By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm Thunder vs Westlawn Tigers
Storm had lost two on the bounce and hadn’t scored in 180 minutes of football, though those statements alone do not tell the full story of their previous fortnight. They ran into a rampant Coffs United side at the peak of their powers and could count themselves unlucky not to emerge from their encounter against the Raiders with a result after playing perhaps the better football on the afternoon. But at the end of the day, the zero point yield from those two fixtures is the only thing that will count in the context of their season, and this home game against Westlawn Tigers was thus of paramount importance if they were to remain in touch with the top four and not have to watch their finals dreams slip through their fingers after a rousing mid-season resurgence.
The previous two games had been just as frustrating for Westlawn. An agonising 4-3 defeat away to Coffs Coast Tigers and an unlucky 2-1 reverse in the Clarence derby against Grafton United sandwiched a postponed home fixture against Urunga as a result of inclement weather. They had been playing some decent football that their results hadn’t yet reflected, but would no doubt have been finding it tough to continue drawing on reserves of morale after so many heartbreaking results. They had been quite competitive in their last outing against Storm, despite going down 3-0 at Back Lane in round 5, and the men in yellow would no doubt have been targeting an improved outcome this time around.
Another week, another keeper swap for Storm – Josh Harrigan coming back in for Felix Sinzinkayo. Tristan Albert returned to the starting lineup in favour of Otis Barney, who dropped to the bench, while the unavailable Mykel Watson and Sam Brown were replaced by Michael Turner and John Omtha respectively. An extended five man bench saw Joseph Ha and Scott Tarlinton included in the squad.
For the Tigers, Anthony Wall was drafted into the backline as Jesse Benfield dropped back to the bench. Nick Lavender was the unlucky squad member to make way from the 14 named last week for the tight Clarence derby – instead taking up a role in the technical area – with the remainder of James Joyce’s outfit unchanged.
Unfortunately for the travelling Tigers, a few members of the Premier League squad had already featured in the earlier Reserve Grade fixture, and by the time the two sides kicked off at the Cove in the main event, it was clear they were lower on gas than their fresh opposition. Buoyed additionally by the home support and knowing that they not only needed the three points but also to generate a substantial improvement in goal difference, the Thunder turned the screws and delivered the performance they needed at this point in their season.
The final count of the damage was 7-0 to Storm, who will be pleased with the diversity of their goalscorers on the day – the magnificent seven coming from five different sources. Jamie Kennedy grabbed a brace, while Tristan Albert, Grant Scully and Beajay Wendt got in on the act with one each. Otis Barney was introduced from the bench and claimed a brace of his own in a spell that terrorised the visitors’ defence, while Joseph Ha saw his first minutes of Premier League football in a late cameo and Matt Parkins also got on the park in the second stanza.
Storm coach Jade Porter was keenly aware of what was required on the afternoon – not just a win but a strong one to recapture the confidence and momentum the side had developed over the course of several weeks previously – and his relief was evident that his boys had indeed delivered, having also ‘scored some great goals’ in the process in Porter’s own words. What was previously a raging forest fire of morale that had the Thunder looking stronger than ever and primed for a big finish to the season had threatened to extinguish as the weight of a run of defeats starved the flames of oxygen, but this result was a mighty bottle of kerosene and suddenly the boys from Korora are looking incendiary once again.
For most sides, a fixture against undefeated competition leaders Boambee Bombers would loom as a genuinely imposing assignment and a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But the Thunder will feel quietly confident that they have already developed much of the blueprint required to collect a result, having caused Boambee’s inexperienced defence no end of strife the last time the two sides met at Ayrshire Park and coming within a whisker of snatching victory despite having been reduced to ten men. Porter will hope his men can recapture the antidote to the Bombers’ devastating power, and a result for the home side at the Cove will be an enormous shot in the arm for the run in towards finals as they look to close the gap on the Bobcats.
