By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm Thunder vs Grafton United
After a slow start to the season, the Thunder have been building some momentum of late having picked up four points in their last three games as well as a nailbiting loss to Coffs Coast Tigers. A round one loss to Grafton United up at Rushforth Park had Jade Porter’s men stinging and looking not only to make amends for one of the season’s biggest surprise results, but to demonstrate that they have improved in their efficiency and are a side ready for a finals charge.
Storm weren’t going to have it easy though, as Scott Elphic’s United looked as good as they ever have in making Urunga work like Trojans for a close 2-0 win at the Patch last weekend. The men in purple have already proven themselves worthy adversaries for any side this season and can no longer be taken lightly. In changing the perception of the footballing community and bringing a newfound sense of pride to the Rushy faithful, Elphic has done an excellent job this season and most certainly has not finished yet.
Regular Thunder keeper Josh Harrigan was consigned to the bench this week, with Felix Sinzinkayo stepping in for a second starting appearance in the top grade this season after taking the gloves against Westlawn a couple of weeks back, while Jeffrey Odgers returned to the backline with Michael Turner dropping back to a substitute role. Keiran Clerke was unavailable, so Beajay Wendt was promoted from the bench to start. Grafton welcomed back their first choice gloveman Matt McMahon, with James Craig and Alister Irving coming into the XI for Corey Ford and Ethan Piper. Last week’s makeshift keeper Wylie Tynan sat on the pine along with Nathan Daniels and Hung ‘Tony’ Phung.
The first half was a tense and even affair, with the spirited attacks of the away side putting constant pressure on the Cove denizens. The inability of the United attackers to convert their chances frustrated Elphic, but profligacy was an affliction that did not plague his side exclusively. Porter too was less than impressed with the chances his boys were spurning in an open contest that probably could have been something like 4-4 by half time on another day.
Ultimately the teams went to the break with the Thunder up 2-1, with goals to Jamie Kennedy and Nathan Parkins, with another dead ball special, being countered by a finish from Grafton defender Braydon Jones, who was assisted by Jack Daniels. Elphic was happy with the way his boys had dug in but urged greater efficiency in front of goal. His half time talk revolved primarily around sticking to the tasks and structures they had worked on as a team and refusing to deviate from what had served them well thus far.
Unfortunately for the travelling fans, United could only keep it together for around another 15 minutes, as things began to crumble around the hour mark. Storm began to turn the tides and really overrun their opponents in general play, capitalising on basic mistakes to open up an unassailable advantage. A goal to Marty Skinner as well as two from substitutes, Matt Parkins and the livewire Otis Barney, who terrorised the Grafton defensive with his exceptional dribbling and close control, low centre of gravity and penchant for flair, put Korora’s favourite sons 5-1 to the good and the second half became a genuine destruction late on.
While pleased that his side had put themselves in offensive positions time after time over the course of the 90 minutes, Porter noted that his boys still need to be much more ruthless and take their chances in order to keep pace with the top sides in the competition. Nonetheless, he praised his squad – in particular Nathan Parkins, whose dead ball ability has recently proven one of the Thunder’s most valuable weapons in their holster – for how well they responded to training through the week and was encouraged to see the way they followed the game plan and mindset he had demanded of them.
Despite ruing the brief lapse in concentration that cost them a potential clean sheet, Porter is keenly aware of the improvements his Thunder side are making each week and can see that each game is a step forward within the bigger picture. The reality of the situation is that the Thunder spent the first five rounds of the season on the very bottom of the ladder, but after round 8 they now sit just two points and a solitary goal outside of the four.
This weekend’s fixture against Maclean Bobcats offering them the opportunity to leapfrog the men in green into the final semis slot, and though there is still a long way to go in the season, it’s tough to bet against the men from Plantain Road getting the job done for what once appeared an unlikely finals appearance.
Elphic was understandably disappointed about the result, but is by no means hitting the panic button just yet and says it was ‘just one of those games everyone has in that one time of their season’. He feels his men have learnt from their errors and have been working hard on the training pitch and in team meetings throughout the week to remedy the things that let them down.
