Around the Clubs

Men’s Premier League – Rounds 6 and 7 Review

May 24th, 2018
By Tim Klingbiel

 

Round 6

In an abbreviated round 6, the scheduled Raiders and Bombers game was postponed due to both sides’ FFA Cup progression – with the Bombers going even further to the Newcastle rounds – while Grafton United forfeited their away fixture against Maclean. This meant that only two games were played.

 

Westlawn Tigers vs Northern Storm Thunder

A tough outing against the Bobcats in round 5 saw James Joyce’s Tigers fall 5-1 at Wherrett Park and this meant their work would very much be cut out for them as they took on a fired up Thunder side coming off a draw against the highly fancied Bombers at Ayrshire Park. The normally watertight Westlawn defence had looked as leaky as ever in their last three fixtures, which saw 15 goals conceded and a slide perilously close to the foot of the table. It would take something inspired to stop the rot at Back Lane but these men in yellow are always up for a challenge.

Storm coach Jade Porter returned to the dugout this week to oversee proceedings, with his side having finally picked up a point after a spluttering start to the season. They had played some excellent football but up until that point, it seemed nothing would yield a result, such was their run of misfortune. Finally, the curse had been broken and the boys from Korora were in no mood to let up. The onus was on the Storm attack to start finishing the chances their playmakers were creating with greater regularity and Porter would have no doubt laboured this point at training during the week.

With Grant Scully suspended, Matt Parkins was promoted into the starting lineup from the bench for the Thunder. Regular gloveman Josh ‘Buckets’ Harrigan was unavailable, so Burundian Olympic weightlifting alternate Felix Sinzinkayo stepped in, but the remaining nine members of the starting lineup were the same fielded the previous week against the Bombers. The Thunder’s new recruit, Liberian superstar and possible former Ballon D’Or nominee Otis Barney occupied a place on the bench and Jacques Ndizeye replaced Law ‘Joseph’ Ha in the 15 man squad. For the Tigers, Anthony Wall replaced Nicholas Lavender in the starting lineup, though the remainder of their 15 man squad was otherwise identical to the previous week’s loss to the Bobcats.

The first 45 minutes was a genuine arm wrestle with the home side building well in the middle of the park through Sam Brien, Michael Allen and Tom Westman. The travelling Thunder were having a difficult time of things as they struggled to fashion a great many chances in front of goal. Westlawn strikers Luke Shipman and Jordan ‘Pinky’ Newman were putting in a strong shift and hassling the Storm backline, but profligate finishing let them down as they misfired on numerous occasions. Clear cut chances were being spurned left and right and the Tigers ultimately failed to capitalise on a decent run of momentum.

Storm’s mobility off the ball and high attacking line meant that almost every attacking foray saw three or four in the frontline, with several chances from distance falling to their midfielders who lurked with intent in the gap between the Westlawn midfield and back four at the top of the box. Some strong attacks down the flanks saw the Storm wingers giving their counterparts a fair bit to deal with but Joyce noted that his Tigers’ sliding defence was ultimately up to the task.

0-0 at the break and Porter fired up his men by stressing that they would need to step up to the plate and leave the outcome of the game out of the hands of the football gods. The main point of emphasis in Joyce’s talk was being clinical, and he also urged his men to continue providing supporting options across the park and contributing in attack right until the final whistle.

The second half started off much the same as the first had ended, as the Thunder continued to threaten out wide. A lightning counter attack saw Storm win possession in their own penalty area and within four passes, they had dispatched the ball in the Tigers net and opened the scoring through Tristan Albert. The misses earlier in the match were starting to haunt the Junction Hill side and with the Thunder’s tails now up, they could expect a flurry of further attacks to deal with for the remainder of the half.

A coaching masterstroke from Porter saw substitute Beajay Wendt make an instant impact as he doubled the advantage with only his third touch – the Tigers defence had been turned inside out in the middle of the park and Wendt was able to slot calmly down the middle. It wasn’t the first time this season such a sequence of events had played out either – against Coffs United at McLean Street, Wendt had given the Thunder the lead within 10 seconds of entering the fray after a well worked set piece saw him carve out some space in the box.

The Storm then made their second substitute, and again there was an early impact as the electric Otis Barney demonstrated some of his trademark silky skills and unparalleled close control to weave through the home side’s defensive line and leave scenes of carnage in his wake as several Tigers tried and failed to win possession with desperate lunges. What could have been a wonder goal was ultimately not to be, however, as Barney’s nonchalant flick came back off the post.

The men in yellow started to pour forward in search of the elusive goal to halve the deficit, but it came at a cost as Wendt punished them once again to give the Thunder a three goal advantage only a few minutes later. A two goal performance of the bench had reinforced Wendt’s status as a genuine secret weapon in the Storm arsenal and it’s likely that opposition sides will start to sit up and take a bit more notice of the threat he poses in his late cameo appearances.

