AUNT Sally has made a successful return in Oxfordshire – but the long-term future of the game remains in doubt.

The county’s most beloved sport is into its fourth week of action in the Oxford & District league, after the coronavirus pandemic enforced cancellations for the seasons in 2020 and 2021.

Upon coming back, Oxford has lost 19 teams from its league, at a cost of two divisions.

Prior to Covid-19, there were seven divisions – but that is now down to five.

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Andy Beal, results and fixtures secretary for the Oxford & District Aunt Sally Association, said: “It’s a massive relief to be back – we’ve got 86 years of history we could’ve lost, Aunt Sally has been running all that time and we were concerned we could lose it altogether.

“We’re four weeks in now and it’s gone brilliantly.

“We were concerned about fixture cancellations, but every single game has been played so far and everyone is pleased it’s going ahead.”

Beal said pubs shutting down and the deaths of players during the course of the pandemic has been a key reason for the loss of 19 teams.

He said: “When Covid first hit, we had that season ready to go.

“As things got worse and worse, we had to scrap the season and then last year too.

“With pubs closing and players passing away, we were concerned if the interest would be there.

“In January, we had our AGM and we wanted to test the water, and see how many people were interested.

“Our only concern was whether we’d have enough teams, and we did lose 19 teams.

“We were pleased to get 50 teams and just short of 600 players though.

“We’ve kept an 18-week season, which we were also really pleased about.”

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Getting more younger people involved in Aunt Sally is essential to the game having a thriving future, something Beal acknowledged.

“It’s difficult, we need more younger players as it’s quite an old man’s sport and is mainly the older generation,” said Beal.

“We’ve ran competitions just for the youngsters to get them involved but 17 and 18-year-olds will go out with their mates rather than out with their parents like we used to.

“We know we’ll have to change if things get worse.

“If we go down to six in a team, then that will obviously reset the scores and history from the last 86 years.

“Other sports have had to reduce team numbers, like bar billiards, but we like it to be that it’s a team sport rather than individuality.

“Anyone can play, it doesn’t matter what age or sex you are.”

Beal added that five-a-side indoor leagues over the winter had led to an increased interest in the sport.