At one stage during the televised game at Alice’s Davidson Stadium a viewer poll suggested UFS had an 86 per cent chance of taking the three points back to Bloemfontein.
What these fans nor the Free Staters had counted on was just how determined the Blues’ Class of ’23 are to succeed.
In fact, had UFH put away two penalties that came after sustained pressure on the visitors they very well could have come away with the spoils.
Impressively, the Eastern Cape students got stronger as the game went on and dominated play for long periods in the second half.
The last hour of the encounter was worlds apart from the first 30 minutes when UFH struggled to co-ordinate their defences under the Free State attackers’ constant bombardment.
They suffered a double blow as early as the ninth minute when goalkeeper Lihle Vathu not only failed to secure a high ball that allowed UFS to score, but saw him getting injured in the process.
Barely able to stand, he was substituted by second-string No 1 Nkosiyethu Ngobe.
Buoyed by their goal, UFS continued to push forward and posed a frequent threat in the box. It was only thanks to a sensational diving effort by Ngobe that they didn’t go further ahead.
That save seemed to mark the turning point in the home side’s fortunes.
Urged on by their fans, who once again packed out the stadium, they started to find some momentum and string together passes that tested the Kovsies defence.
Something had to give, and it did in the form of a handball by a backpedalling Free State defender. Referee Siyabulela Qunta had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Unfortunately, Fort Hare vice-captain Athenkosi Dobe had no power behind his penalty, which was saved fairly comfortably by ‘keeper Tisetso Seodinyane.
When the second half got underway it was again Kovsies that made the running before the Blues found some much-needed structure through their passing game.
For 10 minutes there was a ding-dong battle in the middle of the park before a reckless challenge by Seodinyane resulted in the second of Fort Hare’s penalties.
On this occasion it was Sinobom Kapase who stepped forward but his shot sailed well over the crossbar to break fans’ hearts again.
This was not to be Kapase’s final act.
UFH regrouped quickly to put the disappointment of the missed spot-kick behind them and began to play at a higher pace, putting UFS on the back foot.
It was a terrific ball in from the left that had Kovsies at sixes and sevens. Kapase launched himself to get on the end of a Fort Hare header and used his own to net the equaliser.
The final 10 minutes were frenetic, to the point that several altercations broke out between the players. Both sides left Qunta no choice but to reach into his pocket for a series of yellow and red cards.
It was end-to-end football as both teams went in for the kill and Fort Hare breathed a sigh of relief when UFS’s Aphiwe Zulu headed wide in the dying moments.
UFH launched one last attack but Qunta’s whistle had the final say after five minutes of added time.