By Tim Klingbiel
Maclean Bobcats vs Westlawn Tigers
Having picked up only three points from their opening four games, it was crunch time for the Bobcats who started the season with their gaze firmly fixed on a finals berth but now found themselves with almost no margin for error if this goal were to come to fruition. The closeness of their 2-1 losses to the competition’s top two sides in Boambee and Urunga showed the gap in class between the Bobcats and the pinnacle was only a hair’s breadth, but last week’s 2-0 defeat to Coffs Coast Tigers would have rankled. Though they weren’t yet hitting the panic button, the inescapable fact was that time was running out to find the winning formula and coach Dennis Mavridis would need to apply every bit of strategic nous and footballing alchemy he could muster to right the ship.
Westlawn captain-coach James Joyce was absent for last week’s cliffhanger against Grafton as his side scored in the dying moments of the game to claim a 4-4 draw and double their points tally for 2018. The timing was ripe for them to capitalise on an uncharacteristically poor performance from Maclean last week and catch their opponents at a low point, and the return of Joyce would certainly be welcomed by the men from Junction Hill as they made the short trip up to Wherrett Park. It’s been a tasty few weeks of Clarence derbies, with Westlawn-Grafton the previous week, this Maclean-Westlawn game and then Maclean-Grafton ahead in round six, and by the time next week’s fixtures are done and dusted it’s likely we will have the clearest idea yet of the pecking order in the northern region of the competition.
The Bobcats were without Sean Potter and Taylor Corbacho from last week’s defeat, with James Austen and Frazer Marsh – who had cooled off for a week after getting sent against Boambee in round three – coming into the XI. Gary Burns and Cullyn Stewart-Butcher replaced Nick Potente and Nathan Shugg on the bench. Aside from welcoming Joyce back into the fold – with Anthony Wall making way – the rest of the Tigers’ starting lineup was unchanged from the Grafton draw, though it was a new look bench with Balla Traoré and Jesse Benfield dropping out from last week’s 14 man squad in favour of Riley Keogh, Nathan Grayson and William Pollock for a 15 piece suite.
The first quarter of an hour of football was very even, as the away side started brightly, maintaining possession and supporting well offensively, but the Bobcats were proving themselves equal to the task. It was the men in yellow who made the first impact on the scoreboard, as young midfielder and ex-Grafton United man Tom Westman struck in the 15th minute to give his side the lead.
The sage Mavridis was not perturbed though and observed that the contest had been even enough up to that point not to necessitate any great alarm. A further 10 minutes elapsed and this time it was the Bobcats pouring forward, Luke Hanlon unleashing a strike that took a strong deflection off James Joyce – the ball soared straight into the top corner past an unlucky Charlie Moar, and Joyce himself expressed astonishment at how perfectly he had managed to place it, albeit in the wrong net, suggesting that not even the mighty ‘Stitty’ would have been able to stop it. 1-1 the score, and the Bobcats had profited from a rather fortuitous wonder strike by their opposition to claw themselves back to parity.
Joyce said that his side were never really able to recover from the setback, and praised the strength of the Bobcats’ right-sided play – indeed, Maclean gained the ascendancy from this point and scythed the Tigers’ left edge to pieces. Two more goals, to Hanlon and Travis Armstrong, in the last 15 minutes of the half had the men in green 3-1 to the good at the break and Mavridis was impressed with the way they had maintained discipline and patience in the face of early adversity.
The Maclean gaffer’s halftime talk revolved around getting on with the job, consolidating their lead and picking up an absolutely vital three points and first home win after what he saliently deemed an ‘alarming form slump’ against Tigers last week. Joyce tried to rouse his men from the stupor that permeated the later stages of their opening stanza, and was cognisant to the need to nullify the output of Hanlon and Armstrong in particular.
Unfortunately, things did not improve for the men from Back Lane. Joyce noted that much of their offensive support ceased, causing frustration within the ranks, and said that the simple philosophies of playing the ball to feet and holding structure had deserted them. Instead, his side reverted to a long passing game and opted for lower percentage options, which put them in poor shape to deal with a rampant Bobcats attack who looked in the best touch they had been this season.
