By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm Thunder vs Urunga Raiders
After a luckless start to the season with three losses on the bounce despite arguably playing the better football on each occasion, Jade Porter’s Northern Storm Thunder returned home on Saturday afternoon with three points very much on their mind. They would have their work cut out against a Raiders side yet to taste defeat, though with Urunga’s midfield talisman and coach Craig Simpson sidelined with a hamstring issue they would have seen a window of opportunity for an upset victory having come so close last week against the Lions.
The Raiders have negotiated their opening three fixtures with success, with wins over Maclean and Westlawn sandwiching a draw against the Lions, and with striker Tim Rupprecht looking in excellent touch after a hat trick last week, their attack looked to be warming up nicely following the loss of the potent and dynamic Fabrice Wamara this season. The loss of key performer Tanjil Everett from the backline meant they were still trying to hit their straps defensively – though the return of Paul Pomroy solely to playing duties injected an important dose of on-field experience and leadership in this regard – and Simpson was still having to contend with quite a thin squad overall between reserve grade and Premier League.
The 3pm kick off at the Cove seemed still too early for the lethargic Thunder, who appeared still to be in a solid REM state in the opening exchanges as the Raiders tore them apart. One, then two, then three, then four after just 20 minutes of play had Porter’s men reeling and the game essentially over after less than a quarter had elapsed. Cale Simmonds, sidelined for last week’s encounter with Westlawn, marked his return to the side with an imperious hat trick, while Aaron Searle, still early in his Premier League career but already cementing his position as a key cog in the Raiders machine, found his way on to the scoresheet just as he did last game.
In stark contrast to Storm’s heavy-lidded lack of intensity, Urunga were delivering a masterclass in clinical finishing and efficiency in possession, and if they are capable of capturing that lightning in a bottle and reproducing that level of play on subsequent occasions this year, more than a few opposition sides are going to be in deep strife as Simpson’s troops put them to the sword in devastating fashion. Given the circumstances, it would have been all too easy to simply down tools for the day and watch on while a rampant Raiders attack racked up a cricket score, but the Korora outfit are packed full of seasoned campaigners and it’s far from the first rodeo the former Brumbies have experienced.
With no designs on rolling over and the spirit to summon at least a modicum of respect from the afternoon, the plucky Thunder finally shifted the gearstick from neutral and breached the Raiders defence around the 35 minute mark courtesy of lynchpin Jamie Kennedy to bring the score to 4-1. Their positive play continued to the interval, and with nothing to lose, Porter urged his men to throw the kitchen sink at the Raiders and shift the focus away from a more defence-oriented structure as it had not been paying dividends to that point.
Simpson would no doubt have been elated with the way his men had started things off, but perhaps slightly disappointed at the diminishing output at the back end of the half – with their foot firmly planted on the throat of the Storm, a trifle more ruthlessness might have seen the margin really blow out to astounding proportions, but any criticisms here would really be nit-picking of the highest order. The fact of the matter was that the Raiders had positioned themselves exceptionally well to close this game out and with a three goal half time lead they had left the home side precious little room to find their way back into the contest.
The start of the second half was vastly different than that of the first for Korora’s favourite sons, who now looked every bit the Raiders’ equals and even continued to produce periods of football where they were the superior side. Finding a way through the notoriously miserly maroon defensive line is no cakewalk, though, and coupled with the less than clinical finishing of the Storm attack that had often pervaded their play so far in 2018, it was the perfect recipe for a stalemate.
The boys in white and blue drew a blank and chances at both ends proved to be at a premium. Keeper Lee Kennedy, back after missing the Tigers game, had no intentions of letting any more past him and was equal to whatever the Storm threw his way, while the additions of Jake Leslie, Harlen Dew and Grant Homes to the starting XI after last week added an extra sense of assuredness to the Raiders play. Ultimately, the score remained the same and it was another three points for the Raiders, who kept themselves right in the Premiership conversation. Both sides had played a refreshingly clean brand of football, with referee Dave Connor not needing to use his yellow or red tickets on a single occasion in the 90 minutes.
