By Tim Klingbiel
Maclean Bobcats vs Urunga Raiders
After a barnstorming end to 2017 that saw them cruelly miss out on finals on the final day by the barest of margins, Maclean Bobcats would surely be looking to go one better this season and secure a top 4 berth. With the management team all staying on for another year, including 2017 NCF Coach of the Year Dennis Mavridis at the helm, consistency has certainly been key for the northern men.
Pre-season started in January and was primarily technique-focused, with Mavridis wanting his charges to get a healthy amount of touches on the ball early on, interspersed with some gameplay and formation work. Two trial games against Lismore teams led into an FFA Cup round 1 encounter where they were narrowly defeated 1-0 by Northern Storm, and the prelude to 2018 proper was rounded out by a clash with last year’s victorious Coffs City United Lions side. In terms of personnel, the side’s only loss over the offseason was youngster Harry Menzies, who moved to Canberra for university, while a handful of players came across from various clubs around the region as well as a couple of road workers in the area, which bolstered the playing stocks and strengthened the depth in both Premier League and reserve grade.
The Raiders would certainly pose a formidable challenge for the northerners to overcome, with the vast majority of the squad that secured a 2nd place finish on the 2017 ladder sticking around for another title tilt. After a first-round bye in the FFA Cup, the boys in maroon, now under the guidance of long-time midfield wizard Craig Simpson, accounted for Westlawn Tigers 6-1 at the Patch and then swept aside Coffs Coast Tigers 4-1 in the third round. It could certainly be argued that an away trip to a fired up and full-strength Maclean outfit would be their toughest assignment yet though, and it would be an interesting matchup for supporters both partisan and neutral to gain an early insight into the status quo for the forthcoming season.
A new look Raiders side took the field and a host of unavailable players meant that there were only 19 players to call upon across both the Premier League and reserve grade sides, meaning that the majority of Simpson’s personnel were not fresh at kick off. His aim was for the boys to score early, then slow the game down and repel the Maclean attacks, and ultimately this was the way things played out – Pablo Kastner and Jai Wadick getting on the scoresheet for the visitors with the home side only able to muster a solitary strike in reply. It was a tight arm wrestle and both sides were very evenly matched – it’s still very early days but to suggest these two could meet up in finals football wouldn’t be an enormous stretch.
Simpson was impressed with the effort level of his players, the majority of whom played well over 90 minutes on a warm afternoon. He praised the contributions of some of the younger Raiders, Aaron Searle and Jack Martin, still in the nascent stages of their Premier League careers but acquitting themselves well to the pace and level required. The boys from the Kalang will be hoping some more players return to the squad this week to lighten the workload ahead of a huge Morgo Street fixture in just a few days’ time.
Mavridis remained calm in the wake of the result and sagely suggested that while it is much to early to be hitting the panic button, the increased depth of the squad at his disposal would mean that his incumbent starters would need to perform at their best to ensure they are not usurped. The Maclean gaffer is understandably very keen to avoid kicking the season off with two consecutive reverses, adding a heightened degree of importance to this weekend’s clash with Northern Storm at The Cove.
Simpson’s boys face an even tougher test this Sunday at The Patch as they take on reigning Premiers and Champions Coffs City United Lions in a genuine clash of the Titans. Memories of last year’s famous victory in the corresponding fixture, where the Paul Pomroy-coached Raiders turned on a masterclass to dismantle the Lions 4-1 – led by a brace from Fabrice Wamara – will surely be flooding back to the Urunga faithful this week, but Simpson will need to ensure his boys stay grounded and focus on the task at hand. United’s defeat to Boambee in the FFA Cup showed there are definite chinks in their armour and the Raiders will be very eager to capitalise on these and establish an early lead on the ladder. There is a great deal at stake in this one, beyond just bragging rights, making it an encounter definitely not to be missed.
