St Hilda’s win Men’s Cuppers: the underdog’s journey

Football Cuppers: the oldest football competition in the world; a trophy worth over £250,000 and safely guarded at Iffley. This is the history and prestige that 28 teams fight so passionately for over five months of the year. This year’s competition proved that reputation means nothing as underdogs St Hilda’s triumphed against Pembroke at the Cuppers final on February 21st.

St Hilda’s endured a miserable season last year, bereft of their first-choice keeper for most of the season, they struggled throughout and were relegated to the bottom of the four divisions on the final day of the season. With only two Blues players in their ranks, expectations for the season ahead were not high. Their cuppers campaign began with a favourable draw away to Univ at the end of October. Their opponents were barely able to field a full team and Hilda’s ran out emphatic winners, triumphing 13-1 with hat-tricks from Angus Wight and Jake Jackson.

The heavy rainfall in November saw no Cuppers action and the team did not resume their campaign until the beginning of December. Next in store was a potentially tricky tie against Somerville, a side struggling in the Second division, but nonetheless in a league above. The first half was a cagey affair; only a long-range Luke Pitman freekick separated the two sides at the break. In the second half however, the attacking play that was to become a hallmark of the team took hold. A hat-trick from Chris Coveney, a superb long range strike from captain Tom Barnes, and a top finish from a dominant Dan Clifford saw Hilda’s run out 6-0 winners – a positive sign of things to come.

On a crisp February morning at Worcester, the peaceful image of the lake shimmering in the winter sun was soon to be overwhelmed by the sound of vuvuzelas and megaphones – the Hilda’s ultras had arrived. On the face of it the game should have had a foregone conclusion. It is very rare that a team from the bottom division will beat a team from the Premier division, particularly one with Worcester’s rich history of Cuppers success. Having reached the semi-finals only last year it was clear that Worcester were determined to progress further in the competition. However, roared on by a partisan crowd of over 80 people, Hilda’s took the game to Worcester and went in at half time 1-0 up, thanks to an impressive Chris Coveney header. An iconic substitute cameo from Henry Bushell saw Hilda’s double their lead not long after half time. Fighting back, Worcester pulled a goal back with ten minutes to go, but Hilda’s managed to hold out for a spot in the semi-finals with a combination of luck and resilient defending.

Cuppers semi-finals were unchartered territory for St Hilda’s College and the match against First Division side Teddy Hall was another big obstacle to overcome. For a short while there were even fears that Storm Dennis would reduce the game to a coin toss! Fortunately, this drastic action was avoided. Nonetheless, the weather forced the game to be played at Oxford City’s 3G pitch. Despite being 20 minutes away from college, the semi-finals saw a huge turnout of passionate supporters who braved the onslaught of rain to cheer on their team. Conditions were a challenge and it is unsurprising that set pieces proved decisive. Hilda’s twice led through goals from Adam Fehervari and Will Mills, but Teddy Hall equalised soon after on both occasions. The stage was set for substitute Angus Wight to make an impact, which he duly did with a wonderful right-footed volley. The Hilda’s backline held firm, withstanding all that Teddy Hall had to throw at them. The final whistle was greeted with wild celebration from players and fans alike – history had been made; they were in the final.

Action from the Cuppers final on Friday 21st February.

Iffley Road. Under the lights. Football at Oxford doesn’t get much bigger than this. The final hurdle took the form of a very strong Pembroke side. Challenging for the title in the Premier Division, Pembroke had been tipped as favourites from the very start of the competition. Over 300 fans were there to cheer on the underdog and the game was worthy for such an occasion. A breath-taking attacking display from Hilda’s saw them score 3 goals in the first 30 minutes, with the pinnacle being a stunning free-kick from striker Jake Jackson. The start of the second half saw Hilda’s remain threatening on the counter attack, but they failed to capitalise on these opportunities. The tide then began to turn and Pembroke were awarded a penalty, which was superbly saved by the excellent Kamran Sharifi. However, two quickfire goals turned the moment of the game on its head and Hilda’s were very much on the ropes. In a tense final few minutes there was a combination of last ditch tackling and superb blocks to keep the resurgent Pembroke at bay. Then it arrived. The final whistle was greeted with hundreds of fans flooding onto the pitch to congratulate their history makers. Iffley was well and truly blue.

The Hilda’s cup run showed just how important momentum can be and how reputation stands for nothing in a knockout competition. At the start of the competition, Hilda’s never expected to reach the semi-finals, let alone to claim the ultimate victory. Winning Cuppers has brought immense pride to the college. The unity of St Hilda’s has never been so powerfully demonstrated as when the entire college surged out onto the Iffley pitch to celebrate with the team. Sport has the capacity to bring people together and write the most memorable stories – Cuppers 2019/20 is yet another beautiful example of this.