Another week and another loss for the hapless Storm, whose second half showing proved they can undoubtedly mix it with the best sides in this competition and are able to deliver quality football, but whose woeful start to the game was endemic of an issue that continues to crop up every week – switching off. These periods of dwindling concentration have created a real Jekyll and Hyde feel about the Thunder in 2018, and unfortunately for Porter and his men it has cost them dearly in games they should be taking a result from.
The Thunder remain consigned to the foot of the ladder without a point, and a trip to Ayrshire Park this Sunday to take on a rampaging Bombers side who have thus far dismantled all before them doesn’t exactly herald a respite. Such is the way the Storm have played though that despite failing to record a result yet, one would back them to give the ladder leaders a tough time of it and make them sweat all afternoon to earn a result. Any lulls though, and they can expect the Bombers to punish them just as harshly as the Raiders did in the opening stanza, so their focus will need to remain laser-like for the entire 90 to come away with anything here.
For Simpson and his men, it was a dominant and highly impressive first half display, but they did not become competition powerhouses overnight and got there with consistency, perfectionism and a meticulous approach to the way they play the game. With those standards in mind, they will still see themselves as having room to improve and will want to stretch their periods of overwhelming superiority out over 90 minutes.
While their defence remains the best in the league – one goal ahead of Boambee and Coffs United who sit either side of them on the ladder in first and third respectively – they have still conceded five in four games. With only 12 in 18 in 2017, 16 in 16 in 2016, 14 in 20 in 2015, 16 in 18 in 2014, 13 in 18 in 2013 and 15 in 16 in 2012, it’s been donkey’s years since the Raiders have tracked at more than a goal a game leaked. But it’s been one of the most open and free flowing starts to a season in many years, and defensive frailty is something that has afflicted the whole division thus far, so it is difficult to really criticise the Raiders even in the department they have been weaker in this year than previous years.
The southern vikings travel to the impeccably manicured lawns of Polwarth Drive on Sunday to take on a Tigers outfit buoyed by their own showing on the weekend, and they will need to be wary of the diverse sources of goals the men in tangerine possess. Urunga have typically done well against free flowing and unpredictable opposition attacks, with their steadfast defensive structure proving an effective antidote, however they have occasionally found themselves vulnerable to moves down the flanks this season, and Tigers’ speed out wide through Somchai Tha and the returning Mark Ifrah may yet cause them a couple of headaches and Sunday thus carries an extra degree of intrigue.
Boambee Bombers vs Coffs City United Lions
Boambee’s start to the season had them top of the table after three rounds with a 100% record, but still yet to hit their peak in terms of performances. That was no doubt a slightly chilling thought for the other major title aspirants in Urunga and Coffs United, and it was the latter opponent who would be tasked with trying to answer the questions posed by an immensely potent Bombers attack – questions that had seen opposition sides thus far wilt like AMP executives in the searing intensity of a Royal Commission inquiry.
Though the first rematch of last year’s pulsating grand final between these two familiar foes was hashed out in the FFA Cup in late March – as the ultimately 8 man Bombers got revenge with a 3-1 victory in a truly wild evening where Jack Mitchell scored a brace before demonstrating high level judo and surprising Lions keeper Josh Wiseman with a textbook ippon seoi nage, Christian Penny and James Lowe were marched, then with all substitutions already used up, Jake Stitt was nearly decapitated by a suplex that would have had Dagestani sambo acolytes applauding at its execution and continues to sideline him to this day with a gammy shoulder – there was no less spice and anticipation about this encounter. Despite both sides being down on troops, the Bombers would enter as favourites courtesy of the Lions’ underwhelming display against Storm last week that saw them looking as vulnerable as they have ever been in recent years.
The Lions were still without Joel Digney and Callan Allsop due to suspension, but the return of influential leader Scott Goddard would be a major boost to their chances. In a slight positional reshuffle, Brendon Myers was ultimately the man replaced, while Scott Cawley dropped to the bench in favour of Dan Wiseman, with the starting side otherwise unchanged from the Storm game. Just one change for the Bombers – Brady Parker returning to the side for Nick O’Mullane.
A baking afternoon greeted the players at a bumpy Ayrshire Park, after a thrilling goalfest in reserve grade on the auxiliary field saw the Bombers get home with a 6-5 victory to consolidate their position atop the table courtesy of a late Tom Frewen dead ball thunderbolt from 30 yards that found its way into the net via the underside of the crossbar and then the back of the keeper’s noggin.
