By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm Thunder vs Boambee Bombers
The Thunder looked to be well and truly back in the driver’s seat once again after a commanding 7-0 home win over Westlawn last week, but the visiting Bombers would provide an altogether more rigorous examination and Jade Porter’s men would have to call upon every scrap of street smarts and clinical football they could possibly produce if they were to claim a result.
A huge trio of results for the Bombers had seen them clock up a three goal victory over the Lions and then consecutive wins over the Raiders to put themselves in an imperious position atop the ladder with quite some ground to be made up for the challengers. Perhaps most encouragingly for coach Shane Duncan would have been the clean sheet at home last week, something of a coming of age moment for his young backline who appear to have finally clicked.
In a rarely seen scenario for the Thunder, star man Jamie Kennedy could only merit a place on the bench – ultimately unused at that – as John Omtha also dropped back from the starting XI. Sam Brown and Mykel Watson were their replacements. The Bombers made just one change, dropping Christian Penny to the bench and drafting in Travis Lee at the back, shifting Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane up the park to accommodate the switch.
A slight hiccup saw both teams decked out in white socks, but the game ultimately proceeded without any major wardrobe changes. Martin Gadd had the whistle and did an excellent job on the afternoon of keeping the game flowing – he issued just a solitary caution over the course of the 90. The pitch itself was a treat at the Cove, and it was the visitors who profited from the crisp surface, playing a quality passing game and setting up attacking opportunities patiently and cleverly.
By full time, a Brady Parker brace and goals each to James Lowe and Luke France had the Bombers four to the good – the home side unable to muster anything of note in reply. Home coach Porter was full of praise for Duncan’s side, saying that ‘they have set the bar and [Storm] have a full round to try to get to it’.
Finals are very much still in the Thunder’s plans, however, and they will not be targeting anything less than three points this Sunday as they enjoy a third consecutive home game, this time against Coffs Coast Tigers who lie just three points beneath them on the ladder but are going through a form slump of late.
The Bombers keep on keeping on and have now managed two consecutive clean sheets after just one in the first 11 rounds of their campaign. They are clearly the form side in the competition and will look to continue rubber stamping their status as favourites as they return home this weekend to do battle with James Joyce’s plucky northerners Westlawn Tigers.
Westlawn Tigers vs Maclean Bobcats
A less than ideal away trip to Korora saw the Tigers licking their wounds after a 7-0 defeat to Northern Storm, and the fire was very much in the belly for James Joyce’s men who would see the home game against Maclean Bobcats as an opportunity to atone and prove that they could still be competitive with a side jostling for a finals position.
There was an altogether different vibe around the Bobcats camp, after two consecutive strong wins had propelled them into a finals position. They would look to open up more of a gap on their rivals and get the jump in the race for September football, but Dennis Mavridis and his men were understandably wary of the counterattacking threat the Tigers posed and would need to have their wits about them to counteract the Junction Hill side’s propensity to get forward at all costs.
For the home side, Nathan Grayson received a promotion from the bench in favour of the unavailable Harry Vidler, with Jesse Benfield and Balla Traoré being replaced on the bench in an extended squad by Dylan Lucas, Will Pollock, Luke Shipman and Nick Lavender. For the travellers, Josh Arndell and Josh Ackerman were brought into the XI in addition to the welcome return of Frazer Marsh, with Riley Bender – suspended after a red last week – Scott Grey and Jarrod Doyle all out. The bench took on a different complexion to the previous week as Lance Knibbs and Matt Farrell made way for Braidy Power-Casson and Irish import and Premier League newcomer Piaras Mac An Iomaire.
The home side started positively, maintaining possession and staying in the fight in midfield. Maclean’s pace out wide was proving a headache though, in particular for Bailey Tobin at the back who was struggling to match the direct style of football the Bobcats were producing. The men in green were at their devastating best in the opening stanza, ruthless with their attacks and clinical with their finishing. By half time it was 3-0, with Gary Burns, Luke Hanlon and James Austin each making their way onto the scoresheet.
Having created several opportunities of their own without success, the Tigers knew that the scoreline wasn’t necessarily reflective of the way they had played or their position in the game, and Joyce said there was a positive feeling in the dressing room. His message was simple – ‘keep playing the way [they] were when in possession, tighten up a little defensively and if [they were to] maintain [their] patience, [they] would claw back into the game’.
