Blues Football Captain Paul Hartley would rather win the league than Varsity. TOM TRYON went to find out why.
It’s not all glamour being a Blues captain. In the week that CURUFC announced Rob Malaney as their new skipper, I met Paul Hartley in a bare and unloved room in Jesus that looked a far cry from the plush captain’s office at Grange Road. But Malaney would be wise to learn what he can from the modest determination of the man charged with the task of bringing the Varsity football trophy back to Cambridge.
It didn’t work out last year. Going down 3-1 to the Dark Blues at the Kassam Stadium, you would think that Hartley would want to forget the occasion. But despite the score being what it was he is adamant that there were times in the game where the Blues comprehensively outplayed Oxford.
It’s characteristic of the positivity that defines Hartley. He’s relishing the role and lives for the feeling of “winning on a Wednesday.” And win on a Wednesday is exactly what he has done – the Blues have only lost once in the league this season, helped along by a 4-2 win over nearest rivals Coventry two weeks ago and a 3-2 victory against Northampton this week to put them top of the table.
Paul Hartley: nicest guy in football?
He’s realistic about the season’s ongoing success though, and knows there’s plenty of hard work to do. After speaking to me, he meets up with the team for an evening of strength and conditioning, followed by yoga. When it comes to preparation, no stone gets left unturned.
Tradition dictates that the Varsity match is the biggest game of the year. Other Cambridge captains have described how their entire season swings on one game; nothing except winning is acceptable. But Hartley’s not one for tradition.
Winning the league is the team’s “number one priority” and he admits that he would rather achieve that and lose Varsity than the other way around.
The Blues after the 2011 Varsity Match
That might ruffle a few feathers, but that doesn’t mean Varsity isn’t a special day for the bustling midfielder. His eyes light up when talking about the “prestige and history” of the big game; it is clear to see that Hartley feels it would be a fitting end to his CUAFC career, one that’s yet to reward him with a win against the Dark Blues.
And if he’s going to do it then he’s got the right squad in place. With Danny Kerrigan returning from injury and a good crop of freshers joining them this year, he believes he has the talent around him. But having been described by team-mates as ‘the nicest guy in football’, does Hartley have the presence and authority to get the best out of his players? He shrugs off the question and simply says that he leads by example. It’s how he commands the respect of his players. It’s how his childhood hero Gary Speed commanded the respect of his.
The way Hartley talks about his team, you would think there’s something more to this year’s group; “that bit extra” that they need to go all the way. Maybe it’s the atmosphere in the squad, who “train together, go out together, do everything together.” Maybe it’s hard work paying off. Either way, there’s confidence in the squad, but that quiet sort of confidence that creeps up on anyone coming into contact with the players. They know they’ve got a great chance of completing a historic league and Varsity double, but they don’t want you to know it.
Does Hartley think it will be his year? Ever guarded, he won’t be drawn on an answer. He’s got confidence in his team and the progress they are making, and you can tell that they have confidence in him. As he leaves to join his players in the gym, you know that the smart money is on Light Blue glory this season.
The Blues now turn their attention to the revived Addenbrooke’s Cup fixture on Wednesday. The team take a break from their league title challenge to play a Cambridge United XI at Grange Road, with all profits going to the Cambridge Sports and Exercise Medicine Unit at Addenbrooke’s.
The fixture returns to the calendar after an absence of a decade and will provide a stern test for the Blues, who are stepping up their preparations for Varsity on March 13th. Captain Paul Hartley believes “the opportunity to test ourselves against professional players is great for our development” and will be hoping to lead the Blues to their first silverware of an exciting term. Tickets for the football edition of ‘Town vs. Gown’ are only £3 and the game kicks off at 7pm.