Elphic feels that United are ready once again to display the quality style of football that ignited the early part of their season, and despite rumblings on the football community grapevine that the purple horde are a spent force, they continue to feed off the siege mentality within their camp and say they are only just getting started. Expect these men to mount a solid charge throughout the remainder of the season and approach their forthcoming fixtures with renewed vigour.
Though this weekend’s home game against the as yet unbeaten Boambee Bombers looms as an incredibly tough and rigorous examination of GUFC’s mettle, Elphic says he has faith in his squad that they can play just as well as they did on their trip to Ayrshire Park earlier in the season, where they had the highly fancied Bombers on the ropes to the point that two disallowed goals might have had them in front after the hour mark. A late capitulation that afternoon blew the score out to a magnitude that did not reflect the level of competitiveness of the match, and though they will have their work cut out to prevent a repeat on Saturday, they were able to put the Raiders in all sorts of difficulty in round 7 and certainly should not be counted out here.
Westlawn Tigers vs Coffs City United Lions
Westlawn did an excellent job stifling the Lions in the first meeting between the two in 2018, but Glen Williams’ troops have grown into this season and now look an altogether different and more formidable proposition. James Joyce’s yellow men have struggled somewhat in recent weeks and look to be finding it difficult to strike the right balance between sturdiness in defence and fluency in attack – too often they have found themselves lopsided in either direction and the wheels fall off for both aspects of their game.
The Lions were feeling as positive as they had all season, with a defence that looked slightly shaky – culminating in a 4-1 loss to the Bombers that could have been twice that margin – now appearing genuinely imperious after a string of three straight clean sheets, and an attack that seemed to be stuck in second gear now purring like a Koenigsegg One topping out on the Kemmel Straight at Spa Francorchamps. They would look to improve vastly upon the laboured 3-0 victory in round 1 and keep the pressure right on ladder leaders Boambee nearing the season’s halfway point.
Bailey Tobin dropped to the bench for the Tigers with Riley Keogh being promoted from the substitutes to the starting lineup, while the unavailability of Harry Vidler meant that Dylan Lucas also received a boost from the bench to the XI. The Lions were without Caleb Lokpo and Jyelei McKell from last week’s commanding win over Maclean, but Thangkin ‘Wally’ Shetta and the returning Nick Mallett were brought into the starting lineup as replacements.
The early exchanges of the game saw both sides appearing to be relatively evenly matched, as the first 25 minutes were marked by decent ball movement from the home side who Joyce said fashioned a few goalscoring opportunities and were largely able to stymie the Lions attack. A tactical deficiency by the Tigers though meant they were being stretched on their left side, with Lorenzo Rigoni on the right flank for the Lions causing issues with his zipping runs. One such run found the Junction Hill men caught short and the Lions were clinical, showcasing an effective passing move and ruthless finish to open the scoring.
From there the Tigers seemed to fall apart, and the pressure from the Coffs midfield was an aggravating presence in possession. Mistakes were being made all across the park and the Lions were being gifted possession cheaply time after time. Devastatingly efficient as always, the red and black made their Clarence foes pay dearly and had slotted another four before the half was over.
Joyce said that he was a little slow in making the necessary changes to counter the threats being posed by Coffs, and at 5-0 down, he said that with the horse already bolted, they opted to move Zac Benfield out wide to mark Rigoni out of the game. It was a job he performed admirably, mitigating the speedster’s effectiveness to decent effect, but the Lions have far more than just one attacking outlet. Williams’ half time team talk was essentially just that the toughest task in these sorts of games is to retain team structure and continue playing to their strengths, so this was a priority going into the second half.
The impetus of the Lions midfield proved an overwhelming presence for the Tigers in the second half, and right away Scott Goddard was making surging runs through the middle of the park to link with strikers Gum Mayak and Chris Dooley. Mayak and Dooley were clinical at the apex, grabbing a goal and a brace respectively after Goddard created some excellent opportunities with his incisive dribbling.
By full time the Lions had clocked up 11, Goddard himself grabbing a double to go with Rigoni’s earlier brace and strikes to substitute Alik Santiago and defender Joel Digney to round out a dominant evening of football. Williams was pleased with the performance and said that his whole team played well and no injuries were sustained.
