By Tim Klingbiel
THE battle for fourth position between the Northern Storm and Maclean continues while Boambee won the Leo Baumgartner Cup with a big win over the Raiders who were playing their third match in eight days.
WESTLAWN TIGERS 1
URUNGA RAIDERS 2
Buoyed by a colossal 10-1 win over Clarence rivals Grafton United in round 17, James Joyce’s Tigers hosted Urunga Raiders in a midweek catchup of a round 10 fixture that was initially postponed due to weather so inclement that the pitch was waterlogged beyond playable standards. No such precipitation issues this time around, however, as a bone dry surface provided a platform for some bouncy and fast paced football.
The Raiders were on a three game winless streak, a rather foreign phenomenon for the proud Kalang club, and knew they would need to be extremely wary of the threat their northern opponents posed, having gone down 3-2 at home to them just nine days earlier. On this occasion, however, coach Craig Simpson had a stronger squad to call on, and it appeared on paper that this may well make enough of a difference to swing a close result back in the favour of the men in maroon.
The home side promoted three players from last week’s bench – both Benfield brothers, Jesse and Zac, as well as Jordan Newman – into the starting lineup, with talisman Joyce and his regular partner in the heart of defence, Anthony Wall, both missing, while Luke Shipman was dropped back to the bench as the Junction Hill side rewarded Newman for his two goal effort coming off the bench last round. Balla Traoré and Luke Scott were included on a four man bench in place of Dylan Lucas.
The Raiders named a similar squad to last week, with the only changes to the starting lineup being the replacements of absent duo Tim Rupprecht and Pablo Kastner with Simpson and James Power. A lean two man bench meant only Aaron Wolfe was brought in for Emar Foran, so the Raiders would need to make do with 13 and hope for minimal injuries or fatigue issues on the night.
A chilly evening under lights saw a thrilling contest play out, as both sides traded blows in an often tempestuous affair. Urunga were reliant on their experience and this ultimately proved the primary factor that allowed them to prevail. With Josh McGovern and Jai Wadick each getting their names on the scoresheet, it was enough to squeak home ahead of a Tigers side who could only conjure a solitary strike courtesy of regular goal source Mick Allen.
Newman was the only player from the home side to enter referee Reynolds’ book on the evening, while Jack Martin, Henry Gale and substitute Joel Teece all drew the ire of the man in the middle. Wolfe was also introduced to proceedings late on, while Westlawn caretaker coach Greg Allen opted to keep all four of his bench players in the holster and stick with a proven XI. Indeed, they were only a kitten’s whisker away from collecting at least a point.
Tigers have given an excellent account of themselves in recent weeks and are finishing their season with aplomb. They would need to aim up yet again if they were to stave off a visiting Northern Storm side just four days later, but there was nothing to suggest that such a job was beyond the men in yellow, who have proven many doubters wrong of late and forced a swathe of neutrals to finally sit up and take notice of their potential, which had flattered to deceive for some time.
While the Raiders have now mathematically secured third spot on the ladder, they appear some way behind the top two contenders in the form of Boambee Bombers and Coffs City United Lions, and will have quite a bit of ground to make up on those sides in just a couple more short weeks before finals. Their fixture against the Bombers later in the week would offer them a chance to showcase their credentials against the side who have been the competition benchmark in 2018, but it will no doubt prove tough to balance their aspirations with those of their reserve grade side in these last few rounds of the campaign.
WESTLAWN TIGERS 0
NORTHERN STORM 2
Tigers had proven themselves a genuine force in the competition over the past month of football, and all the signs were now there that this was an improving side who would provide a challenging proposition for anyone in 2019. Their decent displays of football now seemed to be translating to the scoreboard, and their playing style is a testament to coach James Joyce’s commitment to developing a unified philosophy within his squad.
On this occasion, their examination would be issued by the equally in form Northern Storm Thunder. Jade Porter’s men have been quietly going about their business, amassing a five game undefeated streak – including draws against two of the competition’s top three in Coffs City United Lions and Urunga Raiders – while flying largely under the radar, and they now appeared very much in the box seat for finals football. But with three weeks of the regular season remaining and just a three point buffer over the Bobcats, anything could still happen and victory in each and every remaining fixture remained imperative.