Grafton United vs Northern Storm Thunder
After a few tough years as perennial competition cellar dwellers, Grafton United fans haven’t had a lot to smile about, with a thin squad meaning the vast majority of their seniors have been playing 180 minutes each week – certainly not conditions that have been conducive to regular winning football. 2018, however, looks an altogether different story. Under the tutelage of former Maclean coach Scott Elphic and his 2IC Andy Collen, the club have recruited well during the off season and implemented a strong footballing philosophy that will run right throughout the club and create a smooth transition for the juniors as they step up into the top grades. With a healthy mix of youth and experience, it is the first time since the club’s inception that they have been able to call on a full, fresh Premier League squad despite the loss of a few club stalwarts due to work commitments – though a few were spotted in the stands on the weekend and Elphic suspects they may yet return to the fold later in the season.
Storm made the trip up to Rushforth Park with a rather new look side. With Scott Donaldson stepping down as coach for 2018 and former Premier League left back Jade Porter coming back after around four seasons out of the coaching hot seat alongside Mark Drew and some familiar faces in the managerial dugout in Colin Scully and the inimitable Brian ‘Groover’ Lacey, there was a bit of a vintage flavour around the traps. The return of Grant Scully and veterans Tristan Albert and Beajay Wendt to the fold only served to heighten the circa-2012 vibes, while Sam Brown and Matthew Parkin had also come into the setup as well as experienced gloveman Josh Harrigan from the folded Dingoes team. With long-time star man Jamie Kennedy – now with a fifth family member in tow – out for the journey north though, they would be shorn of their primary attacking weapon and a key on-field leadership figure to start the new season.
The opening exchanges of Saturday afternoon’s encounter were punctuated by a healthy dose of chirp from the Korora boys as they tried their best to put the Clarence men off their game and gain an early psychological ascendancy. However, a newly reinvigorated and galvanised Grafton side refused to roll over and it became clear that Storm would be in for a tougher day at the office than they had anticipated.
Practically the first tackle of the game saw Grafton awarded a penalty, and it was goalkeeper Matt McMahon who sprinted the length of the field to dispatch it and give them a lead that no one south of Glenugie would have been able to foresee. To Storm’s credit, they regrouped well after the early hiccup, and strikes from Keiran Clerke and Grant Scully meant that they overturned the setback and would no doubt have thought they were well on their way. They never looked like running away with the contest though, and Grafton were stubbornly resisting at every turn. Midfielder Nathan Mark was the man who found the equaliser, sending United into oranges on level terms at 2-2 and with the game very much in the balance.
The second half saw the parochial Rushy crowd truly come alive as the men in richest violet delivered perhaps the best on-field performance since the fledgeling club’s inception in 2015. Even as fatigue began to set in, the hard training throughout pre-season showed through as they not only went blow for blow with their counterparts but started pulling ahead in the general interplay, winning 50/50s and stringing together some decent passing combinations. Elphic praised the efforts of his men to put in consistent hours outside of regular Tuesday and Thursday night training sessions to improve their fitness and their performance on Saturday afternoon was certainly a testament to that work ethic. As the clock started to tick down, they never wilted, even against a side containing a wealth of experience with a number of grand finalists from a few years back.
Gradually a result felt like a genuine possibility, and Elphic’s men sensed this, pushing forward at every opportunity as they looked to capitalise on a tidal wave of momentum. The Grafton boys refused to be overawed and were not going to let the occasion get the better of them, as they knew they would have to be right on their games not just to hold the draw, but try and push for a famous victory.
The scores remained deadlocked for much of the second half but United had other ideas about the result. Fittingly, it was captain Braydon Jones who sealed the deal in the last 10 minutes with a strike that will live long in the memory for its significance, and the home faithful were in raptures. Coach Elphic paced the technical area like a caged lion for the final 5 minutes and said that it felt like at least half an hour, but indeed his troops were able to stick to the task at hand and as the whistle sounded for full time, they had finally achieved their first win in two years.
The referee on the day congratulated Elphic and specifically mentioned the heart his men had shown on the afternoon, and it is that very ‘can’t be taught’ character trait that will stand them in great stead for further successes going forward. As he led them into the sheds for the team song, several players only half-jokingly said they weren’t sure what to do, much to Elphic’s shock, but this proved a light-hearted moment and an endearing example of long-time minnows stepping into the spotlight after a lengthy drought and having their time in the sun at last. It surely won’t be the final time that song reverberates around the walls of that change room in 2018 either.