Whether a similar attacking flurry would play out in the Premier League fixture remained to be seen, but early indicators suggested the pace at least would be tough to maintain. Both goalkeepers were called into action regularly and with Stitt still injured, it was a chance for Darcy Newell to cement his status as the competition’s brightest young talent in a marquee fixture, with veteran campaigner Josh Wiseman refusing to be outdone at the other end.
In a reasonably open encounter, it was the Bombers who steadily pulled away and looked the brighter of the two combatants. A well weighted Luke France through ball put Parker in a great position, and in a rare moment he opted to unleash the strike with his right foot. This decision worked out just fine for Parker as his shot across goal eluded Wiseman and gave the home side the lead. Coffs were on the ropes all of a sudden, but the Bombers knew better than to sit on the one goal lead as the Lions have proven time and time again how dangerous they are when wounded.
Shane Duncan’s boys kept their foot planted firmly on the accelerator and another promising attack saw Lachie Moye collect the ball just outside the box in his prime shooting range. As has become standard, Moye was afforded just a half yard too much space and finessed a curler into the top corner to double the advantage. Moye has had an immense start to 2018 and his form has him positioned as one of the competition’s leading lights in attack, while defences continue to underestimate his ability to convert from range.
What would seem like a speculator for 99% of the competition is close enough to a safe bet with Moye, and between him, Parker and France, there is unparalleled long range shooting ability within the Bombers ranks. The fact that anything within 30 yards of goal is potentially a death knell for opposition defences leaves the remainder of the competition’s coaches with an untold plethora of headaches when setting up to try and keep a clean sheet against the boys from Boambee. This often forces over-commitment as backlines are forced to push up high and early to try to snuff out the threat, which then opens opportunities for the incendiary pace of players like Christian Penny, and when available, Jack Mitchell, to exploit vulnerabilities on the flanks and get in behind – all of the aforementioned long range shooting specialists also possessing excellent playmaking ability and incisive reading of the game. Keepers are often caught in two minds too, as they are having to constantly be mindful that a goalbound strike could come from any position or source, meaning their footwork and positioning is stifled by second guesses and half second hesitations. It’s truly a terrifying proposition to face each week.
With half time approaching, the Lions were awarded a free kick just over 25 yards out. A quality strike that curled over the four man wall forced an excellent save from Newell, and the clean sheet remained intact. 2-0 at the break and Duncan would have been pleased with developments but wary of his side not slipping on to the back foot in the second half. For Lions gaffer Glen Williams, it was a case of re-energising his men, who he said had come into the shed with their heads down having given their all in the opening stanza for no reward. They were dearly missing the influence of some of their older heads from successful past campaigns and needed someone to step up and take the game by the scruff of the neck.
In Scott Goddard, they had that someone. Ten minutes into the second half, Goddard collected the ball inside his own half and galloped forward nimbly but purposefully. With the ball seemingly on a string, he scythed straight through the Boambee spine like a hot knife through butter, leaving the home side’s inexperienced defence flummoxed. By the time he had reached the Bombers’ box, he had left untold carnage in his wake while making it look effortless, and he calmly slotted past Newell unopposed to halve the deficit. As authoritatively as the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, Goddard had turned the home side to mush and it appeared a seismic momentum shift could be on the cards.
The Lions’ period of ascendancy was ever so brief though, as Duncan’s troops showed excellent resolve to recapture their earlier level. Penny was covering a range wider than that of Vitas’ vocals and drawing fouls with his surging runs – though the game had largely been played in excellent spirits with not a single card being issued to either side – while France had dropped deeper and was doing an excellent impersonation of a centre back at times, winning everything in the air defensively and starting attacks from his own half in a role that approximated the old style libero. Parker looked to have his second when Wiseman fumbled a regulation catch on the bounce from an innocuous looping France header and he profited with an opportunistic left footed stab into the open goal, but despite the linesman’s flag staying down, referee Jason Hillier correctly deemed it offside and cut the Bombers’ celebrations short.
