Around the Clubs

Men’s Premier League – Grand Final

September 11th, 2017
By Tim Klingbiel

The two strongest sides in the NCF Men’s Premier League competition met in a heavyweight clash on Saturday evening at C.ex International Stadium with all to play for. The last time these clubs met in the decider was 2008, where the Lions ultimately prevailed 5-3 in an extra time thriller, and the scene was set for a similarly tight contest full of momentum changes and vicissitudes.

For the Bombers, star man Brady Parker came into the game under a heavy injury cloud, and having gone for an MRI on his knee after last week’s semi-final second leg against the Raiders and missed both training sessions in the week leading up to the big dance, there was some doubt circling around Ayrshire Park as to whether he would be fit to take the field. Midfielder Jamie Newling was in a similar boat, with a quadriceps tear in the Raiders game hampering his own preparations and forcing him to to sit out the final two sessions and sweat on how the leg would hold up on the weekend.

The Lions had some injury concerns of their own, and coach Glen Williams was wary of the threat posed by an in form Bombers outfit who had taken his side right to the edge in both previous meetings this season despite failing to secure a result on either occasion. With his key attacking trident of Gum and Deng Mayak and Nick ‘Choppy’ Lambert each appearing to be firing on all cylinders though, the way things played out ultimately saw the two squads take the field at close enough to full strength on paper to facilitate an exciting and high-quality matchup.

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The teams line up for the pre-match ceremonies.

After both sides stood to observe the national anthem, an uncharacteristically apprehensive Lions side created a couple of largely innocuous half-chances in the first couple of minutes but already it was evident what their primary game plan was going to be on the night. The pace of Lorenzo Rigoni and Gum Mayak out wide was to be utilised to full effect to burn their respective markers and get to the byline, then cut back to seasoned campaigner Lambert, who had a knack for finding some space in the box and composing himself for the finish.

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Sam Crampton and Gum Mayak contest a loose ball early in the first half.

But the game was only a few minutes old and momentum seemed to be slipping away from the Lions. The fired up Bombers attacked with intent and began to ask questions of Coffs’ defenders. Blake Herdegen was playing well with his back to goal and Christian Penny’s lively running already looked like it would cause the Lions some issues.

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Blake Herdegen attempts a shot from distance.

In the 14th minute, Coffs gave away a free kick on the right-hand side around 35 yards out from goal, and Lachie Moye stepped up to deliver a well-placed cross right into the mixer. It was Brady Parker who rose highest, outmuscling his marker Tim Higgins to plant a low header goalwards. A desperate lunge from Aaren Allsop only served to help the ball on its way and suddenly the Lions were down 1-0, with the Bombers looking full of enthusiasm and well up for the task.

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Brady Parker eludes Tim Higgins in the air to deliver the Bombers’ first after a heavy deflection into the bottom right corner from Aaren Allsop.

Coffs have been here countless times before though, and only the most naïve of observers would have expected them to go away quietly. Indeed, they almost found a way straight back into the contest, as a fast break down the right edge saw the subsequent cutback fall right at the feet of Deng Mayak. With the goal at his mercy, Mayak was unable to capitalise and skied a great chance well over the bar.

But it wasn’t long before Boambee had the ball down the other end, and a foray into the box won them a corner. The Lions defenders failed to deal with the ball swung in by Lachie Moye and the Bombers had another go from the flag. The second time around, Matt Ryan, an imposing human being even on his worst day, made a nuisance of himself in the six yard box and Parker was on hand to profit from the ensuing melee and prod the ball into the bottom left corner. The Bombers were two up in the 17th minute – two Parker goals from two Moye assists – and all of a sudden it was looking a very tall task for the Lions, who were being well beaten in the 50/50s and struggled to gain much of a foothold aside from sporadic counters.

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There were jubilant scenes in the game’s early stages as Parker poked home the Bombers’ second after just under 17 minutes.