The result will go down as a red-letter moment in the history of Clarence football, as it marks the arrival of Grafton United as a genuinely competitive side, no longer an entry in the other clubs’ diaries for a near-guaranteed three points but rather a challenge that will need to be approached with maximum intensity. It’s excellent for the competition and it gives the locals another team to be very proud of and throw their support behind. Elphic and his charges should be congratulated for the improvement they have shown already but now they will carry an additional weight of expectation, and while it would be premature to put pressure on them to push for a finals appearance just yet, it will be interesting to see what they can make of their season and how many more scalps they can pull off along the way. Round 2’s fixture against Boambee will really test their mettle and they will look to capitalise on a Bombers side who looked patchy at times during their season opener to pull off an even more memorable heist.
While noting that the squad was far from full strength due to injury and unavailability, Porter lamented his boys’ lack of patience and said they didn’t take the challenge of Grafton seriously enough. It was clear that things were not quite right on the day and the coaching staff were most frustrated with the result, zipping back down south almost as soon as the final whistle had sounded and leaving the locals to enjoy post-match beverages at the major sponsors by themselves. He hopes the result will be a wake-up call and that their approach will improve substantially by the time round two against Maclean rolls around. The Thunder scraped home 1-0 against the Bobcats in their most recent encounter, an FFA Cup round 1 fixture a few weeks back, and they will need to be at their best to repeat that result this time around. The return of Jamie Kennedy will surely assist in this department, and perhaps this result may prove the catalyst for a string of much-improved performances for the boys from Korora, who will surely hit the training paddock with greater intensity than ever and a real fire in the belly to go out and disprove their detractors.
Coffs City United Lions vs Westlawn Tigers
After a mixed pre-season including an FFA Cup campaign that consisted of a first round bye, a cancelled second round fixture after the Sawtell side they were drawn against folded, and a mad night against Boambee where they went down 3-1 against an outfit who finished with 8 men – their third round exit the earliest they have suffered since the competition’s inception after a few deep cup runs in recent years, reigning Premiers and Champions Coffs City United Lions were looking to solidify their standing as league top dogs with a win against the travelling Westlawn Tigers first up.
With the usual suspects going around for another year, it was a familiar look to the Lions lineup, particularly in attack where Nick ‘Choppy’ Lambert had signed on for another campaign of inducing headaches for opposition defences and coaches and the electric Gum Mayak was back to showcase the silky skills and lightning pace that have cemented his reputation as one of the league’s most dangerous marksmen.
The men in yellow have traditionally found success hard to come by against their southern foes, though an inspired display at Barnier Park last season gave the Premiers, admittedly not at full strength, occasional issues in breaking down their structure, ultimately keeping them to 3-0 after a famous 3-2 victory in reserve grade earlier that week. Captain-coach James Joyce wouldn’t have had a great deal to do in order to get his charges up and firing for this one, the prospect of taking the game to the competition favourites motivation enough for the Junction Hill lads.
The only warm welcome they would receive on Saturday afternoon, however, would be in the form of the weather, the mercury rising through the flat expanse of Forsyth Park. The home side came out of the blocks firing and quickly stamped their authority on the game, concentrating their attacks down the flanks and not without a dash of flair while doing so. It didn’t take long for one of these attacks to result in a direct run into the box which saw Callan Allsop taken down in a manner the referee adjudged to constitute undue force. As the man in the middle pointed to the spot, up stepped the ice cool Mayak, a man who lives for these moments and thrives on the pressure a one on one duel presents. Duly, Gum dispatched a composed strike right into the side netting, leaving the Tigers custodian with no chance.
In most cases, an early Lions lead would indicate the floodgates were about to open, but Joyce’s catenaccio acolytes had other ideas, displaying near-flawless structure to make the Lions’ lives difficult. The stoicism and rigidity of the Tigers defence proved a stifling influence for much of the remainder of the game, though their stubborn resistance was ultimately breached on two further occasions by Lambert and the bustling Brendon Myers. 3-0 the final result and the home side, while happy enough with the points, would possibly have expected a couple more to match the ruthlessness and metronomic precision they have displayed in past seasons in fixtures like this one.
