By Tim Klingbiel
URUNGA RAIDERS 4
MACLEAN BOBCATS 0
The Bobcats were looking to be on a decent run of form until a late collapse against Westlawn in round 13 paved the way for defeat the following week against a rejuvenated Coffs United side. After three straight away games, the Bobcats were eager to return to their regular digs of Wherrett Park to host the Raiders, with whom they had fought some tough battles in 2018 already. On both previous occasions, they had gone down by one, and they knew they couldn’t afford such a result again if they were to remain in touch with the top four. Needless to say, this one would be more crucial than ever.
For the Raiders, the main focus in this one would be not just securing the three points to retain their handsome buffer in third spot on the ladder, but pulling out of second gear and delivering a truly accomplished performance with all of the cogs in the machine turning harmoniously. Their campaign had thus far lacked some of the fluency we have become accustomed to from Raiders sides in the past decade or so, and coach Craig Simpson would no doubt have been very keen to experience slightly lower blood pressure levels than he would have during many of the nailbiters in prior rounds.
The Bobcats welcomed Scott Grey back into the starting side at the expense of Josh Ackerman, who dropped back to the bench. Frazer Marsh came through last week’s outing against the Lions unscathed and retained his spot up top, while a reduced bench saw Taylor Corbacho and Nick Shugg deemed surplus to requirements with Sean Potter brought in instead.
The Raiders’ bare bones 13 man squad from last week was beefed up this time around, with 16 available for the trip to Wherett Park. Jaxen Heward was drafted into the backline as last week’s starter Aaron Wolfe dropped back to the pine. Josh McGovern was given a chance to start as coach Simpson sat himself on the bench and the welcome return of Kale Hopper provided an able replacement for the absent Aaron Searle in the heart of midfield. The extended bench also incorporated the inclusion of Joe Soergel to the matchday squad.
A 3pm kick off at Barry Watts Oval set the scene for what most pundits thought would be a tense and close affair. The reality of the matter was somewhat different, with the Raiders looking more imposing than they have throughout perhaps the entire campaign so far. A far cry from the previous week’s somewhat unconvincing performance against Grafton, the display from the men in maroon was just what they have been searching for and would have done absolute wonders for the confidence levels coming out of the Morgo Street camp. 3-0
The Raiders were just a crucial half step ahead when it mattered throughout the afternoon, and the 4-0 final result will both buoy their spirits and hit the Bobcats right where it hurts. Key man Hopper did most of the damage with a brace, while McGovern and Jai Wadick each chipped in with a goal to blow out the margin. Maclean were hardly as abject on the afternoon as the scoreline might suggest – that Raiders custodian Lee Kennedy was one of the best on the ground was telling – and it was more a case of the Raiders finding their feet and clicking better than they had been in the last several weeks. Simpson was pleased with the true playing surface and felt this was key to his men being able to implement their much vaunted passing game to devastating effect. He noted that clinical finishing also played an essential role in the result. The game was played in the right spirit, as referee Dave Connor only had to resort to his pocketbook on two occasions, issuing Maclean’s Scott Grey and Urunga’s goalscoring hero from last weekend Scott Livingstone with yellow tickets.
The Bobcats are now in a situation where there is less margin for error than ever if they are to ultimately feature in finals football. This weekend’s encounter with Northern Storm Thunder offers them the chance to leapfrog the Thunder back into fourth spot, but picking up three points at the Cove won’t be easy by any stretch and coach Dennis Mavridis will need to have his men well organised and up for battle if they are to reignite their finals charge.
The men from Urunga have all of a sudden gone from looking ever so slightly listless, struggling to pick up wins even against lower table sides, to appearing a force to be reckoned with once again, all in the space of 90 minutes of football. This was the performance they had been crying out for ahead of a crunch grudge match this weekend against the Lions at the Patch. In the battle between second and third, the Raiders will go in as marginal underdogs, but despite going down at Forsyth Park the last time the sides met, the Raiders played some great football late on and were unlucky not to haul themselves back into the contest and grab a point. The draw in round 2 at Morgo Street will have Simpson and his charges quietly confident that they may be able to go one better this time, and judging by the display against the Bobcats, they might have just started to hit their straps too.
