On Christmas eve, Bristol City Women manager Tanya Oxtoby uploaded a picture of her older brother Michael to Instagram and typed: “Today will never be the same without you. You will forever be my hero.”
Two Christmases earlier, Michael had been diagnosed with bone cancer. The sarcoma on his hip killed him in March 2017, four months before Australian-born Oxtoby became City manager. Born with a chromosome disorder, Michael could form sounds but not speech: Oxtoby “could always hear him at my games – he’d be yelling and I’d think, there he is.”
He had been limping but couldn’t say why. “I was saying, ‘You’re not 50 Cent – stop walking like that!’” Oxtoby remembers. She flew home once she learned the cancer was terminal. Then Michael fell and his femur drove through his hip, leaving him wheelchair-bound and, later, bedridden.
“Anyone will tell you grief comes in waves,” she says. “You’re completely fine, and then you’ll just be at the wheel and start crying. You’re not a robot. The last two or three months were really horrific for him. He’s my biggest fan and my inspiration every day. I miss him a lot.”
Oxtoby nurses a mug of coffee in a cafe near City’s training base as she recounts the journey that has taken her from High Wycombe, a suburb of Perth with a population just shy of 12,000, to Bristol, via boarding school, a psychology degree and jobs in the Australian government combating mental illness in Indigenous youth. At 36, she is more like a big sister to a squad with an average age of 22, and her fingerprints cover a side benefitting from the human touch of its Renaissance woman. Despite a budget five times smaller than some sides, City are on track for their best-ever points finish in the Women’s Super League and have twice this season held Manchester City to draws.