Williams and his men are looking forward to this weekend’s game against Urunga and judging by the recent displays of the two sides – with the Raiders having generally cleaned up their defence but still only getting home by relatively tight margins in the majority of games, and the Lions turning on footballing clinics that hark back to the dominance the footballing community have come to expect from the club in the top grade – it’s not a stretch to consider them slight favourites in this one.
They have played a game more than the Raiders, but the fact they are currently leading their southern opposition on goal difference augurs well for a side who looked as though they might well fall away just slightly after their displays against Storm and Boambee. They will look to eek every bit of advantage out of their parochial home crowd at Forsyth Park on Saturday night in what looms as one of the marquee fixtures of the regular season.
Joyce, on the other hand, was less than effusive, rather justifiably dubbing his side’s performance as ‘pretty ordinary’. He noted that the primary takeaway from the game for the Tigers is to value possession more, and having conceded close to thirty goals in the last three games, says their ‘first priority is to try and rectify the goal leakage, whilst also trying to play an attacking brand of football’.
The previous week’s heavy defeat against Boambee perhaps wasn’t entirely fair on the Westlawn boys, who attacked throughout and refused to resort to ‘kick and hope’ bush football, playing out from the back right until the final whistle. This time though, they were scarcely able to mount more than a rare attacking half chance in the second half, and it’s a regression they will be looking to arrest as soon as possible if they are to salvage anything out of this campaign.
This Sunday sees them travel to Polwarth Drive to do battle with another streak of Tigers, those of the Coffs Coast persuasion. While they had success in their last meeting, at Back Lane in round 2 where they fought tooth and nail to a 1-1 draw, Felipe Barrera’s men in black and orange have come along somewhat since then and should provide an even tougher assignment this time out. The men from Junction Hill will certainly have their work cut out for them to produce a result in this one and will need an inspirational performance from every man in a yellow shirt on the afternoon.
Boambee Bombers vs Coffs Coast Tigers
The Bombers continue to move from strength to strength this season as they dispose of opposition sides one after the other. The only riddle they haven’t been able to solve thus far is that of Northern Storm, but Coffs Coast Tigers did run things right down to the wire in round 1 as a late comeback reduced the arrears to 4-3 and had those out of Ayrshire Park sweating like Kim Beazley in his prime. Shane Duncan would be looking to avoid a repeat of that nerve wracking scenario this time around as the Bombers returned home to AP1.
Tigers had been a mixed bag throughout the season to this point. A strong win over Maclean seemed to herald a new dawn for the men from West Coffs, who proceeded to hold their own with competition heavyweights Urunga until an erosion of longshore drift proportions late on, then go toe to toe with Coffs United despite conceding scrappily on three occasions in a game they never looked inferior in. Last week’s close win over Northern Storm looked like the wheels were back on the Tigers juggernaut and the scene was set for an intriguing matchup with the Boambee boys.
One change to the starting lineup for the Bombers as Tom Frewen dropped to the bench for Tom Cooper. Darby Sherrin retained his place on the pine but the explosive Adam Berrada was dropped for one name that has been unfamiliar on the team sheet this season – Jake Stitt. Still rehabbing the shoulder injury he suffered in the bruising pre-season FFA Cup encounter with Coffs United, Stitt was called upon to re-enter the fray in an on-field role, where he possesses some excellent and vastly underrated skill. Tigers named an identical starting eleven to the previous week’s victorious lineup against Storm, with the bench too remaining the same aside from Vichai Tha making way for Maryar Majak, neither of whom have seen virtually any on-field action in Premier League competition this season.
The game started with some strong attacking football from both sides but it was the Bombers who drew first blood after a quarter of an hour, Lachie Moye breaking away down the flank and cutting it in for James Lowe to bury the finish essentially unmarked. A porous Tigers defence had been exposed early and it looked as if it might be a long afternoon. But Felipe Barrera’s men hung into the contest and the next 15 minutes saw them steadily drag themselves back into proceedings.