COFFS UNITED LIONS 11
WESTLAWN TIGERS 0
After two difficult games in the form of a resounding defeat to Boambee and a laborious 2-1 win over crosstown rivals, seventh ranked Coffs Coast Tigers, the Lions had emerged well from their slumber with two straight quality performances in a 4-0 away win over Grafton and a 3-1 home triumph against the Bobcats. They looked to have found their groove once again and it appeared the stage may well have been set for a victory of a rather wide margin over the visiting Westlawn Tigers, though Glen Williams and his men needed to have their wits about them to prevent complacency.
The Westlawn boys looked as strong as ever in the latter part of round 13, mustering a historic comeback from 4-1 down to grab a home draw against Maclean, and although round 14’s 5-1 away defeat to the Bombers might not have looked great on paper, it certainly hadn’t knocked the wind out of their sails as they had competed well with the competition’s top side. James Joyce was absent this week, entrusting Greg Allen with the coaching duties, and his yellow crusaders would have their hands full with the Lions. It would take something special defensively to repel a rampant red and black attack on their home ground under lights.
For United, Nick Mallett and Aaren Allsop, both starters last week, were unavailable, so Alik Santiago and Scott Cawley were each promoted from the bench to the XI. Dan Wiseman replaced James Hough on the bench, with Thangkin Shetta also brought into the squad. Joyce’s absence for the Tigers meant Jesse Benfield was promoted into the starting side, while Mick Allen’s unavailability gave Harry Vidler a start. Jake Connelly was replaced on the bench by Isaac Huxley in a trim 14 man squad.
The visitors looked decent enough early on, stifling most of the Lions’ forward momentum and doing well to break up play. The Lions were able to produce three before the break, but Williams was decidedly displeased with the way things had been playing out and urged his side to lift the intensity and stick to the game plan in a second half they were essentially viewing as a dress rehearsal for the following week’s Cabbage Patch blockbuster against the Raiders.
Ultimately, the assignment did prove a bridge too far for the travelling Tigers as the hometown boys delivered upon their potential, smashing eight more in the second stanza as Gum Mayak and Caleb Lokpo each finished with four for the game while Aaren Allsop, Chris Dooley and Scott Goddard grabbed one each. Abdul Kalifa saw his first Premier League minutes late on, while Wiseman came off the bench only to then be substituted himself after sustaining an injury. The discipline from the Lions was excellent, with not a single yellow card picked up over the course of the 90, though a frustrated Zac Benfield was dismissed for Westlawn and will miss next week’s fixture, while his brother Jesse was also carded for dissent by referee Jack Schafer. The final count of the damage was 11-0 and based purely on the second half performance from the Lions, the signs are ominous for their hosts in round 16, the Raiders.
Williams’ mind would have been put at ease after the display in the second 45, as his men changed gears and produced perhaps the most dominant half of football by any side in 2018 so far. The enormous boost to their goal difference that the 11 goal performance and also the clean sheet provided has elevated them to a +43 figure, just four behind ladder leaders Boambee. The three point gap to the top will be more difficult to bridge though, as the Bombers still hold a game in hand. The Lions will head down the highway this weekend as favourites, having scored almost twice as many goals as their hosts and conceded four less, while picking up six more points along the way – though having played a game more – but form counts for little in these fixtures and they will be well aware that anything can happen on Sunday afternoon.
For the Tigers, their focus must now shift to Saturday evening’s home game where they host their Tiger counterparts from West Coffs. They will look to spring a surprise on Felipe Barrera’s side, who are in the midst of an extended form slump of six straight defeats and are down on troops owing to several injuries. The last time these two met, the men in yellow agonisingly went down 4-3 at Polwarth Drive – a defeat that will still sting and one they will be looking to avenge this time around. The only other time they met this season ended in a 1-1 draw at Barnier Park, so the margin between the two would look to be razor thin at this point, hinting at local footballing fans having a mouth-watering encounter on their hands at Junction Hill.
GRAFTON UNITED 0
NORTHERN STORM 0
An excellent performance last time out had Grafton United confident of a result at home against Northern Storm Thunder despite the scoreline of round 14’s fixture, which read 1-0 to Urunga. The real story from that game was the ability of the men in purple to go toe to toe with one of the heavyweight sides of the competition and give every bit as good as they got, only going down to a somewhat fortunate piece of play for the visitors. It was an unprecedented fifth straight home game as a result of one of the quirkier draws seen in recent memory, and Scott Elphic’s men knew they would have to bring a swift end to their three match losing streak if they were to put themselves in with a realistic shout of making finals – something that surely wouldn’t have been on the cards at the commencement of the season.
