By Tim Klingbiel
Maclean Bobcats vs Boambee Bombers
The Bobcats had put the Urunga loss behind them last week with an opportunistic win over the luckless Northern Storm, but Dennis Mavridis’ side still hadn’t quite hit their peak. At home against the rampaging Bombers, the men in green and blue weren’t going to find sources of motivation difficult to come by for this fixture, and after two encounters in 2017 where only razor thin margins separated the two sides, they would have quietly fancied their chances of picking up a result.
With reigning NCF Goalkeeper of the Year Jake Stitt still out injured, as well as attacking lynchpin Brady Parker and central midfielder Jamie Newling absent, and synthetic growth hormone-filled elite athlete Jack Mitchell hamstrung and warming the bench, the travelling Bombers were very much up against it and their newfound squad depth was proving an invaluable asset. Coach Shane Duncan would need to tweak his approach slightly to accommodate the personnel changes but with a wealth of Premier League coaching experience behind him including two grand final appearances, his acumen at this level is without question.
The away side started positively and dominated possession, and the first 30 minutes of football essentially consisted of the Bobcats sitting back and absorbing waves of pressure, their hands full with slippery customers Luke France and Christian Penny making their presence known for the Bombers. All those attacks failed to yield the crucial opener though, and the men in white and maroon began to fatigue in the warm April sun. It was Frazer Marsh who provided the telling blow on the counter, as one of the first genuine attacking forays from the home side was made to count.
Shortly afterwards, the ailing Bombers were broken open again but with an open goal at his mercy, the Bobcats winger fluffed his lines and missed the target with stand in Bombers keeper Darcy Newell well beaten. Marsh would have to remain cautious in the second half having picked up a yellow for scything down rapid racer Penny who was a fraction of a second too quick and had dinked the ball just out of reach. Mavridis’ men went to the sheds one up in uncannily similar circumstances to the Storm game the previous week, having soaked up pressure for the vast majority of the opening stanza only to snatch a one goal lead from a fast break.
The second half saw a tepid start from both sides and the first ten minutes were fairly uneventful on the whole, a slightly slower tempo perhaps influenced by the trying weather on the afternoon. The contest suddenly gained a whole new level of intrigue, however, when Marsh produced almost an exact replica of his earlier infringement on Penny, whose engine seemed to have even more get up and go than his beloved 2JZ, to accrue a second caution and a subsequent early shower.
The dynamic of the game had now shifted and the Bombers looked to establish an advantage and grab the all important equaliser. Bossing possession for extended periods, the away side won a foul 25 yards out and the dependable Lachie Moye was assigned to free kick duties. Moye produced a sumptuous strike that whistled into the top corner and left Bobcats keeper Alex Moffitt with no chance at all. 1-1 the score, and the onlookers at Wherrett Park had been treated to a picture perfect dead ball strike.
The Bombers now had wind beneath their wings and like a B-52 speeding undetected into enemy airspace, they had sprung the Bobcats with an almighty momentum shift. It wasn’t long before Moye had his second, putting Boambee in front with another delightful strike from outside the box, this one curled in from open play. The lead was theirs and they didn’t look like stopping their assault any time soon. The rattled Bobcats were getting scrappy and gave away a penalty which saw Moye given the opportunity to seal his hat trick, but this time Moffitt was equal to the task and saved his attempt from 12 yards. Worldies seemed to come all too easy to Moye but the dot shot would prove his Achilles heel.
The maniacal Penny, having picked up a yellow, was replaced by fellow Nambucca Valley based rice burner enthusiast Jack Mitchell off the bench, but the Greek god himself could only muster five minutes of action before his troublesome hamstring started giving him more curry than vindaloo night at New River Edge and he was forced back to the bench. It seemed a morning ‘sending it’ too hard with a surfeit of jet ski tow-ins had done him no favours and the lab-engineered specimen would need to spend a week in the hyperbaric chamber on a course of specially synthesised supplements originally designed to be implemented in East German Olympic doping programs for expedited recovery.
