In England, football is not used to second billing.
The game is so dominant that, in many areas of the country, it’s not just the most popular sport, but probably the most significant cultural force. It forms large parts of the reputation for many towns and cities. Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, Leeds, Liverpool: when travelling residents from those places tell people where they’re from, more often than not the go-to response is to reference the football team.
Not so in Oxford and Cambridge. You tell people in Baltimore or Budapest or Beijing or Buenos Aires that you’re from Oxford or Cambridge and the chances are that the first question will be: “So, did you go to the university?”
Occasionally that changes, a little bit, for a little while. This evening, Cambridge United will play in the fourth round of the FA Cup, their reward for a quintessential giant-killing in the third round, when the League One side beat the theoretical richest club in the world, Newcastle United.
For a time in the 1980s, Oxford United came to the fore: they spent three seasons in the top flight and won the Milk Cup (now the Carabao Cup), though they were probably most famous for being owned by Robert Maxwell, who tried to merge them with Reading to form a new team called the Thames Valley Royals. File that idea under “not well received”.
But for the rest of the time, the old idea of “town and gown” — a split between the universities and the rest of the cities, with the perception that the former looks down on the latter — holds true, in wider life and more specifically football.