By Tim Klingbiel
Bombers seal Premiership as Westlawn double up, Thunder keep rolling and Bobcats claw their way to victory in battle of the felines
NORTHERN STORM 1
URUNGA RAIDERS 1
Storm were coming off a decent run of form, with two wins and two draws – including a 1-1 last week against the Lions where they felt they could well have taken all three points – leading to a four match unbeaten streak. They had already proven their ability to hang with the sides in the competition’s upper echelon and their points total this season was hardly reflective of the ability within the side.
The Raiders had slumped to a shock loss against Westlawn last time out, making it two consecutive 3-2 defeats after they went down to the Lions the previous week, also at home. Craig Simpson and his men would have been very keen to prevent a third reverse on the bounce as they travelled to the Cove, and with third spot all but sewn up, the crucial factor for the men from Morgo Street would now be building up a head of steam coming into finals.
The Thunder were without Jeffrey Odgers at the back, meaning Michael Turner was given a start. This would prove the only change to the XI, with John Omtha and Jordan Wildman each retaining their places after last week’s relatively successful outing against the Lions. The returning Mykel Watson and Beajay Wendt had to settle for bench spots, as did Otis Barney in what looked to be one of the strongest sets of substitutes in the comp.
With a number of regular starters returning, Simpson rung the changes for the visitors. Regular keeper Lee Kennedy returned to replace Matt Smith, while Jacob Leslie and Henry Gale replaced James Power and Aaron Wolfe. Tim Rupprecht was promoted to the starting lineup as Thomas Rixon and Josh McGovern also came into the XI. Simpson benched himself, while Dominic Kelly-Ramirez and Aarons Searle, both starters last week, were unable to find a place in the squad. Joel Teece and Emar Foran were recruited to the bench in favour of Joe Soergel.
The game itself was a tight battle as neither side were willing to give much away. The home side put together some positive play and were always looking to create, but the Raiders defensive structure looked much more sound than it had the previous week, with their regular centre back pairing back together to take care of business.
Indeed it was the men in maroon who grabbed the opener, a mishit cross from Josh McGovern squeezing its way past Storm custodian Josh ‘Buckets’ Harrigan to put the home side on the back foot. The boys from the Cove were not going to go away without a fight though, and continued to press, ultimately finding an equaliser through Marty Skinner after some great lead up play firstly from Tristan Albert and then from Jamie Kennedy.
Urunga introduced Joel Teece while Craig Simpson brought himself on, with Jack Martin and talisman Kale Hopper each making way. Storm brought Keiran Clerke into the action to replace Grant Scully, but he himself was forced off for Watson before time was up. Barney came on for Wildman and looked lively but was ultimately unable to find the winner. The Thunder had several chances to win the game and coach Jade Porter believed his men asked more questions than their opposition, but lacked the cutting edge to make this tell on the scoreboard.
The scoreline at full time was 1-1 and Porter described the game as ‘another tight battle’, noting that ‘every point helps at the moment, so the point would have to do on the day’. Simpson may well have been the less impressed of the two coaches as his side extended their winless streak to three games – almost unheard of for a club of their strength and rich history.
The Thunder will be on the road for each of their last three games, travelling to Junction Hill this weekend to take on Westlawn Tigers with the knowledge that a win will virtually place them within a point of finals football owing to their 24 goal superior difference over the Bobcats. Away trips to Boambee and West Coffs then await as the Thunder face the Bombers and Tigers in their final two fixtures.
The Raiders would look to put their recent form behind them with a quick turnaround against Westlawn in a midweek catchup game as they would make the trip to Barnier Park. A win in that game would get them to within six points of Coffs United, and that would mean that the highly unlikely possibility of them leapfrogging the Lions into second spot on the ladder could not yet be mathematically ruled out. Realistically though, the Raiders should finish third and will already have one eye on what they will do to make things go their way come finals time.