Another goal to Hanlon – his ‘two and a half’ after the first was credited as a Joyce OG on the match card – and another to Armstrong completed a brace each to the Bobcats’ two strongest performers, with Jarrod Doyle also chipping in with an excellent performance over the 90. Referee Bruce Mackie called time with the score at 5-1 to the home side, perhaps mercifully for the yellow army of Westlawn who had sunk from the ‘maillot jaune’ to the depths of the yellow submarine by the time the evening was done. Yellow tickets, on the other hand, were less of a concern, with only substitute William Pollock going into the book. The Bobcats were equally well behaved, as Frazer Marsh was the only man to merit a scolding from Mackie over the course of the game.
Mavridis said he was happy with his side’s performance, in particular, the discipline and patience they displayed after going a goal down early on. The structure the Bobcats exhibited was impressive and stood in stark juxtaposition to their dishevelled and inconsistent display the previous week at Polwarth Drive. The Bobcats boss says he is looking forward to another Clarence clash this Saturday against Grafton United and hopes the weekend’s performance will be the catalyst for a real boost to their fortunes and something of a turning point in their season. He is urging his troops to make their home games count and the importance of picking up two wins on the trot cannot possibly be underestimated, as the three points would elevate the Bobcats into the top four for the first time in 2018 and lay the foundation for the successful campaign they were envisaging at the outset.
After two disciplined defensive performances to open the season, the normally dogged Tigers backline has been a sieve in the past three weeks with 15 goals sailing past helpless youngster Charlie Moar, who has himself been an excellent performer between the sticks. Joyce will no doubt be relentlessly drilling steadfast defensive structures this week on the training track, as their next opponents Northern Storm look to have finally discovered some form that delivers results, and the Westlawn lads will be all too aware that they cannot afford to give the Thunder an inch. Turning their Back Lane digs into a fortress again is a priority and though this one will be a battle of the cellar dwellers, it’s still sure to be an enthralling contest. Joyce says their tough run of fixtures with Storm, Boambee and Coffs United to come will leave no room for error, and while reports that he has been reading his men Marcus Aurelius passages at training are as yet unsubstantiated, he has some pretty drastic work ahead of him if he is to implement his philosophy to the point of the Tigers adding to their points tally over the next three rounds.
Grafton United vs Coffs City United Lions
Grafton had enjoyed a strong start to the season and continued to defy expectations as they occupied fourth spot on the table after four rounds. Scott Elphic’s boys would have been disappointed to let the game slip last week as they led 4-3 with barely a minute on the clock and gave up two points – that could have had them third and within a point of second – in agonising fashion, having felt they copped the rough end of the stick from the officials throughout the contest, but saw this week’s fixture against traditional competition heavyweights Coffs United as another chance to show the southern sides they were a genuine threat this year.
Glen Williams’ troops on the other hand were looking to put the disappointment of last week’s display, where they were dominated in virtually all facets of the game by Boambee Bombers, behind them, and were targeting a strong win to reignite their campaign and keep within reach of the Bombers and Raiders on the table. Last year’s two encounters with Grafton yielded 28 unanswered goals, 13-0 and 15-0 victories signifying a colossal gulf in class between the two. But that chasm had since closed by quite some margin and any complacency heading into this one would put the Lions in real danger.
For the home side, James Craig was suspended after being sent off against Westlawn, but Richard Akoto returned in what was essentially a like for like replacement after serving his own suspension following his dismissal against Coffs Coast Tigers. Nathan Daniels, Jarryd Bowman and Hoàn Chiến were unavailable, so Ethan Piper and Selwyn King came into the starting lineup after playing substitute roles last week and Daniel Gavin stepped up to complete an understrength but still fiercely competitive XI. For the Lions, Joel Digney returned to the starting lineup from suspension to replace Jyelei McKell in the defence, while Caleb Lokpo and Addisen Mallett were promoted from the bench in favour of Alek Santiago and Dan Wiseman, and Aaren Allsop returned to the matchday squad, sitting on the pine after a three week absence.
A blackout in South Grafton jeopardised the game before it had even begun, but the coaches mutually agreed to proceed and reassess the situation at halftime to determine whether the continuation of play would be suitable. Some early Lions banter about preferring to be spending their time watching the A-League grand final than playing at Rushforth Park had the locals fired up. Elphic’s men have thrived over the last couple of months on a siege mentality, feeding off the desire to recalibrate the perceptions of the local footballing populace, and the early barbs set the scene for a fire and brimstone affair of proper Old Testament football.
