By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm Thunder vs Maclean Bobcats
Tough first outings for Storm and Maclean saw them each go down by one, but it would have been the Thunder who felt more pressure coming into this one having dropped their opener to an unfancied, albeit highly improved, Grafton United side. The Bobcats fought well against a strong Urunga outfit and wouldn’t have been overly concerned with their start, though two losses in a row would certainly make for an uphill battle, so coach Mavridis was keen for his men in green to open their account and brought them down south well aware of the importance of getting points on the board.
Jade Porter’s men began the afternoon at their picturesque Cove home ground brightly, controlling much of the play without being able to find the breakthrough. Mavridis admitted that the Bobcats were rattled for probably the first 38 minutes of the game, making basic mistakes and taking poor passing options under the heavy pressure of the Storm, until they began to finally settle into a rhythm. An incredible one on one save from Bobcats keeper Alex Moffitt and a fortuitous piece of assistance from the crossbar kept the clean sheet intact for the travellers in a half that Mavridis said could easily have seen them two or three down.
In what is becoming an early but concerning trend for the Korora brains trust, the blue defensive line lapsed briefly but with dire consequences in the 42nd minute, as a Bobcats corner saw centre back Brodon Hirst convert to give the away side the lead. After looking by far the sharper and more determined of the two sides, the Thunder had conceded cheaply to trail 1-0 going into the break and would have been ruing their failure to make the opposition pay for their dominance. Mavridis was suitably pleased with what was essentially the best possible outcome based on the balance of play but urged his players to improve in the second half as they wouldn’t be able to ride their luck for the full 90.
Admirably, the Thunder refused to be discouraged and continued to create chances – early on in the second stanza, it was an unlikely source for defender Jeff Odgers who was ultimately able to deliver the equaliser. Having finally been rewarded for their attacking intent, Storm were on top and kept finding openings, though much like the previous week against Grafton they were unable to make it count enough on the scoreboard to establish a comfortable lead.
With the game still finely poised at 1-1, the Bobcats were improving steadily and finding their way back into the contest. It was the men in green who delivered a telling blow in the 70th minute to go up 2-1 on the counterattack, the dedicated travelling band of supporters no doubt pleased to see a change in fortunes in front of goal from last week’s Wherrett Park clash with the Raiders where they were only able to breach the fabled Urunga defence on a single occasion. Right back Sean Potter was the man responsible, and with the away side having restored their lead, there was an infectious confidence breeding within the playing group that could mark an early but important turning point in their season.
For Storm, the way things were transpiring was eerily reminiscent their outing at Rushforth Park where they coughed up a 2-1 lead to drop the game 3-2 – though on this occasion they were never quite able to produce that second strike – and indeed the third goal for their opposition was forthcoming once again. Another Maclean counter and another clinical finish, this time from young substitute Braidy Power-Casson, made it 3-1 on the afternoon.
That was ultimately the way things would stay and as the referee brought down the curtain on proceedings, Porter would no doubt have been full of headaches as his side had once again failed to cash in on their periods of decent football and were punished dearly for sporadic defensive brain fades. The basic flow of play has not been a major issue for the Thunder, with a very encouraging start seeing them take the game right to Maclean and put a strong Bobcats side on the back foot for the vast majority of the first half. But the one percenters are proving a real problem for the blue warriors, who are consistently having real trouble finding the crucial finishing touch and keeping their composure at the back in the latter stages of games.
Mavridis on the other hand, despite describing the game as ‘nerve-wracking’, had achieved his task of avoiding two straight defeats to start the season and his ‘pick and stick’ approach as far as squad selection was concerned was undoubtedly vindicated. The second half performance was exactly the tonic the Bobcats needed to instill a renewed sense of belief within the ranks, and though the strikers have failed to really fire in front of goal thus far, they have still been creating a lot of opportunities and the diverse sources of goals – two defenders and a substitute – will be pleasing. With no shortage of depth in the senior squad, the Bobcats look to be building a cohort who can genuinely challenge this season and nail down the vacant top four spot – having so cruelly missed out by the barest of margins on the final day in 2017 – now that former nemeses Orara Valley Dingoes have exited the competition.