Porter introduced former African Mr. Olympia representative Jacques Ndizeye late on, but the scorers would be troubled no further, and 3-0 it stayed. The Storm camp said they were happy to take the points in a tough encounter and in particular the clean sheet was pleasing. Finally they had chalked up their first win of season 2018 at the sixth time of asking, and the faithful back at the Cove would have been delighted to get the monkey off their back.

With four straight losses to start the season, and now a draw against competition leaders Boambee Bombers and a strong win over Westlawn in consecutive weeks, the Thunder’s season started out like an ailing zip-start Victa but now looks to have been upgraded to a serviceable four cylinder. A win over the competition’s other Tigers side – with whom they were level on both points and goal difference – in round 7 at Plantain Road would have it looking like a 2JZ, but Felipe Barrera’s side weren’t going to allow them a breezy walk in the park.

Westlawn captain-coach James Joyce observed that despite his men playing good football on the whole, they have regularly been punished when making poor decisions, and this pattern has cropped up with alarming regularity for the Junction Hill outfit thus far in 2018. While they looked to have somewhat arrested the defensive slump from their run of games against Urunga, Grafton and Maclean, their attack failed to fire, and they have yet to really find the balance they need to succeed in this competition – the Coffs Coast Tigers game aside, they seem to have always been either too attacking or too defensive without finding that sweet spot in the middle.

They now found themselves anchored to the foot of the ladder, and with a fixture against early pace-setters Boambee Bombers, albeit with the home ground advantage of their Back Lane digs, awaiting them in round 7, it was not going to get any easier and making up ground on their competition rivals would require a display special enough to go down as one of the best in the club’s history.

Coffs Coast Tigers vs Coffs City United Lions

A heartbreaking loss in round 5 to the Raiders after having led 2-1 at half time knocked a bit of the wind out of the Tigers’ sails after their excellent 2-0 win over Maclean in round 4, but they returned to Polwarth Drive for the third week running quietly confident of springing a surprise against their cross-town rivals Coffs City United Lions. These fixtures are always full of feeling and many felt that the fabric referee Dave Connor’s pocket would be worn by full time such would be the regularity of yellow tickets being produced.

The Lions had exorcised a few of the demons from the 4-1 thrashing at Ayrshire Park by accounting for Grafton United 3-0 in round 5’s trip up the highway to Rushforth Park. Glen Williams’ side were yet to really impress in the fashion they typically do in this competition, but had continued to pick up points and remained right on the Raiders and Bombers’ tails at the top. The most salient point for the Lions was the return of key defensive personnel in recent weeks, which had helped them re-establish their status as the competition’s most defensively sound side.

Tigers were without Zack Smith for the second time in three weeks, so Archie McDonald replaced him in the starting side, but the 16 man squad were otherwise identical apart from the replacement of backup keeper Jeremy Hannaford on the bench by Andrew Fisher. Matt Guyatt was still suspended and would return in round 7. After returning last week to make a goalscoring cameo off the bench following a short absence, Aaren Allsop was reinstated to the Lions starting side, as Todd Milne dropped back to the bench, but the only other change in their 16 man squad was the replacement of Scott Cawley on the bench by Jyelei McKell.

It was the away side who started brightest, pushing the ball well around one of the competition’s best surfaces and putting Felipe Barrera’s men under pressure from the get go. The Lions midfield were harrying well and making life tough for the orange and black. Sharpshooter Gum Mayak broke the deadlock with an opportunistic finish to capitalise on a Tigers error, and looked to be returning to the deadly form he had showed in his late show against Northern Storm a few weeks back where he singlehandedly stole the game in the final five minutes.

The pace of the game subsided somewhat following the opener and there were several hard but fair challenges in midfield, but goalscoring chances were at a premium for both sides. A solid challenge from Scott Goddard, always one of the Lions’ top performers, saw him set off on a rampaging run – slightly reminiscent of his solo strike against the Bombers a couple of weeks ago – to take on the Tigers defence. He calmly released Chris Dooley, who was playing in a new position up top, to slot the ball home and double the advantage. It was everything the Lions were all about – even when not gaining a huge amount of ascendancy in general play, they are full of experienced and talented veterans at local level who can turn the game with moments of brilliance, and that class comes to the fore so often to take the result out of the reach of less composed opposition sides.

Steven ‘Squeezo’ Mitchell steals a march on Aaren Allsop as Addisen Mallett and Alex Douglass look on. Photo by Abbey Knight.

By the time half time came around, Barrera’s side had a mountain to climb, and he would have been hoping that the capacity crowd would be able to rouse a fight back within the troops. Williams had expected a tough battle and was wary of a couple of sub-par performances from his side in recent weeks, but said he was pleased with what he described as their best half of football for some time. Nonetheless, he was sure to urge his men not to step off the gas as Tigers had some dangerous attackers of their own within the ranks.

