By Tim Klingbiel
An abbreviated Round 10 saw just two of the scheduled four fixtures played – inclement weather at Junction Hill saw Westlawn’s game against Urunga postponed due to the pitch being deemed unfit for play, while the Bombers’ FFA Cup adventures against Charlestown City Blues meant that their home game against Maclean Bobcats had to be put on the shelf as well.
Urunga’s round 5 catch up game against the Bombers has now been rescheduled for Wednesday next week, with the Premier League fixture to kick off at 8pm after a Reserve Grade curtain raiser at 6pm. The other missed fixtures through the first ten rounds of season 2018 will be rescheduled in due course.
Northern Storm Thunder vs Coffs City United Lions
Clinical attack and resolute defence as Lions continue to stamp Premiership credentials
After a horror start to the season where they couldn’t buy a point despite playing some decent football, the Thunder had hit a purple patch with two straight 5-1 wins elevating them into the rarefied air of the top four – which must have seemed a distant pipe dream after losing four on the bounce to kick things off. They returned to the Cove full of confidence, having given the Lions strife during the side’s previous meeting on a rainy night at Forsyth Park in round 3.
The Lions were perhaps even more confident and looked in genuinely imperious form. The heavy away defeat to Boambee in round 4 sparked a monumental and much-needed turnaround in their campaign, having struggled through the first four rounds and rarely hit their straps. Since then, they had conceded just one goal in five games – while reduced to ten men – winning all of those by an average margin of close to five goals.
Storm custodian Josh Harrigan retained his starting spot, but Grant Scully’s unavailability heralded a first Premier League start this season for John Omtha in midfield. The squad size was slightly reduced from last week’s 16 man unit, with Ian Marsh and Felix Sinzinkayo making way on the bench for Keiran Clerke. The suspension of Caleb Lokpo saw Thangkin Shetta drafted into the starting side for the Lions, who were otherwise unchanged. The only change on the five man bench from last week’s clash against Urunga was Abdul Kalifa coming in for Nathan Silvy.
The home side started brightly and the positivity within the Storm camp was showing through, but it didn’t last long as Coffs stuck one in the net early on the counter. Things went from bad to worse for Jade Porter’s troops as the Lions had a second inside the opening ten minutes. The madness subsided though, and both sides settled into a less frenetic pace for the remainder of the half as Storm found their feet defensively. Chris Dooley was forced off for the Lions as he had felt some numbness in his feet, so Nick ‘Choppy’ Lambert, who had played a full game in rezzies, took his place.
With the half time score at 2-0 to the visitors, Porter knew that through their defensive lapses his men had made it exceptionally difficult to drag themselves back into the contest and snag a result. The second half was full of controversy despite not a single yellow card needing to be issued on the afternoon by referee Jack Schafer, but the Lions remained calm amidst the turbulent seas. They were genuinely looking like the Lions of old – able to score with almost metronomic regularity and retain their defensive sturdiness even while playing below their best.
The gallant ‘Choppy’ was himself substituted in the 65th minute, having run his race – with Jyelei McKell coming on in a positional reshuffle – but not before getting his name on the scoresheet. There was another goal in the offing for the Lions too, which made it 4-0 on the afternoon, and what might have been the most pleasing aspect of the result for gaffer Glen Williams – who freely admitted his boys weren’t exactly delivering anything particularly stellar in the performance stakes by their usual standards – would be the diversity of his goalscorers. The usual suspects – Dooley, Goddard, Mayak, Rigoni et al – were not required to convert as both Mallett brothers, Addisen and Nick, as well as Thangkin Shetta, stepped up to the plate with a strike each.
Porter was understandably frustrated and was left scratching his head at the way a few incidents played out, but nonetheless was congratulatory to ‘Willo’ and his charges. He remains focused on moving forward rather than being bogged down in the past, and it is that proactive attitude that will serve this Thunder side well through the remainder of the season. Everyone out of Korora retains the utmost confidence that they will recapture their momentum, and with so many experienced stagers within their squad, they certainly aren’t short on personnel who know how to overcome adversity and foster a winning mentality.
The final permutation of results on the weekend meant they remain inside the four for another week, though with three sides now equal on 10 points and Maclean just one behind with a game in hand, the back to back fixtures with Urunga will be more crucial than ever. This weekend’s clash at the Patch has been rescheduled from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night at 5pm, to allow the Raiders to hold the Dixie Erlandsen Memorial Day at their fields on Saturday afternoon.
The Lions continue to move from strength to strength. Even when playing far beneath their capacity, they are sticking to their tried and tested systems of football and are able to churn out results with the utmost professionalism without having to get out of second gear. A number of their recent performances have started to echo the halcyon days of the McKay brothers, ‘Flipper’, and a prime Silvy and Lambert ripping sides apart with ruthless precision in lieu of flamboyant tricks and flicks.