Around the 65 minute mark, having won a free kick 25 yards out on the right hand side, the ball was perfectly positioned for a left footer to test Wiseman – luckily for the Bombers, they had a dead ball mollydooker just slightly above mediocre within their ranks in one Brady Parker, who stepped up and punched one over the wall towards the left side of the goal at mid-height. Wiseman got his calculations all wrong and lost his footing in the Bondi Beach-like terrain of the goal line, leaving him grasping at fresh air as he could only watch Parker’s strike slam into the back of the net. The two goal lead had been restored and once again there was an air of inevitability about a Bombers win.
The last 25 minutes of the match saw the home side really pulling away and creating a wealth of chances. Barring a couple of sporadic Coffs counterattacks, one of which saw Sam Crampton unleash one of the better strikes he has ever produced at his own goal, nearly beating Newell with a pearler of a daisycutter directed just inside the post, and another of which saw substitute Caleb Lokpo make a lightning run down the flank and find fellow sub Dut Garang 25 out on the half volley to draw another smart save from Newell, the rest of the momentum was all Boambee.
Moye had several opportunities to increase his tally – a golden one on one that Wiseman thwarted, tipping the ball just over the crossbar, then a deft chip from outside the box that beat Wiseman all ends up and hung in the air for what seemed like an hour before falling on to the top of the crossbar – and finally did so with just seconds left on the clock, as a deflected Parker cross found him unmarked and able to direct a perfectly placed header into the top corner without having to move an inch, beating the outstretched fingertips of Coffs’ snowy-haired custodian who had flung himself acrobatically through the air in a desperate attempt to claw it away.
4-1 the final score and a game that could well signify a real changing of the guard in this competition. While the Lions at full strength still remain an exceptionally dangerous proposition, it would be hard to argue the Bombers are now front runners for the Premiership and despite only four rounds of the season having elapsed, it will be a challenge for the Lions to bridge the five point gap and net goal difference of 10 that now separates the two foes.
There’s no doubt Williams’ men have had a tough run of fixtures to start the season, but with an attack only two goals off the bottom of the league, they will need to substantially increase their potency to recapture their status as a dominant force in the league that they have enjoyed for so many years. Digney and Allsop’s returns from suspension will give them a much needed experience boost at the back, but it’s the key attacking personnel that they are sorely missing – when Gum Mayak fails to fire, the Lions’ goalscoring options appear limited and grand final hero and club legend Nick ‘Choppy’ Lambert’s reappearance will no doubt be greeted with the fervour of the second coming of Christ.
This weekend’s fixture away to Grafton United will offer them a chance to atone, but Elphic’s United side are no pushovers and will still provide the Lions with a strong test. If they are serious about their Premiership ambitions, a strong win this Saturday afternoon is absolutely essential as anything less will sound a few alarm bells in a club with stratospheric standards for its Premier League side.
The Bombers will be encouraged by their display on Sunday afternoon, and the fact of the matter is that the margin could easily have been greater, such was their relentless dominance in the final 25 minutes. The demons of letting teams back into games that should have been wrapped up appear to have been exorcised to an extent, as the Lions fightback was short lived before the Bombers hammered two more nails into the coffin and finished with an unparalleled vigour.
The only issue that really remains at this point is the defence – while not a huge cause for concern by any stretch, they are still awaiting their first clean sheet in all competitions in 2018. Hosting the competition’s equal least productive attacking side in the bottom placed Northern Storm Thunder this Sunday, Duncan will certainly be targeting an end to the clean sheet drought. Josh McIntosh, Sam Crampton, Brandon Wyatt, Ben Payne and keeper Darcy Newell have heard the same amount of ‘Happy Birthday’ renditions combined as probably any two members of the Storm backline, but it will be interesting to see their development in a few years’ time. The Thunder’s table position belies the quality they have displayed at times and the Bombers will do well to avoid any complacency as they look to maintain their winning run.
Coffs Coast Tigers vs Maclean Bobcats
A major hiccup last week against Grafton United had left Tigers on one point after three rounds of football and with serious title aspirations already looking to be on life support. A win this weekend against a strong Maclean outfit, who had pushed both the Bombers and Raiders all the way despite close losses, was an absolute must if they were to keep in touch with the top dogs and drag themselves out of the cluster of sides in the table’s lower half.