The home side made just one change to their XI as captain-coach Joyce returned to the fold in place of Harry Vidler at the back. Dylan Lucas and Will Pollock were recruited to the bench in favour of Luke Shipman, Nick Lavender and Luke Scott, none of whom saw on field action during the midweek home fixture against Urunga.
Storm welcomed Jeffrey Odgers back into the defensive line, with Michael Turner dropping back to the bench. Mykel Watson was also recalled to the starting lineup in favour of Jordan Wildman, who was not included in the matchday squad. Beajay Wendt was unavailable, so Lachlan Stretton was named for the first time on a Premier League matchday card in 2018 in a 16 man squad.
Porter said from the outset he was expecting a tough game and that was exactly what his men got from the Back Lane lads, who produced a resolute display in the first half to hold the visitors scoreless. The Thunder had a lot to play for and Porter believes this may have gotten into their heads slightly, as he observed that ‘the boys lost some composure in wanting to find the back of the net’.
Nonetheless, the white and blue kept plugging away and eventually were able to hold their nerve in the second half. Attacking weapon Jamie Kennedy and the livewire Otis Barney, injected into the action from the bench to replace Marty Skinner, each grabbed a goal to give the men from Korora a two goal buffer, while the defence held strong to preserve a clean sheet on the evening.
The hosts hardly helped their cause in a tight match as Jesse Benfield received a straight red card for scything down a Storm attacker and under the FIFA laws of the game ‘denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity’. Referee Jason Hillier had no hesitation in marching Benfield and an already difficult task was made essentially insurmountable by the reduction in personnel.
Still, the Westlawn coaching staff opted not to utilise the bench, and just as had played out in the midweek clash with the Raiders, none of the substitutes saw action on the park. For the Thunder, Stretton was given an opportunity to get some minutes under his belt as he replaced Odgers with the clock winding down.
The result keeps the Thunder in pole position for a finals appearance, but they have a gruelling assignment ahead of them this weekend in the form of 2018 Premiers Boambee Bombers. The one particular source of confidence, aside from their obvious recent form, for the men from the Cove will be the fact that they are the only side to take competition points from the Bombers this season. A 4-0 reverse at the Cove back in round 14 suggests it may not all be smooth sailing, but they will recall Ayrshire Park as a happy hunting ground after springing a surprise in round 6 that was ever so close to an even more eyebrow raising three point scalp after they were reduced to ten men following Grant Scully’s dismissal. In any case, it shapes as a blockbuster on Sunday afternoon.
Tigers face another side hungry for finals football in the form of Maclean Bobcats, who know that nothing less than a win will be good enough to maximise their chances of a September appearance. The Westlawn men have previous in upsetting the Bobcats’ apple cart though, with a quite incredible three goal comeback late on to claim a 4-4 draw at Barnier Park back in round 13. Joyce and his charges know exactly what it takes to get through the green horde, and while the Junction Hill denizens will travel up the road knowing they are playing for pride only, they would love nothing more than to be a spanner in the works for their northern rivals and further underscore their own credentials.
COFFS COAST TIGERS 0
COFFS CITY UNITED LIONS 6
West Coffs’ finest saw their finals ambitions finally flicker out once and for all last weekend as they succumbed to a narrow and heartbreaking 2-1 defeat to the Bobcats off the back of a penalty conceded in the dying minutes. It was a fate that essentially summed up the Tigers campaign – periods of great football punished by fleeting and extremely costly brain fades. Such mental lapses could not be afforded against a side as ruthless and clinical as crosstown rivals Coffs City United Lions, and coach Felipe Barrera knew his men would have to be on their game from the first minute to the last if they were to produce a result from this fixture.
Having been through the chastening experience of handing the Premiership to the Bombers at Ayrshire Park last week following a defeat, Glen Williams’ men were more steeled than ever heading into the local derby. This is a club who have always responded to adversity with the utmost determination and one who can muster victories from sheer force of will, but this set of players are also capable of delivering a fluid and effective brand of football to blow opposition sides off the park. Having both of those approaches in your locker is a devastating combination, and the Lions looked primed to deliver on what Williams described as ‘probably the best pitch in Coffs Harbour’.
For the home side, Barrera opted to cut short the Jake Mahoney striking experiment and reinstall the big man to the starting goalkeeper role in place of Luke Kliendienst after the latter’s late mishap last weekend to concede a penalty and gift the Bobcats a late win. Samson Bawiri and Trent Lakeman were both dropped, with Andrew Fisher receiving a promotion into the starting lineup after a first Premier League appearance off the bench last week and Matt Guyatt being recalled after a stint in reserve grade. Jye-Grant Buck was brought into the XI, while Ethan Sechi made a welcome return from injury to the matchday squad, albeit in a substitute role.