Still seething from the previous week’s events, where the post-match consternation was such that the GUFC camp refused to sign off on the match card and acknowledge the verity of the result, the men in purple were not backward in coming forward early on in the game, but Lions coach Williams said that the actual pace of the game suited his men. Grafton refused to leave any stone unturned though, and made Coffs scrap and fight for every ball. The Lions had been growing ever cheekier and technical area palaver was flowing freely, Elphic taking exception to some comments that he deemed disrespectful and ‘an absolute disgrace to football’, and referee Martin Gadd certainly had his hands full keeping a lid on the situation.
The high effort levels of the Lions midfield finally allowed them to start stamping their mark on proceedings, despite tasty tackles flying in left and right and Gadd issuing a few yellow tickets, and after 35 minutes they were rewarded with a goal after some solid lead up work – Lorenzo Rigoni finishing the opportunity. They looked far from comfortable though, and it was plain for all to see that there would be no repeat of last season’s cricket score drubbings.
Halftime came around with the game still very much in the balance and the home side still feeling they could make an impact on the result. With the coaches and officials deeming that the continuation of play would not be an issue, the battle raged on. Grafton came out of the blocks in the second half full of determination and came ever so close to squaring the ledger, with only some excellent goalkeeping from Josh Wiseman preserving the Lions’ clean sheet.
The Lions were the beneficiary of a decision that incensed the home fans, a penalty that even Williams deemed ‘dubious’ being awarded to give the travellers the opportunity to double their advantage. Justice was perhaps served when Grafton custodian Matt McMahon saved well from Gum Mayak to keep the score at 1-0, and it was back to normality once again upon the resumption of play. Elphic heaped praise on his boys for sticking to the task at hand and ignoring the calls that did not go their way, and at no point in the game did the Lions have the breezy, carefree time they had anticipated.
The class of the red and black and their experience in being clinical, converting brief periods of momentum into scoreboard pressure and ultimately getting home in tight situations showed through, and with 10 minutes of play remaining, they were finally able to extend their lead courtesy of Chris Dooley. The goal perhaps slightly deflated the home side as it made the mountain they had to climb in order to claim a result exponentially steeper, and the ruthless Lions sensed this slight ebb in enthusiasm. Williams said the goal had brought a sense of calm to the touchline and indeed it seemed his boys were no longer getting sucked into Grafton’s game. Substitute Aaren Allsop was then on hand to bury a strike from outside the box with only a few minutes remaining and consign the rugged and now ruffled Rushforth rumblers to a 3-0 defeat.
Elphic lauded the quality and heart his men had displayed, and in particular, noted the contribution of Daniel Gavin and Jack Daniels for stepping into Premier League with quality displays. A Jack Daniels of a different kind would feature later in the evening as the Lions controversially eschewed the traditional post-match get together at the sponsors in favour of an A-League grand final shindig punctuated with their own vigorous intake of ethanol-based beverages. Though this annoyed Elphic, he was sure to thank the GUFC fans for their enthusiastic support and constant, dependable presence that really makes his players feel like they have a 12th man with them each week.
Discipline has been an issue for Elphic’s men though, and with four yellow cards to ‘Tony’ Phung, Brayden Jones, Hayden Young and Jack Daniels on the weekend following a red and two yellows against Westlawn last week and a red and a yellow against Coffs Coast Tigers the week before, they will need to clean up their act fairly quickly so as not to continue drawing the ire of the officials. With an already weakened squad due to player unavailability, the last thing they need is to have any more players out than necessary.
A trip to Wherrett Park awaits this weekend as the purple army take on a Bobcats side who sit just one point behind them on the ladder. Every week feels like a step further on ‘Project Paradigm Shift’ for these boys, while there is also something of a redemptive quality as they give the Rushy faithful something to be proud of and really invest their support and energy in after some lean years with precious few reasons to be cheerful. Last season’s 5-0 and 12-0 defeats to Maclean feel eons away now, and they will be looking to make things a far sight tougher for Dennis Mavridis’ outfit this time around.
The Lions will be happy to have taken the three points from a tough evening at Rushforth Park but they were made to work tirelessly for the win and undoubtedly had designs on a triumph of much greater magnitude. This weekend’s game against Coffs Coast Tigers at Polwarth Drive will be another tough test, with Tigers looking strong in recent weeks with a win over Maclean and a very tight contest with Urunga displaying a level of form that has deserted them since 2016, where they fell to the Lions in the semi-finals by the barest of margins.