The absences of Mark Ifrah, Zack Smith, Marko Kisose and Innocent David, who between them formed an integral part of the Tigers output, would make it a tall order for Felipe Barrera’s men, as would the suspension of Matt Guyatt after last week’s bruising second half at Rushforth Park, but the return of full time pickup artist – though he does his best work in overtime – and 10 hour a day sleeper ‘Squeezo’ to the lineup would prove a timely boost, as Joel and Josh Guy and Archie McDonald were also brought in.
For the Bobcats, the three points were equally vital. Close losses against Urunga and Boambee in rounds one and three were separated by a smash and grab masterclass of counterattacking against Northern Storm in round two, but the cold hard facts were three played, one win, two losses, three points. It wasn’t the kind of reading the men from the north were used to, and coach Dennis Mavridis would undoubtedly have harboured ambitions for a strong showing and a finals appearance at the start of the season – having missed out by the barest of margins last year – so there was little margin for error.
The suspension of Frazer Marsh was a major loss for the men in green, and the travelling cast had a markedly different composition to that of last week’s home game against the Bombers – Marsh, Brad Corbett and James Austin made way for Taylor Corbacho, Gary Carmichael and Adam Penfold, while last week’s substitutes Lance Knibbs, Jayden Grainger and Braidy Power-Casson were replaced by Nathan Shugg, Josh Ackerman, Matt Farrell and Nick Potente in an extended 16 man squad.
Referee Martin Gadd, taking charge of his second Bobcats fixture in a row, had barely blown his whistle when the visitors had buried the ball in their net, but their celebrations were cut short as offside was ruled and they were back to the drawing board once again. Seeing the ball nestled in the bottom corner after 20 seconds is an inauspicious way to commence proceedings to say the least, but the home side were undeterred and began to build up attacks and take over the midfield. Barrera was impressed with the vigour and intent shown by his boys, and their high-intensity style saw them creating opportunities out wide, in particular through Somchai Tha who has been a revelation this season.
Despite the wealth of possession and creation of several opportunities, the orange horde were rarely able to test Bobcats custodian Alex Moffitt, until they were awarded a penalty and a gift-wrapped opportunity to finally take the lead. ‘Squeezo’, showing the cojones of a shrew in a frigid European winter, shirked the opportunity when offered, so up stepped his brother.
Usually entrusted with defensive clearances, where he is able to utilise his well developed pectoral muscles to deflect the ball away from danger, it was only natural that big Tommo, having spent the previous afternoon viewing a profusion of dark web sourced visual material and with his mind perhaps otherwise engaged, would revert to type, and in a moment halfway between John Terry on that fateful evening in Moscow in 2008 and this glorious strike from the Brazilian state championship. Crossfit athlete, synthetic testosterone enthusiast and noted cryptocurrency trader Mitchell was unable to trouble the scorers and the Bobcats were let off the hook.
After looking ever so bullish in the market, the Tigers had suddenly tapered off like a post-boom Ripple, and in what is becoming a frustratingly familiar pattern for the coaching staff at Polwarth Drive, the boys ultimately went to the break at 0-0 – not before Jake Mahoney had pulled off a De Gea-like save to keep the Bobcats at bay after a near-lethal counterattack. The situation would have felt eerily similar to the Northern Storm game a couple of weeks back for Mavridis, who on the balance of play would have been pleased with preserving the clean sheet. Barrera, on the other hand, was urging patience from his players and encouraged them to continue the style of play they had exhibited in the first half, confident that an opening would not be too far away.
Indeed, the home side continued as they had started and the second half saw them come out as positive as ever. Tha was as dangerous as ever and with the pace and trickery of Ethan Sechi, the cool-headed approach of veteran skipper Dane Dixon and the hold-up play of the massive genetically engineered specimen ‘Squeezo’ backing him up, it looked ever more positive for the boys from West Coffs.
Having recovered from an embolism, gone through a brutal failed weight cut while jonesing hard for royal jelly as he missed the cruiserweight limit – calling it quits after dropping just 2kg in a controversial method dubbed ‘cutting for Cutty’s’, with a cornucopia of baked goods waiting in the wings for his 1am Sunday morning indulgence while ‘on the tune’ – for his grappling tournament – at which he was manhandled by some genuinely large mammals – it had been an eventful week for the big Squeeze. Weathering the effects of blistering throughout the afternoon akin to trench foot in ‘Nam as a result of his new bespoke footwear – the fast bowler-like style of the kicks leaving him looking like Jeff Thomson in his prime as the big unit marauded across the park – commissioned specifically for his size 15 flippers, wouldn’t have been aiding his cause either, but still he soldiered on like the true warrior he is.
