Since the middle of last century, Oxford City have played in the shadows of their more successful neighbours, Oxford United. Previously shouldering their way around the English footballing pyramid from the comforts of the same suburb, the disparity between the clubs was scratched onto our maps by United’s relocation to the swankier Kassam Stadium in 2001.
But as fans of the cliché would have us know, there is a certain magic to the FA Cup. Few other domestic cup competitions are as carnivalesque or inclusive of so many clubs, with pot-bellied Davids testing their skills against Premier League Goliaths. And for this FA Cup season at least, the Oxford hierarchy has been flipped, with non-league City putting together a brilliant run and outshining their rivals.
At the heart of this story is Durham old boy Ben Dudzinski. Signing this summer on the back of a National League campaign with Sutton United, Dudzinski arrived to high expectations but has thus far kept his cool and delivered.
Oxford City created something memorable in the FA Cup this season, beating four different opponents including League One side Northampton Town on the road to their Second Round showdown against Shrewsbury Town. Unfortunately, Sunday’s clash with Shrewsbury signalled the end of Oxford’s FA Cup run as they fell to a 1-0 loss in extra time, at the hands of a well-hit strike from former Bournemouth man Marc Pugh.
However, the club deserve their fair share of pats on the back for getting so far: of the 160 clubs in the Second Qualifying Round where Oxford began, only six others made it as far in the competition as they did. “It definitely reminds us what we’re capable of and the standards we should be setting ourselves in each game,” Dudzinski told Palatinate. “We’ve loved the cup run but right now we’re incredibly disappointed. Our run highlights the fine lines between the leagues and for me and many of the boys it provides motivation and inspiration to strive to move up the leagues.”
A three-tier gap separates League One Shrewsbury from the National League South outfit, but for periods of the game you wouldn’t have been able to tell and Oxford acquitted themselves well. As Dudzinski stresses, it’s a reminder of the tantalising proximity between the Football League and the divisions below – a shimmering curtain which is exposed in the FA Cup.
“I think with Covid and everything that has been going on with football, the magic of the FA Cup has definitely come alive. If anyone needed reminding this year has done it and we’re only ‘two rounds’ in. Everyone’s missing the fans and the FA Cup is a competition for the fans, so it’s plain to see the beauty of the FA Cup.”
Dudzinski’s story is one which will bring great hope to any aspiring footballers at Durham. At the end of his final year at Durham, the goalkeeper signed a professional contract with then-League Two side Hartlepool United, and has been at numerous clubs since then.
During that time, he has fleshed out his CV with spells at various upper-level non-league teams, and is looking to get back into the professional game. Looking back on his University career, the St Aidan’s alumnus recalled some incredible footballing memories throughout the years.
“I have many brilliant sporting memories from Durham,” reflects Dudzinski. “We were an extremely good football side with great coaches, players and fantastic team spirit. I look back fondly on those years.”
He also played for DU alongside his college adventures, and is known as a rare breed for transitioning from university level to professional environments. Unlike rugby, where you don’t necessarily need glistening credentials before arriving at university, football tends to require pre-existing pedigree.
“It’s a tough one. The pathway is certainly there with the setup, standard and coaching. It helps if you’ve got some good credentials prior to arriving but it’s not the be-all and end-all.
“If you apply yourself and use the opportunities provided by the DU coaches to experience some semi-pro football whilst studying and playing for DU you’ll build yourself a good base for when moving on from uni. Exposure to men’s football is important I think and DU football can provide a great environment to move into that area and improve your ability.”
Image: Ben Dudzinski.