But the attribute that has made the Lions such a successful side over such a long period of time is their ability to drag themselves back into the fight from seemingly any position of deficit, their ruthlessly clinical finishing allowing them to keep the goals ticking over with metronomic regularity even when absorbing waves of opposition pressure.

True to form, only 4 minutes later, the Lions broke forward against the run of play and a Scott Goddard drive straight at Jake Stitt’s bread basket had a bit of lateral movement through the air, meaning Stitt was only able to parry the ball directly into the path of Lambert. ‘Choppy’ made no mistake, and Coffs had halved the deficit in the 21st.

Shortly after, Parker attempted to restore the Bombers’ two goal advantage with an audacious lob from halfway – having seen Lions keeper Josh Wiseman some way off his line – but despite nostalgic reminiscences of past Brady wonder-strikes from miles out, the Boambee faithful could only sigh as this one drifted well wide.

In the 40th minute, referee Hillier called a rare handball against Gum Mayak, and despite Boambee winning the free kick, it only took a short time for Coffs to regain possession and launch a quick counter attack. Lorenzo Rigoni was able to skin James Murray and get right to the byline, cutting back for Lambert, who himself had squirmed away from Ryan to create space and slot home past Stitt to square things up at 2-2 in the 41st. Two each to Parker and Lambert – it was certainly a night where the veteran campaigners were showing all and sundry exactly why they have been at the top of local football for so long, and why they weren’t planning on abdicating their respective thrones anytime soon.

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Wily Coffs striker Nick Lambert found an acre of prime real estate inside the box and made no mistake one on one against Jake Stitt.

It was an archetypal 20 minutes of play from the Lions – repelling their young and hungry opposition with rigidity in defence and the precision of a train schedule on the Yamanote Line, they had taken their chances like no other side in this competition can, and their few attacking raids had been completed with devastating effect. It is that level of consistency that saps the willpower of opposing teams, and indeed it appeared just a little bit of wind had gone out of the Bombers’ sails as they suddenly found themselves having let a two goal lead slip and requiring another special effort if they were to pull ahead once again.

Still, that wasn’t all the proverbial female author had written as far as the first half was concerned. Christian Penny, who had thus far delivered a typically wired performance full of Red Bull and sprinting, made an incursion deep into the Lions box under heavy pressure from Aaren Allsop. Bodies came together and Penny – as well as the rest of the Boambee contingent – felt he should have had a penalty, but referee Jason Hillier disagreed and adjudged him to have lost control of his own accord, awarding a goal kick.

In the dying embers of the first stanza, a clearing header from Goddard off a back stick cross only went as far as Herdegen, who attempted a skillful chip from an acute angle under tight marking from Joel Digney. Backing up and with the ball well over his head, Wiseman produced an acrobatic, top class save to drag the ball off the line with his fingertips. It was the night’s best moment of goalkeeping and ensured Coffs were able to see out the final minute of proceedings before the break with the 2-2 scoreline still intact.

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A Blake Herdegen speculator from an acute angle drew a top drawer fingertip save from Josh Wiseman to claw the ball off the line and prevent the Bombers from restoring their lead.

Half time would have brought about altogether different sets of concerns for each coach. Williams was surely heartened by the grit and fight his men displayed in the latter stages of the half as well as their resolve and mental strength to dust themselves off after going 2-0 down, but less than impressed by the fact that they were still on the wrong end of much of the general play and had allowed the Bombers a number of goalscoring opportunities. Boambee’s Shane Duncan would have applauded the way his side started but frustrated at the defensive lapses that meant they went to the interval without a scoreboard advantage despite having the better of the exchanges.

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Coffs’ reserves keep warm on a chilly evening under an eerie moon at C.ex International Stadium.

The sides came back out and only five minutes of play had elapsed when disaster struck for the Bombers. Star man Brady Parker twisted awkwardly and aggravated his already troublesome, heavily strapped knee. Having said before the match that he anticipated the first half not to be much of an issue, but that he would need to remain constantly moving during the break to keep circulation up for the second half, the interval ultimately proved to be his undoing and he would be unable to take any further part in the match.

