Excitement is building among Newcastle’s futsal players ahead of their Stan Calvert match against a team two BUCS divisions higher. The fixture, at 5pm on Sunday 24 February, will bring the overall Stan Calvert competition to a close, and the futsal players are hoping it will introduce their sport to a new generation of fans.
Newcastle followed their narrow 6-5 defeat in last year’s Stan Calvert finale with an impeccable BUCS performance, and they sit unbeaten at the top of their division, eagerly awaiting this year’s meeting with Northumbria.
James Mckenna has been involved in the club since it’s foundation, and sees the Stan Calvert fixtures as an opportunity both to showcase how far the club has come and also to attract new interest in a sport that has traditionally been granted little attention in England.
“We're passionate about futsal,” Mckenna explained. “When you're in a sport that you feel is undervalued, you naturally feel like you want to raise its profile. You want to share this thing that you've found that other people don't know about but you're sure they would like.”
While the sport is often dismissed as a kind of 5-a-side, little more than a development or training tool for footballers, it is a crowd-pleasing sport in its own right. Mckenna described it as having “the rules and the technique of football, but it plays like basketball,” with a much faster pace than your standard 5-a-side kickabout.
The futsal club here grew out of the University's football club, only gaining independent status- and funding- two years ago
Played indoors on a hard court, but with a slightly smaller ball than 5- or 11-a-side football, futsal emphasises skill and efficiency with the ball, with futsal players having around a quarter of the space as an 11-a-side player. Futsal also allows rolling substitutions throughout the match.
The club’s president, Tom Crozier, came to the sport via football, but got hooked and is now a committed futsal player.
Mckenna explained how futsal – long since popular in South America and on the continent – is starting to attract more attention in England, even making tentative steps towards professionalisation. As well as looking for individual glory in BUCS and Stan Calvert, Newcastle's futsal club are also hoping to raise the profile of the sport and challenge some of the misconceptions that run rife in a country so doggedly enamoured with football of the 11-a-side variety.
This slow move out of obscurity and derision at the national level is mirrored by the story at Newcastle. The futsal club here grew out of the University's football club, only gaining independent status – and funding – two years ago.
Since then the club's membership has expanded and they've managed to cut the umbilical cord and after a string of BUCS successes the lads feel ready to face their cross-city rivals in this year's Stan Calvert.
Following a convincing defeat in Stan Calvert 2016 the team only narrowly missed out on victory the following year, running up their rivals to a 5-6 scoreline. This time round they remain the underdogs but are confident that their unbeaten BUCS season can give them the momentum as they face Northumbria, a team two divisions above them.
Unlike Northumbria’s extensive futsal facilities and coaching team, Newcastle’s side have been heavily reliant on the expertise of PhD student Xavi Rodriguez Corral, who played futsal growing up in Barcelona and now takes on most of the coaching responsibilities for Newcastle’s team. He believes that his side can still perform well in spite of these difficulties, but a win at Stan Calvert has the potential to raise the club’s profile within the University and Athletic Union and earn the club more resources. “Even if you don't have the resources, if you have the passion and you really like what you do – because we love coaching and we love futsal – you will always get the results,” Corral explained.
Stan Calvert is not an easy competition to organise, and once again the two universities were unable to agree on a grand finale, which leaves futsal and the netball seconds as the closing fixtures of the competition. From 5pm on the final Sunday Newcastle will host the netball while the futsal action takes place simultaneously at Northumbria's Sport Central.
By this point the overall score is likely to be apparent, but this won't dampen the enthusiasm of Newcastle's team. Mckenna describes it as their “game of the season” and it presents a rare opportunity for them to test themselves against top-level opposition.
Newcastle were unfortunate to miss out on BUCS promotion last season because of a reorganisation of the leagues, and currently sit well ahead of the other sides in the Northern 2B division. With promotion within touching distance and a series of comfortable league wins behind them, Stan Calvert offers the team an exciting challenge.
Last year's futsal finale at Stan Calvert saw nearly 1000 spectators; the second-highest attendance at a futsal match in the country. The fledgling Newcastle, not used to playing such strong opposition, nonetheless performed well but were 6-3 down with five minutes left on the clock. Crozier came out of goal as a fly keeper and helped his team bring the score up to 6-5. Had luck been on their side they might have stood a chance of drawing level, but time was on the side of the hosts and Newcastle were denied the win.
The game helped the club attract new support, but defeat by such a narrow margin has spurred club members on to fight even harder this time round.
Stan Calvert is not an easy competition to organise, and once again the two universities were unable to agree on a grand finale, which leaves futsal and the netball seconds as the closing fixtures of the competition.
While most of the participants of last year's match have now graduated, the match and it's close finish still weighs heavily on the minds of Newcastle's futsal players, who vividly remember the finer details of their “free-flowing, attacking futsal” and have spent the past twelve months preparing for the rematch.
Their status as underdogs does help to limit the pressure they feel, since it's up to Northumbria to prove their superiority. “Because their season hasn't been a success,” Mckenna suggests, referencing Northumbria's danger of relegation from the BUCS Premier division, “then especially if they were to lose at Stan Calvert, it would be a disaster, so there's even more pressure on them.”
Whatever the result on 25 February, the club's attention will then turn to ensuring a safe handover at the end of the year. With Corral’s time at Newcastle University drawing to a close the lads are concerned that coaching will be much harder next year. The Stan Calvert match is not just a way to change perceptions of the sport from a spectator's point of view, therefore; the club are also hoping to attract new members who can continue their good work and build the club up further.
Crozier in particular feels very fortunate that Corral and Mckenna were both around at the same time and were able to bring their previous futsal experience – from Catalonia and Kettering, respectively – to help establish the club and provide the initial enthusiasm required to get the ball rolling.
The Stan Calvert match on 25 February could be their chance to keep that ball rolling for a long while yet.