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Saturday 14th March 2020 ko 13.30

Oxfordshire FA Intermediate Cup Semi-Final



Att 52

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You could sense that the walls were closing in. The Coronavirus pandemic had seen the Premier League, EFL and all three Step 3 leagues shut down to allow for social distancing. The National League had fudged making a decision and it seemed that the FA had yet to make a decision on local football. They’d left it to individual leagues to make up their minds what to do, and that produced the odd situation that the North Berkshire League had cancelled their games, but ended up seeing one of their clubs, Berinsfield still end up playing!

I know that the OFA had given both clubs the chance not to play but knowing Berinsfield as well as I do, I knew they’d be spoiling to get this tie played. There is a little history between the club and this competition. I’d watched the final of this cup in 2017, and Berinsfield lost after extra-time in fiery encounter that saw them lose Mike Hinkin and Max Palmer to red cards. After some fairly unsavoury anti-Berinsfield chanting the players and management decided to stay in the changing room and let Oxford City Nomads Development take the trophy without them.

Soon afterwards I had short stint on a focus group at the OFA and was both saddened and perturbed to find out there, that they’d failed to invite the club back for next season’s competition. Ironically it also meant that the 2017/18 competition had neither of the previous finalists in it. The financial implications of the Guerriero affair had meant that Oxford City had been forced to fold their 3rd team.

Last season Berinsfield were forced to watch as their great rivals Saxton Rovers won every single NBFL trophy available to them. It would have been unrealistic to have expected no reaction and the club did the simple thing, they reassembled much of the side that had won the NBFL in 2017, and went in to this game cruising towards another title.

You may remember Heyford Athletic from 6 years’ ago when I watched the Heyford Derby in the Premier Division of the Banbury & Lord Jersey League. Since then Upper Heyford have folded, and (Lower) Heyford have moved through the Banbury & Lord Jersey, and the Oxford Senior Leagues and now play in Division Two North of the Hellenic League alongside the likes of Southam United.

It’s an odd fit, the ground at King George Field cannot be brought up to Step 6 standards, so the lowest rung of the Hellenic is as good as it can get for Heyford playing here. You can see why they made the move, they were runners-up in last season’s Oxon Senior League after all. You wonder whether in the longer term a groundshare will be the way to fulfill their ambitions.

With so much local football cancelled this game turned into something of a meeting of people involved with Oxfordshire football. It was good to see Simon Godfrey latterly of Chalgrove Cavaliers and now taking some quite stunning photographs. Richard Underwood, press officer for the North Berkshire League had little option but to be there, there was no other game for him to report on. He was also in the unusual position of having his predecessor in the role also present.

My regular reader will know Phil Annets very well. A large reason why the North Berkshire League Hops started and were successful were down to Phil’s efforts. These days Phil runs the highly successful “FA Cup Factfile” blog and twitter account and like plenty of us ended up here as it looked the most interesting game available locally.

We may have been 3 days from lockdown but this was the chance to see two Oxfordshire sides who wouldn’t normally play each other, but were highly successful in their own spheres, face off against each other.

I suspect Berinsfield over-estimated what they’d find at Lower Heyford. You could see their point, you see Hellenic and you tend to think of an enclosed ground with floodlights and a stand. None of those are in place here, and I can vouch for the fact that the pitch does slope too! Add in a rough pitch, scarred from a tough season, wet weather, and in need of a cut, and you wondered whether it would level things up, and if so in whose favour?

From kick-off it was clear that Heyford knew how to play to get the most out of the pitch, and were as fit as any amateur team I’ve seen for a while. And while Berinsfield manager Stephen Masterson is as wily as operator as any he’d be the first to admit his charges training regime owes more to Guinness than it does to isotonic drinks. The other curiosity involves Mark Ingram.

In so many games Ingram, in a holding midfield role, is the glue that holds Berinsfield  together. He organises them, and drives them forward, but since Tom Lovett’s retirement he’s played in goal. Initially it felt like looking at a Rembrandt being hung in a McDonald’s but it became all too obvious that while it is a waste of a good player he is an excellent goalkeeper and was made to show just how good on a regular basis!

I certainly didn’t expect so few goals, when Berinsfield had the likes of Brian Rawlings, Max Palmer and David Murphy to look to. Palmer could and possibly should be terrorising defences at a higher level, but with Rawlings playing deep and the normally prolific Murphy struggling with a knee seemingly held together with tape. And yes, they found it difficult to pass and move on that pitch, and to cope with a Heyford side that knew the conditions and how to play them.

I know Berinsfield think the conditions made it a lousy game to watch, but I beg to disagree. It was a game involving two well-matched but contrasting teams, and while maybe there was the thought in the back of my mind that it would the last we’d all be watching for a while, but I enjoyed the game for all that it was.

The goal did come, courtesy of a defence -splitting diagonal ball and a neat cross that was deftly stroked home by Steve Roberts. Was it offside? Not from where I was stood and I think the photos show that Roberts was being played onside.

Of course we now know that it all counted for nothing, all the leagues and all the cups are null and void and hopefully these two sides will regroup and go again next season. But whatever the reality I can’t bring myself to view this encounter as a statistical quasi-friendly, it meant too much to all who were there at the time. My best wishes to all involved at both clubs, and to local football in general.

Please stay safe.