Played only a stone’s throw away from Iffley itself, at Christ Church grounds, the geographical proximity of the opening Cuppers semi-final match is fitting, as it mirrors the progression to the business end of the tournament, where the history books are written. Both Christ Church, and their opponents Exeter, were all too aware that Thursday’s match represented an indispensable opportunity to lay first claim to the hallowed Iffley turf showpiece, to draw first blood in the battle for Oxford footballing majesty.
The first-half was characterised by wave after wave of domination from the red Exeter juggernaut, exhibiting the characteristically sleek ball-playing football that has seen them rise to the upper echelons of the JCR Premier Division in recent times. But Exeter could not find a way to break the deadlock, and a dogged Christ Church rear-guard action, coupled to neat pressure-diffusing counter attack, saw both sides reach the half-time whistle goalless. There was suspicion that Christ Church would in fact be the happier of the two sets of players, and a vocal partisan ‘House’ crowd echoed this sentiment.
The war of words between Christ Church & St Edmund Hall has already begun, and the main event itself is drawing tantalisingly close.
Christ Church seemed intent not to allow Exeter to play into spaces in the midfield, and at times the highest press from any of House player was barely into the Exeter half, affording the Exeter defence enormous amounts of time on the ball, but more importantly placing a premium on their accurate distribution. Ten minutes into the second-half a late foul on the Christ Church keeper upon collection from a high ball sparked tempers, and the game began to kick into an extra gear, as had been largely expected from the get go.
The higher intensity seemingly favoured the blue and white stripes of Christ Church, who began to escape the shackles of the tempo previously dictated by Exeter. Chances followed, and a turn and shot from the right-hand edge of the box flashed just inches past the post, evading the outstretched hand of Exeter keeper Sean Gleeson.
Playing as a lone forward in the 4-5-1 Christ Church formation, Pedr Beck-Friis had cut an isolated figure in the first half, but his physical stature and excellent hold-up play became more apparent as the game progressed, and he stamped his mark on the game in the 65th minute. Outmuscling the Exeter defence on the left-hand side of the box, Beck-Friis conjured a superb searching ball across the face of the goalmouth, finding free Alfie Gibbs, in an almost identical position to that of the chance ten minutes prior. Gibbs this time, however, composed himself and side-footed low and hard inside the near post, wheeling away in delight to celebrate a lead that had come against the run of play. It was almost 2-0 as quickly as it had become one, and Beck-Friis again was the architect of Exeter’s downfall, turning his man and rifling to the right of Gleeson, who produced a fantastic reflex save to keep side in the game.
Christ Church’s pulsating counter-attacking football provides strong cause for belief that they can go all the way. Underestimate them at your peril.
Exeter desperately needed to stem the flow, and captain Alex Urwin endeavoured to fire up his men in search of stability, and more importantly an equaliser. He set the precedent on the ball, mercilessly winning tackle after tackle to induce a frantic spell of Exeter dominance that would have to be endured by the tiring Christ Church legs. Shots were rifled just over the bar, into the side netting, and agonisingly wide following a solo run from inside their own half, but Exeter just could not carve an opening.
Inside the last fifteen minutes Exeter started to throw more men forward in a tactical reshuffle. The Christ Church pitch is very narrow, but the Exeter reshuffle created an illusion of extra width, playing into the hands of the home team. House left-winger Callum Cleary instigated the best move of the game; picking the ball up, wide on the flank, inside his own half, Cleary drove forward before playing into the feet of Beck-Friis, who feigned to shoot, instead weighting a beautiful reverse pass back to Cleary. If the move was worthy of winning any football match, the finish was not – too casual, and fired straight at Gleeson, who was able to parry away from danger. But it wasn’t to matter; a carbon-copy of the link-up, an aggrieved Cleary now the provider, set free Beck-Friis inside the area once more just minutes later. Some neat footwork freed the ball from his feet, and his shot was sent goal bound. The ball took a cruel deflection and seemed to progress in slow motion as it looped agonisingly over the outstretched arm of Gleeson, and nestled into the back of the net. 2-0. Game over.
In the 2016 edition, Brasenose won the prestigious tournament from the JCR second division, and Christ Church on paper represented the underdogs of the four semi-finalists this time around, languishing in the bottom division of the JCR ladder. In reaching the final, however, they too have emulated ‘Nose in defeating Premier Division Exeter (4-3 a.e.t in the 2016 quarter finals), and their pulsating counter-attacking football provides strong cause for belief that they can go all the way. Underestimate them at your peril.
This year has seen a move away from the University Parks-hosted semi-final double header of 2016, but one thing that has not changed is that two of Oxford’s footballing behemoths have once again made it to the big stage. In 2016, St Edmund Hall defeated Wadham 3-1 to earn their place in the final, where they would ultimately face defeat, and Uni Parks again played host to the two colleges on Friday as they battled to avenge their respective Cuppers woes.
If the first semi-final was an exhibition of two styles of football – a clash of ideologies – then the second was more clash of the titans. The pitch was muddy, cutting up further with every heavy-legged drive or mistimed tackle, snow fell heavily from the sky, swirling in the chill breeze, and both teams were reinforced by large swathes of passionately vocal fans – a wall of noise – hitherto unrivalled in their support for their team.
The game was scrappy, and it became apparent early on that the engine room in the centre of the park was ultimately where the game would be won or lost. Wadham were the dominant force, but the ball would often bobble venomously, spitting up at the shin of the receiver, and they found life hard to keep the ball in the opposition third. This contrasted with Teddy Hall, who at every opportunity looked to play lofted through balls into the Wadham channels, and in Conor Lyster they had a willing runner who did not once relinquish the chase. In the 20th minute, Hall scored from a set-piece, Julius Lehmann heading in at the back post after being found unmarked by a sumptuous Lyster delivery. This in fact, would be the winning goal, testament to the difficult pitch conditions.
Teddy Hall have been here before, whilst Christ Church represent the unknown quantity, unburdened by memory of failure that experience can too carry.
Wadham tried with all of their might in the second half to break down enemy lines, and had a glorious opportunity five minutes in, a rifled shot producing an immense save that drew agonising gasps from both factions. But Daniel Hart & Steve Pilley were particularly resilient in the Hall midfield, breaking down attack after attack, first ball and second ball, and Hall too squandered two glorious opportunities to wrap up the win in the 60th and 80th minutes – the second after Pilley stole in on an advancing Wadham centre-back and released Lyster bearing down on goal.
That was to be the last chance Hall would create, and the last ten minutes were characterised by a constantly retreating backline, inviting unrelenting Wadham pressure. There were several blocked shots, and then an utterly reckless breakdown in communication between keeper and centre-back in the 89th minute, in which both left the ball to each other as an over-hit through-ball approached the six-yard box, and Wadham’s Ben Williams was almost presented with an open goal – instead the ball was scrambled to the safety of a corner. The Wadham keeper was summoned in a rare foray into the densely-packed Hall box, and there was late drama in the form of a penalty appeal, amplified by the Wadham crowd. The referee waved away the protests, and the whistle curtailed Wadham’s Cuppers run at the semi-final stage for the third consecutive season, twice now at the hands of the versatile Teddy Hall. SEH were the deserved winners, but the Wadham faithful sung longingly for their beloved Merrifield, and it is hard to argue that a more open game would not have played into the hands of defeated.
The war of words between Christ Church & St Edmund Hall has already begun, and the main event itself is drawing tantalisingly close. Teddy Hall have been here before, whilst Christ Church represent the unknown quantity, unburdened by memory of failure that experience can too carry. Who will silence the doubters and reign supreme?