The stage was set for the entrance of the man the fans had truly travelled up the highway to witness in action, Adam Berrada. There is always a sense of mythos and intrigue to Berrada’s appearances in this Bombers side. The devastatingly handsome Moroccan magician, oozing with an almost cinematic charisma, entered the fray and immediately the spirits of his comrades were lifted to unprecedented heights. Though many would have anticipated a late hat trick to feature in ‘Baz’s brief cameo, it unfortunately wasn’t to be for the esteemed education professional and he would need to wait for another week to regale all and sundry with an inspirational account of his goalscoring exploits.
It was the 10 man Bobcats who finished the brighter of the two sides, winning a corner in the dying minutes to which Daley Durrant rose highest, directing a goalbound header that was inadvertently blocked on the line by his teammate and reigning NCF Player of the Year Jarred Doyle. Mavridis would have been agonised by this development as his side had come within a kitten’s whisker of snagging a surprise point against the run of play.
As referee Martin Gadd called time, it was a bitter pill to swallow for the Bobcats, who had now lost both their home games 2-1 to strong opposition in matches defined by the barest of margins. Three points from their first three rounds is hardly fair reflection of the way the men in green have been playing their football, and this Sunday’s away trip to Polwarth Drive to take on the out of form Coffs Coast Tigers will present them with the ideal opportunity to make amends and start their ascent up the table, though the Tigers are still a deceptively dangerous prospect despite their own adverse results in recent weeks.
Duncan will be pleased with the result, but like the first round encounter with Coffs Coast Tigers, there are concerns at the way the Bombers are letting their opposition back into the contest in these close games rather than really putting the game to bed. They are yet to keep a clean sheet in competitive football in 2018, and the inconsistency and inexperience of the defence still remains an issue that will need to be ameliorated ahead of a matchup with the always dangerous Coffs City United Lions this Sunday at home. Duncan should have some more troops to call upon this time around, and the Bombers will need to improve their effectiveness at making in-game pressure tell on the scoreboard if they are to repeat their FFA Cup result over the Lions and keep up their 100% record for the season.
Coffs City United Lions vs Northern Storm Thunder
With strength in depth always playing a key role in the Lions’ successes, this would certainly be tested to its limit on an ominous evening at Forsyth Park. Joel Digney and Callan Allsop were serving suspensions along with a host of other regular starters missing through injury or absence, meaning it was something of a new look eleven who took the field. Coach Glen Williams would no doubt have been feeling the pressure, as confirmation of the Bombers’ win just minutes before kick off meant the three points would be absolutely essential to stay in touch at the upper reaches of the ladder.
Jade Porter’s Storm were undoubtedly the competition’s unluckiest side through the opening two rounds, failing to convert extended periods of dominance during both games into scoreboard pressure and paying dearly with counterattacks that ultimately sunk the ship and left them marooned at the foot of the table without yet registering a point. There seemed a quiet confidence within the Thunder camp however that it was only a matter of time until things would turn around, and they would have felt that the understrength Lions would provide them with the ideal opportunity to spring a surprise and kick start their season while sending a statement of intent to the rest of the competition.
The atmospheric conditions seemed tailor made for a side carrying the moniker of Northern Storm Thunder, as mother nature turned on a gloomy and tempestuous display of black clouds, pouring rain and the occasional flash of lightning over the course of the 90. The improved floodlights of Maclean Street were being utilised to their full lux capacity and the scene was set for a gripping battle of wills on the field.
The first half played out primarily through the midfield, with Storm looking perhaps marginally the more positive of the two sides as they carved out a couple of half chances but were unable to bring the ball under control. The Lions looked noticeably flaccid and were offering very little going forward, and at times it seemed the Thunder were almost taken by surprise at the level the home side were deviating from their usual efficacy. It certainly wasn’t a half defined by goalmouth action, and the sides went into the break at 0-0.