The loss of their talisman was a massive turning point for the Bombers, and what was an evenly poised contest suddenly turned in the Lions’ favour as Boambee’s midfield found themselves at sixes and sevens without their playmaker’s influence and constant presence. For much of the next 40 minutes, Coffs were the ones holding the edge in the 50/50s and seemed able to draw out the extra one or two percent extra effort they would require to forge ahead.

In the 58th minute, the Lions pressed forward and although their first attempt to find a breakthrough inside the box was intercepted by Ryan, he was unable to clear his lines and Coffs came up with possession once again. Stitt was possibly unsighted as the first Lions shot came in at him off the boot of Gum Mayak, as he could only parry what seemed to be a catching opportunity directly into Lambert’s path. Again Lambert found the net without issue, and Coffs had taken the lead for the first time in the match thus far as ‘Choppy’ sealed his hat trick.

That each of the three goals were tap ins is not an indictment of the hat trick’s quality, but rather a ringing endorsement of Lambert’s ability to get into the right place at the right time and keep a cool head and unwavering focus when the pressure is on. It was an excellent performance from him throughout the night, and a Bombers defence that had, for the most part, looked watertight in recent weeks just seemed unable to deal with the challenges he provided. Had another striker less adept with positioning and off the ball runs been at the apex of the Lions’ attack on the night, it may very well still have been 2-0 at this point, and full credit has to go ‘Choppy’s way for his timing and football IQ.

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Chaos – Christian Penny goes one way as Tim Higgins and Josh Wiseman go the other.

The Bombers now had a mountain to climb with their star man off, a central midfielder in Newling playing through substantial pain, and the Lions riding a wave of momentum. Goddard and Nick Mallett were really starting to turn the screws in midfield, and with Gum Mayak still lively as ever and pulling the strings in most of the attacks, they were becoming a tougher and tougher proposition now that they had established a lead.

The always committal Geoff Robertson felled Deng Mayak around 25 yards out in the 64th minute, and was adjudged to have used excessive force in the process, referee Hillier issuing him with a yellow ticket. Coffs tried a short free kick option but the strike from Goddard was blocked by the wall and came to nothing.

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Aaren Allsop lays off a quick free kick to Scott Goddard, whose strike from range was blocked by the Boambee wall.

Eight minutes later, the Lions midfield combined well to create a bit of space for Nick Mallett. Mallett faced up to a deep-lying Bombers backline caught napping and decided to use the time and space to let fly with a 25 yard drive that rattled the crossbar. Boambee had been let off the hook as with the way things were going, a two goal advantage to Coffs at the 72 minute mark would have felt like game over as far as the prospect of contending legitimately for silverware was concerned.

In the 77th minute, it looked as if the Bombers might have carved out a path back into the contest. The energetic and untamed Penny, who with the ball at his feet always seems to be teetering on the edge of control, like his Starlet if a NOS injection were administered, pounced eagerly on a ball that had broken fortuitously into his path. He left his markers in the dust and found himself one on one, but the on-rushing Wiseman did well to close down the angle and made a smart stop of Penny’s low strike.

Just two minutes afterwards, Josh Barden, on a yellow card from the first half and perhaps slightly hesitant to get too stuck in lest a moment of over-commitment reduce the Bombers’ on-field personnel to 10, was beaten on the right-hand side by the lightning fast Caleb Lokpo, who had been a major source of impact since coming on. The resultant ball was played into Deng Mayak, who had escaped Ryan’s attentions to carve out some space around eight yards out and duly convert a simple tap in. 4-2 to the Lions and seemingly the final nail in the Bombers coffin with just over 10 minutes of play remaining.

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Matt Ryan gets up for a header as the Bombers pour forward in search of late goals.