The Lions dropped Scott Cawley from the backline in favour of Addisen Mallett, while Caleb Lokpo’s wired display late on against the Bombers last week saw him rewarded with a start ahead of Alik Santiago. Thangkin Shetta was replaced on the bench by James Hough, the only actual personnel change to Glen Williams’ 16 man squad in something of a ‘pick and stick’ approach – a welcome throwback in a world of knee jerk reactionary reshuffles in the wake of defeat.
The first half of football was an entertaining end to end battle, both sides struggling to string together periods of possession of any great consequence. Tellingly, Williams stated in his post-match comments that his men ‘were finding it difficult to find the ascendancy’, while Barrera said of his side that they ‘struggled to get a foot in the game from the start’. That both coaches made such observations is testament to the disrupted rhythm of the stanza in general.
The solitary piece of play that separated the two teams at the interval came when Mahoney was caught unsighted and Nick Mallett struck well to elude the Tigers custodian. With the away side taking a narrow 1-0 lead into the sheds, Williams ripped into them and called a spade a shovel to leave little to the imagination.
On the balance of the spirit shown by the Lions early in the second half, the pep talk did the trick quite effectively, with their play taking on an altogether different complexion. They began to look like the Lions local observers have come to know, as a relentless display saw Gum Mayak rifle home an excellent hat trick and Lokpo contribute a brace. The goals included some great finishes and the men in red and black really turned it on for the spectators in attendance.
Ultimately the intensity level on display was far too much for Tigers to handle, and they simply could not find a way into the contest. Curiously, Lakeman was brought on to replace Somchai Tha, a defensive reinforcement that appeared to be an attempt at damage control despite there being little for the men in orange and black to lose as far as pushing men forward in search of a goal was concerned.
Guyatt and Buck picked up yellow cards, as did United substitute Alik Santiago, and referee Dave Connor had to be on his game in what at times threatened to turn into a scrappy and spiteful affair. Cawley and Hough were also introduced late on for the Lions, who gave regular campaigners Scott Goddard, Nick Mallett and Lorenzo Rigoni well earned rests ahead of what will no doubt be a tough finals schedule in the weeks to come.
The result means little in the context of either side’s campaigns, with Tigers having already dropped out of finals contention and any other position but second being a mathematical impossibility for the Lions, but the magnitude of the victory will be a positive boost within the Forsyth Park camp and they will look to deal out some harsh punishment this weekend as they face a Grafton United side going through a great deal of adversity of late owing to widespread player unavailability. That fixture may represent an opportunity to rest some of the Lions’ stars and give some young blood an opportunity to gain Premier League experience.
Barrera was cerebral in defeat, stating that the season has ‘been a steep learning curve, but [his] philosophy is that each failure is another lesson learned’. He and his men are viewing the final two fixtures of their season, against an already finals-qualified side in Urunga Raiders this weekend, and a strong finals contender in Northern Storm Thunder the following week – both at home – as opportunities to ‘regain some overall morale’, and despite there being little to play for as far as ladder positions are to concerned, both games still hold importance for this club.
URUNGA RAIDERS 0
BOAMBEE BOMBERS 8
The Raiders ended their three game winless streak in their midweek round 10 catchup against Westlawn, as they prevailed 2-0 at Barnier Park on a chilly evening where little separated the two sides. They had found themselves more often than not dragged into dogfights this season rather than burying teams with the ruthless efficiency they had become known for in prior seasons, and had rarely looked an overwhelmingly dominant force against any side throughout their campaign. That trait may have been ringing alarm bells ahead of an encounter with the Premiers, who had rarely shown chinks in their armour to date.
Newly minted Premiers Boambee Bombers – having claimed the title last weekend with a win over Coffs City United Lions at Ayrshire Park that pushed their lead out to eleven points with just three games remaining and rendered a Coffs comeback a mathematical impossibility – can deservedly be deemed the best side in the competition so far, but they still had more assignments to complete. Coach Shane Duncan has been quoted on innumerable occasions as ‘liking to win’, and it was quite obvious to all and sundry that he had no designs whatsoever on his side relinquishing their unbeaten record at the season’s business end.