A torrential downpour had started to become a factor, and although the Lions attempted to start the second half with some more composed build up play from the back, with short and assured lateral passes being exchanged as they waited patiently for an opening, this brand of football began proving too passive. The combination of the inclement weather, the relative inexperience of the defensive personnel and the wily customers in the Storm attack knowing when to sniff out a chance meant that the Thunder began to pounce on a few stray passes or capitalise on Lions defenders spending a half second dithering in possession, and make a few incursions into the box.
An errant pass across goal from Scott Cawley saw Sam Brown take possession and thread a pass through to Jamie Kennedy, though before Kennedy was able to latch on to the ball he was hauled down clumsily by Nick Mallett in what looked to be a stone cold penalty. Despite the fervent and seemingly justified appeals of the away side, referee Goodwin adjudged that there was nothing doing and waved play on. This incident proved something of a flashpoint as some spicier play began to take place through the middle period of the second half. Another hard unpunished challenge that the away side viewed as egregious saw an aggrieved Porter involved in a heated exchange with the officials, culminating in a rather comical display of hat kicking on the touchline, but on the field the tensions were certainly ramping up.
A flagging Kennedy, who looked uncharacteristically off the pace as his gas tank emptied midway through the half after some strong attacking runs, was dragged around the 66 minute mark as Beajay Wendt clambered off the pine just as the Thunder had won a free kick 25 yards out. A short pass move found Wendt who cut inside with his first touch, cleverly paused for a half second to shake off the attentions of a Lions defender and fired home with his second touch to put the Thunder into a deserved lead. An inspired substitution from the master tactician Porter and the epitome of an instant impact as Wendt had put his side up within 10 seconds of taking the field.
Scenes of jubilation abounded but the Thunder would have felt they should have been at least two up by this point and the youth within the Lions ranks meant it would not be an easy task to close out the last 20 or so minutes of the game. They didn’t look like napping any time soon and in the 10 minutes following the goal, they continued to play positive football with Wendt looking like a real livewire and making himself a constant handful for Alex Douglas.
On one occasion the ball broke for substitute Tristan Albert, who managed to penetrate the Lions backline and looked home and hosed for a one on one finish until the ball slipped just out of his control. On another, the Thunder won a free kick in a promising position, with the eloquent instructions of ‘Ports’ (‘Parko, hit the sh*t out of it!’) leaving little to the imagination, and his central defender duly obliged, sending it miles over the bar and into the Lions clubhouse.
Having failed to double their advantage, a tired Storm were all of a sudden on the back foot for the first time in the game’s 85 minutes and the young Lions gained the ascendancy, primarily through the individual brilliance of attacker Gum Mayak. It was that man who was able to conjure the decisive blow and equalise with only a few minutes remaining on the clock, a powerful yet perfectly composed finish leaving Josh Harrigan, who had barely needed to touch the ball in the entire match, with no chance.
1-1 the score as the clock died down and the body language of the sides told a rich story – slumped shoulders from the men in white juxtaposed against an air of supreme confidence from the red and black. It took less than two minutes for the spirit to drain completely from the Thunder as Mayak, a former Storm man, hammered the final nail in the coffin with a piece of absolute wizardry to tie the defenders in knots and bury the winner. Almost singlehandedly he had broken the contest completely open and after the Lions had offered virtually nothing for Harrigan, Odgers, Skinner, Parkins and co to be concerned about all game, here they were a goal to the good and barely a few grains of sand left in the top of the hourglass (or should that be hourandahalfglass?).
Indeed Goodwin brought the curtain down on proceedings and it was an absolute smash and grab by the Lions to steal the three points. Williams said that although he was relieved to take the points, he was justifiably unhappy with his side’s display. It’s easy to pinpoint why things looked like going awry – any other club whose squad were as heavily hit as the Lions were on Saturday night would likely be doing their best just to mitigate the margin of defeat, much less still be in the contest in the final minutes – but they will face sides who are more ruthless in attack than the Thunder were and the result will perhaps be less favourable.