The green felines have perhaps their toughest task yet ahead of them this weekend as they take on a rampaging Boambee Bombers outfit at Barry Watts Oval in what will surely be another warm afternoon fixture. The last time the sides met was a 1-1 deadlock in round 14 last season at the minefield of Ayrshire Park, so Mavridis’ troops will know the potential is definitely there to come away with a result at home and they will no doubt have the claws sharpened and primed for action. If they start off this weekend the way they finished last weekend, an upset could well be brewing and they will fancy their chances to shake up the status quo. Mavridis says they are relishing the challenge that awaits and all signs coming out of the northern camp are positive ahead of this one.
Porter’s men have an equally difficult assignment in the form of a trip to Forsyth Park under lights to take on Coffs City United Lions, hoping to avoid three losses on the bounce to start things off in 2018 – they will have to improve substantially upon their finishing and the defence will need to be as alert and watertight as ever if they are to elude that fate, as clashes with the Lions are always defined by fine margins and the slightest mistakes are punished dearly. There are enough seasoned campaigners within the ranks to retain a sense of assured calm though, and the old adage about form being temporary and class being permanent may well be ringing true after a few more weeks of the season have seen things level out somewhat for the Korora outfit.
Westlawn Tigers vs Coffs Coast Tigers
Despite both going down in their respective season openers, both Tigers sides – the Junction Hill dwellers and their West Coffs counterparts – turned more than a few heads with their performances. Westlawn’s encounter with Coffs City United Lions saw an exceptionally strong and well drilled defensive unit on display that proved a real nuisance for the Lions to break down, while Coffs Coast played an enterprising and positive brand of football and took the game right to the heavily favoured Boambee Bombers, very nearly doing enough to nab an unlikely draw.
Under lights at Barnier Park, the home side started positively in what quickly proved to be what gaffer James Joyce described as ‘an arm wrestle of midfields’. The Coffs Coast boys were looking to get wide whenever possible, and their most dangerous moments by far were up the flanks through Mark Ifrah and Somchai Tha. Despite creating a number of excellent chances, memories of the Urunga game in this year’s FFA Cup at the Patch flooded back for the orange men as they were wasteful in front of goal. Westlawn’s shape was decent enough through the first stanza, but despite decent performances from the midfielders, their link up play with the attack left a bit to be desired and the two up top were starved of possession and opportunities to make inroads.
Coach Barrera would no doubt have given his lads a grilling in the sheds and emphasised the importance of converting chances, while Joyce noted that his men’s best passages of play – much like the away side – came when the ball was distributed to wider areas. With some fatigue setting in early in the second half for Westlawn, it was Barrera’s outfit who began to assert their dominance and build pressure. Westlawn’s young keeper Charlie Moar was giving an incredible account of himself with a string of reflex saves, and was keeping his side in the game in addition to providing a wealth of material for ‘Squeezo’s nightmares throughout the next few evenings.
The tangerine outfit’s frustrations at their inability to land a lethal blow began to creep in, and during a Westlawn foray into the box with about 20 minutes remaining on the clock, a bit of argy bargy from the brusque Tom Mitchell saw the hometown heroes awarded a penalty. Presented with a golden opportunity from 12 yards to take the lead, up stepped Jordan Newman, but the deadlock wasn’t to be broken on this occasion as youthful Coffs Coast custodian Jeremy Hannaford was equal to the task, diving to his right to stick a mitten out and keep the scores level.
The mercurial and newly hirsute ‘Squeezo’ was lacking his Midas touch from the previous week – while he continued to get himself into good areas, his clinical display from round 1 seemed a distant memory as he showcased a near unprecedented shooting profligacy that left the travelling faithful agonised. With at least five clear cut one on one chances spurned, the SARMs-fuelled young man’s hunger for goals was unable to be sated on the night and rumour has it he spent the vast majority of the trip back down south in a ghrelin-induced rage. Much like his Friday night club escapades, it was primarily an issue of composure under pressure for the enigmatic Squeeze – the build up was all there, but closing the deal was another story entirely.
Fortunately, the same problems weren’t cropping up for his attacking partner in crime, Somchai Tha. After a scrappy piece of play just a few minutes after the spot kick at the other end, with the ball pinging around the Westlawn box and their backs unable to clear their lines, Tha was able to latch on to the rebound from a ‘Squeezo’ effort on goal, about as skewed as his nocturnal foreshores adventures, to deposit the ball, which kissed the woodwork en route to the Westlawn net.