It’s tough to be too critical on the Tigers in this instance, as they appeared something of a spent force having started off with a few players already on weary legs. Being on the back foot before a ball has even been kicked is never an enviable position, and the psychological effect of such a situation on a team cannot be underestimated. But the Barnier Park brains trust will nonetheless be aware that there is still a fair amount of work to be done in order to close the gap on the top sides in pure footballing terms.
They keep on punching above their weight, and without being afforded the luxury that most of the competition’s other clubs are in terms of the pedigree of players they are able call on, they enter every fixture as an underdog and have to grind for every result. But the most admirable trait of this side remains their willingness to play positive football with attacking intent, even in the face of waves of pressure from their opposition. Joyce’s men stay true to their philosophy and don’t compromise for anyone, and that facet of their game will be what ultimately improves them and allows them to build upon their standing in the competition over the longer term. With enough practice and commitment to developing a unique style and system, the combinations will begin to flow eventually and they will become harder and harder to earn a result against.
Things won’t get any easier for the Junction Hill boys this weekend as they return to Barnier Park to take on a Maclean side riding the confidence boost of two consecutive strong wins and occupying a finals position. The finals dream is gone for the Tigers, but that most certainly doesn’t mean they will roll over and submit to any opposition they face, and they will be wanting to get right up in the Bobcats’ grills and make them earn every ball. Despite their standing on the table, their heart and enterprise remain second to none.
Coffs City United Lions vs Coffs Coast Tigers
The Lions were coming off a chastening week where their Premiership ambitions were dealt a hammer blow against the Bombers in a top of the table clash at Forsyth Park. It’s fair to say that opposition sides coming to the Lions’ den and scoring five isn’t something that happens all too often, and Glen Williams’ men were forced to take a good hard look at themselves in the mirror and see what would need to be done in order to close the gap at the top. A margin that had seemed so close must now seem miles away, and the home derby against Coffs Coast Tigers would now carry even greater importance – not only did the Lions desperately need to claim all three points, but a strong display of football would be a must in order to recapture the feeling of dominance within the proud squad.
Tigers had been going through a very rough patch of late, with three losses in their last four and five in their last seven making for unsettling reading. Add to that the fact that their only two wins in their last seven fixtures were by nailbiting 4-3 margins, one of which was against the competition’s bottom side, and it was hardly a story of a side who were deserving of finals football. The reality is that the defence have been letting the men in orange and black down this season, with their porous backline having leaked a goal every 27 minutes of football over the aforementioned seven game stretch. They would need to improve substantially in this regard if they were to overcome a wounded Lions side fuelled by the pain of defeat and looking to get their campaign back on track.
The composition of the Lions’ starting side was not greatly altered after the previous week’s defeat – keeper Stephen Meakins was replaced by another stand-in in the form of Brent Turner in between the sticks, while Nick Mallett made way for Nick Lambert. Thangkin Shetta was replaced on the bench by Nathan Silvy and Scott Cawley was drafted in to fill out the 16 man squad. On paper, it was a very strong side and not too far off the best XI Williams could put out from the cattle available at the club, the influence and experience of Messrs Digney, Allsop, Dooley, Goddard and Mayak all present and accounted for on the park. Any side in this competition where a player as talented as Dut Garang, for example, is consigned to a bench role on a weekly basis surely has a surfeit of attacking talent at their disposal and the home crowd were expecting a flurry of goals against a notoriously shaky defence.
For the Tigers, Zack Smith‘s unavailability meant Matt Guyatt came back into the starting lineup, with the remainder of the XI otherwise unchanged. None of the five man bench, which saw Vichai Tha replaced by Samson Bawiri and Mark Ifrah also brought in, were ultimately utilised on the evening by caretaker coach Curt Dixon, who will make way next round for the returning Felipe Barrera in the dugout. ‘Squeezo’ was again left out of the 16 man squad despite providing two excellent assists to spur Reserve Grade on to a stellar 2-0 victory, and one of the strongest attacking weapons for the orange and black would appear to have fallen out of favour somewhat in recent weeks despite having also markedly improved upon his propensity to be caught in offside positions at crucial moments – with not a single offside in his last two games of Reserve Grade football.