Williams’ boys have a stronger look about them now with experienced campaigners like Joel Digney and Aaren Allsop back in the side, and they have been superb defensively this season with a competition low 6 goals conceded – their trip to Ayrshire Park aside, they have let in only two goals in their other four games. In a rather bizarre statistic, there have been only four clean sheets in the first 20 games of season 2018, with the Lions responsible for two of those – the only other sides that have managed one are Grafton and Coffs Coast Tigers.
The main area for improvement though is their attack – with 10 goals scored so far for the year, they lie equal with Maclean, only one in front of Grafton, two in front of both the Tigers sides and three in front of Northern Storm, with a whopping gap of 6 and 9 respectively to Urunga and Boambee after just 5 games. Nearly two goals a game behind the competition leaders in attacking terms is not a place the proud Lions will want to be for long, and they will need that facet of their game to click sooner rather than later if they have designs on making the Premiership a genuine three horse race.
Boambee Bombers vs Northern Storm Thunder
The Bombers had edged closer to their best football last week in their 4-1 thrashing of the Lions, though even then there was still room for improvement and the frailty of the defence still remained an area of concern. Still without a clean sheet in competition football in 2018, the boys from Ayrshire Park would look to finally break the shutout drought against a side who had managed just five in their first four games – statistically the least productive attack of all eight clubs.
Storm, on the other hand, had flattered to deceive. While the Bombers had kept picking up results while well below their best, the luckless Thunder had produced some excellent displays that somehow failed to yield a point from their opening four fixtures. Despite a tough run of fixtures against last year’s top three in consecutive weeks, coach Jade Porter knew that time was running out to open their account for the season and if finals football were to remain a realistic goal, a result here would be virtually essential.
Boambee went into this one with an identical XI to round four against Coffs, while Storm made only one change, with Tristan Albert coming into the starting lineup for Beajay Wendt, who dropped to the bench. On the touchline, Porter was unavailable, so assistant Mark Drew stepped in to take the reins. With the home side having mostly registered decent results with lagging performances thus far, and the away side having conversely registered mostly decent performances with lagging results, it shaped as an even matchup despite the deceptive ladder disparity.
The game started at a decent clip, with both sides fashioning a few early chances. A looping Jamie Kennedy header drew a leaping save from Darcy Newell while the Bombers attack looked lively if somewhat below their best. Steadily it was the away side who began to look the more likely as they started to find openings and test Newell with increasing regularity.
When Brady Parker is your last man in defence, that is an indictment of the positioning of your back four in itself – it’s not a playmaker’s job to clear the lines at the back – but that was the scenario the Bombers found themselves in after around 28 minutes, as Thunder’s Nathan Skinner was afforded too much space and produced a scratchy shot that deflected off Parker’s boot, looping into the top right corner with the deflection catching poor Newell completely off guard. The Bombers back four had gone MIA – not for the first time this year – and it quickly became clear that this afternoon would be no cakewalk for the ostensible heavy favourites.
One of the least likely sources of goals – converted strikes in Skinner’s decade-plus Premier League career could be counted on one hand – had delivered the opener, and the ladder leading Bombers were now on the back foot to the bottom-placed Thunder. They refused to drop their heads though, and a well-weighted through ball from Luke France found the rampaging Christian Penny behind enemy lines, as Penny rounded Storm custodian Josh Harrigan to slot the ball home. Linesman Dave Thorn had other ideas though, flagging correctly for offside as the Storm backline stood stock still, already knowing Penny’s fate.
The score remained 1-0 and a couple more half chances went the way of the Storm until Parker produced a piece of inspired play. Dropping back into defence to block a free kick, then pressure the rebound to force the Thunder into coughing up possession, an intelligent run into midfield allowed him to receive the ball from France and deposit a sumptuous through ball for the perpetual motion James Lowe, who brought the pass down deftly under heavy pressure from two defenders. Lowe split his two markers and prodded the ball into the bottom left corner past Harrigan. The equaliser had come after around 37 minutes and the home side had their tails up now.
Referee Dave Connor called an end to the first half and the Bombers looked to be finally carrying the momentum. A heavy knee in the back saw Newell ailing though, and it was determined in the sheds that he would be unable to continue. Up stepped Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane, evidently, now the club’s third choice custodian, donning the gloves with all the menace of a Wirrabilla warrior – accounts that a prison shank was stored in his sock for quick draw convenience are still yet to be confirmed – and looking ready and raring to go.