The Thunder had been up and down in recent weeks, looking strong against Urunga despite going down 1-0, dominating Westlawn with consummate professionalism to take a 7-0 win at the Cove, well beaten at home by the Bombers in round 13 and then clocking up a resounding 6-0 win over Coffs Coast Tigers the previous weekend. It was truly a mixed bag of results and Jade Porter and his men were desperate to finally capture some consistency heading into the business end of the season. In what looked to now be a three way battle for the coveted fourth spot on the ladder between themselves, Maclean and Grafton, the Thunder were well aware that their diptych against those two fellow finals aspirants in rounds 15 and 16 could well be make or break in the context of their campaign.
The home side promoted Ali Irving and Wylie Tynan from the bench into the starting side, with Nathan Daniels unavailable and Mick Fox dropping back to the bench. The suspension of Braydon Jones – not his first this season – meant that Hung ‘Tony’ Phung was also brought into the XI. Corey Ford earnt himself a place on the bench in a 14 man squad. Storm enacted their regular keeper swap as Felix Sinzinkayo came into the XI, though the remainder of the starting side were otherwise unchanged. Keiran Clerke and Joseph Ha each made the bench in favour of Jordan Wildman and Otis Barney.
A chilly evening at Rushforth Park greeted the players for what ultimately played out as an intense and hard fought encounter. Elphic said he knew the visitors would be hungry and would make life tough for his boys, so he opted to change up a few things tactically that he hoped would equate to a competitive advantage. The contest was even from start to finish, United playing a high attack for the full 90 minutes and prioritising stringing combinations together and remaining stoic in defence over any lightning counterattacking play, while the Thunder got stuck in and did some excellent work in midfield to make the play compact and force the hosts to earn every ball.
The home side were finding their best success on the flank through Ethan Piper, who was creating multiple opportunities for Wylie Tynan and Hayden Young up top. Piper was encouraged to swap sides by opposite winger Joe Macari, and the resultant positional switch left United’s play somewhat unbalanced for a while and provided the Thunder with some opportunities of their own. The men in purple were able to settle into a rhythm once again, but a tired Macari subbed himself off just as things appeared to be tipping their way.
The Thunder were employing a high pressure brand of football and ensuring their opponents had limited time on the ball, rarely allowing clear cut chances to breach their 18 yard box and demonstrating why they had kept two clean sheets in their previous three games. The home side were missing their talisman Braydon Jones through suspension once again – having this time been handed a three game ban – and Elphic thought this might have disrupted the dynamic, but he was impressed with the way his men responded and said they got tight and dug in to excellent effect.
The second stanza was equally tight and neither side were able to gain any great ascendancy. Elphic was beaming at the play his side were producing and said that the combinations being employed on the pitch were exactly what they had been working on at training over a period of several months. With the scores still locked at 0-0, both coaches spent the last 20 minutes of the game pacing the technical area and the anxiety from both sides was almost tangible.
An exciting finale saw both sides lift the tempo, with Storm going all out in attack and United repelling them time after time with desperate defence and then looking to counterattack once the Thunder had committed most of their men forward. United rarely seem to finish a game with eleven men, and so it proved with substitute Selwyn King earning the ire of referee Dave Thorn and being issued with a straight red. The reduction in personnel threatened to derail the home side’s charge, but ultimately neither side were able to find the all important breakthrough and the game finished scoreless.
Elphic said he was happy enough with the result, which ensures his side remain in finals calculations with just six games remaining in the season. He is aware that this weekend’s matchup with Boambee won’t be easy, but also observes that his men ‘seem to lift every time we play them’. He notes that although United have a few out for the trip to Ayrshire Park, they also have a few that are hungrier than he has ever seen, and the improvement from their reserve grade side – who registered another win in round 15 – has added substantial strength in depth to the purple ranks.
The Thunder will be the more disappointed of the two sides after that game, and now know that essentially anything less than three points this weekend against the Bobcats won’t be good enough to secure their place in the four when all things come out in the wash and everyone has played the same amount of games. They will be keen for their fate to rest in their own hands, which a win at the Cove on Saturday afternoon would do, so it goes without saying that Porter and his men will be well and truly up for the battle in what shapes as a highly entertaining matchup.
