been quick to bring up his college sport experience in interviews – citing transferable skills such as teamwork and leadership which can be brought to a new workforce, or indeed a new Sunday League team.
He encourages all students to exploit the range of sports on offer at Durham and make the most of the collegiate format.
“If college sport is of any interest to anyone at all then throw yourselves into as many sports that you like, and find a team that has the potential to completely make your university experience.”