The Bombers again looked bright during the second half’s early exchanges. A bouncing ball in the centre of the park saw Sam Crampton go up for a clearing header only for Grant Scully to perform his best impersonation of Nigel De Jong on Xabi Alonso with a flying kung fu kick that nearly chopped him in half. Somehow, Connor deemed this worthy of only a yellow ticket and an extremely fortunate Scully remained on the field.
One could easily be forgiven for thinking the floodgates would open at this point and the Bombers would finally run away with the contest, but the disparity in table positions between these two sides was not indicative of their relative parity in quality on the park on Sunday afternoon. At around the 65 minute mark, it was the less fancied Storm who won a penalty – Kennedy’s felling approximating a forward pike with half twist at 1.7 designated FINA degree of difficulty. The ordinarily clinical Kennedy stepped up to strike it himself, but ‘Rooster’ barely had to move, sticking out his right foot to block the poorly executed strike and clear the ball from danger.
Five minutes later, and already riding a yellow, Scully lunged in on France and got his calculations all wrong. Connor had seen more than enough and marched the ex-Bomber, meaning the Thunder would have to negotiate the final 20 minutes with ten men. France dusted himself off and when Boambee won a corner only a minute after Scully’s dismissal, it was the burly former Sawtell sharpshooter who rose highest to nod the ball past Harrigan at the back stick. Having used Nathan Parkins as a platform in a move akin to a textbook AFL ‘speccy’ – in this instance a coming together of two truly sizeable mammals – it seemed an egregious oversight from the officials not to whistle France for a foul in the act of scoring, but the goal stood nonetheless.
The short-staffed Thunder only upped the intensity further after the setback though, and only a few minutes later they began to expose systemic issues within the Boambee defensive structure that have peeked through on the odd occasion from rounds one through four but had not yet been fully exploited by opposition attacks. Namely, for want of a more eloquent description, running it straight up the guts.
Storm midfielder Marty Skinner took possession around 30 yards out, and without anything particularly fancy or filled with finesse, galloped right through the centre of the park and left two Boambee defenders wondering which day of the week it was before stabbing a one on one finish past ‘Rooster’ while toppling over inside the box, no markers within five yards of him. It was all too easy and the delighted Thunder were all of a sudden back in with a real shout of a result despite the cards being stacked against them.
Just a couple of minutes after the equaliser, Storm again left the home side’s defence in tatters, as a well-timed through ball put substitute Matthew Parkins through in acres of space, beating the offside trap and presenting him with the most gilt-edged of opportunities to give his side the lead. Indeed, it was perhaps too much time for Parkins, who looked as if he overthought the situation and ended up side-footing the ball straight to a grateful ‘Rooster’. The Bombers had been let off the hook in a massive way and their defence seemed to be about as effective as a screen door on a submarine.
The lucky escape seemed to finally jolt Shane Duncan’s boys into gear, as they zipped straight down the other end a matter of seconds later only for Parker to shoot just wide of the post on the counter. Less than a minute after that, the Bombers won back possession again and released Lachie Moye one on one – Moye looked home and hosed with the goal at his mercy but was just a bit too casual and allowed Jeff Odgers to regain ground and make a crucial and well timed tackle.
Moye’s Midas touch of recent weeks had deserted him, as another chance fell his way just outside the box and he failed to find the target, and Parker could not quite deliver a telling blow either, as a rasping 30 yard drive off his famed left peg was too straight and only stung the palms of Harrigan. Perhaps the most promising chance to nab the third came in the dying seconds, as the Boambee boys poured forward with Penny in possession and a three on two with a fourth in pursuit. As Penny was about to pull the trigger and fire in the cross, Connor cut the dangerous foray short as he blew for full time.
If you had told someone before the afternoon began that this game would include goals to both Skinner brothers, a ‘Rooster’ penalty save and a golden opportunity for the bottom side in the competition to take all three points from the ladder leaders with one less man on the park, you’d have been laughed all the way to the asylum, but the 2018 Premier League season is proving genuinely fascinating and is starting to feel like a real tipsters’ nightmare.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see the Bombers were a long, long way below their best on Sunday afternoon but full credit must go to an impressive Storm side who were full of enterprise and positivity. Having held Urunga scoreless in the second half last weekend, led against the Lions until the last five minutes, and now become the first team to take points from the Bombers in 2018, they will feel reinvigorated and ready to build upon a platform of decent performances despite still sitting on a solitary point from five games. A trip to Back Lane this Saturday night heralds an absolute must win fixture to keep the flicker of their finals hopes alive and they will need every bit of proactive attitude they can muster to break down a Tigers unit who have occasionally proven a tough proposition this season.