This weekend’s encounter with Boambee at Ayrshire Park will be the biggest test they have faced thus far in the regular season. With the first encounter between the two turning into a disciplinary firestorm and seeing an 8 man Bombers side prevail 3-1, the Lions will really have their work cut out if they are to turn the tables this weekend against Shane Duncan’s side who have been in superb form of late but perhaps still haven’t peaked – a genuinely concerning prospect for Williams’ team who would admit they themselves have been below their own standards up to now.
An understandably disconsolate Porter wisely withheld from any disparaging comments about the officiating but said that he is still very proud of his boys and despite still having yet to pick up their first points of season 2018, he has been heartened by two consecutive displays against top sides that easily deserved to yield results.
With fixtures against Urunga and Boambee ahead, Porter said he is thoroughly enjoying the run of tough teams and feels someone will get ‘caught in the storm real soon, then hopefully it doesn’t stop raining’. The spirit coming out of the Storm camp remains inspiringly positive and it would be difficult for any neutral to have watched their past three games and not felt a pang or two for their misfortune. Porter says that his side need not to rely on luck as it never shows when you’re looking for it, and that if nothing else the results have been character building for his boys. While he has no doubts that they will bounce back, he is well aware that they can’t afford to let many more of these tight games slip through their fingers and the pressure is now well and truly on ahead of some more tricky fixtures.
Grafton United vs Coffs Coast Tigers
A strong start for Scott Elphic’s new look Grafton side saw a high profile first week scalp of the visiting Northern Storm, before an inspired display for the first 65 minutes at Ayrshire Park last week was undone by a late collapse to finish on the wrong end of a 7-1 scoreline that perhaps didn’t reflect the level of football United had delivered on the afternoon. They would surely see a home encounter with a Tigers side who looked well below their best last week as an opportunity to spring another minor surprise and increase their points tally for 2018.
Tigers were making their second trip up the highway in as many weeks and would be hoping for a better result than the frustrating 1-1 at Barnier Park last Saturday, where they spurned a plethora of attacking opportunities and lacked the killer instinct in front of goal that they are going to require in order to elevate themselves to contendership in this year’s competition.
They would have to make do without their scruffy talisman and light strength middie enthusiast ‘Squeezo’ though. Out with what the former vegetable stacker himself described as ‘an eruption of the achilles’, the timetable for his return remains hazy, though a rigorous CBD oil and coconut rice based treatment program should have him right as rain for next week’s home encounter with the Bobcats following his participation in an amateur Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament. The John Danaher acolyte’s ability to impose his rubber guard shouldn’t be too heavily impacted as he gets pummelled by various yoked, Alain Ngalani-like individuals in the shark tank of the absolute no-gi class, hoping to imanari roll his way into snaring a hail mary heel hook.
The first half was a scrappy affair as the structured play that has become a hallmark of the home side’s greatly improved showings thus far in 2018 deserted them. Instead, the more freestyle and off-the-cuff football of Felipe Barrera’s Tigers proved to be the prevailing style early on, with Elphic stating this rattled his charges somewhat and translated to a less than ideal display. Barrera noted that his main striker in ‘Squeezo’s absence, Mark Ifrah, was constantly attracting the attentions of both of Grafton’s central defenders, which meant opportunities through the middle of the park were at a premium and greater success was coming through overlapping runs on the flanks. In particular, Barrera praised his right hand combination of Somchai Tha and Ethan Sechi, who created constant havoc.
Despite a wealth of possession and a host of half chances, Tigers were ultimately unable to find the opener before the interval. Barrera’s focus at half time revolved around taking chances, as he felt the amount of opportunities his men were creating in attack would make the crucial breakthrough inevitable. Elphic’s talk in the sheds revolved around the deficiencies he had observed during the first stanza – namely the men in purple deviating from the system they had been working so hard to develop and the one that had already paid handsome dividends in the early stages of this season.