Barrera would have undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief that his boys had finally pulled ahead after having the lion’s (or maybe tigers’) share of chances on goal and being thwarted time and time again. But the job wasn’t done yet, as they still had to weather the final quarter of an hour and try to prevent any late drama playing out. The game began to open right up as both sides pushed forward in a counterattack-heavy pattern of play, Coffs Coast trying to kill the contest and Westlawn desperate to restore parity.
With just under 10 minutes of play remaining, it was a delightful lofted cross from Sam Brien – who has acquired a Pogba-like knack of finding a killer pass for the men from Back Lane – that allowed central defender Anthony Wall to rise high in the box and outjump Hannaford to glance a precise header into the net. The equaliser, coupled with the fact that it was Wall’s first goal in 3 and a half years of Premier League football, sparked passionate celebrations amongst the locals, and with the final minutes of the game seeing both sides ultimately draw blanks, the yellow tide sealed a point from the fixture despite a couple of half-chances falling to the southerners and that was that. 1-1 at full time and the fact that Moar was awarded a second straight man of the match honour is particularly salient here.
Joyce was pleased with the outcome of the game, and it’s easy to see why he would be the happier of the two coaches. The steadfast structure of this Westlawn side is refreshing rather than anachronistic, and its effectiveness has already been proven having frustrated a puissant Lions outfit last week and pestered the West Coffs boys this time around. Repeating the dose against Urunga at the Patch this weekend will be a tall order, and Joyce notes that school holidays have caused some disruptions to squad availability given the wealth of youth within the ranks, but stranger things have certainly happened and season 2018 has already thrown up a few surprises.
Barrera would have been apoplectic at his attackers’ inability to make their waves of pressure tell on the scoreboard and smart money would be on this week’s training sessions at Polwarth Drive consisting primarily of ‘American shootout’ drills and similar striking efficacy-focused exercises. There is definite potential in this Tigers side, and Hannaford has quickly emerged as a vital asset to augment the defensive line while Tha continues to blossom as an attacking threat with two in two, but they’re not quite looking 100% Fresco fresh just yet and the form of part-time oil wrestler ‘Squeezo’ has proven something of a barometer for their successes in front of goal. After a six goal first half performance in their FFA Cup matchup with Grafton United, the goalless second half may perhaps be a closer indication to the status quo after Scott Elphic’s side sensationally took out Northern Storm last week. The orange lads will need to have their wits about them if they are to pick up their first league win in 2018.
Boambee Bombers vs Grafton United
Though both sides kicked off their season with wins last week, the Grafton boys came into this one as jubilant as ever while the Bombers were rather more sombre after last week’s patchy performance left coach Shane Duncan suitably unimpressed and demanding a markedly improved display from his charges this week.
A hot afternoon on an uncharacteristically zippy – by Ayrshire Park standards – surface saw some lightning attacking exchanges early on and although the Bombers were looking strong, Scott Elphic’s gallant and galvanised outfit had upped the ante even from last week’s momentous display against Northern Storm and returned fire with equally positive attacking intent.
It was the home side who struck first blood as Lachie Moye eluded Grafton keeper Matt McMahon with a pearl of a strike. Not long afterwards it was diverse attacking weapon Brady Parker who doubled the advantage and it would have looked for many observers as if the floodgates had opened and the Bombers were well on their way. But much like the point at which they hit 4-1 last week against Coffs Coast Tigers, a smidgen of complacency began to creep into their game and Grafton were able to hit back and halve the deficit.
2-1 at half time and Elphic’s lads were showing a sense of both enterprising brightness and steely resolve that had a side marked as a red hot competition favourite sitting up and taking genuine notice. Duncan would once again have been pushing his men to show some more ruthlessness and really put the game to bed, though their northern foes were not about to roll over any time soon.
When the sides emerged from the sheds, it was more of the same as Boambee continued to go on the attack while Grafton kept returning fire and refusing to yield. Indeed, it appeared fleetingly that an upset of major proportions may be on the cards as the underdogs put another one in the back of the net, though any celebrations were quickly quelled as it was disallowed. Another disallowed goal followed, and it proved the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back as the minds of the now-dispirited United began to wander.
A ball into the box was fed into the chest of Luke France, who was able to bring it down and cleverly cut it back on the turn for a rampaging Christian Penny, artificially elevated levels of taurine courtesy of prodigious energy drink consumption coursing through his veins, who buried an emphatic finish into the bottom left hand corner of the net. Penny wheeled away in delight and set off on a run punctuated by a trademark backflip – rumour has it coach Duncan may have actually seen this one after a prolonged case of ‘backflip blindness’ that afflicted him throughout 2017.