The Bombers will be furious at themselves over their performance and acutely aware that they were several levels below their best and cannot afford those types of slip ups if they are to win the Premiership. The same XI that swept aside the Lions should never have allowed this game to be in a position where the points were in jeopardy, and the capitulation of the defence will be a concern to Duncan. Conceding with a numerical advantage is never a good sign and it could very easily have been another to collapse to a loss. They are still in search of their first clean sheet of the season and their trip to the Patch to take on the Raiders next round – still to be rescheduled after FFA Cup round four duties against Kempsey Saints at 2pm this Saturday at C.ex Coffs International Stadium and a potential round five fixture on Sunday ruled this weekend out of the equation – won’t make that task any easier. With the two sides now level on points, it’s a fixture with seismic title implications and will be a spectacle of genuine must-see football.
Coffs Coast Tigers vs Urunga Raiders
Tigers had finally kicked their season into gear with a 2-0 win over Maclean last start – a minor surprise given the Bobcats’ 3-1 and 9-1 triumphs over them last season – and approached this game with renewed optimism. Within their squad is a balance of young talent and a few older heads that on paper seems to be one of the better crops of players they have had to work with in the last few years.
The Raiders, on the other hand, had already started well, and this weekend was more a case of staying near the top as opposed to making up lost ground. With captain-coach Craig Simpson sidelined for five games with a hamstring complaint, they would have to look to other on-field leaders such as Paul Pomroy and Kale Hopper to guide them around the park, though the majority of this Raiders side had been around the block a few times at local level so experience would not be a major concern.
Despite ‘Gooey’ remaining on the shelf after his red mist moment against Grafton United, Tigers welcomed back some quality with Zack Smith returning to the starting side and Innocent David, Marko Kisose and Mark Ifrah on the bench after all were missing from last week’s win over Maclean. Archie McDonald would be the unlucky player to make way. Matt Smith came back to take the gloves again for the Raiders with Lee Kennedy unavailable, while Henry Gale replaced fellow club stalwart Grant Homes and 17 year old Joe Soergel came in for last week’s hat trick hero Cale Simmonds.
Having spent the week on the Dolce Diet, breaking in his new cricket shoes with ‘fasted cardio’ consisting of setting land speed records down Joyce Street in the wee hours while under hot pursuit from various local ‘flakka demons’, aspiring checkout operator ‘Squeezo’ seemed refreshed and relaxed, which is when he produces his best work. After a rare 10 minute cameo appearance for the powerful Moist FC in Friday night’s North Coast Futsal competition, the qualified reptile handler and decorated nak muay farang, still ducking ASADA to avoid his bloodwork being pinged for elevated cocos nucifera levels after one too many trips to Thai Inthanon Kitchen, was primed for a top performance.
The home side started very brightly and the impact of Smith’s return was immediate. A searching long ball off his boot was perfectly weighted for the prolific Somchai Tha, who found the net and gave Tigers the lead inside the first minute. The shell-shocked Raiders would have to overcome a very early setback, and they seemed to be having a lot of trouble dealing with the black and orange army’s willingness to pour men forward, which countered Urunga’s own high pressing style on the afternoon.
As has happened on several occasions already this season however, things didn’t go entirely according to plan for the West Coffs warriors. In an unfortunate turn of events, Paul Dixon turned the ball into his own net to give Urunga an equaliser and suddenly the hard graft Felipe Barrera’s side had put in to establish an early lead had been wiped out. It was a frustrating case of déjà vu in a season that had thus far been defined by cheap giveaways for Tigers.
The home side continued to enjoy the better of the exchanges though, and it didn’t take long to restore the advantage. Another quality pass, this time from Ethan Sechi, found the hobbit-footed concert pianist ‘Squeezo’ in a promising position. The big Squeeze made no mistake and sent the home section of the crowd into raptures – well, aside from one heavily pregnant heckler who had taken exception to the ristretto fiend’s presence and unleashed a tirade of verbals throughout the afternoon.
