St. John’s reached their first Cuppers final for sixteen years on Friday, with a comprehensive victory over a battling St. Anne’s side. Having already beaten several higher-division teams, they hosted the Mint Green Army on the pitch which they both share. But Anne’s’ familiarity with the ground was to make no difference; John’s triumphed 3-1 to take their most impressive scalp yet.
St. John’s’ form this season had thus far been immaculate: seven wins and one draw. St. Anne’s, however, were one of a number of Premier Division sides who are pushing themselves to maintain their division status for 2009/10, and they came across like a team conscious of that pressure. Wary of the pace of John’s’ front two, Tom Crawford and Adam Zagajewski, they were willing to sit back and soak up pressure. Ed Border was the lone striker, ably assisted by James Owen and George Kynaston on either side. As well considered as their game plan was, it was to take only four minutes for it to be ruined from a set play.
In a season when long throws are back on the tactical agenda, St. John’s have found their own Rory Delap. Central midfielder James Earle has troubled almost every defence John’s have faced, and it was one of his slingshot throws that zipped across from the right, where it was flicked on at the near post. It reached Crawford, with time and space. His right footed volley was exquisite; Anne’s keeper Mike Butler had no chance as it flew into the net.
The upset looked on, but almost immediately Owen cut in from the left and shot on the turn. It took a low stretching save from Alex Berend to keep the ball out. St. Anne’s’ hopes received a real boost minutes later, as John’s’ captain Dave Parsons was forced off with a hamstring strain. Substitute Dom Affron went up front with Zagajewski, as goalscorer Crawford was moved onto the wing. This new strike force could have doubled the home team’s lead on twenty four minutes, were it not for some controversial officiating. Zagajewski was put through from midfield, racing towards the Anne’s goal. The referee saw no flag. Zagajewski’s shot deflected off Butler across to Affron, who slammed the ball into the net. Only as Affron wheeled away did the referee see the late flag. Having consulted with the official, he had no choice but to disallow the goal.
St. Anne’s came out flying at the start of the second half, knowing that their place in the Cuppers final was at stake. Owen hooked a left footed volley looping towards goal, Berend had to scramble to turn it wide. The resultant corner was flicked on at the near post, but Rich Duffy, thundering in unmarked, headed over the bar. They could not forge an equaliser out of their possession though, and John’s started to retain control.
It was after another quiet spell that they doubled their lead on sixty five minutes. Eugene Duff took advantage of a slip by Clarke to find Affron with a perfect through ball. Butler advanced but Affron clipped the ball over him. There was no denying him this time, St. John’s were 2-0 up and twenty five minutes from Iffley.
Sensing the enormity of the situation, Anne’s moved up a gear. Their passing was crisper, their movement quicker and Hassan al-Wakeel nearly turned a corner in at the near post. But their attacks generally met stiff resistance from a well organised John’s defence.
With sixteen minutes remaining St. John’s effectively sealed their place at Iffley. James Earle hit a perfect pass, putting Matt Evans-Young through the channel between right and centre back. Anne’s were caught square, Butler came out but Evans-Young coolly slotted the ball into the bottom corner before being mobbed by his teammates.
They scored one within two minutes, as Steve Clarke turned in a cross from James Owen. The grandstand finish was set: but hard as they tried, St. Anne’s simply could not break through the John’s back line again. Duff and Eastham were imperious in the middle—McGrath and Matt Feehily threw themselves in front of everything. Anne’s attempts to find two more goals were not helped by a rather unsavoury incident on the touchline. St. John’s linesman Sam Freedman was subject to constant abuse from the St. Anne’s supporters. The referee was asked to intervene and in doing so broke down any momentum the visitors had generated.
There were more chances, but in neither the whole ninety minutes nor in the five minutes of stoppage time could St. Anne’s break through. When the final whistle went, St. John’s and their many supporters erupted in joy. They were through to the final. St. Anne’s joined Lady Margaret Hall, Brasenose and St. Hugh’s as those scalped by the all blacks, who have truly made a mockery of the league system this season. Whether they add the Premier Division Champions-elect remains to be seen.