At 3-1 up, the home side were finally taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Parker’s attempt at flicking on a corner with a backwards header was unable to be properly cleared by the Grafton defence, and the ball popped up kindly for a lurking Sam Crampton, more dollar signs rolling through his eyes than hitting a More Chilli feature during a night on the tiles. ‘Crampo’s shot was headed straight down McMahon’s breadbasket before taking a heavy deflection off France’s gluteus maximus, which deviated its course sufficiently to nestle the ball in the bottom right-hand corner. It was good enough for ‘Crampo’ – a man who has suffered through the ignominy of a coach-imposed ‘no shooting policy’ thanks to his infamous training ground profligacy – to claim, as part of a nudie run avoidance strategy, though the jury is very much still out over the rightful scorer of the strike and ‘Crampo’ will be plagued by night sweats throughout the week as the dubious goals panel confer over the tapes and prepare to deliver their verdict.
4-1 the scoreline, though the passionate band of travelling supporters were as vociferous as ever. When Parker missed a sitter, a chorus of heckling rung through the valley, but it was Brady who had the last laugh, responding almost immediately with two strikes in two minutes to completely obliterate the contest and leave the Clarence visitors noticeably less chirpy. The first came after the wired Penny made a typically mazy incursion into the box, the ball teetering on the edge of control as it so often does while at his feet, before a Moye cutback saw Parker belt it bottom right courtesy of a heavy McMahon deflection. The second was a thing of beauty – the ball sitting up perfectly for a peach of a left footed volley into the middle right of the goal that could have torn the net off and could probably be used as stock footage for volleying instructionals such was the picture perfect technique exhibited.
At 6-1 and with little time on the clock, Moye added insult to injury as the luckless McMahon went ever so close to saving his close range drive, the ball just creeping over the line after his initial stop before he clawed it back out and pounced on the scraps. With VAR still yet to be installed at AP1, it was up to the referee to decide if the whole of the ball had crossed the whole of the line, and, perhaps swayed by Moye’s – by his standards – vehement protestations that may have consisted of at least three words in a tone slightly above a murmur, he duly paid the strike for a final scoreline of 7-1.
Though the final flourish in the game’s closing 20 minute period blew the margin out to what would appear a breezy romp for the Boambee boys, much of the game was in fact anything but, and but for a couple of narrowly disallowed Grafton strikes, the game could have been sitting at 3-2 United after nearly 70 minutes. Ultimately the scoreline did go according to script – with a few fortunate deflections and ever so narrow margins involved – but Elphic’s men in purple gave another excellent account of themselves and will prove a tough out for sides less credentialed than the star studded Boambee lineup as the season progresses.
An extremely proud Elphic was beaming at the performance his troops put on, and noted that his squad were equally pleased to have gone up against an absolute competition powerhouse with names like Parker and France in the lineup and made them dig deep and really have to think about the task they faced. His aim to restore pride to Grafton football and elicit a widespread rethink about what United stand for in the local Premier League competition has already been fulfilled, and it’s clear they’re not done changing perceptions and generating buzz yet. A decent performance this weekend against Coffs Coast Tigers would well and truly cement their reputation as a rising contender in the league and an outfit who are definitely not here to make up the numbers.
Despite clocking up a more handsome winning margin than the previous week against Tigers, and sitting atop the table as the only club with two wins from two to start the season, there are clearly still a lot of things to work on for the Bombers before they are really firing on all cylinders. Many have justifiably installed them as competition favourites and on paper their attack is as strong as ever, but there are still a few frailties in defence and four goals conceded in the first two weeks will certainly have Duncan putting the boys through their paces on the training paddock this week. They travel north to take on Maclean this weekend – the Bobcats will be a tough out and given the fact that the Bombers were unable to fully break them open last time they met – a 1-1 home draw in round 14 last season – they will need to improve in order to preserve their 100% record in all competitions in 2018.
Urunga Raiders vs Coffs City United Lions
After a stirring away victory last start while understaffed against a tough Maclean side, Craig Simpson’s Raiders returned home to the Cabbage Patch full of belief and with a few more cattle available, primed for a red hot crack against a Lions side who were still some way off their peak. With a successful pre-season including an FFA Cup run that has yet to be extinguished, the Raiders were undoubtedly looking to prove why the Patch has been such a fortress over the last decade of Premier League football and stamp their authority on the competition during the season’s early stages.
