By Tim Klingbiel
Two in form sides came together in what was virtually guaranteed to be an excellent contest as Premiership runners up Coffs City United Lions took on fourth placed Northern Storm Thunder. The Thunder’s performances to eliminate Premiers Urunga Raiders over a two legged semi-final sounded a clarion call to the Lions that they were very much the real deal in 2017, though United were coming off two semi-final clean sheets of their own after a pair of commanding displays against Sawtell Scorpions.
Dan Wiseman and Dut Garang kick off for the Lions.
The Lions’ kicked off and enjoyed a better share of possession during the game’s opening exchanges, though they were unable to create any clear cut chances on goal as a resolute Thunder defence stood firm. In Dut Garang, they had a potent strike weapon that would keep the likes of Jayden Kachel and Keiran Clerke very busy indeed. The Lions also had three quarters of their Asian connection in the holster – John Omtha and brothers Vichai and Somchai Tha warmed the bench while Thangkin Shetta started at left wing – while the Thunder had potency of their own to draw on from beneath the marquee, as creative wizard Enock Marc and wizened campaigner Musa Hamid both started with orange bibs.
Storm’s first real attack in the 10th minute came courtesy of a strong run from Zulu Gasore, who was able to force a scuffed clearance from Gum Dongrin and earn his side a corner. Gasore took the corner himself, and then picked up the scraps from the rebound after the Lions backline failed to get the ball to safety. His long range left footed drive had dip and swerve to it, but not quite enough shape to sneak under the bar as it whistled just over. He had certainly made an early impression on the Lions though and they quickly became aware of his ability to create something out of nothing.
The loping runs of Zulu Gasore out wide were one of the Thunder’s key weapons early in the piece.
Referee Dave Connor – with his son between the sticks for Coffs – awarded the Lions a free kick out wide in the 19th minute in what appeared to be a fairly innocuous position. Storm’s backs lined up to defend the 40 yard cross from Jeremy McDonald, but it appeared to have swung right into catching range for keeper Felix Sinzinkayo at the back post. Alas, Sinzinkayo had miscalculated his leap and pawed at fresh air, the cross eluding everyone and travelling directly into the top corner on the full. Coffs had gone up in bizarre circumstances and Storm’s stretch of over 200 minutes without conceding had come to an abrupt end in a moment their defenders could do nothing about.
Jeremy McDonald watches on as his floating cross drifts over Storm custodian Felix Sinzinkayo en route to the top left corner.
Energised by that stroke of good fortune, the United charges took full advantage of their opponents’ evident disappointment to put together a great period of 10 to 15 minutes where they created a couple more genuine attacking opportunities and drew a couple of smart saves from Sinzinkayo. Storm were not allowing themselves to be dominated though, and a few promising moments of their own ensured the Lions would not ride roughshod over the boys from Korora. The teams would go to the break at 1-0 and with the Thunder perhaps considering themselves unlucky to be behind in such a fashion.
Sinzinkayo produces a top drawer save to repel a Lions attempt.
It took less than 10 minutes of play in the second half for that to change. Once again, it was Zulu Gasore who looked the most promising in attack for the Thunder, and an excellent 25 yard run down the left flank in the 55th minute saw him burn his marker, gallop into space and launch a drive from the left edge of the box across goal. The ball was heading through at mid-height towards the right side of the goal and looked saveable, but Mitch Connor could only help the strike on its way as he parried it softly beyond him into the back of the net. 1-1 now and very much game on for the Thunder, who appeared the hungrier of the two sides at this stage.
Pete O’Neill cracks a skidding free kick for Storm early in the second period that gave Connor all sorts of problems.
True to the ebbs and flows of the match though, Storm’s period of dominance did not last too long and the balance of play evened out again soon afterwards. Coffs started getting a little more ball in midfield as Addisen Mallett and Alex Douglass tried to stamp their authority on proceedings. A 69th minute strike saw Sinzinkayo at full stretch to get a mitten on the ball, but the subsequent ricochet off the right post fell kindly for the Lions and a low pass across the face of the goal found McDonald by himself five yards out with the goal at his mercy. The man endearingly known around the traps as ‘Jezza’ was unable to convert, however, and the Thunder were given an improbable let off.