This weekend, however, is a different story, as they take on a Boambee side who have been the competition’s benchmark thus far. The McLean Street denizens will have a lot of work to do to overhaul Shane Duncan’s men, but they have improved out of sight in recent weeks and it’s almost impossible to call a favourite. The Lions hold the home ground advantage and Forsyth Park can feel like a cauldron under lights for travelling sides, but the Bombers haven’t lost this season against non-NPL competition and tore the admittedly understrength Lions apart last time out. It will be a genuine blockbuster and any self-respecting football fan owes it to themselves to get out on Saturday night and have a look.
Coffs Coast Tigers vs Grafton United
Purple rain at Polwarth sees United edge closer to finals picture
A patchy run for Tigers had them coming into this one with a healthy ten goals scored in their past four games, but a less encouraging fifteen goals conceded over that period. They had split two pulsating 4-3 wins, over Westlawn Tigers and Northern Storm Thunder, with two losses – a 3-2 nailbiter against Urunga and a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Boambee. Coach Felipe Barrera knew there was no room for error in what was already becoming one of the tightest top four races in years, and the home game against Grafton would be an absolute must win fixture for his side.
United had turned on an encouraging performance against the Bombers last week where they led at half time, but were ultimately run down in the second half by the young side’s superior stamina. They had defeated Tigers in the sides’ previous meeting at Rushforth Park, and went down to Polwarth Drive full of confidence that another smash and grab victory was on the cards. Coach Scott Elphic had the men in purple primed for a great showing this season, and a win here would elevate them very much back into the finals conversation as they lay just three points behind their West Coffs opponents on the ladder.
‘Squeezo’s puissant five goal display in reserve grade last weekend saw him recalled to the starting XI, with ‘Gooey’ dropping into his usual defensive role owing to Zack Smith’s unavailability. Tigers were also missing Josh Guy, who was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran Paul Dixon. A first Premier League squad inclusion for 2018 was on offer for Samson Bawiri, who took a place on the bench at the expense of Mi Reh. Last week’s Premier League debutant for Grafton, Andrew Durrington, sat out due to a prolific yellow card accrual over the season leading to suspension, while James Craig was also unavailable. Wylie Tynan was promoted from the bench and Nathan Daniels also came into the side.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon in West Coffs, the two sides commenced proceedings amidst moderate precipitation. The game had been shifted from the main field to the auxiliary Polwarth Drive 2, and the general greasiness of the ball and bogginess of the surface was creating a degree of anguish for several players, most notably Grafton keeper Matt McMahon who was having difficulty getting purchase on the ball from his goal kicks. Both sides knew they would be in for some tough times courtesy of the conditions, and it was clear early on that this would be a real arm wrestle with little to separate the combatants.
Grafton were able to edge out the first half of play and take a 1-0 lead to the sheds through captain Braydon Jones. An enigmatic figure who plays the game with his heart on his sleeve, Jones was the epitome of passion – occasionally spilling just over the boundaries of footballing decorum – and proved a thorn in the Tigers’ side all afternoon in a talismanic performance. The GUFC backline were delivering a similarly accomplished effort, with opposition coach Barrera saying their central defenders are ‘strong and very comfortable on the ball, and [Tigers] just couldn’t break through the defensive lines’.
Barrera’s men were putting together some decent passages of play, but as has been the story of their campaign to date, inconsistency and mental lapses were not helping their cause. Elphic on the other hand was impressed with ‘a great 30 minutes of attacking style play’ from his charges, but noted that they ‘could’ve [been] tighter on it in the last 10 minutes, but [they] took the foot off the pedal’ and McMahon was ‘getting bored and distracted and wanting to come out on the pitch and go for a run at times’. Despite holding the lead, he was feeling nervous and somewhat frustrated by the overexcitement of his men getting them caught offside on several occasions.
Going into the second half, the home side knew they had their work cut out to overhaul the deficit, and there were a few signs of vulnerability in the travellers that were ready made to be exploited by the pacy and wily Tigers attack. Elphic was keen to ensure his side didn’t let the lead slip, and emphasised the importance of refusing to deviate from the team task during his half time talk. It was the home side who came out the more positive though, as a corner from Innocent David found the head of ‘Squeezo’, who came within a whisker of giving his side the equaliser only few minutes after the interval. The vape pen collector and competitive dancer was convinced the ball was headed goalwards, but could only watch on in horror as it kissed the crossbar and was cleared away from danger.
The run of play was all with the home side though, and they didn’t have to wait much longer to square the ledger. Somchai Tha picked up possession at the edge of the box and managed to squirm it through a mass of bodies, helped by a heavy deflection that took it well out of reach of McMahon between the sticks. As the ball nestled in the bottom right corner of the net, the game suddenly took on a different complexion as Tigers had their tails up and looked to seize the result.
But this Grafton side were made of sterner stuff, and didn’t have plans on rolling over any time soon. They responded encouragingly and doubled down on the grit and fight in their game to unsettle the home side. It had felt for a period of around 10 to 15 minutes that the game had become Tigers’ to lose, but with the work rate of Hayden Young, Ethan Piper and Joe Macari as well as the spirited battling of Jones, who was dropping back into the midfield to excellent effect, United recaptured the momentum. Elphic noted that his side were now ‘playing the game [they] came down to play’.
