By Tim Klingbiel
Coffs City United Lions (Premiers) will take on Boambee Bombers (3rd in the regular season) at the C.ex International Stadium, with kick off to take place at 7:00pm on Saturday 9th September on the main field.
Coffs City United Lions
Another year, another Premiership for the Lions – Glen Williams’ men in red and black have oozed class on the pitch in 2017 and were deserving of a top of the table finish in the home and away season by a 5 point margin from Urunga Raiders.
It takes something special to attain a level of consistency that sees a club make nine grand final appearances in the past ten years, winning eight of those. But the Lions’ ability to constantly recruit well and gradually replace the old guard with fresh talent is remarkable, and it is this in conjunction with the professionalism with which they approach their preparations that allows them to continue flourishing year after year.
Coach Glen Williams gathered his troops together in early January for pre-season, with the retention of the vast majority of 2016’s Premiership & Championship winning squad ensuring the headaches of teething problems would not be a feature this time around. This allowed the Lions to focus on strength and conditioning, and after eight months of hard slog these traits are proving invaluable at the season’s business end.
Having nominated for entry into the prestigious FFA Cup competition, the Lions had designs on getting some decent pre-season preparation in ahead of what would no doubt be some tough fixtures. But several rain affected weekends and only a single pre-season game scuppered those plans and Coffs needed to make do with minimal game time to refine their structures as they progressed quickly through the tournament to face Bangalow with a showdown in Newcastle on the line.
A win in that game saw them book a matchup with Cardiff, and in a match broadcast live by Bar TV, Facebook and YouTube, the Lions came away with another momentous victory on penalties, ranking alongside Urunga Raiders’ 2013 triumph in the now defunct FFA Cup predecessor, the NNSWF State Cup, as perhaps the finest footballing achievement by a local side in recent years.
Their cup run finally came to an end against a Broadmeadow Magic side headlined by ex-A-League player James Virgili just two days later, but the Lions showed the heart of their animal namesake in an excellent display that saw little separating the teams until the 65th minute, after which point fitness proved the difference. It was a performance that galvanised the boys more than perhaps any result in the league could, and this proved a launching pad for the rest of the NCF season.
Solid progress in the league saw them win all of their games during the season’s first half barring a 1-1 draw with the Raiders at McLean Street, and the run home was virtually as strong once again, as the Raiders once again were the only thorn in their side, effecting a 4-1 reverse at the Patch in Round 16.
The Lions come into this weekend’s grand final on the back of a five game winning streak, although an average of just over 2 goals a game over this period tells a story of a side who have created a plethora of chances but occasionally struggled to convert in recent weeks. The 2-1 win over Orara on the weekend was a live action exhibition of these difficulties, and this will probably be the one area of their game that Coffs feel they can improve upon substantially heading into the crucial encounter with the Bombers.
Williams will need to nurse a few players through some minor niggles and knocks picked up over the past couple of games but given the magnitude of the occasion, it’s more than likely the usual suspects will front up come Saturday night, even if they are hopped up on enough panadeine to put down a rhino and sporting more strapping than the inhabitants of the Giza pyramids.
Though they will enter the game as favourites, both of the wins they hold over the Bombers this season were less than straightforward and they will have their work cut out to keep the men in white at bay. A 3-2 victory at Ayrshire Park saw the home side spurn a number of chances with the score at 2-2 and it was only a last gasp set piece culminating in a Brent Turner header that got them home with virtually the final touch of the match, and a novella could be written on the eventful Forsyth Park encounter that eventually saw the Lions get home 3-1.
With the work rate of Nick Mallett and Scott Goddard in midfield providing an excellent link between attack and defence, the trickery and devastating turns of pace of Gum and Deng Mayak can flourish, and the brothers will need to draw upon every ounce of flair in their locker to crack a Boambee defence that has improved greatly of late. Aaren Allsop always hassles relentlessly and will look to impose a physical brand of football on a few of the Bombers’ speedy younger players, while Lorenzo Rigoni and Caleb Lokpo’s darting runs should give the experienced Nick Lambert a few opportunities to utilise his uncanny ability to squeeze into some space in the box and test Jake Stitt with his clinical finishing.
Williams praised the efforts of Shane Duncan and the Boambee boys to qualify for the final and said they have done a stellar job to get to the point they are at currently. He and the Lions players will be acutely aware of the danger the Bombers pose and chatter through the grapevine some weeks back suggested they were the opponents that Coffs were keenest on avoiding in the finals, perhaps owing to the way things played out in 2014 where Duncan’s side – then featuring vastly different personnel – eliminated the Premiers over two semi-final legs, the only occasion in the past decade that Coffs did not appear in the decider at the stadium.
But the Lions are a much more composed side than to let such history affect their will and resolve, and the virtually omnipotent dynasty they have built in the local competition would suggest they will still be approaching this weekend with the utmost confidence. Having suffered only a single defeat in their past 22 matches at NCF level, Coffs are intimately familiar with the level they need to bring to the table on Saturday and will be primed to conclude their season with a climactic roar to a third consecutive Premiership/Championship double.
