By Tim Klingbiel
A gritty 2-1 win on Saturday night after a 1-0 slip up by their nearest challengers earlier in the afternoon saw Coffs City United Lions claim the 2017 premiership with a round remaining, their 8 point lead now unassailable with only two games remaining for the Raiders. But though the Lions are guaranteed 1st and the Raiders are guaranteed 2nd, the outcome of the fight below them is still far from resolved.
Going into the traditional final week of all games being played simultaneously at 2pm on Sunday, there are still 4 teams mathematically in the hunt for 3rd and 4th spots, with potential permutations as follows:
Boambee will finish 3rd if they beat Westlawn on Tuesday and then again on Sunday (35 points maximum). With a vastly superior goal difference to both Maclean and Orara, a win and a draw (33 points) or possibly even a win and a loss (32 points) should be good for 4th at the very least or even 3rd in the event of an Orara-Maclean draw (in which case even two draws (31 points) will do the trick for 4th).
Maclean will finish 3rd if they beat Orara on Sunday and Boambee drop points in either game against Westlawn (34 points maximum). A draw (32 points) will be enough for 4th at worst as Orara would finish on 31 points and Sawtell would not be able to catch their points tally. A loss (31 points) will only get them into 4th if Sawtell fail to beat Coffs United and Boambee pick up a point or less in their 2 games against Westlawn.
Orara will finish 3rd if they beat Maclean on Sunday and Boambee drop points in both games against Westlawn (33 points maximum), or 4th with a win against Maclean and either full points or a win and a draw for the Bombers. A draw (31 points) will only be good enough for 4th in the highly unlikely event that the Bombers pick up less than 2 points from their 2 games against Westlawn, and they would need Sawtell not to beat Coffs. A loss (30 points) will only get them in if Sawtell pick up a draw or less against Coffs and the Bombers lose both their Westlawn games.
Sawtell can only qualify for finals (in 4th spot) if they beat Coffs United on Sunday and Maclean and Orara draw when they face one another, and Boambee pick up either a point or less from their two fixtures against Westlawn or two points while beating Coffs by 11 goals (31 points maximum). It’s much easier to simplify the equation to a Boambee win on Tuesday night against Westlawn knocking the Scorpions out of the race before a ball is kicked on Sunday.
Coffs City United Lions
With the Lions climbing back up off the canvas after a 4-1 defeat at the Cabbage Patch last week and a solid but not entirely breathtaking 3-0 win over Westlawn in the midweek catch up game, along with their inland opponents’ strong form off the back of wins over Storm and Sawtell, the scene was set for a tight battle at McLean Street and so it played out.
The official opening of the new lights at Forsyth Park heralded an intense night of football as the Lions looked to secure the Premiership, while for the Dingoes, a win would all but guarantee a coveted finals slot would be theirs. Coffs coach Glen Williams likened the frenetic pace of the game to a grand final, the hunger of both teams showing as the tussle started quickly and only ramped up from there. The always dangerous Gum Mayak punished a small defensive error from Orara to open the scoring, and the home side took a narrow 1-0 lead into oranges.
The threat that the Lions pose from set pieces was on display once again as a free kick early in the second half was delivered into the near post and flicked in by canny striker Nick Lambert to double the advantage. A burst down the right flank midway through the second half saw the Dingoes whip in a dangerous cross which was not dealt with adequately by the Lions defence, Orara ultimately making no mistake to reduce the deficit to 2-1, but that would be the way things stayed.
With the evening’s other results filtering through, the home faithful became aware that this result had clinched the Premiership for the Lions and the celebrations at the Coffs no doubt continued long into the early hours of Sunday. Williams praised the commitment of his side and was relieved that the red and black were able to reverse something of a mini form slump – by the club’s lofty standards at least – in recent weeks.
The Lions have a knack of coming through in crunch situations and though the magnitude of last Sunday’s result at the Patch surprised many, the Premiership is contested over 18 rounds and rewards the most consistent team throughout that period, and no one can argue that the Lions fit that billing. With a few experienced campaigners sticking around to bring stability and composure amidst a plethora of talented and athletically gifted youth, the Lions look to have all the ingredients in place to continue their dominance of the competition into future seasons.
Finals football is a different beast however, and should the Lions and Raiders meet again under the bright lights of the C.ex International Stadium, it will be incredibly difficult to determine a clear favourite and the match up will carry much intrigue. The closeness of the competition in 2017 suggests such a pairing is definitely not set in stone, and the chasing pack will have designs on upsetting the apple cart and etching their own names into the history books.