Play resumed after the break in a similar general pattern to the first half – tight midfield battles with Messrs Goddard and Mallett turning the screws and chances for either side proving rare. At one point it looked as if ‘Squeezo’ had writhed away from his marker just well enough to halve the deficit for the home side, but as has happened on several occasions already this season, the linesman’s flag correctly went up to deny the avid recreational fisherman, who needs to either educate himself on the offside rule or have his peripheral vision assessed by an optometrist if he is to ease Barrera’s frustration.

Ultimately there was no such joy for Tigers. The away side steadily took momentum and for around a 15 minute period the ball spent probably 80% of the time in the Tigers half. The Lions attack were making repeated inroads behind the Tigers defence and drawing a string of saves from Jake Mahoney, and they forced Barrera’s side to deal with a barrage of corners from the right flank as they won five in five minutes.

Goddard again grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and won the ball through sheer persistence, before beating two defenders with some Mayweather-esque shoulder rolls and cutting the ball square for Mayak up top. Mayak made no mistake and sealed both his brace and the Lions’ third with a solid finish. With just a couple of minutes on the clock, it looked as if the men in red and black may have had their fourth, though the home supporters were reeling due to a perceived infringement around the six yard box. Connor agreed, and struck it down to keep the score at 3-0. This was the way it stayed as the final whistle sounded shortly afterwards. A surprisingly well disciplined game in the end and perhaps the first ever local derby to finish without a single card being issued to either side – vastly contrasting the expectations of many going in.

A disallowed Lions goal late on meant the score remained at 3-0. Photo by Abbey Knight.

Williams said only half-jokingly after the match that he would be giving Gum Mayak extra shooting practice ahead of the Lions’ round 7 trip to Wherrett Park to take on the Bobcats, as he noted the score could have been more had his star striker hit the target with greater regularity. It will be a relief though to get the derby out of the way with the three points, a clean sheet, and an assured performance that will breed some additional confidence through his charges.

For Barrera, it would have been a frustrating afternoon as three excellent halves of football – the Maclean match and the first half of the Urunga match – had been followed by three less than stellar halves – the second stanza against the Raiders and now this game against the Lions – to leave his side essentially back at square one. They now held the unenviable tally of four points from their opening six games, and would head to The Cove to take on a side in exactly the same predicament – even down to an identical -4 goal difference – in Northern Storm Thunder in what was anticipated to be one of the closest and most exciting battles of season 2018 thus far.

Round 7

Maclean Bobcats vs Coffs City United Lions

Maclean picked up the points in round 6 without kicking a ball, after their scheduled opponents Grafton United withdrew due to widespread player unavailability. It wouldn’t have been the way coach Dennis Mavridis would have wanted to see his side move from six to nine points and into a top four position on the ladder, and he would undoubtedly have been wary of preventing any ‘ring rust’ the week off may have given his men as they took on a Coffs United side who seemed to finally have recaptured some semblance of form.

The Lions showed occasional flashes of brilliance in last week’s 3-0 win against Coffs Coast Tigers, and with their best side not only back on the park but finally appearing to be fit and firing, the signs were there that there is life left in their Premiership aspirations for 2018 and they will not go out with the whimper they threatened to after being in a losing position against Northern Storm until the last five minutes, being swept aside comprehensively by Boambee and looking decidedly scratchy against Grafton. In two out of those three situations, they still picked up the three points at the end of the day, and therein lies the biggest danger of Glen Williams’ side – even when below their best, they can still grind out the points. Rather ominously for the Bobcats, they now look to be backing that up with improvement in their gameplay as well.

The Bobcats suffered some misfortune before a ball had even been kicked, with Frazer Marsh ruling himself unfit to play in the warm up. Marsh had come up sore after Thursday night’s training session, but went for a run the morning before the game and said he was fine. Unfortunately, the nature of hip flexor injuries dictates that it’s often tough to tell until one is performing at high intensity, and the aggravation during the warm up was enough to curtail his afternoon. Nathan Shugg, having played a full game of reserve grade, stepped up to fill Marsh’s place in the starting lineup.

From the side who took the field in the previous game, round 5’s matchup with Westlawn, Sean Potter returned to the XI for Adam Penfold, but other than the aforementioned Marsh injury, the starting side were otherwise unchanged. For the Lions, Nick Mallett was unavailable so Jyelei McKell came into the starting lineup, but everything else remained the same.

It was a positive start for the home side, who hit the post inside the first 10 minutes and remained very much in the contest for the first 20. But an uncharacteristic error from goalkeeper Alex Moffitt gifted the Lions the opener and from there the home side’s confidence and focus steadily wilted. The Lions backline were communicating excellently and Mavridis said his men were ‘talked out of the game’ in addition to their normally active home supporters being quietened too.

Before the half time break had come around, the Bobcats faced further adversity as left back James Austin was forced off through injury. With the score 1-0 at the break and the Lions’ solitary strike coming in decidedly fortunate fashion, the Bobcats still felt they were in with a shout, though they were down on troops and would face a tough battle against the fresh and firing travellers.

A confident Lions outfit strode out to the second stanza looking like an altogether different proposition, and promptly blew their northern rivals off the park in an assured and consummate display. Mavridis admitted his men were outclassed on the afternoon, and the previous week’s 5-1 evisceration of Westlawn was but a distant memory in a display that really knocked the wind out of the sails of the men in green.

Credit should go to the Maclean substitutes who kept the margin from blowing out any further with some energetic contributions, and it was a festival of hyphenation as Cullyn Stewart-Butcher, Luka Della-Libera and Braidy Power-Casson entered the fray for the men in green. By full time it was 4-0 and the Lions had delivered a footballing masterclass against their tired and undermanned opponents, who didn’t quite know what had hit them. A brace to Chris Dooley, one to Gum Mayak and one to substitute Nathan Silvy did the damage.

Mavridis gave full credit to Williams’ side and said his men would need to knuckle down and turn things around very quickly to avoid their season slipping away entirely. The Lions are really starting to look as dangerous as ever though, and in recent weeks have been proving themselves a very credible threat in the title conversation after looking more than a little shaky in the first few weeks of the season.

The result did not best please Mavridis – even though his side still occupy a top four berth after all of round 7’s results have come out in the wash, the gap to third after just seven games is already seven points and would appear near unassailable. With two points between fourth and sixth, the most likely scenario for the Bobcats is that the remainder of their season is going to be a dogfight to cling onto fourth spot. With several sides breathing down their neck in the finals race, in what is one of the most open competitions in recent history, and with Marsh and Austin both remaining doubtful for round 8, even that is far from guaranteed. A journey down the highway to the Cabbage Patch this Sunday won’t be any easier, but the Bobcats did give the Raiders some difficulty in their first round encounter at Wherrett Park, so a result is hardly out of the question and Mavridis is hopeful his boys will put their best foot forward and steal the points.

Williams on the other hand will be filled with confidence ahead of a trip to Back Lane on Saturday evening. His men have now clocked up three straight clean sheets and are looking imperious again. The Premiership remains very much a three horse race and this week’s fixture provides the opportunity for the Lions to send out a statement of intent that not only are their defence the best in the competition – of seven total clean sheets by all sides over the first seven rounds, four have been registered by the Lions – but their attack are back and firing too. Anything less than a decisive victory will be vastly underwhelming for the McLean Street faithful.

Northern Storm Thunder vs Coffs Coast Tigers

Storm had finally picked up their first win of 2018 against Westlawn in round 6, but would face an even sterner feline test this week as they took on a Coffs Coast Tigers side with whom they were locked up on both points and goal difference. Jade Porter’s men have looked great all season without having the results to show for it, and this game provided an opportunity to capitalise on some hard-earned momentum and really set the wheels in motion for a finals charge.

Felipe Barrera and his troops would have other ideas though. Fresh off a stinging 3-0 loss to local rivals Coffs City United Lions, the West Coffs side were as hungry as ever to atone and narrow the gap to the top four. There is a lot of quality within the Tigers ranks, but they have found success in tight games rare so far this season and too often are outdone by the barest of margins. Perhaps this could be the game to stop the rot and boost their collective morale, galvanising the young side for a big push in the second half of the season.

Jeff Odgers was unavailable so Michael Turner was promoted from the bench to replace him in the heart of defence. Regular keeper Josh Harrigan returned to replace Felix Sinzinkayo while Grant Scully came in for Matt Parkins having served his suspension from the Boambee send off. Innocent David and Marko Kisose returned to the starting side for Tigers after benching last week, with Luke Kliendienst and Paul Dixon dropping out of the squad. Archie McDonald made way for the returning Zack Smith.

Things got off to an excellent start for the Thunder as they won an early free kick and Nathan Parkins stepped up to bury a cracker. Curled over the wall, the ball sailed past a helpless Jake Mahoney who was anchored stock still and could only watch and admire the strike. It was just reward for the home side, who put together some excellent play during the first 20 minutes of the game.

But the most familiar issue for the Thunder that had plagued them throughout the first five rounds – concentration lapses – flared up once again in the 21st minute as a defensive brain fade saw Tigers open them right up and play Innocent David through one on one. He duly converted past Josh ‘Buckets’ Harrigan and wheeled away in delight, performing an elaborate leaping goal celebration on the far side of the park.

The Thunder’s hard work had been undone in one fell swoop, and the frustration for Porter and his men was palpable. It appeared they may have had a chance to restore the lead shortly after though, as another brain fade, this time from Tigers’ Dane Dixon, who sent a back pass perfectly to Grant Scully in the 27th minute, saw Scully 25 yards out from goal and unopposed. The Storm central midfielder opted to shoot, however and skied the ball a good 10 yards over leaving Mahoney with little to be concerned about.

In the 31st minute, Tigers left back Zack Smith latched on to a loose ball 35 yards out and flashed a curler just wide that had many onlookers anticipating a genuine worldie. They didn’t have to wait long though, as 30 seconds later Ethan Sechi took possession in acres of space, composing himself and relaxing on the ball to turn and lay it off short to David, who slotted an absolute pearl of a finish perfectly into the top right corner off the underside of the crossbar from 25 yards out. There was absolutely nothing Harrigan could do about it, and the Storm defence had once again gone AWOL and paid dearly on the scoreboard.

Not 30 seconds after the resumption, soy milk enthusiast ‘Squeezo’ found himself clean through on goal but in a flashback to any one of the numerous previous instances this season, he was marginally offside. Caught four times in the first half alone, the webbed footed future lawnmowing apprentice had the linesman’s flag flapping like the upper arm of a bingo participant, and he was met with some stern words at half time about keeping an eye on his positioning in relation to the opposition defence rather than trying to scope out eligible females on the sideline.

A strong penalty shout for Storm in the 35th minute had their coaching staff feeling they would be given the opportunity to equalise, but referee Bruce Mackie waved it away despite vociferous appeals. Two minutes afterwards, there was a miscommunication at the other end of the park between ‘Buckets’ and Michael Turner, with Turner’s resultant errant half clearance finding David out wide. David cut the ball back to ‘Squeezo’, but his shank off his left foot on the edge of the box was well wide and proved more skewed than one of his evenings hunting for gutter thistle in Plantation Avenue.

Storm talisman Jamie Kennedy, who had been playing in a deeper lying midfield role to normal – as regular centre back Nathan Skinner was deployed further up the park in central midfield due to the unavailability of Jeff Odgers in a formation that alternated between a 4-5-1 and an unorthodox 3-6-1 when Sam Brown attacked down the right flank – found himself through one on one in the 39th minute, but he too was called offside much to the chagrin of the Storm bench.

The Thunder’s Keiran Clerke took possession of the ball in the middle of the park in the 41st minute and released a perfect short loft to ‘JK’, who brought the ball to the carpet in space and laid it off to Scully who the Tigers defenders believed was offside. Scully’s low-mid height drive drew a smart save from Mahoney who was able to preserve his side’s lead. Two minutes later, ‘Squeezo’ showed excellent strength and fight to shake off the attentions of an even more imposing physical specimen in Nathan Parkins, but despite a cross and two headers in the space of 10 seconds, the big Squeeze was simply unable to find a team mate on any of the three occasions.

With the clock ticking down and only seconds remaining until half time, Scully was able to once again get himself in behind enemy lines and cut back towards the penalty spot, but the cross was blocked by Joel Guy. The block was not completely cleared from the box though, and a rebound found Tristan Albert at the back post. ‘Tree’s acrobatic scissor kick attempt with the ball flying through at an awkward height only flew narrowly past the left post, and the teams went to the break with the score at 2-1 Tigers.

Two minutes after the interval, David looked to be in again for the away side with an unmarked header inside the box, but couldn’t get his attempt on target. Fortunately for him, linesman Jason Hillier spared some of his blushes by flagging for offside. Only a minute later though, some excellent lead up play from the orange and black found ‘Squeezo’ unmarked at the edge of the box, and the five stripe Brazilian jiu-jitsu white belt slotted home a great finish to push the margin out to 3-1.

Four minutes afterwards, in the 52nd, Tigers showed some defensive frailty by hesitating in possession and giving the ball away to Albert, creating a three on one situation for the Thunder. Bizarrely, ‘Tree’ opted to shoot from 25 yards out rather than utilising one of his other options, and the strike lacked power meaning Mahoney made the easiest of saves. Storm made their first change a minute later, Turner going off for Beajay Wendt in a positional reshuffle designed to recapture the ascendancy they had enjoyed during the game’s earlier stages.

A Scully corner in the 55th minute found Albert once again, who flicked the ball down to Kennedy. The ball was bouncing at an awkward height and ‘JK’ did his best to turn it home, but could only chip it just over after a deflection. Another minute followed and Scully was again involved, racing through one on one and drawing an excellent save from Mahoney. The Thunder were having their chances but struggled to make anything tell on the scoreboard.

The period following the hour mark saw an absolute flurry of action. First, Kisose launched a solid strike that was met by a top drawer save from Harrigan. Then, less than a minute afterwards, Sechi slipped through a porous Thunder defence to create a one on one scenario – though his first attempt was saved by Harrigan, he converted the rebound and at 4-1 in the 63rd minute, the game appeared dead and buried. But a further minute after that, Kennedy made an incursion into the Tigers box and won what looked to be a very soft penalty – harking back to the Bombers game a couple of weeks ago. He took it himself and sent Mahoney the wrong way, scoring in the bottom left corner.

From 3-1 to 4-2 and essentially no difference as far as the actual equation of the result was concerned, but it was the intangibles that mattered most here. All of a sudden this game had really come alive and it looked like there was everything to play for. Tristan Albert made way for Matt Parkins and Nathan Skinner shifted back into his regular position in the heart of defence. The Thunder looked full of spirit now and pressed with vigour and intent. A great move in the 69th minute found Marty Skinner unmarked in an excellent position, but he shanked the ball well over the goal in a crucial missed opportunity.

The ball is launched high from a ‘Buckets’ goal kick as both sides’ midfielders look to contest for possession.

Kisose had another chance for the away side in the 72nd, but skewed his shot wide off his left foot at the back post. Zack Smith made his way for Matt Guyatt a minute later, with ‘Gooey’ finally returning from the suspension he served for a straight red against Grafton United three weeks back. His introduction was hardly welcoming though, as Thunder substitute Matt Parkins picked the ball up 25 yards out on the right and was afforded far too much space by Guyatt. Parkins laced the ball spectacularly over the head of Mahoney, who was left grasping at air as the ball knuckled slightly and dipped late to nestle in the back of the net. 4-3 now and with 16 minutes plus stoppages still to go, it had become, to quote the great Sir Alex Ferguson, ‘squeaky bum time’ for Tigers.

The tired ‘Squeezo’, underdosed after his latest SARM still hadn’t arrived in the mail and looking worse for wear, was substituted – as has become a weekly occurrence due to his dwindling stamina levels – and Mark Ifrah took his place for the final 14 minutes. ‘Squeezo’ took two minutes to get his breath back but was then straight into rubber guard, triangle choke and gogoplata demonstrations on the sideline.

Marty Skinner then made way for English import Jordan Wildman, heavily strapped and sporting a knee brace, in the 82nd minute. Tigers had a chance to restore their two goal advantage in the 85th minute as Sechi collected the ball in acres of space around the penalty spot, but his shot lacked the composure of his earlier assist for Kisose and sailed well over the bar. ‘Buckets’ then pulled off a heroic double save in the 89th off Ifrah and Kisose to keep his side in the hunt.

The Thunder’s final chance to tie things up came in the 90th as Tigers failed to adequately clear the ball, which rolled out to Scully. Scully launched a low howitzer from 20 out but Mahoney was able to save it fairly comfortably. One minute of stoppage time was added and it appeared substitute Mark Ifrah was odds-on to increase the scoreline, beating the offside trap by starting his run marginally inside his own half and latching onto the ball in prime real estate, but despite acres of space his touch deserted him and he allowed Harrigan to make a low save and keep the score at 4-3.

It had been one of the more pulsating games of season 2018 thus far and one full of momentum swings. Porter lamented the lack of concentration from his boys during the latter part of the first half and early part of the second half, and noted that chasing a 4-1 deficit was never going to be easy, but credited the spirit the Thunder showed to stage a stirring late fightback. Unfortunately the damage was already done, and it’s lapses like these that will cost Storm in what shapes as one of the closest finals battles in years. There is absolutely no room for error now and the three points at home this weekend against Grafton United are nothing short of essential if they are to get themselves into the four by season’s end.

Barrera will undoubtedly be the happier of the two coaches and even though his side conceded three on the afternoon, the goals came courtesy of a worldie free kick, a soft penalty and a ridiculous drive from range, so it’s hard to be overly concerned about defensive vulnerabilities on that basis alone. The best news for him will be that his attack are looking powerful once again, and they will need to be even more clinical this weekend against the ladder leading Bombers. Last time around they were narrowly outgunned in a 4-3 firestorm at Polwarth Drive, so the margin they need to overturn is hardly astronomical. Nonetheless, their entire XI to a man will need to put their best foot forward if they are to get the job done at Ayrshire Park and climb further towards the top four.

Westlawn Tigers vs Boambee Bombers

Westlawn looked good for patches last week despite going down 3-0 to Northern Storm, and there has yet to be a match this season where they have looked completely out of the contest. Their 3-0 defeat to Coffs United saw the Lions stifled and frustrated for much of the match and the 6-2 against Urunga at the Patch was perhaps not indicative of their quality – the Tigers were only 4-2 down to the equal competition leaders at one point and were enjoying a period of genuine ascendancy. The Bombers would provide their toughest test yet, though, and one would feel this was probably a case of damage control more than anything against a rampant Boambee attack.

The Bombers had a week off from NCF competition last week but it was hardly a refreshing and rejuvenating weekend to put their feet up – two FFA Cup battles at the stadium saw them advance to the Newcastle rounds and ensured they remained well and truly sharp and match fit. Shane Duncan’s men had started the season impressively, with four wins and a draw in their opening five games and an impressive +11 goal difference, and would see the trip to Junction Hill as a chance to consolidate their lead at the top of the table and show they are able to negotiate what can at times be tricky away fixtures in the Clarence with consummate professionalism.

Tigers had the luxury of being able to name an unchanged squad from the Northern Storm game in round 6. For the Bombers, Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane came into the side for Ben Payne, while Tom Frewen got the call up from 3rd division to replace the ill Christian Penny, who had sustained a mystery infection in the knee possibly caused by mutated bacterial microbes from the brackish waters of the Nambucca River or potentially even of extra-terrestrial origin.

The away side started in typically dynamic fashion as they moved the ball around the park at lightning pace. They were causing Westlawn problems all over the park, and it wasn’t long before a pinpoint cross from Brady Parker found Lachie Moye in the centre of the box, where he was able to bring the ball under control and calmly converted to give his side the lead. Shortly afterwards, a great run from James Lowe through the middle of the park culminated in a well struck left footer from outside the box to double the advantage. A cross-cum-shot from Parker then found the net to make it 3-0 – the jury is still out on whether this was intentional by any stretch – and only a couple of minutes later Moye found himself free at the back post where he was able to delicately place his shot behind the keeper and into the bottom right corner.

4-0 after just 20 minutes of play and Westlawn didn’t know what had hit them. They finally clicked into gear at this point though, and were able to put a few strong passages of play together to put the Bombers on the back foot at times. They continued trying to play positive football and it was great to see the heart with which they approached the game. The second half of the opening stanza played out in a stalemate and the half time score was 4-0.

A rampant Moye rounded out his hat trick shortly after the break with a trademark long range drive, but the plucky Tigers refused to yield and were rewarded with a very well deserved goal at the back stick to Sam Brien. At 5-1, the outcome of the game was essentially a foregone conclusion already, but the men in yellow were still enjoying brief periods of ascendancy at various points and jolted Boambee coach Duncan into action on the bench, as he urged his boys to up their tempo again, upset by the drop in energy and demanding the highest standards of the title chasing Bombers.

Their response was immediate, Parker grabbing his second and then Frewen getting his name on the scoresheet after driving one at Westlawn custodian Charlie Moar and then ramming home the parried rebound. Duncan used this opportunity to make two changes, withdrawing Frewen – with Tom Cooper coming in as a like for like replacement – and central midfielder Mitch Brewster – for whom Darby Sherrin came on, shifting to the wing to allow Moye to pull the strings in the middle of the park.

The Bombers’ eighth was scored by Luke France, who rounded the keeper and deposited a delightful finish from an acute angle. Parker then spotted Moar off his line and executed a perfectly weighted chip from 25 yards out to seal his hat trick. Parker’s shift was done for the afternoon and Duncan decided to upgrade his squad by replacing the second hat trick hero of the day with the vastly more credentialed Adam Berrada off the bench.

Of solid North African stock, elite tennis pedigree and unparalleled athletic aptitude, it took only 10 seconds of entering the fray for the colossal Berrada to trend worldwide on Twitter, such was the fanfare of his late 10 minute cameo. He duly repaid Duncan’s faith with a well executed corner in the 85th minute sailing into the Westlawn net off Sherrin’s back, the selfless and ego-free Moroccan giving his younger counterpart the limelight to celebrate a first ever goal at Premier League level.

The final score of 10-1 was not fair to the home side, who never gave up and never stopped playing with intent. They played out from the back from the first minute until the last, and their performance was much better than what the scoreline indicated. The Bombers were pleased overall with a clinical performance but slightly miffed at the fact they will have to wait yet another week to register their first clean sheet for 2018.

The post-mortem for Joyce won’t be the prettiest, but the Bombers are competition heavyweights for a reason and this crop of Tigers should not feel ashamed in the slightest. At no point did they simply roll over and submit to the Bombers juggernaut and the plucky men in yellow have shown immense heart all year. This weekend’s fixture against Coffs United won’t be a reprieve either, but the resources the two clubs are working with cannot even be compared and simply being competitive with the Lions would thus be an enormous success for Westlawn. They approach every game in the right spirit and continue to gain invaluable playing experience, and one still feels they will upset the apple carts of one or two more fancied sides over the remainder of the season.

The Bombers continue to impress and the magnitude of this result is something no other side has thus managed to achieve against the resolute Tigers this season. Registering a nine goal win over a side who were yet to lose by more than four demonstrates the utter ruthlessness of this Boambee attack, though one or two question marks still remain over the defence, who have still not yet kept a clean sheet this season. This week’s game against Coffs Coast Tigers at Ayrshire Park will be a good measure of improvement for the Bombers – a late mini-collapse last time out saw them scrape home 4-3 at Polwarth Drive, so it will be intriguing to see if there has been improvement since round 1, though Tigers too appear to have improved since.

Urunga Raiders vs Grafton United

The Raiders took a week away from NCF competition as they battled Port United in the FFA Cup, going down 5-4 in extra time in what was a nailbiting and heartbreaking defeat. Craig ‘Turtle’ Simpson’s men would need to cast aside the disappointment of their cup elimination though, as they hosted a Grafton United side who themselves were fired up after missing round 6. The Urunga boys had uncharacteristically failed to keep a clean sheet in their opening five games so they would be targeting a change to that statistic.

United, unfortunately, forfeited their scheduled round 6 fixture against Maclean, with coach Scott Elphic expressing great disappointment at having so many players out. Even for this week’s trip to the Patch, they were missing five regulars from the squad and were up against it, but there is a real ‘never say die’ attitude about the squad this year and Elphic was backing his stand in players to go out and do the club proud.

Game day for United started with a quality gee up – two of the players had planned a breakfast at club sponsors and veritable South Grafton coffee institution Driven to Espresso at 9:15am, but as it eventuated, Elphic was the only one they informed, the gaffer sitting by himself and wondering where the rest of the boys had gotten to. Elphic’s message to his troops: ‘Remember, karma always comes back’.

A new look Raiders side took the field – Lee Kennedy back between the sticks in place of Matt Smith, James Power and Jordan Tree replacing Jacob Leslie and Paul Pomroy in defence, Jack Martin and Joel Teece replacing Joe Soergel and Ben Dooley in midfield and Pablo Kastner coming in for Aaron Searle in attack. With a bench of Soergel, Leslie, Smith and Cale Simmonds, they had some genuine firepower to call on from the pine. For Grafton, regular keeper Matt McMahon was unavailable, so midfielder Wylie Tynan took the gloves. Lee Stutt and Jack Daniels came in for the absent Hung ‘Tony’ Phung and Tynan’s vacant midfield spot.

The game itself commenced with the travelling men in purple looking to impose their will in a physical sense, ‘Richie Rich’ and Braydon Jones the main enforcers with some genuinely bone crunching tackles that seemed to rattle the Raiders. The first half saw some very even play that belied the disparity in standing between the two sides in the local footballing status quo, and as they have done every week this season, the Grafton boys punched above their weight and made their presence known. They created a number of excellent attacking opportunities courtesy of some adroit playmaking in midfield, but failed to find the crucial finishing touch on each occasion.

Eventually, the quality of the home side told, as they took the lead on 38 minutes through a composed finish from Kale Hopper, his second in as many games. The one-time NCF Player of the Year seems to be back near the peak of his powers this season and has been one of the Raiders’ best over the opening stages. The men in purple would have felt themselves slightly unlucky to be heading into the break a goal down, but a chat from Elphic in the sheds had them primed for a second half assault and they came out firing.

A string of four quality chances in attack had Urunga custodian Kennedy under tremendous pressure and forced into action on several occasions, but he stood up to the task superbly and preserved the clean sheet. The willing style of play being exhibited by Grafton was not well received by the Raiders, who felt the pinch with their slender lead coming under threat.

The game was still finely poised at 1-0 with less than 10 minutes remaining until finally the home side were able to release some pressure, vegans in the Bellinger area no doubt full of glee at the prospect of a second iteration of their favourite leafy superfood getting on the scoresheet as substitute Cale Simmonds doubled the advantage with a great finish from outside the box. Even at 2-0 down though, the away side kept the pressure up and refused to die wondering, though their attacks were ultimately fruitless and the score did not change.

Despite walking away without the points, the result felt for all money like a win within the Grafton camp. Elphic was extremely proud of his boys and was impressed with the quality on display – he declared it one of the best quality games GUFC have ever produced, and having played so well with five men out, he believes there are some big shocks still in the offing when United are at full strength and a semi-final berth is not out of the question. Elphic was full of praise for stand in goalkeeper Tynan as well as ‘Pom’, Jarryd Bowman and Alister Irving who he said ‘slugged it out’ well. They travel to Korora this weekend full of confidence and hoping to repeat their famous round 1 home victory over the Thunder to edge closer towards a dream finals appearance.

Urunga will be happy with the three points but perhaps not with the margin of victory. They had surely expected to win this one comfortably but their Clarence opponents gave them a lot to deal with on the afternoon. Perhaps the most encouraging thing for Simpson, though, was the fact that his side had finally registered a clean sheet, no mean feat when considering the swashbuckling Grafton attack who threw the kitchen sink at them and had scored against every side they had played previously bar Coffs. A tough opponent in Maclean awaits this weekend, and the Raiders will need to bring their very best football to the Patch to keep pace at the top of the ladder and vanquish their northern foes who gave them a tough time in round 1.

 

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