Immediately upon the resumption of play, the change within the home side was apparent. The travellers’ more unstructured play rapidly switched from being something of a nullifying presence on their opposition to a hindrance. The Tigers playmakers were failing to really click, and the swashbuckling counterattacks that are ever so mellifluous music to the ears of the tangerine faithful when things are working harmoniously were replaced by more cumbersome build up play.
Indeed, the West Coffs side were broken open around the 65 minute mark – a throw in by Wylie Tynan was not properly cleared from the box by the Tigers defence, only making it as far as United winger Tony Hung who fed a floating, speculative cross into the box that found returning Tigers gloveman Jake Mahoney out of position. After a rebound off Premier League debutant, 16 year old Ethan Piper, the ball fell to substitute midfielder and ex-Yuraygir Bears man Hoàn Chiến, and the Vietnamese import made no mistake with a peach of a finish, deftly placed into the top right corner to elude the scrambling Mahoney.
The goal was far from undeserved for the Rushforth Park marauders, who once again weren’t content just to sit back and wait for a chance to spring a surprise on the counter, but continued to force the issue and play a positive brand of football as they have throughout the nascent stages of season 2018. Frustration began to creep in for the travelling Tigers and this translated to a heated and physical style of play which drew the ire of referee Jason Hillier. Tigers defender Matt Guyatt received a straight red card, while Grafton back Richard Akato was later marched for two yellows, meaning the sides finished ten apiece.
The last ten minutes of the game saw the home side pouring on the pressure and attacking at a frenetic pace on the counter despite the 10 man Tigers having a decent share of possession and creating a few opportunities of their own, but clinical finishing deserted both sides and the score remained 1-0 at the final whistle.
Elphic’s cerebral managerial style has worked wonders for United thus far and has breathed real life into their campaign. Starting the season with the aim of avoiding the bottom of the ladder – after a 2017 campaign without a point and with an eye-watering -170 goal difference – Elphic is justifiably proud of his side but neither he nor his boys are planning to rest on their laurels, and they are sure to be a thorn in the side of many more visiting teams this year. Not even the bravest of pundits would have had them occupying fourth spot after three rounds, but those are the lofty heights the new kids on the block occupy, and they have managed to set tongues wagging even further afield than just the Clarence football scene, with the southern sides all beginning to sit up and take notice of what now looms as a genuine banana skin in their fixture list.
For Polwarth Drive’s finest, it’s been a less than stellar start to the season, and despite three straight games at home ahead, the opposition – Maclean, Coffs United and Urunga – mean that it won’t be an easy task to improve upon their current points tally of one from three games. Though Barrera was happy enough with his team’s performance – send off aside – on Saturday, showing tremendous heart from start to finish, they will need to find their feet in front of goal and eschew the wastefulness that has dogged their campaign thus far. Barrera is painfully aware of this fact and will no doubt be stressing the importance of this facet of their game.
Urunga Raiders vs Westlawn Tigers
A draw against Coffs United meant the Raiders were still in touch at the top of the ladder, but that could all quickly change with a slip up against Westlawn, who have proven themselves a genuine potential roadblock after last week’s draw with their more fancied Coffs Coast opponents and a display against the Lions where they were able to stifle one of the competition’s most feared attacks for large portions of the game.
Two player-coaches going head to head in this one – the Raiders’ Craig Simpson had struggled with squad availability, particularly against Maclean in round one, but had a four man bench at his disposal this week so would no doubt have been targeting not only the three points but a strong display to elevate the morale within the maroon ranks even further and increase their already strong momentum. Tigers’ James Joyce on the other hand would no doubt be continuing to prioritise the philosophy of strong structure and defensive containment that his men had exhibited with aplomb during rounds one and two, though a rampant Raiders attack at the Patch would be an altogether more challenging prospect to shackle.