BOAMBEE BOMBERS 3
COFFS COAST TIGERS 1
The Tigers were suffering an extended case of the blues, coming into their fixture against Boambee off the back of five straight defeats, the most recent of which saw them battered 6-0 by Northern Storm Thunder at the Cove on coach Felipe Barrera’s return to the dugout after a Russian expedition. Having been defeated by that same scoreline the last time they took on the Bombers, the Polwarth Drive men’s focus would no doubt have been on avoiding a repeat dose as they returned to their West Coffs digs after four consecutive away games.
The Bombers were still rolling along nicely and remained without defeat in season 2018. Some lineup consistency from week to week meant the combinations had all fallen into place across the park for Shane Duncan’s men, whose defence had been improving markedly in recent weeks. They were well aware that the Polwarth Drive denizens can be a tricky proposition, though – particularly after a narrow 4-3 win in round 1 on the previous occasion they visited the ground – and knew they couldn’t take anything for granted on the afternoon.
The home side welcomed Joel Guy back into the fold, and he replaced the unavailable Zack Smith in the starting XI. Marko Kisose was serving a one match suspension due to accrual of yellow cards, so Jye-Grant Buck replaced him in midfield. ‘Squeezo’ was recalled to the matchday squad after an absence of several weeks, having curiously fallen out of favour in the attacking stakes despite looking one of the club’s more positive options up front and with the club in the wake of a major form slump and poor run in front of goal, but ultimately didn’t make his way onto the park. Backup keeper Jeremy Hannaford was not named.
The Bombers’ star man Brady Parker could only occupy a bench spot – not even getting on the park on the afternoon – and with coach Duncan absent, stand-in gaffer Neil Witherdin opted to hand Darby Sherrin his first Premier League start. The remainder of the XI were unchanged from last week’s win over Westlawn, though the bench had a very different look with Jack Mitchell, Darcy Newell, Tom Cooper and Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane all making way for an entirely new set up backups in Mark Norberry, Jamie Newling, Tom Frewen and Solomon Fergusson.
An early goal to James Lowe after a corner set the tone for the Bombers, who came out firing and in the first few minutes looked like a side who could rack up a cricket score on the afternoon. But that feeling didn’t last for long, with the home side quickly reeling them back in to the point of finding an equaliser through youngster Ethan Sechi. The tide had turned quickly and Tigers had suddenly gone from looking like damage control would be the story of the afternoon to feeling a shock result might be on the cards.
Their momentum was stifled, though, as Sechi limped off with an injury before the half was over, and he was followed by fellow key playmaker Somchai Tha who had hurt his shoulder in a challenge. The momentum swung back in the favour of the Bombers in what had been a rollercoaster half of football, and all of a sudden the home side were on the back foot again and down on troops.
With attacking personnel appearing quite limited, regular goalkeeper Jake Mahoney had been promoted to a striker role having injured his hand, with Luke Kliendienst taking up the gloves in his place. Mahoney had played up top in the Lismore league a few years back and the Tigers brains trust had faith that he could prove himself another goal scoring outlet for the orange and black, even with proven striker ‘Squeezo’ sitting unused on the bench.
It wasn’t a great day out for Kliendienst, though, who gave away a penalty shortly before the break by bringing down Luke France in the box. France stepped up and deposited the ball in the back of the net to give the Bombers the lead and they took a 2-1 advantage into the sheds with them. It was crunch time for the home side, who were on the verge of having their finals dreams slip away from them entirely.
The second half was evenly contested and all in all there was little separating the two teams, just as had panned out in the opening stanza. Ultimately it was an egregious defensive error by Tigers that handed Boambee possession in a dangerous area and allowed them to seal the result through Sherrin, who converted to make it 3-1. The events in the game were a microcosm of Tigers’ entire campaign – a goal conceded from a set piece, a penalty given away and a crucial fluffing of lines at the back, essentially rendering them architects of their own demise. Their ill discipline, picking up four yellow cards and keeping referee Marty Gadd busy all afternoon – despite the Bombers managing not to pick up a single caution all game – will likely cost them towards the back end of the season as more players follow Kisose down the path of suspension for a build up of yellows.