Despite coming away from Forsyth Park without the points, Joyce has reason to be encouraged by his Tigers’ display, never allowing the reigning Premiers too much breathing space and ensuring they couldn’t rack up the big score their fans might have been hoping for. There is certainly no shame in going down by three to a Lions side who are genuine competition favourites year in and year out and have spent countless years together as awell-drilledd unit, and the men from Junction Hill will no doubt offer a real test for their travelling Tiger counterparts at their Barnier Park home on Saturday night as both sides head into that clash hungry to open their account for 2018.
Judging by the FFA Cup result a couple of weeks back and the relatively subdued nature of the win on the weekend, it’s clear the Lions haven’t quite hit their straps just yet. They will need to find their best form quickly as they take on a dangerous Raiders side at the Patch this Sunday, and Williams will undoubtedly be ramping up the intensity on the training paddock this week to ensure his troops are firing on all cylinders and avoid an early season slip up. Though they will still enter the contest as favourites, last year’s result at the Patch means they will need to be wary of the threat Craig Simpson’s outfit pose and it will no doubt be a game of very fine margins – a spectacle well worth the trip to Morgo Street on Sunday afternoon.
Coffs Coast Tigers vs Boambee Bombers
A very warm afternoon at Polwarth Drive set the scene for the season’s first outing for both the pride of West Coffs, carrying a chip on their collective shoulder after last season’s underwhelming finish, and the southern squadron who made headlines with 2017’s remarkable mid-season turnaround en route to a grand final appearance.
Both squads had undergone changes during the transfer window – the main recruit for the men in tangerine being the influential Steven ‘Squeezo’ Mitchell, returning after a sabbatical primarily involving prodigious musicianship, the development of the revolutionary ‘Squeezefit’ program and general debauchery, while the collapse of Sawtell’s Premier League outfit had seen an influx of players making their way to Ayrshire Park including strike weapon Luke France, meaning the Bombers outfit now contained all three of the joint golden boot winners from 2017. The electric Jack Mitchell, filled with more supplements than a Soviet-era lab experiment and with more pace to burn than a prime Usain Bolt, had also returned to the fold after sandbagging in 3rd Division for Macksville, while Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane, straight out of Wirrabilla and tetchier than ever, had come up from Urunga and Mitch Brewster had transferred from the now-folded Dingoes side.
With a common pre-season opponent in Kempsey (against whom both Tigers and Bombers racked up wins), both clubs had reason to be quietly confident in their preparations. Tigers took out the Nambucca Challenge Cup including a high profile scalp of NPL side Palm Beach Sharks in a penalty shootout, before defeating Grafton United 6-0 in the first round of the FFA Cup, with all goals coming in the first half, disposing of Northern Storm 3-1 in the second and finally falling 4-1 at the hands of Urunga in the third round after bungling a couple of clear cut attacking opportunities. Boambee went down to Port Macquarie and put the local side to the sword, and after a first round FFA Cup bye, eviscerated Orara 9-1 in a bloodbath that ultimately proved the catalyst for the Dairyville side’s withdrawal from the Premier League competition this season. A memorable 3-1 triumph over Coffs United that saw the Bombers finish with eight men (even scoring while three short) ensured their progression to the fourth round.
A few omissions for both sides heading into this one – midfield talisman Jake Vidler and regular keeper Jake Mahoney were both out for the Tigers, with Mahoney’s injury paving the way for the inclusion of Jeremy Hannaford between the sticks, while for the Bombers, Christian Penny and James Lowe were suspended from the wild night at McLean Street, Jake Stitt continued to nurse his shoulder after being poleaxed by a Coffs attacker and falling heavily that same evening – with youngster Darcy Newell, returning this season from representative duties, stepping in to deputise – and Jamie Newling and Mark Norberry were ruled out with niggles of their own.
