With Oxford’s tremendously successful first season at the 4NCL completed, thoughts turned to both consolidating what had been achieved and pressing for further success.
The summer recruitments of the Oxford City duo Matt Rose and Nigel Moyse and current and former University players Dave Shaw and Mel Buckley, together with several other keen new players only served to bolster what was already a very strong squad. It is always a very pleasing problem for a captain when the number of strong and enthusiastic players available for a fixture exceeds the number of places in the team. In fact, for the first weekend of the new season we could easily have fielded three teams as we hope to do next year. Even the extended trek to Telford didn’t seem to deter the troops.
Oxford 1 began their division three season with a potentially tricky looking fixture against AD’s 2. However, we entered the game with confidence as a successful summer’s chess for Ben Savage had made him our second FM. But last year had certainly taught us that ratings don’t count for everything and sure enough events soon took a turn for the worse. A couple of hours into the new season we found ourselves staring down the barrel of an embarrassing shock defeat. Dave Shaw’s debut on board 6 had left him with a pretty grim looking defensive task while Aidan Rawlinson on board 7 turned down a chance of clear extra material in favour of what he had wrongly calculated to be an even easier win. And Merim Bilalic’s Colorado on board 1 for all its undoubted merits never inspires total confidence for a nervous team captain. With the other boards showing little promise of full points, prospects looked somewhat bleak.
The second team’s division 4 fixture against new team the Conquistadors showed no signs of being any more straightforward. Kevin Henbest accepted a cramped position for an extra pawn while Dave Bruce took a typically aggressive approach on board 5. Meanwhile probably Oxford’s smoothest win of the day was taking shape on board 2 where Nigel Moyse belied his low FIDE rating to effortlessly outplay strong opposition. Alex Milovanovic also seemed to have things under control on top board. When Ian Webster sealed a solid draw and Dave Bruce’s attack petered out to a half point, it seemed likely that we had done enough. But unfortunately Kevin Henbest’s battling first 4NCL win was cancelled out by an unlucky time pressure induced reverse on board 1. By now Chris Duggan’s previously solid position had deteriorated beyond repair and we were forced to settle for 3-3 and a share of the spoils.
Attention returned to the first team match where James Coleman had diffused some mild pressure to draw and impressive debutant Vygante Milasiute was easing to victory on bottom board. Rawlinson was trying desperately to find a saving tactical shot, while Matt Rose found both his position and his clock to be firmly against him. When both these games were lost and Savage could only secure a draw on board 2, we really looked up against it. Fortunately some neat trickery from Shaw had turned his game right round, but with Kemal Ozeren heading for a draw at best we needed to secure the full point on top board. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and Bilalic drummed up a whole mountain of counterplay to go from two pawns down to a pawn up in what seemed like a matter of moments. So often does Merim achieve such feats that we will soon cease to be surprised by them. Ozeren’s draw was soon agreed and a dramatic, nerve-wracking 4.5-3.5 win was secured.
The next challenge of the day was to locate our lodgings for the night in nearby Ketley . We had been assured that the guest house was only 5 minutes drive from the venue and within easy stumbling distance of the local hostelries. In fact, contrary to many expectations, the accommodation proved most satisfactory and we even located a pub which offered two for one meal deals to almost match those at the legendary West Bromwich Wetherspoons . We did get a few suspicious looks from the locals, but perhaps in the light of Chris Duggan’s remarkable achievement in downing an entire bottle of vinegar, such an air of reservation could be said to be justified. It seems unlikely that the good folk of Telford have often seen such iron-stomached performances in their midst.
It can’t be many teams who have the luxury of being able to cater for a late withdrawal by bringing in a substitute FM, but so it was when an early trip to the venue was necessitated by captain Kieran Smallbone’s unexpected absence. After the previous day’s uncertain first team performance, however, Ben Savage’s steadying influence in the final line up to take on Wessex 2 was probably a blessing. Once again much of the early action centred around Aidan Rawlinson’s board where a complex theoretical opening line gave his young opponent strong attacking opportunities in return for a tricky material imbalance. Dave Shaw’s early position was a little unconvincing once again, but Dave Hackett showed signs of developing a powerful attack. The top four boards all got off to a fairly steady uneventful start.
The second team had a score to settle with Cheddleton who had hammered them 5.5-0.5 last season. And things got off to the best possible start when the non-appearance of Pete Harrison’s opponent on board 6 gave us an early advantage. Rumour has it that he is still driving around West Bromwich wondering where the 4NCL has gone. A tough match was still on the cards however, as Cheddleton’s top two boards are amongst the strongest in the league. But a solid start to Jon Smith’s 4NCL debut and an early extra pawn for Ian Webster boded well for a good day.
Fortunately for the supporter’s blood pressure, Wessex 2 were not presenting quite the same threat as AD’s 2. Once Rawlinson on 7 had secured a battling draw and Shaw on 6 had equalised, no-one really looked like losing. A calm efficient win for James Coleman set the ball rolling and Kemal Ozeren secured a second comfortable draw of the weekend. The fireworks came from Dave Hackett whose comprehensive win on board 5 was probably the performance of the day. Vygante Milasiute completed a fine 100% debut weekend with a win which, if not quite as smooth as Saturday’s, never really looked in doubt. All of which left our two FMs playing for wins with the draw very much in hand. Neither could quite pull off the full point, but for this day at least enough had been done and a 5.5-2.5 win was safely completed.
The second team had suffered a setback when the usually solid Ray Starkie went down on board 4. But Webster put us back in front with an easy win against a strong opponent. And Jon Smith took advatage of some inaccurate play by his opponent to extend the lead to 3-1. Just half a point needed then from those tough top two boards. Gerard O’Reilly on 2 was always struggling to contain his opponent after an enterprising opening choice, but Alex Milovanovic’s position on 1 showed a deal more promise. O’Reilly eventually had to give best, but Milovanovic, while being a little unlucky not to win, did at least manage to bring home the vital half point. So 3.5-2.5 to the seconds and revenge for last season exacted.
All in all, another superb weekend for Oxford 4NCL. Three wins and a draw from our four matches represented a great start to the season and there were also some fine individual performances. Everyone contributed to a great team effort, right from Merim’s silky smooth performance at the top of the first team to Kevin’s hard fought point at the bottom of the second team. Alex deserved much more that half a point for two impressive displays, Moyse and Hackett both produced vital wins and Dave Shaw found a really nice tactical finish when the first team most needed it on Saturday. But my player of the weekend is Vygante Milasiute whose two out of two having stepped in at short notice might well prove decisive when the final reckoning comes in May. A great addition to a great squad.