What did you think, in general, of the game?
I thought it was excellent game of football, and a great occasion. Obviously we were desperately disappointed not to win, as the result of the Varsity Match will slightly overshadow the success that we have had during the course of the season.
On the day, things just didn’t go our way. We conceded bad goals at inopportune times that meant we were chasing the game for the majority of the match, but having got ourselves back into the match for the 3rd time at 3-3 we looked by far the stronger team and had the chances to win the match. It was just unfortunate that our captain miss-hit a backpass at such a crucial moment, which allowed their striker to score the decisive goal.
Did you ever think we couldn’t get back into it?
The only point at which I didn’t believe we would get a result was when they got the 5th goal to give themselves a 2-goal cushion when we were already into injury time. The team have shown incredible strength of character throughout the season, having got results from losing positions on at least 5 occasions, most notably when coming from 2-0 to draw with Oxford City just 2 weeks before the VM. We had put in an incredible amount fitness work in advance to ensure that the players had the platform to perform for the full 90 minutes, but I was actually surprised at just how much fitter than them we were going into the last 20 minutes, as we had spent the majority of the match chasing the game, which inevitably takes more out of the players. During this period their keeper made a couple of very good saves and we perhaps lacked that ruthless streak to push home our advantage, but our real problems were at the back.
Every time we seemed set to forge ahead a defensive error cost us a goal. For example, having equalized so soon after half time, to concede again straight afterwards was extremely naïve. I felt that we caused our own problems at the back as much as they created them, and were caught out by a straight ball over the top too easily. Their striker had a terrific game to score 4 goals and finished them all superbly, but I would still choose Alex Toogood, who has had an excellent season, ahead of him.
Were the players thinking about penalties at 3-3?
We had practised them beforehand, and would have been confident of victory if it had gone that far, but the team’s focus was on taking advantage of our superior fitness to win the game in normal time. On the sideline we had been making a contingency plan, and there was the possibility of bringing on our substitute goalkeeper [Nicola Ielpo, St. Edmund Hall], who has had great success in shootouts for his college this year.
What did you say at half time to elicit that goal one minute after the re-start?
I tried to emphasise that they would be sitting in the other dressing room knowing that the first half had gone as well as it possibly could for them, whereas we had not really started playing yet. The quality that we possess all over the pitch had not been reflected in the play, but I had every confidence that when we got the ball down and passed it through the team, the goals would come. Obviously, I was not expecting to score so early in the half, but it could have proved a decisive moment had we preserved the lead for a longer period. To concede so soon afterwards meant that the momentum swung right back their way, so to get another equalizer 25 minutes later showed great character.
Are there any players that you would mark out for special praise?
I am normally reluctant to single out a player’s performance as there has been such a strong team ethic within the squad, but Homer Sullivan gave such an exceptional performance that he deserves the extra recognition. Every time he got the ball he caused them problems, and for a period just after we conceded the first goal he was the only player who really took the attack to Cambridge and got his reward with a very good goal. He has been in the squad for three years, but has been injured for the last two Varsity Matches, so it was great to see him finally grasp the opportunity to fulfil his potential on the big stage.
Did Sam Hall and Tom Howell change the game when they came on?
Niko had hardly trained due to injury for 4 weeks prior to the match, but had been so effective during the season that he merited selection despite this. It was a very hard match to go into short of match fitness, so I took the decision to replace him after 55 minutes. Tom came on and held the ball up much better, and gave us more of a cutting edge up front which took the attention off Toogood, allowing him more space.
Sam Hall had been very unlucky not to start the match, and it was always in the plan to bring him on for Leon at about the hour mark – though obviously the injury to Leon forced us to make the change that bit earlier. We were fortunate to have three such talented central midfielders to call upon, and all three performed admirably despite the hectic nature of the midfield battle.
I think the performance of all the substitutes represents the strength in depth that the squad possesses.
How would you reflect on the season?
Understandably a great deal of attention will be paid to the result of the Varsity Match as it is our highest profile game, but inside the club we can take great pride in a very successful and enjoyable season’s campaign.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my year with the squad. It has been excellent to work with a group of players for whom football is not their main priority, but nevertheless bring a very professional attitude to every training session and match. It has been an excellent learning experience for me, and I hope for the players as well.
With thanks to Nik Baker