After 35 minutes they were very nearly on level terms through casual farmhand ‘Squeezo’, who directed what looked to be a perfectly executed header towards the right side of the goal. With cash in hand from a few afternoons thrashing bitou bush and Parramatta grass in unnamed rural locales in northern NSW for semi-legitimate business enterprises, a belly full of Izzy curry and thoughts of Flight Centre chat-up missions on his mind, the Adonis-like Squeeze was ultimately thwarted by the athletic and catlike Darcy Newell for Boambee, who produced an excellent leap to deny the qualified procrastinator. Clearly more well-fuelled than ever before, ‘Squeezo’ managed to play out the full 90 without needing to be dragged and hooked up to an intravenous coconut rice drip due to dangerous fatigue levels as he does on most other game days.
Barely a minute later and the Bombers had made their opponents pay, as rugged attacking talisman Luke France buried an emphatic finish from close range to double the advantage. Just four minutes later it was three, Brady Parker deftly flicking the ball up and then rifling a volley towards the right post, a trademark Ayrshire Park bounce allowing it to elude the grasp of Tigers custodian Jake Mahoney.
The combatants went to the sheds at 3-0 and the men from Polwarth Drive knew the task ahead of them was nearly insurmountable already. Despite the result itself being borderline unsalvageable though, they came out in the second half rather encouragingly and opted to continue playing football rather than reverting to damage control. It nearly paid dividends on a couple of occasions, but they were unable to find the crucial breakthrough.
At around the 65-minute mark, an absolute lofted speculator – which was more than likely intended as a cross – from the ever-belligerent Nick ‘Rooster’ O’Mullane playing at right back found Mahoney doing his best Karius impersonation albeit under heavy pressure from an advancing Parker. A heavy paw on what appeared to be a fairly regulation floater could only help ‘Rooster’s ‘shoss’ over the line and the Bombers were four to the good.
A back stick corner in the 73rd minute found Luke France under soft marking from Matt Guyatt, who looked as if he was gently caressing a lover amid a sultry ballroom dance rather than trying to deal with a burly top line striker hungry for goals, and France easily nodded the header home to push the margin out to 5-0. A thumping strike in the 79th by the unmarked Dane Dixon at the edge of the box after a post-corner melee drew another excellent save from Newell but that would be about the last glimmer of hope for the Tigers to find their way on to the scoresheet.
The 88th minute saw the scoring for the afternoon rounded out at 6-0, with a Brady Parker strike being turned into the Tigers net by an unfortunate defender, and that would be that. Duncan would no doubt have been pleased at what was a genuinely comprehensive victory but will also know his boys are going to keep producing these types of performances every week if they are to stave off the chasing pack and claim the Premiership.
Perhaps the most notable and encouraging statistic for the Bombers on the day was that they had finally registered their very first clean sheet of the season. The defence had looked shaky for much of 2018’s early stages, but the young outfit look to have finally gelled somewhat and are allowing the white and maroon to build from much more solid foundations.
There are certainly no headaches whatsoever in attack though, and even with one of their regular star performers in Christian Penny still sidelined, the Bombers have not slowed down at all in this department. They lead the league in attack by seven clear goals with a game in hand, a monstrous advantage that looms as a devastating weapon that will keep anyone’s hands full at the business end of this campaign.
They travel to Rushforth Park this weekend to take on Grafton United in an encounter they are expected to emerge on top of, but the main objective for Duncan will no doubt be keeping another clean sheet and building on the defensive performance displayed against Tigers. In a season as tight as this one is, the Premiership could well come down to goal difference on the final day and thus, a watertight defence is an immense asset to have – especially when paired with such a ruthless and clinical attack.
Tigers looked a tad listless on Sunday – though the score perhaps didn’t quite reflect the overall game, with Barrera’s men having a few decent spells of 15 minutes at a time throughout the game without being rewarded with any goals, it’s the lack of efficiency in front of goal and the regular lapses in concentration that continue to be a concern for the West Coffs brains trust. Those issues seem to be common denominators most weeks for these boys and will undoubtedly continue to be worked on at training.
Barrera gave credit to Boambee for consolidating most of their chances and said that this was the defining difference. He is painfully aware of the need for his boys to play decent football over the entire 90 minutes rather than just in intervals, and says that the challenge for them is finding the right combinations to balance both venom in attack and tightness in defence. Additionally, he sagely noted that the presence of a talismanic influence like Brady Parker, who he dubbed ‘a magician’, and experienced strikers who can handle pressure, is an important point of difference between the two sides.
