Saturday 19th June, the first day of the final 4NCL weekend of the season, always seemed likely to go a long way to deciding Oxford 1’s promotion fate. Not only were they themselves seeking to boost their game point total against Grendel’s Mother, but Oxford 2 had the chance to help them out by taking game points off their main challengers Poisoned Pawns 2.
Despite being without Kemal Ozeren and Chris Duggan, two of the season’s stars to date, we were able to field very strong teams for both Saturday matches. Grendel’s Mother are a team without any big stars, but still presented a tough challenge from top to bottom with a consistently strong line-up. Indeed in the early stages, things did not appear to be going entirely to plan for the firsts. James Coleman on board 3 took advantage of his opponent’s opening inaccuracy to win spectacularly within an hour’s play, but the rest were not having it all their own way. Ben Savage’s opponent blundered a pawn, but then stumbled upon some useful counterplay , while Kieran Smallbone , Gerard O’Reilly and Ray Starkie were slowly eking out slight advantages on the bottom 3 boards. Perhaps the decisive moment in the match was the touch of tactical genius which saw Merim Bilalic seal victory on board 1, after which the result, at least, was never in doubt. But game points were still important and smooth if unspectacular wins for Ben and Kieran edged us ever nearer to promotion. The bottom two boards were not so clear-cut, however, and Ray’s opponent on board 6 had equalised from a tough position. The resulting half point was no disaster, and Gerard, having seemingly let his edge slip was once more pressing for victory. And when the Cowley man finally brought the full point home, a 5.5-0.5 win seemed likely to be enough.
Fielding their strongest team of the season, the on-form seconds needed to rack up a couple of points against Poisoned Pawns to all-but confirm Oxford 1’s promotion. But forewarned by the previous weekend’s fine result against Brown Jack, the Pawns were themselves fielding their strongest team of the season – hard-earned respect for Oxford 2. But sooner or later, after such a great season, the second team had to have an off-day, and sadly this was it. Against powerful opponents, none of the second team boys really got into the game, with Matt Ludbrook slowly crushed in a French on bottom board and Aidan Rawlinson worse from an early stage at the opposite end of the team. Will Burt failed to find his characteristic resources from an exotic looking position and Dave Bruce looked ill-at-ease in a rare outing with the Black pieces. Ian Webster battled hard to rescue an ending from a pawn down, but found himself undone by his opponent’s solid technique. The nearest Oxford 2 came to salvaging a half point was from a fine defensive effort in a tricky queen ending by Alex Milovanovic on board 2. Even this game ultimately slipped away, however, leaving the second team with a disappointing 6-0 defeat.
With the division’s top two, Cambridge University and Brown Jack also winning, the equation for Sunday was now simple – Oxford 1 needed a 4-2 win or better to guarantee promotion. Anything less would leave them relying on results elsewhere going their way. The draw was relatively kind, yielding a fixture against the Braille CA whose weak lower boards would surely offer some easy points. And so it was to prove, as a tough struggle for Merim against Tyson Mordue on board 1 and a much worse position for James on board 2 against Chris Ross were counter-balanced by quick wins for Ben, Aidan and Alex on the bottom 3 boards. Promotion was soon sealed as Merim halved out, Kieran produced a typically hard-fought win on board 3 and James miraculously rescued half a point on board 2. So a comprehensive 5-1 victory to conclude a tremendously successful first 4NCL season for Oxford 1.
Meanwhile Oxford 2’s final fixture against ADs 3 was to prove a tough struggle. The previously weak ADs were considerably stronger than in previous weekends, and Oxford 2 were without Chris Duggan, Dave Bruce and Will Burt. Kevin Henbest faced an under-rated junior on bottom board and was unlucky to get the worse of a tight battle, while Sean Terry was unfortunate to have to settle for a draw from an initially promising position. Matt Ludbrook completed a disappointing personal weekend with a second reverse. And Ian also moved to 0/2 after once again narrowly failing to hold a tricky ending. Pete Harrison defended well to win after his opponent’s dangerous but unsound sacrifice, while Chris McIntosh won smoothly and efficiently. But these results were not enough to avert a 3.5-2.5 defeat. So Oxford 2 ended a fine season in slightly disappointing fashion to conclude with a record of 5 wins, 6 defeats and 12th position in the division – not quite a true reflection of the performances they produced.
Oxford 1’s final position was in fact better than we could have expected, since Brown Jack who had been top of the table from an early stage were cruelly denied promotion by a shock last round defeat. So Oxford 1 picked up £100 for finishing second in the division – a fine all-round performance from a committed, focussed and tight-knit team. And after so many superb efforts from second team players earlier in the season, this weekend’s plaudits must sit firmly with the men who led us to promotion – the classy Merim, battling James and 100% performers Ben and Kieran.