The Alumni survived a second-half onslaught by the determined first years as the graduates desperately held on for a 2-1 victory to reach their third JMU Journalism World Cup Final in a row.
Leading 2-0 at half-time, the Alumni displayed their unfortunate tendency to panic in the face of holding a two-goal advantage, but Neil Leatherbarrow’s strikes proved decisive as Level 1 fell just short of pegging them back despite Arun Lal’s late intervention.
Leatherbarrow, who endured midnight motorway chaos after driving up from Oxford on the eve of the match, opened the scoring with an early header before doubling the lead with an outrageous shot from 35 yards that caught goalkeeper Thomas Begbie distracted and way off his line.
However, Begbie – who looked a devastated figure at half-time – was later delighted as he was handed an incredible boost after the match by being signed up to be the Alumni’s guest goalkeeper for the final on April 12. It marked an amazing rags-to-riches journey for the Cumbrian youngster.
In confusing, windswept conditions, the Alumni dominated the opening period and threatened to overrun the freshers after hitting the bar twice in the early exchanges.
The debutants came into the tournament as unprecedented rank outsiders, having joined a local five-a-side league in preparation, but losing 24-1 in the days before their emergence onto the JMU Journalism World Cup stage.
All that was forgotten in a spirited second-half performance, encapsulated by Andrew Cook’s unforgettable warrior-like roar as he tackled Nick Seddon on the touchline, alongside notable battling displays by Josh Hodges and Cai Griffiths-Sturge.
Skipper Josh Doherty – surely just a proper haircut away from unleashing his full potential – was outstanding in the middle of the park and he set-up Lal to guide in the reply past FIFA’s Danny Masters for Level 1, who clearly rattled the veterans in the closing stages.
Gary Maiden was a mere quiff’s length away from settling the Alumni’s nerves when his cinematic diving header hit the post, but referee Guy Hodgson, who denied the graduates at least two clear penalty appeals, eventually blew the final whistle on a magnificent encounter as the first years pressed in vain for an elusive equaliser.