A chilly evening under lights in front of a set of vocal home supporters at Forsyth Park set the scene for some ideal conditions for the Lions, and as referee Jason Hillier commenced proceedings, it was the home side who looked to get on the front foot early and impose their well organised passing game to strong effect. It was a match that was less tempestuous than the derby tag would ordinarily suggest – with just a solitary yellow card, to Guyatt for a clumsy challenge, being issued over the course of the game – but neither side looked at their best in front of goal and clear cut chances were hardly aplenty.
Ultimately, it was the Lions who prevailed in a close one, a Gum Mayak brace getting them home for a 2-1 victory with only Ethan Sechi being able to respond for Tigers. It was a much improved defensive performance from the visitors, for whom it was just the second occasion in eight games that they allowed their opposition to score less than three, but the Lions looked below their best and their normally razor sharp attack looked at times like something more akin to a blunt instrument as they collected the points mainly by sheer force of will.
The Lions will need to quickly put this hangover behind them and get back on the Premiership charge. They may have claimed the points on Saturday, but at times they looked less than convincing in doing so and they will need to avoid getting sucked into the trap of playing to the level of their opposition and get back to delivering the assured and meticulous performances they are capable of. Mayak has been an excellent weapon in their arsenal this season and has bailed them out of tight spots on a few occasions already, but they can scarcely afford to be so reliant on a solitary scorer and Williams will want to see some more contributions from his other attackers once again – something that was working well during their run of fixtures from rounds 5 to 10.
They travel up the Pacific Highway to Rushforth Park this Saturday night to take on Grafton United and will want to improve upon their performance in the corresponding fixture in round 6 – they came away with a 3-0 win on that evening, but the match will be remembered more for its spite and temper than anything related to the actual football that was played. Elphic’s United can be a tricky test to negotiate but the Lions and their travelling band of supporters will be expecting nothing less than a dominant win if they truly continue to harbour Premiership ambitions in 2018.
Tigers are on a real rough trot and have now lost six of their last eight. With a tricky run of games ahead – away to Urunga and Northern Storm and then hosting Boambee – opportunities to pick up points will be at an absolute premium over the next three weeks, which will ultimately prove a make or break period in the course of their season. Should they fail to register a win against any of those sides, all of which they will head in as underdogs against, their finals ambitions will be all but over and their focus will likely turn to 2019.
There are two things that count in their favour, though. Firstly, regular coach Felipe Barrera will return to the dugout this weekend after a two week absence. Barrera’s influence may be just the tonic the boys need in order to spark a turnaround in results and get back to playing to their strengths rather than trying to play a brand of football to which they are less suited. Secondly, their season closes with four consecutive home games, all of which could feasibly see them collect points despite the strength of their opposition. You never know quite what you’re going to get when you watch a Tigers game, and that is both the beauty and the frustration of this side. Unfortunately, a finals appearance will require much greater consistency, and the first step in that direction must be this weekend at the Cabbage Patch. Barrera’s side need to produce a mighty result against the Raiders if they are to revive their charge towards the top four, and will have to be firing on all cylinders to do so.
Grafton United vs Maclean Bobcats
Riding the wave of two straight 2-1 wins over two different sets of Tigers, the boys from Grafton must have been feeling like highly accomplished zookeepers, having proven themselves adroit tamers of one of nature’s most imposing big cats. Surely then, the much smaller and less powerful bobcat would prove a cakewalk? The last time the sides were scheduled to face one another, in round 5, Scott Elphic and his men were unable to even make the northern journey to Wherrett Park as they were down on troops to such a degree that a forfeit proved necessary. Thus, there was little to work from as far as the head to head form guide was concerned for this one, with the most recent meeting between the northern foes taking place in 2017 with the Grafton side in particular having such a markedly different composition that comparisons could be rendered essentially irrelevant.
