Behind the Scenes: Fitzwilliam’s Football Golden Age

Image credit: George Salmon

Fitzwilliam have rapidly made a name for themselves as the college to beat on the CUAFL scene. The women swept to victory in the league last year, while the men’s triad secured an unprecedented quadruple after clinching the Premier League on the final day of the season on goal difference. Now, in the midst of a tight title race with Queens, the men’s firsts have added the 2017/18 Cuppers to their prodigious trophy cabinet with an emphatic 6-1 drubbing of fellow maligned hill college Girton last Friday. It wasn’t the beautiful game – a boggy Grange Road made for some hairy moments, not least an 80-yard clearance-cum-shot from the Fitz goalkeeper skipping off the greasy turf and almost finding its way over the head of his scrambling opposite number in the first minute. But if Fitz’s golden age has taught veteran captain George Salmon anything, it’s that a win’s a win.

“We were very direct,” he told me, sitting in Fitz’s café. “I don’t think we tried to play around with it too much. We’ve done pretty well this season playing a 4-4-2 with the two up top just playing the channels. We’ve got two very quick strikers and especially in college football if you put people on the back foot from the outset you can grow into the game.”

“Our vice-captain Joe [Gregory] did a bit on set piece routines,” Salmon smiled, gesturing to his right-hand man on the next table. “When we played them in the league they seemed a bit shaky on the long balls especially in those channels. Our centre-forward Max [Burrows] can just muscle anyone off and get behind so it was pretty simple tactics there.”

The assurance with which Fitz controlled the game, suffocating the Girton midfield and making lightning-quick breakaways when pushed deep, it was easy to forget that last time out on the hallowed Grange Road turf went right down to the wire with a scrappy 1-0 win over Division Two side Pembroke. “We’d beaten them in the league before, but it was so much cagier,” Salmon recalled. “We were sort of playing the occasion rather than the team.

“[This year] we kept it calm in the dressing room before. We didn’t play the occasion. We’ve played some good football this year, it was just a matter of continuing that.” Keeping things relaxed is very much Salmon’s mantra. “College love to get behind it. Obviously the firm and stuff they love these occasions,” he said, as Fitz’s ‘head ultra’ timely wandered past. “There’s a good spirit about the place and we kept it relaxed.”

No doubt it also helped that four of Fitz’s starting 11 against Girton were Uni regulars; the college has been blessed with a rich crop of talent in recent years. Since their first league-cup double in 2012/13, only the third double in CUAFL history, Fitzwilliam has built a reputation amongst prospective Uni footballers as an ideal springboard into the Blues squad – or, just the best place in Cambridge for a good kickabout. Certainly on a social level, they know how to do football here.

“There was a lot of spray,” Salmon said of the post-match revelries, with a wistful smile. “A key part of the celebration we’ve realised is that quite a few players have heads small enough to fit in the cup. So there was a lot of filling up of the cup, dumping it on people’s heads.”

The surprisingly punctilious Fitz ultras printed 100 or so ‘hymn sheets’ to orchestrate support. “We tried very hard with chants,” Salmon smiled. “We tried to get the firm aspect going quite a lot. So there was a lot of chanting in the JCR and then compulsory Friday Life. Which wasn’t a full complement of getting in, there was some issues with that. Some people were a bit too excited post-game.”

For Salmon, Man of the Match on the pitch was hat trick hero and scorer of the winner in last year’s final Rufus Saunders. But what about beyond the final whistle? “Ellis Birch our centre back was on good form in Friday Life, he was killing it. Then Joe Ellis in the surrounding streets,” he added, ominously.

When in the stands himself, Salmon is a disconsolate West Ham fan. “For my sins,” he sighed. “It’s just sad. You watch teams struggling at the bottom, but at least they kind of know what they’re doing. With West Ham there’s no discernible plan and it’s just horrible to watch.

“Even under Big Sam when you’d be playing more direct football and it’d be a bit gross, you’d get your goal and sit back at least it’d still kind of be exciting. Now it’s just openly sad. It’s just not fun for the spectator.”

A canny operator in the middle of the park, Salmon likened himself to the Hammers’ talismanic captain, Mark Noble. “Partly because he’s my favourite,” he mused. “But also because he’s spectacularly hit and miss which is like me. Sometimes he’s quite good and sometimes he just can’t do a pass to save his life. And I like a slide tackle. Generally recovery because I’ve missed a header.”

Like Noble too, for all the Friday Life hedonism, there is still unfinished business on the pitch. Last year’s record-breakers could become this year’s history makers as the first college to ever defend both league and cup. Fitzwilliam are top of the league with 18 points from 21, but only edge Queens by a single goal. “We’ve got Robinson and Jesus in our final two games,” said Salmon. “It generally comes down to goal difference with the lack of games which is kind of horrible. We’ve not had a problem this year putting them away but we have struggled to keep clean sheets which hasn’t helped our goal difference.

“But a lot of people will have confidence after that cup final victory. In the cup it gets a bit cagier, so I think we’ve played our best stuff in league games. Those last two games, certainly for me, will be a kind of let’s go out there and enjoy it. We’ve got the cup, let’s go and play some nice football. We’ve done pretty well keeping it relaxed so far.”

Fitz virtually lost their entire firsts starting line-up last year. Whatever happens, this campaign, a transitional one, and with the Cuppers La Decima in the bag, is surely as remarkable as the last. By hook or by crook, tiki-taka or Allardycian long balls, individual quality or team cohesion courtesy of a few Sunday nights out, the Fitzwilliam golden age, ultras in tow, will undoubtedly roll on.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest