By Tim Klingbiel
NORTHERN STORM 6
COFFS COAST TIGERS 0
Storm were coming off a tough to swallow 4-0 home defeat to Boambee Bombers last weekend, but looked to right the ship this time in another home game against the out of form Coffs Coast Tigers. Coach Jade Porter had designs on making a statement in this fixture, as the Thunder looked to elevate themselves back into the four and prove their finals credentials at a quite crucial juncture in their campaign.
Many anticipated this to be the match of the round, with the sides playing out an exciting 4-3 thriller last time they met at the Cove as Felipe Barrera’s Tigers took the chocolates on that occasion. The men in orange and black were feeling the effects of an extended hangover though, coming into the game off the back of four straight defeats and appearing something of a rudderless ship as they endured a rapid descent down the table. Having previously been right in the top four conversation, they were now in danger of losing touch entirely as they sat above just one other club on the eight team ladder.
Key man Jamie Kennedy returned to the XI after being an unused substitute last weekend, with Michael Turner making way in a slight positional reshuffle. The remainder of the XI were otherwise identical and the only other change in the 16 man squad was the inclusion of Otis Barney on the bench in place of Keiran Clerke, though this had no material effect to the side’s composition as neither player saw action in either game. For Tigers, Zack Smith returned to the starting lineup in place of the unavailable Joel Guy, with the remainder of the XI unchanged. Maryar Majak and Samson Bawiri were preferred bench options to Mi Reh and Mark Ifrah.
It became evident after just the first few exchanges that the Thunder would be a formidable obstacle for the visiting Tigers to overcome, looking a step ahead in general play and displaying a strong passing game and commitment to win the 50/50s all across the park. It was an unlikely source in defender Jeff Odgers who produced the Storm’s first, early in the piece, and from there it seemed the result was already essentially a foregone conclusion.
A man who has enjoyed something of a footballing rebirth and is in the midst of what may well be the most prolific campaign of his career at the top level of local football is Beajay Wendt, and he showed why he has been arguably the Storm’s most effective contributor in 2018 by popping up with a brace to take the contest out of Tigers’ reach.
Experienced and reliable campaigners Jamie Kennedy and Grant Scully each found their way onto the scoresheet, while another unusual source of goals in the form of substitute Michael Turner completed the 6-0 rout after he entered the fray in the second stanza. The Thunder certainly carried the better run of form into the game, but only the most wildly optimistic Storm acolytes could have predicted such a margin, as most local pundits believed the final outcome would be decided by a much finer margin.
It was uncomfortable viewing for the travelling fans, who would now have to think that their tilt at September football is all but over, but the mood around the traps at Korora made for a striking juxtaposition as enthusiastic fans hinted at hopes for silverware later on in the season. If their favourite sons continue to produce performances like this one on a weekly basis, those prophecies may not be too far off the mark.
Porter was rightly proud of what his men had brought to the table and the way they went about their business, and said they played solid across the park – something that will be absolutely essential to reproduce if they are not only to finish in the four at the regular season’s closure, but to contend with the likes of the Bombers come finals time in what looks one of the more likely permutations of the 1st vs 4th matchup at this point in time.
They will travel to Rushforth Park this Saturday evening to do battle with Grafton United, who gave the Raiders a lot to think about last weekend and should prove a tough dance partner. The three points remain absolutely essential for Storm, though, as despite their current position of fourth on the ladder with an eight goal superior difference to their nearest challenger in the Bobcats, the Bobcats have a game in hand and could well leapfrog them once all results come out in the wash.
The less said about the Tigers display at the Cove on Saturday afternoon, the better. It’s been a worrying trend for the West Coffs side, whose six point gap to the top four now looks more vast than the Pacific Ocean ahead of a home fixture against Boambee this weekend – having gone down 6-0 to that opposition in their most recent meeting, round 8 at Ayrshire Park.
An extended run of games where the Polwarth Drive denizens were playing decent football without reward now appears to have taken a turn into the realm of less structured football, leaky defence and lack of potency in front of goal. They are a better group of men than these descriptors would suggest, and will want to start putting their best foot forward on a collective basis in order to salvage some pride from their campaign and prove round 14 was an aberration rather than the new normal.
COFFS UNITED LIONS 3
MACLEAN BOBCATS 1
After being declawed by the Bombers in round 11, the Lions have been steadily returning to their dangerous best and put together consecutive wins in rounds 12 and 13. Hosting the Bobcats on a cool Saturday night at McLean Street, coach Glen Williams and his men were acutely aware of the limited – or perhaps non-existent – margin for error now available in the Premiership race and thus the importance of collecting the result, no matter the quality or aesthetic appeal of the display.
Two straight strong victories over Coffs Coast Tigers and Grafton United had the Bobcats well positioned inside the four and with a game in hand, but a late bottling at Barnier Park last weekend that saw them cough up a 4-1 lead to come away with just a point was a frustrating hiccup in their campaign. That result painted the trip to Forsyth Park in a different light – they may previously have been happy enough to come away with a point and maintain their standing in the four, but now knew the three were even more important if they were to stave off the charge of the chasing Northern Storm, who had looked rampant earlier in the afternoon.
The Lions made just two changes to their XI, with starters from last week in Alik Santiago and Scott Cawley each dropping back to the bench in favour of the returning Chris Dooley and the reinstated Alex Douglass – who sat on the bench last weekend for the first time this season. Blake Townsend was replaced on the bench by Dut Garang. The Bobcats benched James Austin in favour of Riley Bender, and Jarrod Doyle returned to the fold for the unavailable Gary Burns. Piaras Marc An Lomaire, Braidy Power-Casson and Adam Penfolds all made way on the bench for Taylor Corbacho, Nick Shugg and Matt Farrell respectively.
Dennis Mavridis’ men were already aware of the difficulty of the assignment in front of them, and the early play only served to underscore this as the Lions attack had them absorbing heavy pressure. Plenty of chances fell the home side’s way, but the ordinarily clinical Coffs attack lacked their usual Midas touch and some imprecise finishing let the Bobcats off the hook and allowed them some breathing space. With their first sniff of a chance, the green horde made their incursion count, a mistake from Coffs custodian Brent ‘Ike’ Turner gifting them an opener against the run of play through key marksman Jarrod Doyle.
The home side weren’t prepared to roll over after the unfortunate setback, though, and going a goal down seemed only to spur them on towards a run of even more dominant football. Williams said Caleb Lokpo was giving the Maclean defence nightmares, and on one occasion as he set off on a dangerous run into the box, he was brought down by a Bobcats defender who the referee adjudged to have used undue force in the act of impedance. Skipper Scott Goddard, ordinarily ice cool from 12 yards, has missed a couple from the spot this season, but on this occasion he made no mistake, stepping up to slot the ball perfectly in the corner and in doing so squaring the ledger for the red and black.
With the outcome hanging very much in the balance at 1-1 heading into the break, the Lions were keen to really start converting their attacking strength into scoreboard pressure. They came out from the sheds with an added swagger to their football and the fleet footed Lokpo continued to look their most threatening. Collecting the ball on halfway, Lokpo beat three or four defenders and rifled it home from the corner of the box in one of the better individual goals seen this season. The Bobcats appeared powerless to stem the flow and only keeper Alex Moffitt stood between them and a greater margin of arrears, pulling off some excellent saves.
Some excellent lead up play from Gum Mayak down the left flank allowed him to find space and deliver a cross to Chris Dooley at the edge of the box. Dooley, with his back to goal, allowed the ball to bounce and then smashed it on the turn, the ball eluding the dive of Moffitt and rocketing into the top corner. Another near unstoppable goal, and the Bobcats could do little but stand back and admire the finish. That would be the final occasion on which the scoreboard operators were troubled on the evening, as the Lions bagged an important 3-1 victory to keep their campaign on track.
For the Bobcats, defeat proved a bitter blow as they now sit just outside the top four. They headed into round 14 with a three point advantage over the Thunder and an equal goal difference of +1, but the Bobcats’ two goal defeat combined with the Thunder’s six goal victory means the goal differences now sit at -1 and +7 respectively, with both sides on 16 points. The Bobcats do hold a key advantage in having a game in hand, but when that game is against the ladder leading Bombers, the points are anything but guaranteed.
Another tough fixture awaits this weekend, as the men in green return home to Wherrett Park to face a Urunga Raiders side who have clocked up 75% more points than them so far in this campaign. In reality, the difference in quality between the two sides is far less, and the two previous meetings between them this season have ended in 2-1 and 1-0 wins to the Raiders that could both have easily gone the other way. Ahead of three more tricky fixtures against the Thunder and Bombers (twice), the time is undoubtedly now for the Bobcats to step up and hit their footballing peak if they are to keep their finals dream alive.
The Lions will be happy to collect the three points in a game that had genuine potential to be a banana skin in their campaign, and will back themselves to extend their winning streak to four as they face Westlawn Tigers in another home game this Saturday night. The cold hard reality for Williams’ men, though, is that they will essentially need to win every one of their remaining seven games if they are to pose a true threat to the Bombers’ Premiership charge, as they lie three points and one game behind the ladder leaders – who don’t look ready to cough up too many points any time soon having gone thirteen games undefeated and drawing just once in that time.