Despite the strong form of their opposition, Maclean too headed into this one full of confidence. A 3-1 home win over Coffs Coast Tigers had Dennis Mavridis and his men purring at the prospect of a trip to Rushforth Park to potentially string together a second consecutive victory and elevate themselves back into the top four. It’s been a topsy turvy season for the Bobcats, who have had to contend with a number of injuries and various instances of unavailability as well as opposition forfeits and fixture postponements, but the sheer strength of their Reserve Grade side, who lead the competition by a rather handsome five point and 14 goal margin – with the league’s best attack by six goals despite having played one less game and the best defence by seven goals – has been instrumental in allowing them to draw from a strong base of replacement players throughout.
For the home side, Andrew Durrington and Selwyn King dropped back to the bench as Ryan Earp was given a start for the first time this season and Hung ‘Tony’ Phung was promoted into the XI. The suspension of influential captain Braydon Jones due to yellow card accrual meant Nathan Daniels also got a promotion from the bench, as did Ali Irving due to Jack Daniels’ unavailability. Four changes in total to the starting side who beat Westlawn the previous week and a number of players walking suspension tightropes with four yellow cards picked up in rounds 6 and 11, two each in rounds 8 and 10 and one each in rounds 7 and 9 all contributing to the delicate nature of the situation.
The away side, by contrast, were a picture of consistency. For the first time in 2018, Mavridis was able to name an identical XI for consecutive weeks. The previous round against Coffs Coast Tigers at home, Lance Knibbs was a late scratching from the bench in favour of Taylor Corbacho, and indeed the only replacement in the 15 man squad for this week was a fit Knibbs returning to the pine with Corbacho making way.
The juxtaposition in consistency between the two squads was almost certain to play a factor on a frigid evening at Rushforth Park. What ultimately took place was a spicy fixture defined by tough tackling and unrelenting play from both sides. Referee Dave Connor was kept busy, going to his book on no less than eight occasions which equated to more or less a card every 11 minutes. Two of those were issued to Bobcats midfielder Riley Bender, who was sent for an early shower and will miss next week’s trip to Junction Hill as a result.
It mattered little for the men in green though, who had already done most of the damage – with Bender himself having already gotten his name on the scoresheet – putting four past the home side with only one mustered in reply. Closing out the game with 10 men wouldn’t have been quite what Mavridis had envisaged as being a decent outing, but that it was for the dangerous looking Bobcats, who also scored through Daley Durrant, Luke Hanlon and Gary Burns. The varied sources of goals will be pleasing, and the lack of reliance on key marksman Jarrod Doyle or the injured Frazer Marsh is a particularly positive sign for the Bobcats’ attacking output.
Elphic was understandably less pleased and rather understandably declined to offer a comment on the outcome of the match. Outside of a finish from diminutive but marauding English wide man Joe Macari, there was little to smile about for the men in purple, who picked up four cautions on the evening and will now be in a degree of strife as far as availability is concerned. Another reshuffle to the lineup may now prove necessary as a result of suspensions and while there is rarely a good time to have to field an understrength lineup, a match against Coffs United is without a doubt a less than ideal one.
That said, the return of enigmatic captain Braydon Jones to the fold will be a timely boost. A charismatic leader on the park, Jones brings a sense of passion, energy and urgency to his performances that is infectious and lifts his team mates to a new level. It’s a crucial juncture for United’s season – they have now slipped back out of the top four, lying two points and a game behind the Bobcats and behind Northern Storm on goal difference. A result against the Lions will undoubtedly be a tall order, but it would do absolute wonders for both their confidence and their finals charge.
The Bobcats are finally changing out of second gear after a tough run against the Lions, Raiders and Thunder where they slumped to three straight defeats, conceding ten and scoring just one. They have now made it two on the bounce and have scored seven and conceded two over the last fortnight. While they occupy a top four position at present and have a game in hand over the chasing pack, that game in hand is against the ladder leading Bombers and by no means equates to guaranteed points in the bag.