Things were growing spicier on the field and there was no shortage of meaty challenges, sometimes slightly overstepping the mark of what would ordinarily be considered permissible and drawing the ire of referee Michael Clark, who was dipping into his pocket book with regularity. There was a period of around 15 to 20 minutes in the second half where four yellow tickets were issued, and a number of barbs both verbal and physical were being tossed around, with the encounter threatening to boil over into something slightly more sinister. Thankfully, both sides retained a degree of composure to prevent a bloodbath from playing out, and instead, it was a display of highly entertaining, competitive football with some added needle.
The away side kept plugging away time after time and eventually their determination was rewarded handsomely. A quick counter caught the Tigers backline napping and it was none other than skipper Braydon Jones who profited, sneaking in behind enemy lines and deftly rounding Tigers gloveman Jake Mahoney before coolly slotting into the empty net. Jones’ exuberant backflip goal celebration was one of the afternoon’s more memorable moments, though his excitement boiled over slightly with a confrontational display towards Mahoney almost leading to a minor melee.
There was still more drama to come, though. The home side responded positively to the setback and got back onto the front foot, and at one point Ethan Sechi made an excellent run to beat four players with the ball at his feet, only to unleash a weak shot that failed to trouble McMahon. There was a golden opportunity for them to equalise once again as Sechi stole a march on his marker and got to the byline, cutting in for an unmarked Innocent David whose header was directed straight at McMahon’s gloves.
United almost made them pay dearly for such profligacy as another counter saw Paul Dixon get his timing all wrong in the box and bring down a Grafton attacker with his back to goal. His first touch collected the man and not the ball, and Clark pointed to the spot much to Dixon’s dismay. The centre back earnt a card for dissent as he vociferously appealed the decision, and the Tigers supporters were equally agitated. Jones had a great chance to seal his hat trick, but blasted the ball wide of the left post and in doing so allowed the result to hang very much in the balance heading into the final few minutes.
The final exchanges on the afternoon were as tense and dramatic as you will see in any regular season game, Tigers pouring forward in numbers and United’s rigid defence holding strong and repelling wave after wave of attacks. Elphic was pacing his technical area like a caged lion, rarely remaining stationary for more than a couple of seconds at a time, and both benches were up and down like a jack in the box. As Clark whistled for full time, it was another famous win for the men in purple, who celebrated heartily and deservedly – another crucial three points had them back on track and once again entertaining the possibility of an unlikely finals appearance.
The home side were dejected and the disappointment was palpable as they headed back to the sheds with heads down and hands on hips. Barrera, aware that he is beginning to sound like something of a broken record, expressed frustration at his side playing ‘really well for short spurts without scoring and then [conceding] goals too easily’. He praised Grafton for ‘[countering] well and [catching his men] ball watching on two occasions when they scored’ and said his side ‘struggled to break them down even though they played three men up high when defending’.
It is a familiar story for the boys from West Coffs, who Barrera knows ‘are still in the race for a top-four finish, but need to tighten [their] defence and sharpen [their] point if [they] are going to get there’. He will be away for two weeks but leaves the side in the capable hands of Richard Evans and Curt Dixon as they take on the Bobcats at Wherrett Park this Saturday in a proper six-pointer with finals prospects on the line more than ever, and then Coffs United in a night game at McLean Street. The bottom line – it’s not going to get any easier, and they need to stand up and be counted – and fast – before their hopes of September football slip through their fingers.
Elphic was understandably delighted with the football his men had exhibited and perhaps even more importantly, the heart and spirit shown to keep their heads up after leaking an equaliser and being on the back foot momentum-wise. Once they recaptured their lead, they were as stoic as ever and looked to extend it, spraying balls up the flanks to try and get behind through Joe Macari, Ethan Piper and later Selwyn King even while Jones was cramping badly in the centre of the park in the final few minutes.
Elphic knew the home side were ‘rattled and frustrated and not happy campers’ and said his side ‘seem to be doing that to a lot of the Coffs teams – win or lose, [they] are putting out a message to the Coffs area [that] the Lower Clarence teams should never be underestimated’. He says that he ‘came on board this season to prove that [they] can stay off the bottom of the ladder, and that [remains their] main goal’, while he also wants to ‘show that [they] can play quality football’. All of those ambitions are being achieved with aplomb thus far and full credit must go to both Elphic and his squad for the quantum leap in improvement they have undergone in 2018. United are now level on points with both Storm and Tigers and sit outside the top four only on goal difference – an immense achievement after 10 rounds of football have already been played.
They will return home to Rushforth Park this weekend to host Westlawn Tigers in a Lower Clarence derby that Elphic expects to be ‘amped up’ as ‘rival clubs go to war’. Having ‘heard through the grapevine [that] Westlawn Tigers have made a few changes up top in their playing style’, he knows it will be a tough contest, and the heart-stopping 4-4 draw at Barnier Park in round 4, which included a goal to each side in injury time, suggests we could be in for another absolute barnburner on Saturday night.