URUNGA RAIDERS 1
GRAFTON UNITED 0
The finals dream wasn’t over just yet for United, some feat considering their standing last season and the fact that they had already played 13 of the regular season’s 21 games – close to two thirds the way through. The transformation the club have undergone in 2018 is nothing short of remarkable, and the fact they were heading into a fixture against a perennial title contender in Urunga Raiders with not only an opportunity to elevate themselves into equal fourth with a win, but a credible chance of taking points, serves to underline the shift Scott Elphic and his men have effected in the local footballing status quo.
The Raiders were in the slightly awkward position of being streets ahead of fourth spot on the ladder – twelve points – and quite some way behind first and second – nine and six points respectively. Back to back defeats to the Bombers put a strong dent in their Premiership hopes, but a solid win over Coffs Coast Tigers at the Patch last week hinted at a recapturing of form to at least some degree. All they could do at this point was keep winning games and hope the two sides above them either dropped the ball – if the Raiders were hoping to claim Premiership honours – or that they could do some more damage come finals time – if the more realistic ambition of Championship silverware was in their sights.
United recalled Joe Macari and Jack Daniels to the starting side after they each took up impact substitute roles last weekend against the Lions, with Wylie Tynan and Selwyn King going the other way. Mick Fox earnt a first Premier League appearance of the season, starting in place of Ali Irving who sat on the bench. Ryan Earp was replaced by Nathan Daniels. The Raiders named a lean 13 man squad with just one outfield substitute available. The absence of Kale Hopper, Jaxen Heward, Jordan Tree and Josh McGovern meant Scott Livingstone came in for his first start of the season, Aaron Wolfe made his starting Premier League debut, and Pablo Kastner and Jake Leslie were each recalled to the XI. Finally, Grant Homes secured a bench spot at the expense of Allen Snow and Thomas Rixon. It was a very new look Raiders lineup to say the least.
A cold, windy evening set the scene for a gruelling and physical contest at Rushforth Park. The hometown men turned in one of their most accomplished displays of the season as they ramped up the intensity and really took the game to the Raiders. Many would suggest Grafton were in fact the superior side over the opening 45, though through a combination of misfortune and finishing profligacy they were unable to make their pressure tell on the scoreboard. Going into half time with the scores level at 0-0, Grafton coach Scott Elphic had very little to tell his boys as far as tactical tweaks or changes were concerned, as he admitted even he was in slight shock at just how well they had been performing.
The inability of the home side to convert meant that the Raiders were still well and truly in the contest, and the men in maroon are so experienced at making their chances count and grinding out results even against the run of play. The blustery conditions turned what initially looked to be a relatively innocuous floating strike off the boot of the Raiders’ Livingstone into a very tricky assignment for United keeper Matt McMahon, and indeed the ball eluded McMahon to nestle in the back of the net. The visitors had taken the lead in slightly fortunate circumstances, and the strength of their defence meant it would be tough for the men in purple to find a way back into the contest.
The Raiders fired up after the goal and there was a sense of belief within the side that they were going to put a shellacking on United and that the floodgates would open. United never go away quietly though, and the game became heated as heavy challenges flew in from both sides on all angles. Midway through the second stanza, Grafton’s James Craig was coat-hangered in what looked to be a run of the mill NRL penalty – though certainly not a challenge typical of the footballing sphere. Bodies were colliding and players were hitting the deck with regularity – had Bill Lawry been commentating the game, he would no doubt have said it was ‘all happening’ as the affair briefly threatened to descend into pandemonium.
With a quarter of an hour left on the clock, United fashioned a couple of excellent chances to score and were awarded a penalty after a Urunga defender handballed inside the 18 yard box. The home side failed to find the equaliser though, keeper Lee Kennedy producing a save to deny United from the spot. Grafton skipper Brayden Jones was then sent from the field shortly afterwards to put the men in purple down to ten men, but still they continued to press and search for a chance to square the ledger.
Ultimately, the equaliser proved just out of reach and the Raiders came away from the contest with a slightly fortunate 1-0 win. Elphic lamented the fact that the scoreboard did not tell the full story of the accomplished display his men had turned in on the evening, feeling they were all over their opposition and on another day might have had as many as four. He was nonetheless proud of his men and praised Urunga for making the trip back to the sponsors after the game.
United remain at home for the fifth game straight this weekend, as they host an in form Northern Storm Thunder side in what will be another tough out. Three points in that game would put the cat right back amongst the pigeons in terms of the finals conversation once again, but impotence in the attack – statistically the weakest in the league at present with just 17 scored in 14 games – is something that will need to be quickly remedied in order to make that a possibility, as a poor goal difference is likely to sting them when the numbers are crunched at the back end of the campaign.
The Raiders remain tough to read – they have yet to drop a single point all season to a side not named Boambee or Coffs United, against whom they have picked up just one in four games, but on at least four or five occasions against lower ranked sides they have laboured to the point of barely scraping the result.