The yellow army’s travelling lineup saw some changes from round two due to player unavailability, and this lack of consistency showed early on as they looked sluggish out of the blocks. Urunga on the other hand were electric, with excellent ball movement through the centre of the park and good distribution to the attackers pulling the ordinarily steadfast Tigers defence to pieces. Within five minutes, the home side had slotted their first, though a brief period followed where a dash of complacency crept into their play and Tigers enjoyed a passage of ascendancy.
This momentum shift didn’t last long, however, and the home side reasserted their dominance to score a second and third in quick succession just shy of the 20 minute mark. This seemed to kick Joyce’s men into gear, and they were able to retain possession much more effectively and start asking questions of the Raiders defensive unit as they moved the ball up the park.
The final 20 minutes of the first half was an even battle as both sides went blow for blow. Some quality build up play down the left hand side opened up an opportunity for Westlawn and it was Michael Allen who capitalised to reduce the arrears to 3-1. It was only a matter of minutes later though and Urunga were able to ram another one home to pull back their three goal advantage. Déjà vu for the onlookers at Morgo Street as a move up the middle saw Michael Allen convert again for the Tigers and the Raiders respond again shortly afterwards.
While this spectacle of attacking madness would appear to point to a limited degree of defensive effectiveness on the part of either side, it was Urunga keeper Matt Smith – having backed up from reserve grade – who was perhaps the star performer of the moment, acquitting himself exceptionally well with a string of quality low saves towards the back end of the first half repelling the threats the Tigers were providing and preserving the magnitude of the lead his side had built up.
Half time came around and at 5-2 Raiders, the scoreboard operators would have been thinking they should have been assigned to the cricket oval up the hill such was the regularity with which they were being called into action. The second half’s tempo was much less frantic though, and the flurry of goalmouth action was not to be repeated. Urunga took a controlled approach with their backline setting up more deeply and central midfielders Jack Martin and Kale Hopper responsible for much of the composed build up play.
Westlawn were guilty of lacking control at times and were turning over possession cheaply to let the pressure valve off and allow the Raiders control and breathing space. The Tigers continued to threaten down the left flank when they did value possession, but the final penetration into the Urunga box was lacking and they were unable to add to their tally and reduce the deficit to the point where they could bring themselves right back into the contest. Both sides hit the crossbar but it was the home side who looked more likely and indeed they were able to make it 6-2 and effectively kill the game off.
With around 25 minutes on the clock, a colossal downpour drenched the Patch and reduced the football on display to a dour struggle, spectators scarpering like cockroaches when the lights turn on as they desperately scuttled for cover from the sudden and extreme weather event. Neither side were able to retain long spells of possession in the trying conditions and the score ultimately remained the same as referee Bruce Mackie drew the game to a close.
The clinical finishing of the Raiders strikers, with usual suspects Tim Rupprecht and Hopper chipping in with a hat trick and a solitary strike respectively, and newer entrants to the Premier League fold in Martin and Aaron Searle contributing a goal each, was a major factor in the result as both sides had their fair share of chances. Simpson was pleased with the contributions from his younger squad members and with the way his boys were moving the ball all over the park and creating a wealth of chances, but said they still need to remedy some uncharacteristic defensive issues and will be disappointed to have hobbled off with a hamstring injury of his own that will keep him sidelined from playing duties for 5 weeks.
The Raiders will need to put their best foot forward this weekend as a trip to The Cove to take on Northern Storm Thunder looms. Though the Thunder have yet to register a point in three rounds, they outplayed the Lions last weekend and Simpson would do well to have his troops wary of the danger their opposition pose.
A disappointing result for Joyce’s Tigers, but there is no shame in losing to a side who are unanimously considered one of the competition favourites. They were never truly dominated and the margin of defeat they suffered can largely be chalked up to a disparity in ruthlessness in front of goal. A return to Back Lane this weekend sees them take on Scott Elphic’s reinvigorated and in form Grafton United side in what shapes as a highly entertaining Clarence derby. The 5:00 kickoff under lights at Junction Hill sets the scene for an enthralling contest and any football fans in the region would do well to get down and see which of these sides can claim local bragging rights.