Keiran Clerke fires in a free kick for the Thunder during the second half.
A quick counter attack from Storm released Marty Skinner in the 75th, and he was able to break into the box promisingly. Heavy pressure from Bailey Smith meant Skinner’s shot was scuffed as he was hitting the deck, and despite a desperate attempt from Pete O’Neill to feast on the leftovers, it was Connor who pounced first to avert the danger.
Marty Skinner takes a tumble as a darting O’Neill and a scrambling Connor compete for the loose ball.
With the scores still level, both teams poured everything into the final stages of the match in search of a winner, but fatigue began to take over and the final five minutes were defined by players cramping and pulling up short. Excellent sportsmanship was displayed by both the Lions and Thunder though, as they each helped both comrades and foes stretch out calves and hamstrings while the clock wound down. Ultimately, neither were able to land the decisive blow and extra time beckoned.
Enock Marc closes in on Thangkin Shetta while Alex Douglass and Somchai Tha for Coffs as well as Marty Skinner for Storm look on.
Having not yet featured up to this point, the Storm coaching staff produced a masterstroke with the introduction of fresh substitute Musa Hamid. The veteran Sudanese superstar took just over a minute to produce a pearl of a cross-field ball that scythed right through the Lions midfield, and the subsequent through ball released O’Neill with only the keeper to beat. O’Neill duly buried the chance low to the right and Storm had gotten off to the best possible start to extra time.
O’Neill fires home in the 92nd minute to put the Thunder 2-1 up in the early stages of extra time.
Rather than drop their heads at the increased magnitude of the task they now faced, the Lions again responded well and displayed the resilience and unyielding effort that the club have built their reputation upon over several decades. The closing seconds of the first half of extra time saw a 50/50 ball pop up on the edge of the box and both Sinzinkayo and Garang contested strongly. It was Garang who got the decisive touch, poking the ball past the Storm gloveman as it trickled along the ground over what felt like an eternity until finally it nestled in the back of the net.
The equaliser proved a pyrrhic victory for Garang, who had been felled in a heavy collision and landed very awkwardly. As he remained essentially motionless for the better part of 9 minutes, onlookers’ hearts were in their mouths as the medicab was called onto the pitch. Eventually Garang was carted away, giving a heartening thumbs up to the crowd as he left the ground. The medical team ultimately diagnosed it as a secondary ligaments injury that will keep him out for around 8 weeks, and the football community will all be wishing Dut an even speedier recovery so he can showcase his talents in the upcoming Coffs United 6 a side competition.
Dut Garang suffered a painful secondary ligaments injury and had to be escorted from the ground via medicab, his final touch of the game being the equaliser for Coffs.
The heightened anxiety that the incident had brought about would have no doubt sent shockwaves through the Lions’ ranks, but they certainly didn’t let that show on the pitch. The second half of extra time was again very evenly matched, and it was difficult to find any extended period of play across the 120 minutes of football where either side was particularly dominant over the other. The 116th minute heralded a corner for Coffs, which was headed narrowly over the bar by Mallett, while Storm had a chance of their own to seal it in the 119th minute as Dominique Dunia gathered the ball on the edge of the box and launched a wicked drive that crashed into the left post.
The robust tackling style of Musa Hamid – who at times appears to be made from titanium – proved an excellent foil for the Lions’ attacks during extra time.
Time ultimately expired and the teams headed for a high stakes shootout to determine the victor. It was perhaps fitting that the Lions and Thunder were unable to be separated on the scoreboard in open play, such was the closeness of the game. It had been played in good spirits, with only three yellow cards – to Coffs defender Scott Cawley and Storm attackers O’Neill and Dunia – issued in two hours of play.
But now was the time for heroes to be made on the basis of nerves of steel. Many members of the Thunder side had not yet appeared in a grand final at this level, while the Lions had a plethora of experience to draw on in this regard. It remained to be seen whether inexperience would be a curse or whether the hunger for silverware after a drought of many years would spur the boys from Korora on to glory.