WESTLAWN TIGERS 10
GRAFTON UNITED 1
James Joyce’s jubilant gents were riding the high of their most significant scalp in some time, having conquered the Raiders 3-2 – at the Patch no less – in round 17. It was their first win of the season, and it came as a richly deserved reward for a season of decent football where they have so often come out on the wrong side of the equation despite their general play indicating otherwise.
United were winless in six, with just a point in that time, though a narrow 1-0 defeat to the Raiders and a scoreless draw with the Thunder – both top four sides – were encouraging for the men in purple. They had run a gauntlet of top sides in recent weeks and seemed to hit every game right when their opposition were in their best form, with this week being no different.
For the home side, Nick Lavender and Jordan Newman were each dropped to the bench in favour of the returning Harry Vidler and Luke Shipman respectively. Zac Benfield returned from suspension and joined his brother Jesse on the pine, while Dylan Lucas also found his way into the 16 man matchday squad ahead of Isaac Huxley and Will Pollock.
United’s regular keeper Matt McMahon was unavailable, so Wylie Tynan took up the gloves for the visitors. A host of late scratchings meant Selwyn King, Ethan Piper and Mick Fox, all initially included on the match card, were each ruled out in a rather haphazard and makeshift lineup. In fact, of last week’s starting XI against Coffs Coast Tigers, just four took the field on this occasion – in addition to Piper and McMahon, James Craig, who suffered a horrific injury last round, Richard Akoto, Hayden Young, Jack Daniels and Nathan Daniels were all out. Starts thus beckoned for Mick Linley, Ryan Earp, Lee Stutt, Josh Patterson, Corey Ford, Nathan Adamson and Jarred Illic. Andrew and Jono Collen were recruited into the squad to make up a two man bench.
From the very outset of the game, it was clear the bare bones Grafton squad were running on the smell of an oily rag and what followed would not have made for pretty reading for those around the traps at Rushforth Park. The final tally hit double figures as the men in yellow smashed home an incredible ten goals – Sam Brien, Riley Keogh and Jordan Newman – who came off the bench – each registered braces while Luke Shipman, Mick Allen, Tom Westmann and Harry Vidler all chipped in with a goal each.
Perhaps the only highlights from this one for the men in purple were a solitary goal from Premier League debutant Lee Stutt, and maiden appearances for a number of other players who were seeing their first minutes of action in the top grade. Sadly, the defeat has all but consigned United to the fate of having missed out on a finals appearance in 2018, with that permutation now near enough to a mathematical impossibility.
Scott Elphic and his troops will be hoping some of their usual suspects are back in action this weekend ahead of a tough fixture against Maclean at Wherrett Park. It seems that each time the South Grafton side have found a rhythm this season, suspension or injury disrupts the composition of the squad and they are forced to go back to the drawing board. Looking ahead to season 2019, discipline will need to be absolutely key for the men in purple – who have been without their influential captain Braydon Jones on several occasions this season for that very reason – along with a little helping of luck in the injury department if they are to contend for finals football.
For the Junction Hill favourites, they will be feeling a million dollars having tripled their season points tally and gone from winless in fifteen rounds to being on a two match winning streak all in the space of six days. Things can change so quickly in football and Joyce’s Westlawn side are living proof. They would look to capitalise on their newfound momentum with a quick turnaround against the Raiders midweek at home, and build upon some very positive signs for their next campaign.
BOAMBEE BOMBERS 2
COFFS UNITED LIONS 1
Emerging unscathed from back to back encounters with the Bobcats was no mean feat for the Bombers, but those two results had put them in the enviable position of being able to seal the Premiership with a win in round 18 – with three games still remaining. It had been an imperious campaign thus far from Shane Duncan’s men, who were showing no signs of slowing down and in actual fact seemed to have a few levels still within them that hadn’t yet been on display.
Glen Williams’ Lions faced the grim prospect of handing the Premiership to the Bombers in the event of a defeat, something the proud club would never have been anticipating and a scenario they would have been extremely keen to avoid at all costs. Their three encounters so far with the Bombers this season – an FFA Cup fixture in pre-season, then two regular season clashes – all ended in defeat, and one would have to leaf through thousands of pages of the history books to find the last time they had suffered three consecutive defeats to a single club. Needless to say, a fourth wasn’t something that was on their minds.