It was another source who eventually delivered the breakthrough though, with a Luke Kliendienst through ball finding Sechi, who had made his way in behind the Maclean defence, in an excellent position. Sechi made no mistake, a nonchalant finish showing excellent composure – something that had often deserted Tigers this season – and finally breaking the stubborn resistance of the Bobcats. Finally they had built up a head of steam, and Mavridis sensed that his men were on the back foot and would need to adapt tactically on the fly. Pushing an extra man forward, Maclean increased the intensity of their play and won a penalty for a hand ball. The equaliser looked on but Mahoney had other ideas, saving well to preserve his side’s lead.
That save proved yet another turning point in the match, as the fervour of Maclean’s attacks began to dwindle ever so slightly and the resolve within the Tigers side that they would take the points on the afternoon strengthened exponentially. Rather than being haunted by their failure to pick up results in close games so far this season, the home side pressed with even greater intent and a well weighted pass from Dixon found the elusive Kliendienst in a dangerous area. He duly converted to double the lead and there was a real feel around the ground that perhaps the boys were going to finally register their first win of season 2018.
Despite the now static Squeeze, hampered by a golden staph infection, dropping his offensive output like Kevin Lee in the third round of the Tony Ferguson fight as he struggled to feed sufficient oxygen through his extensive musculature, the catwalk colossus was forced to see out the 90 as Barrera opted to leave his substitutes bench untouched, and the faith shown in his starting side appeared to be paying off. The Bobcats did not quite slink away with a whimper though and a late attacking opportunity forced another incredible save from Mahoney, who was in exceptional touch and took man of the match honours. Gadd finally drew play to a close and the men in tangerine had snared a minor upset while shorn of some of their stars in Messrs Ifrah, Smith, Kisose and David.
Barrera was predictably very pleased with the result, which ignites his side’s season and will have them invigorated going into another home game on Sunday against a powerful Urunga Raiders outfit. They will have to step up the level yet again if they’re to take the chocolates in this one, though a couple of key personnel should return to lighten the load. Perhaps most encouraging for Barrera has been the improvement of his defensive unit – after shipping four in the opening weekend against the Bombers, they have only allowed two in three since, and some excellent performances from stand-in keeper Jeremy Hannaford have been built upon by regular custodian Mahoney, while Tom Mitchell and Paul Dixon have been uncompromising as always and made life tough for opposition attackers.
Mavridis will need his men to aim up for this weekend’s home fixture against Westlawn and stop the rot, as three points from their opening four fixtures leaves them some way adrift from occupying a finals position and with the margin for error growing ever smaller by the week. The Junction Hill outfit are a tougher prospect this year and will make the Bobcats work hard for the three points. Close losses against Urunga and Boambee, while tough to take, were not entirely unexpected, but leaving West Coffs without a point will sting much more and definitely won’t have been factored into the Bobcats’ season calculations. Saturday afternoon is thus a case of do or die for the men in green and they will have to find form quickly to avoid slipping out of the picture entirely.
Westlawn Tigers vs Grafton United
With both Westlawn and Grafton performing above what many armchair pundits would have expected in the early stages of the season, the Clarence derby had an altogether different flavour this time around. In recent seasons this fixture has traditionally signified cellar dwellers battling for little more than pride and local bragging rights, but after strong respective showings in previous games and a favourable combination of other results in the round, the sides were unusually positioned in that regardless of the result, Grafton would occupy a top four spot at the end of the round and Westlawn would be off the bottom.
The potent purple pugilists of Grafton had shown an immense amount of conviction in their style and commitment to never abandoning their enterprise and industry, and most of all their bravery had been unmatched in the competition thus far. Punching up a few weight classes, they had already impressed with wins over Northern Storm and Coffs Tigers and they weren’t looking to slip away quietly either. With a post-match team song proving not to be a necessity in previous seasons as wins were rarer than the guano of a rocking horse, the United songwriting team have had to hastily draft together a rousing piece as wins become the new normal for South Grafton’s finest.