The Raiders will be gutted at how the business end of their season has played out. While Fabrice Wamara’s brace and goals to Tim Rupprecht and Lachlan Indian-Manning sent waves of delight across the Kalang and seemed to promise so much, that result alone has proven insufficient to overhaul their roaring rivals. With 2 wins in their last 5 games, the maroon men will rue the late Scott Tarlinton equaliser that saw Storm snatch a point from the Patch, the spurned opportunities at Toormina Oval where their short-staffed side were edged 2-1, and now the 1-0 reverse in a tough trip to Wherrett Park, the in-form Bobcats driving home the final nail in the coffin of the Raiders’ premiership aspirations.
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Paul Pomroy’s men as they have secured 2nd position on the table with a tally of 38 points and this will give them a home game come finals time. Morgo Street is a tough destination for anyone trying to chase a result and the draw against Storm is the only time any side has taken a point there this season. With the Thunder out of the running for finals, it will be up to someone else to try to devise an antidote for the Raiders’ high tempo passing game and imperious defence – a clean sheet this weekend against Grafton United would see them go into finals having conceded only 2 goals in the last 450 minutes of football at the Patch. They will see this week’s back to back encounters with Grafton as an opportunity to regain the winning feeling and engender a positive feeling within the squad ahead of some tricky encounters to come.
The incredible form of Dennis Mavridis’ men continued with their biggest result of the season so far, a 1-0 home win over Urunga on Saturday afternoon. Only the Bombers have been able to take points from the Bobcats over the last 6 games, though with their last 4 wins coming against clubs in the competition’s bottom three, the green, white and blue still needed a signature win against one of the major contenders to really underscore their title credentials, so this was just the tonic they would have been after.
Now no one can deny that they are a legitimate threat in 2017, and the Lions and Raiders would do well to be looking over their shoulder at a side who will be a tough out for anyone come finals should they get through a tricky trip to face Orara this weekend. Even a draw will do the trick but the Bobcats will definitely have full points on their mind. It’s a tasty prospect for the neutral and may well be the pick of the weekend’s games, as it’s not every day you get to witness an all or nothing regular season encounter where the winner books a bus ticket for finals and the loser packs their bags.
Orara Valley Dingoes
Across the paddock from the Bobcats on Sunday will be the Dingoes, who need full points to be sure of a finals spot and will fancy their chances to break their northern rivals’ streak at Fortress Dairyville. Their only home losses this year have come against Coffs, Urunga and Boambee (who will more than likely make up the division’s top 3 after this weekend), with full points against every other club who has visited the venue. After a 5-4 thriller in boggy conditions to come home with a valuable win last time they met near the banks of the Clarence, doing the double over Maclean has never been as crucial as now for the men in yellow, and they will be desperate to reap the rewards of what has been a great season in the form of a first finals appearance in many years in the top grade.
Hard work on and off the paddock has been key to the Dingoes elevating themselves from 7th place finishes in 2015 and 2016 to genuine finals contention this season, and the fact that their finals destiny is still in their own hands this weekend is testament to the level of football they have delivered in 2017. The weekend’s narrow defeat to the Premiers should imbue Joel Finlayson’s side with the belief that they can take it to the top teams and their pace, physicality and relentless determination to chase every ball down until the final whistle will present an interesting set of challenges for the sides at the summit.
The Bombers are hitting their straps just at the right time and looked primed to make a very strong finals charge. After leaking 5 last week in a game where it seemed like just about every Storm incursion into the Bombers’ half forced the scoreboard operator at the southern end into action, Shane Duncan stressed the importance of shoring up the defence and the support of the four screeners in the 3-4-3 they employed against Tigers definitely paid dividends in a dominant performance where they restricted the away side to very few shots while creating enough chances to double the final 5-0 scoreline. Brady Parker and Lachlan Moye registered braces while Blake Herdegen chipped in with one of his own, and on another day Parker and Christian Penny might have had 5 each.
The imperious form Boambee have displayed in recent weeks will please Duncan, who returns to the dugout this weekend after a brief sojourn to the Hunter, his side looking to finish the season strongly with a catch up game on Tuesday night at Leisure against Westlawn, who they face again on Sunday up at Barnier Park. They will expect to take maximum points from these two games and should they manage this, they will secure 3rd position and book a tasty tie with the Raiders where they will try to turn the tide of two regular season defeats.