The orange and black continued to push forward, as Luke Kliendienst hit the woodwork in the closing stages of the half. They had certainly had the better of the opening stanza and at oranges, it would no doubt have been Barrera who was the happier of the two coaches despite the fact the scoreboard did not really reflect the dominance his boys had displayed up to that point. Simpson would have been keenly aware of the grinding, gritty display his troops would need to produce in the second half to drag themselves back into the contest, but the Morgo Street outfit are streetwise and these situations are tailor-made for their relentless brand of football and excellent stamina levels.
Not long after half time, the home side won a free kick in a promising position. ‘Squeezo’, having munched a quick Combantrin-1 pre-game to combat his troubles with threadworm during the previous week, latched on to the cross, but in his best rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, could only direct the ball upwards into his trouser-housed power tools. This provided spectators and players alike with a great deal of amusement at the elite Snapchatter’s expense, but he would not take long to (fleetingly) atone.
With referee Jason Hillier having already whistled mid-air for an infringement prior to ‘Squeezo’s shenanigans, the free kick had to be retaken, and this time the welfare beneficiary was able to display lightning reactions and direct an opportunistic header into the bottom corner. Wheeling away in delight and feeling the freedom of both a taxpayer-funded lifestyle and a brace for the afternoon, his revelry was cut short by the flag of linesman Frank-Peter Szary, probably still feeling somewhat belligerent over the relegation of his beloved FC Köln from the Bundesliga. VAR from the ‘Squeezo Cam’ Facebook live stream proved inconclusive, as it appeared the fiscally oblivious young man – who had once attempted to pay his futsal match fee on court via EFTPOS – may have in fact eluded the offside trap, but after a short consultation with Hillier, the goal was indeed overturned, Szary adjudging the ball to have touched the scone of Dane Dixon on the way through.
That would be just about all she wrote for the indica-filled Squeeze, who trudged despondently back to his mark and was substituted shortly afterwards. The Dixon brothers and Zack Smith had each picked up cautions, as had the Raiders’ Harlen Dew, and there were a few minor incidents late on that saw a bit of disciplinary tightrope walking to avoid any early showers. But Urunga ensured there was to be more action on offer than just a smattering of spicy tackles.
Showing initiative to keep plugging away and claw their way back into the game, Simpson noted that his Raiders were building more of a presence around dead balls, with Tigers quickly starting to feel noticeably less comfortable on free kicks and corners. Eventually this pressure told, and it was midfield talisman Ben Dooley who found the equaliser for the men in maroon. The West Coffs boys’ heads dropped at this point and their afternoon quickly went from bad to worse, as Kale Hopper iced them with a 79th minute strike to put the Raiders up for the first time in the match.
The southern vikings were forced to put up just over 10 minutes of stubborn resistance as Barrera’s boys threw the kitchen sink at them in search of a result, but they held out just long enough to take an important and nailbiting victory. After spending the bulk of the game on the back foot, Urunga had pulled off a proper heist to take the chocolates and only led for barely 10 minutes of the entire match.
But it’s that resilience and ability to grind out a result that makes the Raiders such a dangerous proposition, and after the Bombers’ draw with Northern Storm, the only thing separating Simpson’s side from the top of the table is a net goal difference of 2. Simpson was impressed with the contributions of his two 16 year old starters, Aaron Searle and Joe Soergel, and it’s exceptionally encouraging to see such promising new blood coming out of the Patch, boding well for the Raiders’ future.
The vital round six clash with the ladder leading Bombers – initially scheduled for this weekend until both sides’ progression to round four of the FFA Cup meant other commitments would get in the way, with the Raiders taking on Port United at C.ex International Stadium at 2pm this Saturday to attempt to qualify for round five on Sunday – marks a meeting of two sides struggling to find their feet defensively. Uncharacteristically, neither has kept a single clean sheet in the opening five rounds, but both possess potent and effective attacks, so the form guide would hint at this one being a bit of a goalfest compared to the usually low scoring affairs of 1v2 clashes. But such is the unpredictability of this competition so far, it’s hard to discount any permutation and literally anything could happen.
Barrera opined after the game that he was quite impressed with his side’s performance overall against one of the competition favourites, but disappointed with their repeated inability to convert and all too regular lapses in concentration that allow opposing teams to punish them on the scoreboard against the run of play. He retains a great amount of belief in his boys and is sure they will feature in finals calculations, and given just how open the competition has been through the first five rounds it would really be hard to reason against any side securing a top four berth. The signs are all there for this week’s home game – their third in a row at Polwarth Drive – against the Lions to be a close battle and the orange horde will be fired up to claim bragging rights in the local derby and close the gap on their rivals.