This weekend’s away trip to Barry Watts Oval to take on the Bobcats offers them a chance to prove to their doubters that they can comfortably sweep aside mid-table challengers and go beyond just picking up results to a point where their displays start inducing fear into their opponents once again. Their campaign thus far has not been a failure by any stretch of the imagination, but the standards at Morgo Street are higher than most and a third place finish on the ladder and a spate of unconvincing performances isn’t likely to pass muster when contrasted with pre-season expectations.
BOAMBEE BOMBERS 5
WESTLAWN TIGERS 0
The Bombers kept marching on last weekend, following up their win over Coffs and back to back wins over Urunga with a dominant 4-0 over Northern Storm at the Cove. They are not a side who look like being beaten by anyone right at the moment, but although they accounted for Westlawn Tigers by a handsome margin the last time the sides met in round 7 at Back Lane, they would need to have their wits about them as an incredible comeback against Maclean last week was evidence that the men in yellow would be more confident than ever this time around.
James Joyce’s men pulled off a remarkable coup last weekend to drag themselves off the canvas and seal a three goal comeback against the Bobcats to salvage a point, having been three down midway through the second half. The display would no doubt have done wonders for their collective confidence, and they headed down to the highway with the belief that they could make life tough for the Bombers and force the home side into moving out of second gear if they were to claim a result.
The Bombers made just one change to their starting lineup in what has been a fairly consistent run for them with limited cases of injury and unavailability. Christian Penny was promoted from the bench to replace Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane in the starting lineup, while Tom Cooper and Jack Mitchell replaced Jamie Newling and Darby Sherrin on the bench. For the yellow men, the occasion represented a rare luxury – the ability to name an identical starting side two weeks in a row. The only thing that changed was the composition of the bench – two of last week’s four substitutes in the form of Dylan Lucas and Luke Shipman were replaced by Jesse Benfield and Jake Connelly respectively.
The away side looked strong in their defensive structure to start things off, and it took 15 minutes for the Bombers to find a breakthrough. Lachie Moye latched on to a through ball and raced away down the left flank, only to lose his footing when he looked home and hosed. Moye recovered quickly though and did not lose possession, carrying the ball further forward towards the byline and cutting back for James Lowe who finished neatly into the bottom right corner past Westlawn gloveman Charlie Moar.
Another quarter of an hour went by with the Tigers keeping the home side at bay, before a bouncing ball on the left was switched across goal by Brady Parker to the foot of Moye. Moye took some time to set himself, with the Tigers defence affording him ample space, and executed a deft and delicate chip with his right boot that looped over Moar and looked to be on its way in. The ball only kissed the left post and bounced back out, but Parker was on hand to collect the rebound. Parker dribbled along the byline, cut back and launched a shot towards the middle of the goal, which was well saved by Moar, but the parry fell into Moye’s path once again and this time he made no mistake, converting from five yards.
With only a couple of minutes left in the half, a long throw by Parker found the head of Luke France, who glanced the ball on for Christian Penny at the edge of the six yard box. Penny was facing away from goal and attempted an acrobatic finish on the turn but could not make any contact of note. The ball kept skidding along across the face off goal and Lowe found himself in a great position to profit, lacing it home from six or seven yards to put his side three up heading into the break.
The game was a closer contest than the scoreline may have suggested, and the enthusiastic Tigers had given a good account of themselves throughout. The Bombers produced a fourth around the hour mark – as Moye sealed his brace – before the men in yellow pulled one back around five minutes later through Tom Westmann. The game highlight, however, came with around 15 minutes to go as Parker launched a sumptuous strike from way out that found its way into the top right corner. Parker himself deemed it a ‘lucky shot’ but in any case it will go down as one of the goals of the season – indeed, Parker has his own resumé of ‘worldies’ from distance that is probably more extensive in numerical terms than most players’ entire career goal hauls.
By full time the score was 5-1, and the Bombers had maintained their march onwards and upwards with their eighth straight victory and sixth of the season by a margin of four or more. Their streak of two consecutive clean sheets was unfortunately ended but there will be little else for coach Shane Duncan to criticise in the performance. They will make the short trip to Polwarth Drive this weekend to face a struggling Coffs Coast Tigers side and will look to shore up the defence even further to get back to their clean sheet keeping ways – their well oiled attack seems to be taking care of itself and there have been just three games out of thirteen so far where they have scored less than four.
Despite the defeat, Tigers could undoubtedly take pride in their display and won’t be disappointed in the way things played out. The result was a substantial improvement upon the last occasion they met the Bombers, as they were able to quite literally halve their opposition’s attacking output while still scoring one of their own. They will look to build upon the confidence they have gained over the past fortnight as they take on Coffs United at Forsyth Park. Despite facing the top two sides in consecutive weeks, the opportunity to improve upon their prior results against the same opposition should prove sufficient incentive for strong displays.