While pre-season was less successful for Glen Williams’ men and last week’s win over Westlawn Tigers saw their best football only shining through in fits and starts, the red and black are never to be taken lightly and would surely have been looking at this fixture as a chance to make a strong statement and send a clarion call out to the rest of the competition that they still very much meant business. They would need to demonstrate a higher level of consistency and ruthlessness than last week if they were to thwart the maroon horde, particularly after last season’s 4-1 reverse in the corresponding fixture, but these are experienced campaigners and they are almost always able to find another level for the big occasions.
The stage was set for a fierce battle between two top contenders and the Morgo Street climes ensured the players were met with equally savage wet bulb readings, an unrelenting 31 degree afternoon at high humidity meaning not only would the two sides’ cohesion and skill levels be given a rigorous examination, but stamina and willpower would prove massive factors as well.
With Williams ringing the changes after round 1, it was a somewhat new look Lions side that took the field, and the gaffer’s decisions looked to be vindicated early as a positive start saw them launching regular assaults on the Urunga backline. Despite finding their way into space on several occasions during the game’s opening exchanges, adroit goalkeeping and some slightly unfortunate bounces meant they failed to trouble the scorers.
Such was the intensity of the weather on the afternoon, the officials called a drinks break after 20 minutes and indeed this proved a demarcation from a gameplay standpoint as well. Momentum began to shift slightly in favour of the home side upon the resumption of play, and after a couple of attacking incursions, an excessive challenge from Dan Wiseman in the box saw a penalty awarded to the Raiders. The Raiders striker made no mistake and much to the jubilation of the home supporters, their boys were up 1-0.
The sleeping Lions were well and truly awoken after the setback though, and the final 10 minutes of the first half saw a reinvigorated away side pushing the ball around well and trying to use width to their advantage. The strategy paid dividends as Brendon Myers was able to find space down the right to feed a delightful cross in to the feet of new Spanish recruit Alik Santiago, who calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net to square the ledger.
The players went into the sheds at half time deadlocked at 1-1, and with the stifling heat showing no signs of relenting any time soon, the break was well earned with both sides displaying symptoms of fatigue. Though the pace dropped slightly in the second period with the players quickly becoming sapped of energy, the intensity of the contest itself never waned as the ascendancy continued to swing back and forth. Despite the game’s many vicissitudes, there were no further changes to the score though, and 1-1 was how things stayed until the final whistle.
A draw was hardly an unexpected result in a fixture that has rarely seen either side able to establish a streak of wins over the other. While Urunga have traditionally been one of the more successful teams in the competition at taking points off Coffs in the regular season, this success has rarely translated in their head-to-head encounters during finals football, and this is undoubtedly a malady that Simpson will be looking to remedy in 2018, with top four finishes already looking virtually inevitable for the two clubs. In that light, this game will prove an invaluable educational experience, being his first such fixture as coach, and it will be intriguing to see how the Raiders adapt their structure the next time they meet the Lions.
For Williams, his view on the result is likely to remain rather ambivalent – while it would have been a slight relief to avoid an early season slip-up, there would certainly have been a burning ambition within the Lions camp to send out a major statement with an authoritative victory to put the rest of the competition on notice. Though they are rightly still considered a major contender for silverware in 2018, the waters have been muddied slightly as far as which of the Lions, Raiders and Bombers is the outright competition favourite.
The encounter with Northern Storm Thunder, who have struggled to convert chances in the opening two rounds and are currently anchored to the foot of the table, that awaits the Lions in round 3 offers them the chance to broadcast such a statement of intent and recapture the aura of invincibility they have possessed more often than not throughout the history of the competition. They will no doubt be looking to assert their dominance in front of their home fans and keep themselves right in the Premiership hunt, ramping up the pressure on the ladder leading Bombers.
The Raiders spend another week at home and take on a dangerous Westlawn, who the Lions at times struggled to break down in round 1 and who caused Coffs Coast Tigers all sorts of headaches last weekend. They too will be keen to avoid any further dropped points as they look to stay in touching distance of the summit of the table during the season’s early stages. Having negotiated two tough fixtures to open the season with relative assuredness despite a few adversities they have faced, a win in round 3 would put the Raiders in a position that they would consider a relative success all things considered. Anything less though, and the mood down south might sour slightly – in any case, the importance of this Sunday’s fixture cannot be underestimated.