It would have been very easy for Boambee to roll over at this point, but Duncan’s men are made of sterner stuff, and an immense collective effort saw them turn the tide well and truly back in their favour once again. The final 10 minutes of play were characterised by more waves of Bombers attacks – late substitute Tom Cooper had a number of runs down the right flank, but was unable to deliver a cross inside, while Josh McIntosh was dynamic off the bench and Adam Berrada gave everything to make his mark.

Eventually, the period of pressure told. Sam Crampton, arguably the Bombers’ best on the night – his high octane brand of never taking a backward step in defence, and his full blooded tackling style provided Boambee with the mongrel and spirit that a grand final performance needs – stepped up to take a free kick around the halfway mark in the 88th minute. The ball was not adequately cleared by Coffs, and neither was the scuffed follow-up strike from James Murray. Eventually in the disarray of the box, it was an unlikely scorer in Josh Barden who was able to convert with a low skidding strike just inside the right post, aided by the fast pace of the stadium surface.

At 4-3 down, Boambee continued to throw everything they had at the Lions in search of an equaliser, and a lengthy stoppage time period – primarily as a result of the Parker injury earlier in the half – ensured a long, nervy finish for the red and black. Opportunities were coming thick and fast for the Bombers, but they were sorely missing the X-factor that Parker provides, his presence and ability to finish chances in tight situations unable to be matched by the remaining cavalry.

The Coffs backline of Digney, Allsop, Hauville and Higgins were solid throughout the night, and with the help of Goddard and Mallett constantly dropping back to get stuck in, they were able to plug things up just enough to stave off the late Bombers resistance. Many of the plaudits this season for the Lions have gone to their prolific attackers – chiefly the Mayak brothers and Lambert, as well as injured absentee Dut Garang – but the consistency of their defence and central midfield can never be underestimated, and the presence and influence of those players is what makes the side so tough for opposition teams to break down.

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Caleb Lokpo controls the ball in a rather unorthodox fashion for the Lions.

On 96:24, Hillier finally blew his whistle thrice and the victorious Lions were able to celebrate a well-earned title, sealing the Premiership/Championship double for 2017. Though success is nothing new for these boys, the win will feel even sweeter due to the tightness of the contest and the fact that they needed to steel themselves for a stirring comeback from 2-0 down.

It was a special win that for Coffs that will live long in the memories of their vociferous, dedicated army of supporters, and perhaps not since the famous extra time affair against Northern Storm have they been pushed to the brink like this in a decider. Captain Scott Goddard confirmed as much in his post-match comments and coach Glen Williams, who appeared anxious going in and had a great deal of respect for the Lions’ opponents, will be both relieved with and immensely proud of the outcome.

The Lions don’t show any sign of relinquishing their grip on success at local level and have been able to rebuild and bolster their stocks every year when players depart. One would expect the core makeup of the squad to stay the same for 2018, as it did from last season to this season, and they always show up immaculately prepared and well conditioned, ready to do business.

The onus will be on the rest of the competition to aim up and reach the Lions’ standard, but in Boambee and Urunga, Coffs had two opponents who pushed them all the way and made them sweat this season. Clinical up front, dogged at the back and with both precision and relentless stamina in transition, it’s the extra couple of percent all over the park in the biggest fixtures where Coffs hold an edge over any of the chasing pack, and they have an intimate understanding of exactly what success takes at this level.

For the Boambee boys, the defeat will be heartbreaking and will sting for quite some time. There was a special feeling around the squad over the last couple of months of the season and it really felt as if they had found the recipe to finally go all the way, but their inexperience on the big stage was ultimately a telling factor against seasoned opposition.

At times they didn’t play to their potential, but it certainly wasn’t through lack of effort and no one can be faulted when it comes to having put everything on the line. With a fully fit Parker for 90 minutes, one feels the script may have been written a little differently, but the Bombers won’t dwell on that and will be back stronger than ever next season for another tilt at major honours.

Coffs City United Lions 4 (Lambert 21’, 41’, 58’, D. Mayak 79’) def. Boambee Bombers 3 (Parker 14’, 17’, Barden 88’)

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