Coffs were up first and it was Alex Douglass who was assigned the job. It definitely didn’t go to plan for Douglass though as he skied a strike a metre over the bar. The assignment had suddenly become much trickier for the Lions and they now had to rely on a Storm error to stay in it. Jayden Kachel put Storm ahead with a shot to the right hand side and it was 1-0 Storm after one each.
Though it was only the second penalty for United, it had become virtually a must-score proposition for Addisen Mallett if he were to keep his side in with a realistic chance of capturing the title. The strike lacked the necessary conviction though, and Sinzinkayo threw himself to his left to make a great save. The size of the challenge was growing larger by the second for Coffs, and as Dylan Young stepped up for Storm to deposit the ball in the top right corner and make it 2-0 after two attempts each, it now seemed only a miracle would aid the Lions’ prospects.
Sinzinkayo saved Mallett’s effort to make the mountain the Lions needed to climb that much higher.
It’s certainly not Dan Wiseman’s first rodeo, and the composure with which he dispatched the ball into the bottom left corner past Sinzinkayo was testament to this. The Lions were finally on the board, but would still require a collapse of monumental proportions from the subsequent Storm takers if they were to get home. Scott Tarlinton strode to the spot for the Thunder and sent Connor the wrong way with a daisycutter, delicately caressing the ball into the left hand side of the goal with the minimum of fuss.
Knowing a miss would curtail his side’s grand final adventure once and for all, Scott Cawley arrived 12 yards out with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but didn’t show any signs of nerves as he stroked the ball into the right side of the net at mid-height. It was now up to Jacques Ndizeye to seal it for the Thunder and render a Lions comeback mathematically impossible. Never one to shy away from a big occasion, Ndizeye buried the ball emphatically to the left and set off on an acrobatic celebration as his elated Storm teammates gathered around him in pure joy.
Ndizeye ensured the Thunder’s celebrations would live long in the memory of all who witnessed their grand final triumph.
It was a well overdue triumph for the Korora club, for whom grand final victories at and above this level have been few and far between despite coming close on a number of occasions. The collective effort on Saturday afternoon was one of the best seen throughout those many years and the Cove faithful certainly won’t be forgetting the game anytime soon.
With strength in defence and unpredictability in attack, the Thunder have finally found a recipe that looks to have them well positioned to build upon this success in subsequent seasons. Expanding the Premier League squad with a few off season acquisitions may well be key to keeping the winning feeling rolling along, as a few of these players were regularly backing up for the top side and with the ability to focus solely on their reserve grade commitments may be able to reach an even higher level.
To come from a fourth place regular season finish to win the grand final is no mean feat, but the performances Storm produced over the last three weeks of the season saw them peak at just the right time and ultimately they were well deserved Champions for 2017 on the strength of their ability to pick up important results in tight games with everything on the line.
Marc and Dunia showcase an unusually-choreographed post-match celebration in front of the Storm contingent.
For United, the disappointment will be palpable, and to lose in a penalty shootout will sting for some time. But their strength in depth may well be the best of any NCF club and they seem to make one or two key signings before the start of every season, so they will undoubtedly show up an even better side come 2018 and will figure in Premiership and Championship calculations once again.
Player-coach Col Smith did a fantastic job to guide the young Lions around the park all season, and his charges have clearly taken a few invaluable nuggets of his knowledge on board over the course of the year. Defensively sound with only 25 goals conceded over 21 games – Urunga’s 25 goals were conceded over 20, so this makes the Lions the competition’s best in this category – they are a genuinely tough nut to crack, while their 75 goal attack also puts them at the top of the heap up front. For a side so near to being statistically indomitable, smart money would suggest next season may well yield another trophy – perhaps crafted from tungsten to prevent any mishaps – and the rest of the competition would do well to keep an eye on them throughout.
Northern Storm Thunder 2 (Gasore 55’, O’Neill 92’) def. Coffs City United Lions 2 (McDonald 19’, Garang 105’) after penalty shootout 4-2 (Kachel ✓, Young ✓, Tarlinton ✓, Ndizeye ✓; Douglass ✘, Mallett ✘, Wiseman ✓, Cawley ✓)