With a host of regular starters out – snowy sojourns, City2Surf athletic endeavours, and in the case of Henry Gale, suspension due to racking up one too many cautions over the course of the campaign – the Raiders were forced into making a number of lineup changes. Aaron Wolfe and Joel Teece were promoted from the bench as Thomas Rixon moved in the other direction. With Jai Wadick, Jake Leslie, Jack Martin and James Power all missing, the Raiders were significantly depleted of ‘J’s and only Joe Soergel helped in replacing that quota, with Aaron Searle, Tim Rupprecht and Scott Livingstone the other replacements. Paul Pomroy, Emar Foran, Dominic Kelly-Ramirez and backup keeper Matt Smith were all drafted in to fill out the 16 man squad. Simpson knew his reserve grade side needed a win – which they secured in a crucial 1-0 result that keeps them just a point outside of finals with two games remaining and knocks the Bombers off the top of the ladder – and said that he wanted to leave their squad untouched in order to facilitate this.
Duncan made a couple of leftfield selections of his own, though for different reasons – regular starters Jake Stitt and Sam Crampton were replaced by backup keeper Darcy Newell – who would undoubtedly start in any other Premier League side, such is his quality – and Nick O’Mullane, while Luke France returned to the starting lineup after a minor injury sidelined him last weekend, meaning Jamie Newling made way.
With the Leo Baumgartner Cup – a single game trophy contested by the top two local sides in terms of FFA Cup finishes – on the line, a relatively early strike had the Bombers starting off on exactly the right foot. While most of the first half was contested quite evenly between the two combatants, a late flurry saw the Bombers double, triple, then quadruple their advantage and by half time the score was 4-0, with a Brady Parker double, a strike from France and a rather impressive ‘Wolfey’ own goal contributing to the damage.
Despite already sitting on a handsome lead, the Bombers refused to slack off. Lachie Moye wanted a piece of the action and snared himself a brace, while Parker completed his hat trick and substitute Darby Sherrin completed the rout late on for an 8-0 final result. To the Raiders’ credit, they refused to be flustered, with referee Bruce Mackie having to resort to his pocket book on just one occasion for a challenge from substitute Paul Pomroy. The Bombers kept their noses clean throughout the 90.
The men from Ayrshire Park had celebrated their Premiership in fine style, putting a Urunga side to the sword who would probably still defeat the majority of other clubs in the competition – even after factoring in the starters they were missing on the afternoon. Duncan’s men are looking more ominous than ever just at the right time, but they know all too well that finals are a completely different beast, and there will be no room for any slip ups come September. It would be a great shame for the club, who have enjoyed what surely must be considered the most successful campaign in their history to this point, to let the Championship slip through their fingers, and there is absolutely no doubt that they will retain the utmost motivation each and every week until they finally get the ultimate job done.
This weekend sees them return home to Ayrshire Park to face a Northern Storm Thunder side who are themselves in fine fettle, and Jade Porter’s men are certainly not to be taken lightly. They are the only side to have taken competition points from the Bombers in 2018, and with all results well and truly within the realms of possibility, the men from Boambee ought not to treat the challenge that lies ahead of them with less respect than it deserves.
The Raiders did it tough all afternoon, Simpson observing that the ‘young boys did what they could and [they] just gave [the Bombers] very easy goals’. Inexperience was a key factor, as tricks and flicks in the final third too often came when a more composed approach would have served them far better. Despite the breakdown in overall structure though, the final score was still a harsh reflection on the efforts of the youthful Raiders, who never stopped trying and displayed admirable application in the face of adversity.
They will welcome back a number of experienced campaigners this weekend as they take on Coffs Coast Tigers at Polwarth Drive. Worryingly for those out of the Morgo Street camp, though, the men in maroon have looked like a side running on fumes in recent weeks – even with their veteran stagers amongst the ranks – and will have to turn things around quickly to avoid slipping into obscurity come finals.
Lying 20 points back from the Premiers is not an experience this club are used to, nor is a tally of 34 goals conceded for the season, a goal difference of just +4 after 19 games, or a total of four defeats at their usually impenetrable home ground of the Patch – with 21 in eight conceded there and 14 in their last three. All of these statistics will mean nothing come September, though, and they will look to regather some momentum ahead of the semis, where they can rather refreshingly start with a clean slate and aim to recapture their intimidating reputation and puissant standing in the competition.