This weekend’s game against Westlawn will be absolutely essential for Mavridis and his troops to collect another three points, and they will travel to Barnier Park with nothing other than victory on their minds. The last time they took on James Joyce and his men in yellow, they came away with a resounding 5-1 win at Wherrett Park, and while there’s no reason they can’t replicate such a result, they will need to be wary they don’t let anything slip against a swashbuckling side who are capable of punishing opposition defences on the break when they let their guard down.
Boambee Bombers vs Urunga Raiders
The Bombers have gone from strength to strength this season and only look to be getting better as time goes on. Several members of the lineup are taking part in their first full season of Premier League action, and it’s plain for all to see that the experience has been beneficial and that there is still a lot of improvement left in them – a scary thought for opposition sides who have already been taken apart by some of the still-nascent members of this squad. The experience and quality of players like Jake Stitt, Brady Parker and Luke France provides a bedrock of consistency upon which coach Shane Duncan can continue to build, and the combination of wily and seasoned veterans with youthful exuberance and electric pace has proven particularly tough for teams of local competition calibre to deal with in 2018. Perhaps the last major hurdle they have yet to overcome is developing a genuinely watertight defence, having kept just one clean sheet over eleven rounds of football thus far.
The Raiders on the other hand appear just a little off the pace in this campaign. It might seem a harsh assessment for a side who sit in third position on the ladder with a nine point gap to their nearest chaser in the pack, but the Raiders have been defeated twice in their last three games and looked unconvincing in a laboured 1-0 win over Northern Storm at the Patch. They would appear at this point to be the competition’s clear third best side, but that’s not somewhere coach Craig Simpson would have wanted them to be at the outset of the season, and anyone at Morgo Street will tell you how proud this club are and that every season they harbour ambitions for silverware. They most certainly are still in the hunt for the Championship and should make finals at a relative canter, but their Premiership aspirations are now hanging by a thread and a loss at Ayrshire Park would essentially kill them off entirely.
Having taken the Raiders on at the Patch just 90 hours earlier and claimed victory, the Bombers wouldn’t have wanted to change too much as far as personnel were concerned, and indeed they were able to field an identical starting XI. The composition of the bench looked rather different to Wednesday evening, Jack Mitchell and Jamie Newling being replaced by Tom Frewen, Mark Norberry and Darby Sherrin in an extended 16 man squad. For the Raiders, Jake Leslie was ruled out, offering coach Simpson the opportunity to don the boots once again and return to the starting lineup after turning down the chance to sub himself on midweek. Josh McGovern was replaced on the bench by James Power, with Matt Smith coming in as a backup GK.
A cloudless sky greeted the two sides on a perfect afternoon for football at Ayrshire Park. Martin Gadd had the whistle and both sides looked primed for a quality display. The first quarter of the game was very evenly contested as both sides looked to open up gaps through slick passing interchanges, but both defences seemed equal to the task. Openings were relatively limited and the battle was largely fought in the midfield.
The home side looked to be having a little more success by going out wide and indeed that was how the opener would ultimately come after around 25 minutes. A looping cross field ball from Josh McIntosh, who had galloped high up the left flank, found the head of France who nodded it back down into the centre. The bouncing ball found a well positioned James Lowe, who took a touch and deposited an exquisite lob out of the reach of Raiders custodian Lee Kennedy. The ball kissed the left post en route to the back of the net and the Bombers had dealt a heavy blow midway through the half.
More midfield battles for possession followed, the Raiders attempting to impose their will through their favoured brand of carpet ball and trying to work an opening, but each time lacking the cutting edge to make the decisive breakthrough and square the ledger. As the opening stanza drew to a close, the Bombers again chose to go wide, a clever series of one two interchanges from Lowe, first with Mitchell Brewster and then with France, released Lowe on the left. Lowe attempted a first time cross with his left foot, but it was headed straight back to him in boomerang-like fashion by Harlen Dew at the back stick. Lowe composed himself and crossed again with his left to Christian Penny at the front post, who put his body on the line and attempted to beat Kennedy with a diving header. Ultimately, he could only glance it on towards the back post, but France was lurking right there and buried a powerful low strike with his right foot back across the body of Kennedy and into the left hand side of the net.
