The time for pretenders is past. As Cuppers enters its second, decisive phase, none of the eight sides remaining in the competition can be written off. This is a competition, after all, in which shocks have become almost routine. The opening round kicked off with the surprise elimination of the holders Lincoln by unfancied Balliol. It has been three years since a Premier League side has lifted the Cuppers trophy, and their last two finals appearances were noteworthy for matches in which they were largely dominated by lower-league opposition.
Four sides from the top table could yet break the Cuppers curse: Merton/Mansfield, Teddy Hall, St Hugh’s, and Worcester. Merton/Mansfield, who currently sit at the very apex of college football, must be regarded as the pick of the teams from this group. They are the favourites in their clash with a mid-table Teddy Hall, who despite finally ending their St John’s hoodoo this campaign, were easily second-best in their 3-0 hiding against Merton/Mansfield in the league campaign, and lack the consistency to match the champions.
Worcester, the perpetual contenders – they have reached the round of eight for the last five seasons, and, with the exception of the annus horribilus of 2008-9, they have made collecting silverware look easy – can never be dismissed, and they will go into their tie with a struggling St Hugh’s as heavy favourites. The Premier League stragglers, who scraped into the promotion places in the last days of the season, look to be in decline in the league and have faced a charmed life in their progression thus far.
Also tipped for the exit are Second Division Oriel. The presence of the talented Jason Adebisi, one of Oxford’s finest footballers, means that Oriel can never be entirely discounted, but the side as a whole struggles going forward, and will surely be outgunned by a free-scoring Magadelen, the last First Division side left standing.
The Second Division is guaranteed representation in the final four, because the last of these clashes is an all Second Division affair, in which Balliol, the league leaders, are the favourites. New have never won at Jowett Walk, and Ballliol made the Holywell Street side look thoroughly ordinary in a 3-1 demolition earlier in the season. New’s chances are higher than recent history would suggest however, as this time out they will be strengthened by the guile and goals of Ejike Onuchukwu, their most skilled and influential attacker.
These predictions, could, of course, be ground into dust once a ball is kicked. This is Cuppers after all. Expect the unexpected.