Duncan recalled Travis Lee to the starting lineup in place of Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane, but the biggest talking point this week was the absence of key marksman Luke France with an unspecified injury. This meant a slight positional reshuffle, with James Lowe shifting into a marginally more attacking role and Jamie Newling being drafted in to hold the midfield with Mitch Brewster – both players exhibiting similar styles of play. Tom Frewen was included on the bench to give the Bombers some extra teeth late on – there is certainly no love lost between Frewen and the Lions either, so there was bound to be some late spice should he see on-field action.
The Lions made just one change to their XI – Callan Allsop coming into the backline in place of Addisen Mallett – though Jyelei McKell and James Hough were replaced on the bench by Caleb Lokpo and Dan Wiseman. The experience of Nathan Silvy was also still a bench option for the men from Forsyth Park, who still retained Brent Turner between the sticks after Josh Wiseman’s season ending ACL injury following round 10.
The two heavyweight combatants traded blows early but it was the home side who looked the more likely to find the opener. A particularly dangerous incursion saw a Lachie Moye strike stopped athletically by Turner, who tipped the ball on to his right hand post. The follow up was acrobatically met by Lowe, who attempted a close range scissor kick – the strike looked goalbound before a scrambling Turner recovered to tip it out just off the line. It was a superb double save and any neutral would have no idea this wasn’t the first choice Lions custodian.
Fizzing low strikes from Scott Goddard and Lorenzo Rigoni drew fairly comfortable saves from Jake Stitt midway through the half, but raids on goal of any real note were few and far between for the Lions. The game played out largely as a midfield battle, with the fleet footed Bombers attackers occasionally making breakthroughs and their still-green backline having a tendency to over-commit on the odd occasion to allow Chris Dooley and Gum Mayak a few half chances.
Nearing the end of the opening stanza, a long goalkick was punted up field by Stitt to Brady Parker, who took the ball well with his back to goal and turned his marker, Aaren Allsop. Parker played a one-two off Moye, with Lowe dummying well in between. The second pass sat up nicely on the bounce for Parker, who unleashed an absolute howitzer off his famed left foot to find the top of the net, giving a leaping Turner no chance whatsoever. It was a pearl of a strike and gave the Bombers a real shot in the arm heading into the interval.
Around ten minutes after the break, the Bombers won a corner after having looked strong for an extended period. The Lions had repelled the home side’s pressure with aplomb but appeared to be in a slight lull at that point. Moye lofted the corner to the back post and found a leaping Parker, who outjumped Callan Allsop and left Turner grasping at fresh air as he nodded the ball down into the net. The home side had now doubled their advantage and looked as if more may well be in the offing.
The Lions seemed to lift their game a gear from this point onwards though, and having somewhat limited the scoreboard damage during the Bombers’ period of dominance – which could well have yielded three or four goals – looked to reduce the arrears and get themselves right back into the contest. The memo seemed to be that a physical brand of football would do the trick, and the men in red and black began making their presence felt in the most literal possible sense.
Christian Penny was copping perhaps the worst of the blows, with a host of knees, shoulders and elbows all seeming to be laser targeted to his ribcage. Time and time again Penny was felled in brutal challenges, but each time he got back up, dusted himself down and limped onwards. Eventually Duncan decided enough was enough and hauled Penny off for ‘Rooster’ to enter the fray. The Wirrabilla upstart was greeted with a bell ringing of his own, as he was clattered in the back of the scone and felled like a magpie by a stone launched from the hand of a Toormi skate park gremlin.
Around 65 minutes into the contest, a cross field ball to the right flank was taken well on the chest by substitute Caleb Lokpo – himself recently introduced into the contest in place of Alik Santiago. Lokpo turned his marker Josh McIntosh inside out before galloping away towards the top of the box and lacing a strike low and hard into the bottom left corner past the outstretched fingers of Stitt. With the deficit now halved, it was very much game on heading into the final 25 minutes.
