Cambridge are into their second cup final in four seasonsLouis Ashworth

University of Cambridge 2

University of Leicester 1

BUCS Midlands Conference Cup semi-final, Fitzwilliam College Sports Ground, Oxford Road

They’ve gone almost a whole league season unbeaten, scored 57 goals in nine matches, secured a place in next season’s Midlands 1A Division, and now a cup final beckons for one of this year’s biggest Cambridge sporting success stories.  

A brace from player of the match Becca Hirst, in either half and either side of a bizarre Milly Cutler equaliser, and Cambridge are through to their first Midlands Conference Cup final since winning the competition three years ago.  And with Birmingham 2nds awaiting them in Wednesday’s final, it’s now just over a year since Cambridge lost a competitive fixture of any nature.

Cambridge spent the opening stages giving a taste of what was to come. With the visitors favouring a 4-2-2-2 set-up, Cambridge’s midfield-heavy 4-5-1 formation looked quite comfortable.  The combined powers of Zoe Cohen, Katy Edwards and the excellent Ceylon Hickman seemed to enjoy the extra space their shape had given them in the middle, allowing them to bring runs out of wide players Hirst and Liz Ashcroft who would cause Leicester headaches all afternoon.  

Their high line helped, too. With the Light Blues pressing, Ashcroft spotted an underhit pass from the Leicester goalkeeper early on, and sneaking the ball away from an off-balance central defender, played it right for Xelia Mendes-Jones. But the Cambridge lone striker didn’t have her finest showing in front of goal, and knocked wide.  

And with Cambridge’s defence spending much of its time near the centre circle, the away team were able to fashion some chances of their own. Cleverly resorting to the long ball, Leicester should have been one to the good, and would have been had Izzy Evans converted a simple one-on-one opportunity early on after Emma Aspinall found herself in behind and played in her teammate with a smart through ball. Later, a lofted pass for the visitors eluded the entire Cambridge back line and was controlled by Cutler, who rounded the goalkeeper but whose low cross back inside failed to find a teammate.  

The home side were wasteful at times, too. Xelia Mendes-Jones should have released the ball to Liz Ashcroft after Becca Hirst’s well-weighted pass down the left put the forward in behind. Her overly ambitious shot was hit cleanly enough, but was never about to do anything other than sail into the welcoming arms of the Leicester goalkeeper.  

Cambridge atoned soon after. A show of tricky footwork from Cohen, spinning one way and then the other, flummoxed the Leicester midfield, who couldn’t intercept her pass to Ceylon Hickman lurking on the right hand side. The Cambridge number 8’s cross bobbled along the ground, and was left by Mendes-Jones at the last second as she heard a call from Becca Hirst with back to goal. A deft turn with the outside of her foot, and all the winger had to do was knock into the bottom corner with her left foot to deservedly open the scoring for Cambridge.

Hirst, who also plays for Tranmere Rovers reserves, was the standout performer for Cambridge over the 90 minutes, giving right back Bethan Mason nightmares with her pace and willingness to run at her. The Leicester no. 2 constantly showed her outside, but Hirst didn’t mind as she got behind her marker time and again.  

Though with half time on its way, Leicester looked the more likely to score. Top scorer Milly Cutler put wide after robbing Hirst. Then Emma Aspinall almost put in the best individual moment of the entire afternoon as she jinked her way through three separate markers, but her cross towards Cutler let her down.

Either way, Leicester were turning the screw, and should have scored on the stroke of half-time as the ball dropped to Izzy Evans on the penalty spot after some poor defending from some tiring Cambridge legs, but her finish lacked any conviction and Laura Bleehen in the Cambridge goal didn’t have to exert herself to make the save. When the half-time whistle sounded seconds later, Light Blue relief was palpable.

Becca Hirst (pictured) was the day's clear player of the matchLouis Ashworth

At the interval, the message from captain Gerda Bachrati was clear. In the face of Leicester’s superior fitness, don’t be afraid to keep passing the ball, and keep their midfield working to win it back.

Message received. Moments into the second period, Hirst bought a corner from the Olivia Leafe and swung a brilliant ball onto the forehead of the onrushing Linnea Gradin. The ball went over, but only just. Then at the other end Hirst was at it again, tracking back and coming across Leicester’s Cutler to prevent her getting a shot away.  

Even at 1–0 up Cambridge could have been forgiven for thinking it was just to be one of those days. Leicester’s back line failed to deal with a ball over the top out of midfield, and lone striker Xelia Mendes-Jones showed the presence of mind to drink over the Leicester goalkeeper. For all the world it looked like it was in, but appeared to cruelly divert itself away from goal at the last possible instance. Cambridge were already celebrating. As it turned out, the jubilation would have to wait.

An equaliser came for Leicester in bizarre circumstances. A speculative effort from the Leicester midfield was spilled by the Cambridge goalkeeper onto the toe of Milly Cutler who tapped onto the post and across goal. It was still unclear whether the ball had crossed the line when Linnea Gradin thumped the ball into the net when attempting to clear. Leicester called an own goal, Cambridge preferred to credit it to the away side’s leading scorer. But either way it was 1-1, and back to the drawing board we went.

Suddenly both teams had something to lose, and it showed. Chances worthy of the name weren’t arriving for either side until, with 10 minutes still to be played, Xelia Mendes-Jones tried to round an onrushing Leicester goalkeeper after a brilliant slide-rule pass from Hickman. The East Midlanders’ last line of defence got a firm hand to it, drawing cheers from her teammates who had been staring down the barrel of another 2–1 deficit.

And with legs aching and the game petering out, that’s exactly what they got. With two minutes left, Mendes-Jones’s attempt to find the top corner drew a decent save from the Leicester goalkeeper, but the ball could only rebound to the right boot of the brilliant Becca Hirst, who set herself with her first touch and stuck it into the net with her second. Amid the raucous celebrations, the inspirational Cambridge left midfielder ordered her charges back for one last defensive push.  

It wasn’t really needed, as Cambridge even found time for one or two last opportunities. Mendes-Jones blasted over from outside the box, before drawing a point-blank save from the Leicester goalkeeper as she attempted to convert a low cross. The final whistle sounded as the resulting corner swung in, and the celebrations began.

Player of the match Becca Hirst was nigh-on speechless after leaving nothing on the field. “They were fitter than us today!” she told Varsity, struggling for words. “They were so fast. It feels so good to score those two goals.”

Captain Gerda Bachrati was full of compliments for Cambridge’s opposition: “They were really good,” she said, “the best team we’ve played all season. So it’s really good to have this game before the cup final and Varsity.”

“I’m just really happy, I’m buzzing. I’m just really hoping that next week goes well, I’m really hoping for it. Looking at how much we stepped up in this game, I’m really excited for it, I think it really does  justice to the girls and how much work they put in.”

CUAFC: Laura Bleehen, Charlotte Malley, Linnea Gradin, Becca Hirst, Gerda Bachrati (C), Ceylon Hickman, Daisy Luff, Xelia Mendes-Jones, Marielle Brown, Liz Ashcroft, Katy Edwards, Zoe Cohen, Henny Horsler

ULWFC: Laura Fuge, Bethan Mason, Lucy Chambers, Erin Hall, Hannah Watts, Jenna Allen, Emma Aspinall, Milly Cutler, Maliaika Whight, Shauna Cossens, Holly Walmesley, Izzy Evans, Olivia Leafe, Lydia Thomas, Rebecca Colton, Mia Bright