The Bombers’ 2017 season reads like something of a bildungsroman, with their early season fits and starts steadily abolished in the footballing equivalent of a coming of age as they ascended from as low as 7th on the ladder to a third place finish by season’s end. After two consecutive wins over the Urunga Raiders that saw Boambee produce some of the highest quality football seen around the club in as long as anyone can remember, Shane Duncan’s men would appear to be approaching their zenith at the perfect time as they move within touching distance of a trophy that would mean so much to the club.
An impassioned speech from club president and noted orator Kevin Davey set the tone for a solid training session on Tuesday night, and the level of football from all players in attendance was of the highest order. The past few weeks have seen the Bombers still getting a full squad of 17 to 18 players to training despite the reserve grade side being well out of finals contention, and it is this level of dedication and sacrifice from the entire playing group that has the Bombers daring to dream of creating history on Saturday evening.
Duncan and his disciplinarian offsider Neil Witherdin – who has led both the women’s 1st division and men’s reserve sides to titles at Boambee in the past, and is known to have a great fondness for conditioning drills, much to the chagrin of some of the Bombers’ elder statesmen – have been impeccable following their return to the fold, and the team’s marked improvement since they took the reins midway through the season is largely attributable to the structure and attention to detail they have brought to both the midweek training sessions and pre-match preparations every weekend.
While other clubs’ routines were disrupted by the inclement weather earlier in the season, the Bombers were put through their paces in rigorous evenings of cross-training on the indoor basketball court at Toormina High School. When players sustain injuries on the weekend, they still turn up to training to keep an eye on the structures the team are working on and gain a deeper understanding of the role they will need to play as a cog in a well oiled machine by the time the next game rolls around. All those crucial but often overlooked subtleties are now paying off with the Bombers looking like the competition’s best conditioned side over the past few weeks, showcasing levels of stamina that have had their opponents wilting during the latter stages of each game.
Like any side come the business end of the season – including their opponents the Lions – Boambee head into finals week with a few regular starters under injury clouds, but with diligent rehabilitation work and a few trips to the physio, everyone should be ready and raring to go for the season’s biggest game.
The Bombers will feel unlucky not to have taken points from Coffs already this season as they came close to a result on both occasions. The Ayrshire Park game was decided by a set
piece at the death and the 3-1 defeat at McLean Street saw Coffs awarded a couple of contentious goals – a penalty that appeared right on the borderline of the ‘genuinely impeding the run’ and ‘searching for contact’ sides of the equation as Geoff Robertson stood stock still in front of an enthusiastic Nick Lambert, and a hotly disputed third that saw a corner awarded for a ball that Jake Stitt missed by a good half yard or so, with the strike that found its way to the back of the net coming directly after Robertson was chopped in half off the ball and had to go off injured with Achilles damage – while Brady Parker was desperately unlucky not to score a 40 yard volley that had Josh Wiseman flummoxed but was denied by the crossbar.
But although coming close without actually achieving an all important win will be scant consolation for Duncan and his men, they will feel like they are a much improved proposition this time around and there is a quiet confidence breeding through the squad that 2017 will be the year Premier League silverware finally comes back to Ayrshire Park, where the trophy room still has enough space not to require any incendiary shenanigans.
With Brady Parker and Christian Penny claiming two thirds of a three way share of the golden boot – Luke France of Sawtell the other striker marooned on 21 goals for the season – and Jake Stitt being recognised as Goalkeeper of the Year despite barely getting a glove on the ball in finals so far, the individual accolades of the Bombers’ more high profile players have only been made possible as a result of the hard graft of some of the more unsung heroes such as the back three of Matt Ryan, Sam Crampton and Geoff Robertson, and the perpetual motion central midfield pairing of Josh Barden and Jamie Newling. While those names might feature rarely on the scoresheet, they are integral to the success of the side and Duncan has acknowledged this on numerous occasions.
Racking up 87 goals over their 20 games this season – only 4 behind Coffs over the same period – the Bombers have certainly had no issues in front of goal, but it is the improvement of their defence, the imposing Ryan, uncompromising Crampton and dogged Robertson, that has set tongues wagging south of the CBD. The pace of James Murray down the flank and the Viduka-like role of Blake Herdegen in retaining possession with his back to goal and adroitly bringing his team mates into the play will also be key elements of the Bombers blueprint.
All of the aforementioned conspirators will need to stand up and be counted on Saturday if the Bombers are to come away with the win, but there’s absolutely no reason to believe that won’t be a reality and the Boambee brains trust feel they have the tools required to dismantle the Lions reign of success and give the local football status quo a mighty shake up. They will leave every last ounce of energy on the stadium turf in pursuit of the ultimate prize and it’s going to be one titanic battle that should go right down to the wire.