Williams opted to drag Lorenzo Rigoni – rendered largely ineffective on the afternoon by the Bombers defence – and inject even more needle into the game in the form of the always niggling Dan Wiseman. Duncan returned serve by withdrawing the diminutive Newling for wired human wrecking ball Frewen, who added a valuable extra dimension to the home side’s output. A piece of interplay between Frewen and Parker saw the former release Lowe in a promising position. Again, however, as had occurred early in the first half, he was denied by some excellent goalkeeping from Turner.
Aaren Allsop, one of the competition’s most underrated players due to his high pressure, physical brand of football regularly irritating opposition players by giving them absolutely no breathing space and drawing ire from opposition fans due to perceived injustices as he stretches the boundaries of what may be considered an allowable challenge under the laws of the game, was a key cog in the Lions fightback and his distribution was second to none on the afternoon. Regularly able to turn a dire defensive situation into a quick counterattack off the back of one immaculate pass, his interplay with Scott Goddard in midfield was a delight to watch and very nearly created some more havoc for the home side.
With around ten minutes on the clock, the Lions had a great opportunity to equalise. A low corner created strife in the box as the ball bobbled around amidst a crowd of bodies from both sides. Eventually the ball fell to Lokpo who rifled a powerful snapshot on the turn from 12 yards out, but Stitt produced a top drawer save to tip the ball over the bar. A late run into the box from Dooley ultimately amounted to little, as did a mid-range free kick from Mayak, and the Bombers were able to grind out a result in a game where they found the three points much tougher to come by than they had on the previous three occasions against the Lions this season.
Coach Duncan said after the game that it was a tough game and though he was happy to come away with the points, he is well aware there is still room for improvement. He observed that the game represented an important opportunity for his young charges to prove to themselves that they can still get a result against a top side even without one of their key performers in France. O’Mullane said he was feeling the effects of the bruising encounter, while Sam Crampton congratulated himself on his own restraint, despite having collected a caution.
With that win, the Bombers have cemented the 2018 Premiership – the first Premier League silverware under the auspices of North Coast Football in the club’s history despite coming ever so close on multiple occasions – having qualified for three grand finals in the past decade and fallen short on each occasion. They will want to prevent the same fate from playing out this time around and seal a maiden Championship too, and there is little to suggest they can’t make that happen, having won 17 and drawn one from their 18 games thus far. The Raiders await them this weekend at the Patch in what should be another close and entertaining game.
The Lions will now need to dust themselves off as they prepare to take on Coffs Coast Tigers at Polwarth Drive on Sunday. With their margin over the Raiders now reduced to six points, they will be keen to ensure they avoid a major late season hiccup to give second place on the ladder away. A win over Tigers would just about do the trick due to their vastly superior goal difference, and they still hold the competition’s best defensive record. Despite having conceded eleven in three games against the Bombers this season, they have conceded just eight across their other fifteen and rather incredibly just two against sides outside the top four.
MACLEAN BOBCATS 2
COFFS COAST TIGERS 1
Tigers had strung together two consecutive wins and would desperately need to extend that streak if they were to stand any chance of making an unlikely finals appearance. Those two wins were over the only sides below them on the table in the form of Westlawn and Grafton, though they were level on points with Maclean who were just one spot above them off the back of a superior goal difference.
Dennis Mavridis would return to the dugout this week after serving a one game touchline suspension. He and his men all knew how crucial this result would be if they were to stay in the hunt for a top four finish – having gone down in two close matches last week against newly minted 2018 Premiers Boambee Bombers. In all, it shaped as a close and entertaining contest, with the sides having split their two prior meetings with one another this season – Tigers winning 2-0 at Polwarth Drive in round four and Bobcats winning 3-1 at Wherrett Park in round 11.