With those thoughts in their heads, they returned from the break with renewed vigour and before long the pressure told – Michael Allen found himself unmarked and made no mistake, heading home a Sam Brien corner. Joyce said that Brien’s assist game was on song – ‘as evidenced by his earlier afternoon shift in the tuckshop, he was serving it up on a platter’ in Joyce’s own words.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they perhaps got a little too high off their own supply so to speak, with a brief moment of complacency allowing Maclean to counterpunch with a goal of their own to restore the three goal advantage and cancel out the Tigers’ work to close the gap slightly. The Bobcats were able to bring the game back into the realm of the midfield arm wrestle that had started things off, but both defensive lines looked up to the task and snuffed out any openings well.
A defensive tweak from the Tigers meant Maclean were pressured into playing a long ball, target man oriented game, but the aerial assault was being well dealt with by the pacy Zac Benfield on the left flank for Westlawn. The Bobcats were then dealt a hammer blow as Burns, who had nabbed a brace and looked their most threatening in attack, was forced off with a hamstring injury. They were forced into a few positional changes and this freed up a bit more space for the Westlawn midfield to play some football and make overlapping runs.
With less than a quarter of an hour on the clock, the momentum had swung to the home side and they were generating waves of pressure without being able to make the all important breakthrough. Right winger Riley Keogh looked a threat every time the ball was at his feet, but his opposite number at left fullback for the Bobcats was doing a stellar job to shut him down up to this point. Keogh finally got the better of his marker though, shaking him off to slide a ball through to the rampaging Tom ‘Helmet’ Westmann. Westmann duly converted under heavy pressure from a scrambling Bobcats defensive unit to reduce the deficit to 4-2.
Still Westlawn refused to panic and let the dollar signs roll through the eyes though, and the patient approach looked to be paying dividends. Only a few minutes later, some effective transition work created space for Keogh on the far right corner of the box, and his first time thunderbolt tore across the face of goal and nestled in the top left corner. There was no saving the strike, and indeed it imbued the whole side with a sense of confidence that they could pull off the most unlikely of comebacks.
With less than five minutes on the clock, a diagonal pass from the right flank found Allen well positioned in front of goal, and Allen slotted the equaliser calmly to square the ledger at 4-4. The men in yellow were pumped by what had been an extraordinary late flurry, and continued to push forward in search of an even more unlikely winner. Maclean steeled themselves defensively, though, and looked to have shut up shop as time expired.
With mere seconds remaining, a loose ball in midfield found Josh Arndell, who struck a looping volley from 35 yards out goalwards. A desperately scuttling Charlie ‘Buckets’ Moar tipped it onto the underside of the crossbar and the onlooking crowd held their breath in unison as the ball bounced back into the field of the play without crossing the line. It was cleared to safety by the home defence and referee Dave Goodwin blew his whistle to bring down the curtain on proceedings.
It was a watershed moment in the campaign of the Junction Hill men, Joyce describing the feeling of finally achieving a result as ‘a sense of redemption’ after ‘playing good football this year without the results to match’. Joyce says they will be looking to further reinforce their brand of football and ‘arrest the goal leakage at the back’. The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the performance will no doubt be a slightly frustrating counterpoint to the general feeling of positivity about the display, and it’s something they will need to eliminate very quickly ahead of a trip to Ayrshire Park on Sunday to take on the Bombers.
The Bobcats will be livid at the way things panned out in the last 15 minutes on Saturday. They were afforded the rare luxury of dropping two points but still moving ahead of all three of their nearest rivals, who each suffered defeats in round 13. It was more a case of good luck than good management for Dennis Mavridis’ men though, who will be very keen to avoid a recurrence of such a collapse any time soon. They travel to Forsyth Park this Saturday evening to take on Coffs United in a match that certainly offers them no opportunity whatsoever to salvage a result while playing so far below their best. Improvement is a must if they are to consolidate their finals position.
Grafton United vs Coffs City United Lions
Last week hadn’t been a happy outing for Grafton United, who slumped to a 4-1 defeat against Maclean in a northern derby of sorts. They hosted Coffs City United Lions in round 13, knowing it would be a tall order but being buoyed by the return of influential skipper Braydon Jones, back on the park after serving a week of suspension due to collecting one too many yellow tickets over the first 11 rounds of football.
The Lions travelled to Rushforth Park buoyed by a crosstown derby win over Coffs Coast Tigers the previous weekend – just the tonic they needed after succumbing 5-2 to the Bombers a week earlier. They were no doubt aiming to avoid the level of spice their last Rushy sojourn dished up, but looked to repeat that game’s positive result where they drove back down the highway with three points in the bag.