Having made seemingly about 1,000 appearances in Premier League for Tigers during his own playing days, Barrera knows well how easy it is for players to lose morale when playing well and unable to score, then conceding during brief brain fades. He will need to be something of a Svengali figure going forward for his young charges, and says his side will continue to make adjustments as they still harbour ambitions of a top four finish – which they are quietly confident of achieving.
They return home to Polwarth Drive this Sunday to take on Westlawn in what is an absolute must win fixture. They lie only two points outside the four but need to keep pace, and any more points dropped against sides that sit below them on the table will be extremely costly. The fact that they need to gain ground on a side as strong as the Bobcats, for example, means every game from here on out is of the utmost importance in the context of their aims for the season.
Urunga Raiders vs Maclean Bobcats
The Raiders have continued picking up the three points each week, but they didn’t make things look easy in their last two games as they battled back from a goal down against Tigers to claim a late and perhaps barely deserved 3-2 smash and grab win at Polwarth Drive, and then laboured to a 2-0 victory at home over Grafton. But winning despite looking less than your best is the mark of a champion team, and there is something about this Raiders outfit that allows them to keep meticulously grinding out results. That in itself is a scary proposition for any opposing side.
Maclean too had looked less than impressive in recent weeks, but the results hadn’t quite panned out in their favour. An unexpected away loss to Coffs Coast Tigers was followed by a strong win against Westlawn that suggested the Bobcats were perhaps nearing their best again. But despite the three points, the forfeit by Grafton United slowed the momentum of the men in green, and they looked lethargic in a 4-0 loss to Coffs United at home last week.
Raiders defender James Power made way for Jake Leslie – who was promoted from the bench – while Cale Simmonds’ goalscoring cameo last week earnt him a starting spot with Jack Martin dropping out. Ben Dooley returned to the XI as regular striker Tim Rupprecht started on the bench. With Fraser Marsh still sidelined with injury, James Austin in recovery and only able to occupy a bench spot, and Nathan Shugg returning to reserve grade, Nick Potente, Lance Knibbs and Scott Grey were drafted in as reinforcements for the Bobcats after last week’s defeat.
The game itself was defined largely by physical play, with both sides doing their level best to impose an advantage and make their mark. An early penalty to Kale Hopper gave the home side the lead, but the Bobcats hadn’t had their say just yet and played well, searching for the equaliser. Ultimately the Raiders resolute defence was simply too much for them to overcome, as the home side stoutly guarded their lead with a Gandalf-esque ‘You shall not pass’ mentality.
The Raiders came away with the 1-0 victory in a game of fine margins where chances were at a premium. It’s now two straight clean sheets for the Raiders and two straight scoreless games for the Bobcats, who will need to arrest the minor form slump they are experiencing to ensure the chasing pack do not close the gap and consign them to a table position outside the top four.
The Bobcats will return home this weekend to take on a strong Northern Storm side in what should be a very evenly matched battle. Dennis Mavridis’ men prevailed in the last meeting between these two teams off the back of some devastatingly effective counter-attacking football, absorbing waves of pressure and catching the Thunder on the break to make them pay dearly on the scoreboard. They may look to employ a similar tactic this time around to see if they are able to repeat the dose.
The Raiders, on the other hand, will be pleased with the display – coach Craig Simpson gave full credit to the Bobcats for the effort and persistence they showed throughout the contest but also praised his own charges for the way they were able to defend the lead despite being under pressure for the bulk of the game.
With only a short amount of time remaining until ‘Turtle’ is able to return to playing duties, the injection of experience he brings to the Raiders midfield will be a timely boost with a tough run of fixtures ahead. This weekend sees them make the short trip to McLean Street for a mouth-watering Saturday night feast of gladiatorial football that carries the additional weight of substantial title implications. The surging Lions are coming off an imperious run of form and look to be an immense challenge for Simpson’s men, but they will believe themselves to be the superior title contender and this one will undoubtedly go right down to the wire.