There were some stunning performances on the pitch – and a little bit of stardust off it – as the BT Sport Pub Cup reached the semi-final stage.
Eight regional heat winners from across the UK met at the National Football Centre at St George’s Park, Burton, for an 11-a-side tournament to win the right to play in next month’s final.
Before a ball was kicked players were given a guided tour of the state-of-the-art centre, where the England squad have gathered this week ahead of the World Cup. They then received some expert advice in a session with former Premier League stars Rio Ferdinand, Robbie Savage and John Hartson, hosted by rugby ace Ugo Monye.
Rio recalled losing his first cup final as a Manchester United player and passed on this handy tip: “play the game, not the occasion.”
But what an occasion it was with the players turned pundits, along with ‘The Beast’ Adebayo Akinfenwa, managing two sides each for the duration of the day.
The sides were split into two groups: South and North. In each group teams played in 30-minute matches in a round robin format with the top two in each section playing off again for a place in the final on June 2 in Leicester.
Robbie Savage and John Hartson, who will go on to manage the two finalists, were both impressed by what they saw:
“I’m surprised with how good the standard is and how competitive it is – what a great chance to play in the final at Leicester’s ground,” said Robbie.
John added: “It’s all about having a bit of fun but the attitude towards it all is brilliant. They realise what an opportunity this is to play on a Premier League ground and get treated like Premier League players. The standard is very, very good. I wouldn’t say I was surprised but I am pleased. It’s very pleasing on the eye.”
The North group was dominated by last year’s champions The Liver Vaults, who won all three of their games without conceding a goal. Second place went to The Woodley Arms in Stockport, with The Dolphin Inn from Macclesfield and The Butchers Arms from Newcastle failing to make it out of the group.
Liver Vaults striker Jamie McDonald broke Woodley Arms hearts with a last-minute strike in the group game between the two, securing a 1-0 win. The play-off match was another tense affair and once again Liver Vaults nicked it with a single strike to spark celebrations and secure the chance to defend their title.
Liver Vaults owner Trevor Mason, who watched all the action as part of a large group of travelling supporters from the pub, said: “I can’t believe we have got to the final for two years on the trot. It has been a superb day and we couldn’t have asked for better. We’ll have a drink out of the cup tonight and then have a think about getting a bigger trophy cabinet.”
The South group was a more closely fought affair with all sides picking up wins. Fox & Hounds from Putney will have rued a slow start to the tournament after they beat eventual group runners-up Fiveways from Bournemouth 4-1 in the last group match.
It wasn’t enough and the Fox & Hounds joined Stafford’s Star & Garter in exiting at the group stage despite picking up three points. The group was won by Hackney’s The Gun, who only secured their place at Burton in the final qualifier at Millwall’s The Den two days previously.
In the South play-off Fiveways took the lead with a first half-penalty before The Gun equalised with a spot-kick of their own. It looked like a shootout was going to be required to decide the tie until The Gun’s William Conway came off the bench to fire home a late winner.
After the game, he said: “What a chance now to play at a Premier League stadium. We are up against a good team and we’ll have our work cut out but hopefully we’ll do it.
“It’s been a beautiful day all round. The facilities are brilliant and we’ve had a chance to play. What a day.”
The Gun will be managed by Robbie Savage in the final with John Hartson looking after The Liver Vaults. The winning side will secure the title plus £5,000 of equipment for its pub and a free BT Sport subscription for the year.
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