With the Scorpions all but out of the running for finals despite local pundits earlier in the season tipping them to be challenging for higher honours as they occupied a much loftier table position, the Toormina club will rue 3-2 losses to the Dingoes and Tigers in the last month as even a point in each of those games would have them right in the picture. It’s still a marked improvement on last season’s finish, and there is a lot to be proud of for the boys in green. Starting the season with 6 wins in 8 was an excellent run of form for the Scorpions, and the 2-1 win over Urunga was a late season highlight. A win this weekend against the Lions would be another massive result for Rod Purkiss’ charges but with their finals fate depending on a string of unlikely outcomes in other games, it’s likely to be a consolation win only.
The weekend’s 2-0 defeat to Northern Storm was a similar story of what might have been, a missed penalty and a few spurned chances costing them dearly when a win would have kept their destiny in their own hands heading into the final week. But the Scorpions attack will be gaining valuable experience in these games and it will be a long term project for them to develop new systems and combinations to increase their scoring output without their main prior source of goals in Luke France. Sawtell have always been a strong club and never stay down for long, so one would definitely expect them to be right back in finals contention next season.
Northern Storm Thunder
Having been unfortunate to be on the wrong end of close results against the top teams all season, the boys from Korora will be delighted to be back in the win column with Saturday afternoon’s 2-0 win to essentially extinguish Sawtell’s march towards finals football. Scott Donaldson would have had high expectations of his troops heading into the season and for him the victory will be cold comfort in a season of ‘nearlys’ and ‘not quites’, but the previous weeks’ results of a 1-1 away draw with the Raiders, a 1-0 loss to the Dingoes and a 6-5 thriller where they went down to the Bombers (with a 9-0 over Grafton sandwiched between) show just how close the Thunder have been to the sides in the upper reaches of the ladder.
Jamie Kennedy has shown throughout the season that he is still well and truly in the conversation as one of the league’s deadliest strikers and has looked comfortable as the Thunder’s focal point since his breakout 31 goal season in 2015 where he took home the golden boo. But on the evidence of Storm’s 45 goal attack this season (the lowest outside of the two Grafton clubs), they will need the supporting cast to put a few more in the net before they can get themselves back into the picture for silverware. They will look to back up with a win over Coffs Coast Tigers this weekend in what should be a tight tussle between teams only 1 point apart on the table.
Coffs Coast Tigers
Ayrshire Park wasn’t a happy hunting ground for Jason Snell’s men on Sunday afternoon as the home side inflicted a heavy defeat on them and the Storm’s 2-0 win over Sawtell saw Tigers drop to 8th position on the ladder. After featuring Tom Mitchell, Trent Lakeman, Innocent David, Luke Kliendienst and Zack Smith in a strong reserve grade side directly beforehand, it was always going to be a tough task to deal with the fresh, rampant Bombers over 90 minutes under the hot midday rays, but midfielder Jake Vidler ran all day and attacker Jye Buck showed flashes of his potential.
With a clean slate in 2018, Tigers will be hoping to recapture the magic that brought them within a whisker of a grand final appearance last season as they looked like the side most likely to prise open the stranglehold Urunga and Coffs have had on the division for some time now, with Snell taking home the Coach of the Year gong. Downing Urunga on penalties at the Patch in a pre-season FFA Cup fixture seemed to signal a repeat dose of that impressive finish but Tigers had to negotiate more obstacles both on and off-field than perhaps any other club this season, and one would have to think that a smoother road next time around will bring greater success once again.
Taking bragging rights in the Grafton derby for the second time this season, James Joyce’s outfit have improved steadily over the course of the year and have gone scoreless only twice in their past 10 games, both against Premiers Coffs United. Saturday night’s all-Clarence fixture at Barnier Park also saw their first clean sheet of the season, and with an ever strengthening reserve grade side to call on for reinforcements, the Junction Hill boys will be looking to throw a spanner in the works of Boambee’s finals charge in back to back encounters this week, firstly at the Leisure Park on Tuesday night and then up at Back Lane on Sunday afternoon.
Grafton United FC
The tireless Grafton United will be disappointed to have gone down to Westlawn on Saturday night to finish the season in all likelihood without a point (barring a miracle in either of their two remaining games against Urunga this week), but the main takeaway from that game will be the best defensive performance of the season. Scott Elphick has come over from Maclean to guide the boys but with the vast majority of players putting in 180 minutes of competitive football every weekend as they play full games of reserve grade and Premier League back to back, it’s a tough ask to remain in the fight coming into the back end of top grade games against fresh XIs. They will undoubtedly be looking to reinforce their playing stocks for next season to ease the mammoth load being shouldered by every member of the competition’s smallest squad.