It was the away side who started the stronger, making regular incursions into the Tigers defensive third, and it was the new signing Luke France, on his regular season debut, who won an early penalty. Lachie Moye, always dependable from the spot, duly converted to give the Bombers the lead. New coach and ex-Tigers centre back Felipe Barrera’s men reacted admirably to the setback though and refused to yield, showing the kind of fight and grit they would need to call upon in order to propel themselves back to finals football this season. With ‘Squeezo’ offering them a sense of impetus in attack that they lacked at times in 2017, their apex all of a sudden looked ever more threatening as the attacking midfield trident of Innocent David at 10 and Somchai Tha and Mark Ifrah at 7 and 11 looked to slide passes into the feet of their combative striker as early as possible. This pressure eventually told, as a lapse in the Bombers’ midfield and defence saw the big Squeeze on hand to stroke home a delightful left footed finish with even more grace and poise than his dancefloor moves in a Tuncurry club during Schoolies week. 1-1 the score and very much game on.
The home crowd’s excitement was fleeting, however, as just seconds after the restart, Moye was able to shake off the attentions of two Tigers defenders and head directly to the byline, where he cut back to the on-rushing Jack Mitchell. Mitchell’s tracer bullet-like pace left any prospective marker with no chance whatsoever, and he made no mistake to restore the Bombers’ lead. Again Tigers responded very positively and employed a ‘gegenpress’ style to pile the pressure back on the favourites. In the dying embers of the first half, they were unable to make this good work count on the scoreboard though, and the sides went to the break with the Bombers up 2-1.
Shane Duncan unleashed a mighty spray in the sheds as he made it known to his players that the first half performance simply wouldn’t pass muster if they were to challenge for higher honours again this season, while Barrera would no doubt have been more encouraging to his boys who were giving Boambee more trouble than many neutrals had expected and were employing a suffocating style of play to decent effect.
Boambee emerged from the change room with renewed vigour, and it was the magician Brady Parker who was able to quickly extend the lead. Under heavy pressure from his marker, Parker was able to produce a deft chip that was weighted to perfection and snuck in just a kitten’s whisker under the crossbar, halfway through being fouled. Hannaford had delivered a decent performance between the sticks for Tigers, but there was no stopping this one and he could only watch as the ball nestled in the net behind him. At 3-1 up, the Bombers finally looked a better proposition and only a short amount of time had elapsed before Parker was in again, this time powering in a close range header courtesy of a lovely cross from Moye.
At 4-1 and still with a large chunk of time on the clock, the stage was set for a blowout and it was easy to think the Bombers might well have 7 or 8 by the time the man in the middle had brought proceedings to a close. However, the steely Tigers side had other ideas and were able to once again draw upon a sense of resolve that perhaps deserted them at times through last season. Again it was ‘Squeezo’ who was at the epicentre of Tigers’ attacking action, the burly part-time cruiserweight boxer able to capitalise on the shakiness and inexperience of the makeshift Bombers defence and win his side a penalty by virtue of a Brandon Wyatt handball. Innocent David, one of Tigers’ best last season and one of the competition’s more promising attacking talents, was tasked with the spot kick, and was able to slot it past Newell to reduce the deficit to 4-2.
The home side had no intentions whatsoever of going away quietly and it was noted flat earther ‘Squeezo’ who was yet again on hand to give the Bombers headaches, as his incisive pass released Somchai Tha who was able to halve the arrears and set up a few rather nervy minutes for the boys from the south side of town. The now frenzied Bombers looked to regain a more comfortable lead and made their way back up to the Tigers box where they had a strong penalty shout waved away, and it was only a fine reflex save from Hannaford that prevented France from getting his name on the scoresheet as he hit a rocket from an acute angle late on.
The whistle sounded for full time and the Bombers had held on to take the points in a topsy-turvy game. 4-3 the final score and a lot to work on for both sides, with Barrera perhaps the more encouraged of the two coaches, despite being on the wrong end of a tight result and possibly feeling at least a point was deserved. It was certainly a memorable encounter for the neutral and a great showcase of the excitement and flair the local competition can provide.
For Tigers, a trip to Junction Hill awaits, where they will take on their Clarence namesakes in a fixture they would definitely have designs on claiming full points in, while the Bombers head home to Ayrshire Park to take on a Grafton United side who are looking more threatening than they ever have since entering the NCF Premier League competition, and they will need to have their wits about them to avoid being on the wrong end of a boil over of mammoth proportions.