For the home side, Nathan Daniels, Joe Macari and Hung ‘Tony’ Phung made way in the starting lineup for Dan Gavin, Braydon Jones and Selwyn King. In a slight formation change with a few tweaks to player roles, the Lions drafted Scott Cawley, Jyelei McKell and Callan Allsop into a new look backline in favour of the unavailable Joel Digney and Addisen Mallett, Alik Santiago also making his way into the XI. Attackers Nick Lambert and Chris Dooley also dropped out. James Hough and Blake Townsend were each named on the bench for the first time, and both saw minutes late on.
With regular coach Glen Williams absent for the fixture, Matt Clerke took the reins and it was an enjoyable evening for the caretaker, whose side ultimately came away with a convincing 4-0 victory courtesy of a Gum Mayak brace and goals each to Lorenzo Rigoni and Nick Mallett. The home side were not beaten through lack of trying, creating several attacking opportunities but lacking the decisive finish. Coach Scott Elphic said he was ‘gloating like a proud dad’ at some of his side’s play in the second half, but rued the fact that they had taken so long to switch on, much like they had in the Bobcats game in round 12.
A positional switch saw Wylie Tynan take the gloves and regular keeper Matt McMahon have a run on the wing. Elphic believes the absence of Jones last week disrupted his side’s momentum and rhythm, but says his boys have since changed a few things up and will be going back to the drawing board with more hard training towards the back end of the season. They have already exceeded the expectations of many and don’t intend on switching off any time soon, with this weekend’s home game against Urunga Raiders offering another opportunity to potentially impress against a top side.
The Lions have strung together consecutive wins once again and will look to keep the streak alive against an always tough Maclean Bobcats side this Saturday evening at Forsyth Park. They remain just three points behind the ladder leading Bombers but have played one game extra, and though that gap will be very difficult to close – even with eight rounds still remaining – stranger things have happened and the Lions are a side who never truly switch off.
Urunga Raiders vs Coffs Coast Tigers
A tricky diptych against the Bombers saw the Raiders come out on the wrong end of both fixtures, with the nine point gap to the top now looking close to insurmountable. Craig Simpson and his men were in desperate need of three points as they returned to the Patch, and most certainly would not have been keen on letting their Premiership chances fade away so early in the campaign.
Tigers came into this one off the back of three straight defeats and were in danger of their semi-final ambitions being consigned to a mere pipe dream. Sitting second from bottom and with a six point and 13 goal gap to make up to fourth placed Maclean, who also had a game in hand, things were getting to the point of desperation for the men from West Coffs.
The Raiders replaced Pablo Kastner, Cale Simmonds and Joe Soergel with Josh McGovern, Jordan Tree and Jack Martin. On the bench were Allen Snow, Thomas Rixon and notorious local EDM producer Aaron Wolfe in place of the promoted Soergel and Tree and the unavailable James Power. The Tigers named an unchanged XI from their defeat against the Lions the previous week, and with coach Felipe Barrera still gallivanting around in Russia – reports of excessive Stolichnaya consumption have yet to be confirmed – Curt Dixon had another week in the dugout.
A hard fought battle played out at Morgo Street, with three yellow cards being issued to each side, a keeper swap, a substitute being substituted himself, and four goals from four different sources. Three of those were tallied by the home side, who took the chocolates 3-1 courtesy of Henry Gale and youngsters Aaron Searle and Jack Martin, while only Innocent David was able to conjure some magic in front of goal for the Tigers.
The Raiders will no doubt be delighted to recapture some momentum and get themselves back into the winners’ circle, and they were successful in both preventing the gap to the top two from blowing out even further to an essentially unmanageable margin, and staving off the progress of fourth placed Maclean who they opened up a further two point gap on to sit nine points in front of. They travel to Rushforth Park this weekend to take on Grafton United, who they had some degree of difficulty with last time the sides met at the Patch, labouring to a 2-0 victory without a great deal of flair or panache.
Tigers have now reached a point where they can just about kiss their realistic finals prospects goodbye, and they will head into this weekend’s fixture against Northern Storm at the Cove as slight underdogs. They sit just three points behind their Korora based opponents but their goal difference is inferior by a margin of 15. The return of Barrera to the touchline will no doubt be a boost but unless they can conjure something very impressive in the last eight rounds, it would appear to be a case of too little too late in order to feature in September.