Saturday 20 February was meant to be a free day for Imperial’s 1st XI. Given the fact that just under half of the starting XI were abroad, captain Mustapher Botchway had informally agreed with the RUMS (UCL Medicals) captain to reschedule the ULU Challenge Cup Semi-Final to the week after (27 February). However, in attempt to capitalise on this, the captain had reneged on this agreement and stipulated that the game was to take place on its original date, to avoid conceding a walkover.
A 2-hour public transport journey to Shenley (Hertfordshire) later, Imperial were eager to wipe the smile off their London neighbour’s faces in Imperial’s biggest game of the season. The semi-final began in a tense fashion with Imperial testing the RUMS defence with probing long balls. RUMS’ tactic of using the wings were nullified by the combative Imperial midfield. RUMS then tried to resort to using the individual talent of their central midfielder to create opening for their strikers.
Playing a 4-4-1-1 formation, Imperial’s 2nd XI captain and stand in front man, Damian Phelan lacked the partner he needed to capitalise on his ability to hold the ball up. Romain Chauvet went up-front as the ubiquitous 4-4-2 was restored for the remainder of the half and more chances were created from the menacing work of left midfielder David Hayes and central midfielder Caspar Paxton who brought an excellent save from the RUMS UCL 1st XI keeper on the 35 minute mark.
Five minutes before half time, with Imperial controlling much of the possession, the RUMS striker intercepted a pass in Imperial’s third and was through on goal. The efforts of defenders Patrick McMullen and David Sapin, with the goalkeeper Botchway doing just enough to put him off balance, the striker played a weak shot towards goal, that centre back Tom Fryatt cleared with ease.
Imperial played with possession for the remainder of the half. The team felt that though they had possession they were not playing as well as they could, given the occasion. Incompletion of passes and the lack of pressing in the midfield were areas which needed to be addressed if Imperial were to take significant control of the game.
The second half started at a high tempo, with the strategy of pressing RUMS as soon as they approached Imperial’s half being adopted. This produced frequent changes of possession that brought an element of unpredictability to the game.
Fifteen minutes into the second half a RUMS corner was dealt with inefficiently with Botchway getting fingertips to the cross, which slightly deflected its path towards the striker who was unable to beat McMullen who cleared it swiftly.
Theocharis Tofis worked well with Hayes on the left hand side that created more unconverted half-chances for Phelan and Will Swain up front. Central midfielder Jonathan Hill, whose role this season has been to afford no space to the opposition midfield, did so diligently, with well timed tackles and excellent vision to kick-start Imperial’s breaks.
With Fifteen minutes to go, some bright interchange between right midfielder Mark Smith and Phelan drew the RUMS defence out of position. The ball was played to Hill, who scored what any footballing fan would describe as a screamer. Picking the ball up, he took one touch and shot from 25 yards out, beating the UCL 1st XI goalkeeper to the top right corner of the goal. His first goal of the season.
The remainder of the game was played with the pressure on RUMS to press forward to try and snatch an equaliser. The impenetrable back-four dealt with these attempts competently, with Hayes narrowly missing an opportunity to double Imperial’s lead, narrowly shaving the upright with a fiercely driven shot.
The fresh legs of Gavin Graham and Mamzi Roshid did well to stretch the left side of RUMS, creating and exploiting the space available to them.
RUMS final chance arrived five minutes before the end of the game where the same strike in the first half was played through, this time bringing a smart save from Botchway who rushed from his line to intercept the shot.
Imperial played ‘keep-ball’ to the end and emerged one-nil victors at the end of the game. Jubilant scenes followed on the converted farmland of Hertfordshire and the team were, and are, still buzzing from the prospect of playing in the ULU Cup final, two years after their last visit.
LSE 1st XI are the opponents in the match that will determine the best footballing university team in London.
(The final takes place on Sunday 21 March at the private member’s club, the Bank of England Sports Centre, Roehampton. Supporters are more than welcome!)
Imperial Squad: M. Botchway, T. Tofis, T. Fryatt, D. Sapin, P. McMullen, D. Hayes, J. Hill, R. Chauvet, M. Smith, C. Paxton, D. Phelan, W. Swain, G. Graham, M. Roshid