United’s hosts, Westlawn, were returning to Back Lane after a determined display against Urunga last weekend at the Patch where they were well and truly in the contest for large portions of the game despite the ruthless finishing of Urunga’s strikers and herculean effort from their keeper Matt Smith contributing to a scoreline of 6-2 that may not have been the most accurate indicator of the Tigers’ quality. They would have their work cut out against Scott Elphic’s men who were riding a wave of momentum approaching tsunami levels, and with captain, coach and club president James Joyce absent, they would need to do so without their most important contributor both on and off the field.
With Tom Westman in for James Joyce, and Bailey Tobin coming into the starting side after last week’s substitute role with Seychellois import Balla Traoré going the other way, the Tigers lineup was largely the same as the one that took the field against Urunga the previous week at the Patch. The suspension of Richard Akato saw Nathan Daniels come into the Grafton XI, while Selwyn King and Ethan Piper dropped to the bench for Corey Ford and Hoàn Chiến, who earnt a start after his winner off the bench against Coffs Coast Tigers.
The game itself certainly lived up to its billing as an evenly matched Clarence derby full of open, swashbuckling football and goalmouth action. The sides exchanged blow after blow and seemingly every time one gained the ascendancy, the other would square the ledger. With Bailey Tobin, Jordan Newman and Michael Allen all getting on the scoresheet for the Tigers and a Hayden Young brace as well as one from last week’s hero Hoàn Chiến contributing to Grafton’s tally, the scores were locked at 3-3 late on.
Two yellows to James Craig saw United a man light and it appeared Tigers would have the advantage in the final stages of the match. End to end action heading into stoppage time set up a genuine white knuckle finish, and it was the ten man Grafton side who edged ahead courtesy of a header from young substitute Ethan Piper. It looked for all money as if the Rushforth Park outfit had stolen the points to make it three wins from four.
But there would be yet another twist in the tail. The stubborn Tigers refused to drop their heads and poured forward in attack, and they duly found yet another equaliser – remarkably, this also heralded the second goal of the game’s period of injury time. Tom Westman was the man who delivered the telling blow with another header, and before any further play of any significance could take place, referee Dave Goodwin called time on a pulsating battle culminating in a frenzied aerial assault.
Elphic’s disappointment at failing to take the three points on the evening was evident, and completely understandable – a win would have kept them just one game away from the top of the table after four rounds, a zenith even those within the camp surely wouldn’t have envisaged before the season’s commencement. It’s impossible to understate how positive their success has been for the competition – not since Maclean’s famous grand final victory in 2009 has local football north of Woolgoolga been in such rude health, and it’s hard to remember a competition as open, unpredictable and just plain exciting for the neutral as season 2018 has been to date, with United responsible for a good amount of that. Elphic felt acutely aggrieved at the officiating on the evening but was proud of the fight from his charges and impressed at the high tempo and quality of the game.
A tough fixture against the wounded Lions lies ahead of them this weekend, but United will pick up an invaluable 12th man once again as the parochial supporters at Rushforth Park will inevitably turn out in droves to urge their boys on. Young Ethan Piper’s influence continues to grow by the week, while Matt McMahon has been a consistent performer between the sticks and the return of Richard Akato from suspension will give the backline a much needed boost. Coffs will need to take this fixture seriously and not look past the men in purple, as the possibility of getting stung right where it hurts is greater than it has ever been.
Tigers have traditionally prided themselves on resolute defensive displays and the four goals Grafton were able to put past them will not please Joyce, who returns this week from a brief absence to retake the reins against Maclean. An away trip to Wherrett Park in another battle of the northerners on Saturday afternoon will provide the Junction Hill outfit with an even stronger test, but the Bobcats have looked slightly below their best of late and the men in yellow will no doubt see the timing of the fixture as a great chance to capitalise on a rare Maclean form slump.
The influence of Joyce in both a playing and managerial capacity will be essential if Tigers are to pick up a result from this one, but a newfound potency in front of goal, with six in the past two weeks, spells danger for Dennis Mavridis’ Maclean and puts the Back Lane boys in with a genuine shout. Tigers haven’t quite found the optimal balance between suffocating defensive stoicism and fluid ‘joga bonito’ just yet, but the signs are positive and they continue to build by the week, so that elusive win doesn’t look too far away.