Fel Barrera made just one change to his starting side who defeated Grafton the previous week, replacing Jye-Grant Buck with Somchai Tha. He opted to stick with Jake Mahoney up front yet again despite the availability of ‘Squeezo’, who had operated as well as could be expected while being almost completely starved of service in the earlier reserve grade match where Tigers suffered a 3-0 defeat. Matt Guyatt, who had kept in the second half of reserve grade as Luke Kliendienst played a midfield role, was excluded from the four man bench in favour of Andrew Fisher and Zack Smith, while Kliendienst took up the gloves once again in Premier League.
The away side recalled Cullyn Stewart-Butcher as James Austin was benched, though the remainder of the XI was identical to that of the away trip to Ayrshire Park the previous weekend for the second half of the double against the Bombers. Taylor Corbacho was replaced on the bench by Jesse Turner, while Brad Corbett and Asher Nilsson were both late scratchings after initially being included on the match card.
The men in orange and black started the more purposeful and determined of the two sides, and grabbed an early opener through an unlikely source in the form of Tom ‘Chest Brah’ Mitchell. The goal continued what seems to have been a tradition this season for the Bobcats in conceding inside the opening 15 minutes, something that has understandably been a source of frustration for Mavridis.
The goal didn’t appear to spur the Bobcats on to a rousing comeback, though, and Tigers continued to dominate the run of play for much of the half. Mavridis admitted that his side could easily have gone into the break two or three goals down and dubbed it ‘the poorest 45 minute performance [he has] witnessed in two seasons’. Shortly before half time though, the men in green were able to snatch one back against the run of play courtesy of a well taken strike by Frazer Marsh, who has missed much of the season through injury. Mavridis described it as ‘the only positive’ of the half.
The man with the most impressive barnet north of the Clarence was less than effusive in the interval and gave his men what he described as ‘a few ‘kind’ words’. The speech appeared to do the trick, as the Bobcats emerged from the sheds with far greater intent and quickly seized control of the game. The Tigers appeared to be wilting in the afternoon sun and the visitors gained the ascendancy and asserted their dominance in general play within just a few exchanges. Maclean were having difficulty finding the net though, despite many opportunities presenting themselves, and began to get slightly frustrated with their own profligacy.
One one occasion, a well constructed play resulted in a perfectly executed Jarrod Doyle cross that found Luke Hanlon in space at the back stick. Hanlon met the ball on the volley, but in Mavridis’ own words, ‘he gimped out and hit the post’. Still they continued to press on though, never letting negativity get the better of them. With ten minutes remaining, Mavridis opted for a tactical switch and withdrew centre back Ben Arndell, who he said had been one of the best on the field for Josh Ackerman up front. Ackerman’s impact was instant, with his running both on and off the ball created all manner of headaches for a flagging Tigers defence.
With time running out, an enterprising Hanlon run into space saw him come within a hair’s breadth of getting around Kliendienst, who threw himself at the ball but could only succeed in taking Hanlon’s feet out from under him, with referee Martin Gadd awarding a penalty. Up stepped Doyle, and with everything on the line he showed ice cold composure to neatly slot home. Only a few minutes remained on the clock and the Bobcats packed into defence to repel a final Tigers flurry and see out the result.
For Barrera and his men, the defeat was a hammer blow to their semi-final aspirations, but they will need to gather themselves and prepare for a tough opponent in the form of the Lions this weekend at Polwarth Drive. They will want to keep themselves at least mathematically in the hunt – while needing to hope for adverse results for both the Thunder and Bobcats in subsequent weeks – and in order to do so will have to pull off an upset of sizeable proportions.
The men in green have certainly kept themselves in the hunt with that result and shaken off a dark run of five straight defeats. With home games against Grafton and Westlawn coming up, they will no doubt be targeting nothing less than wins in both, particularly ahead of a gruelling final day challenge in the form of an away trip to McLean Street. Even if they win all three, they will need to hope Storm drop points on two of their last three occasions due to the large gap in goal difference. Whatever the outcome, the final three weeks are going to be nailbiting for the lads from Wherrett Park.