2-0 up at the break, the Bombers looked in the mood for more and the Raiders were starting to look a step behind in general play. Around a quarter of an hour into the second half, a high Kennedy goal kick took only one scrappy touch in midfield to bounce right through to his opposite number Stitt. Stitt launched a bomb of his own that was headed away from danger by Jaxen Heward, who found the feet of Jai Wadick. Wadick looked less than comfortable in possession under heavy pressure from McIntosh, and was forced to turn back and give the ball to Henry Gale. Gale made a poor first touch with Parker bearing down on him, and Parker won possession before charging away down the left. A well placed low cross found France, who had escaped the attentions of his marker Dew and absolutely thumped a daisycutter into the bottom left hand corner off his right foot that gave Kennedy absolutely no chance.
Eight minutes later, a deep Lachie Moye cross found Penny given acres of space by Dew at the back post. Penny had time to measure up his header but ultimately could only place it low and almost directly at Kennedy. Fortunately for the shiny headed assassin though, his smooth cranium looked to have imparted some additional greasiness on the ball and somehow it snuck under the body of the diving Kennedy and trickled into the net, looking slipperier than a Turkish oil wrestler with a Vaseline sponsorship. At 4-0, the Bombers had well and truly killed off the contest and the remainder of the game somewhat lacked the intensity we have come to expect in contests between these two sides.
There was some spite from the Raiders, with three yellow cards picked up for various instances of niggling, and to Simpson’s credit he did try to change the formula somewhat, going to his bench for the full complement of three substitutes and introducing Jack Martin, James Power and Jordan Tree for Kale Hopper, Pablo Kastner and Cale Simmonds. But ultimately all the changes could do was contribute towards the Raiders’ J quota – alongside Jai Wadick, Joe Soergel and Jaxen Heward – and cut the kale right out of their diet. No scoring joy was to be had for the men in maroon, and as Gadd blew his whistle thrice for full time, the final score remained at an unflattering 4-0.
It’s taken 12 rounds but finally the Bombers defence look to have clicked – they have now registered their second clean sheet of the season and their first against a fellow top four side. They are now only two goals behind Coffs United in the defensive stakes – though United have played a game extra – and will look to continue improving and developing a stronger unit at the back. Though their goals largely came from profiting from Raiders errors rather than particularly fluent build up play, they are taken their chances and Duncan will be very impressed by how clinical his attackers were on the afternoon. Their attack have scored more than double the Raiders’ output, and lead the league in that category by a whopping 13 goals, meaning they are scoring at over a goal a game more than anyone else has managed thus far.
They will travel to the Cove on Saturday to take on Northern Storm, and will look to clock up a win against the only side in the competition they are yet to defeat this season – and avenge the only occasion they have dropped points in 2018. The Storm presented a tricky challenge last time out, slicing the Bombers defence to shreds even after Grant Scully’s dismissal reduced them to ten men, and indeed the men from Ayrshire Park could probably have counted themselves lucky to have escaped that fixture with their unbeaten record remaining intact. But after three consecutive wins against fellow top three sides, they will be backing themselves to get the job done and based on form and relative standing in the current status quo, most signs would point towards a Bombers win.
The Raiders’ hunt for the Premiership now appears all but over, with a nine-point gap to the Bombers now. The Bombers at this point don’t look like a side who are going to drop nine more points all season, and the Raiders don’t look like a side who will be able to put together the 100% record over the next ten games that would be required to close that gap even if the Bombers were to capitulate somewhat. With a goal difference of only +6, the biggest concern for the Raiders at this point would appear to be the attack, who have yielded just 23 goals all season and sit in distant fourth in that category behind the Bombers, Lions and Thunder, as well as being just two ahead of Maclean.
But the defence is all of a sudden starting to look a little shakier too and the way they conceded on Sunday afternoon often had the hallmarks of a side suffering from nerves and self-doubt. These men are better than such characteristics would suggest, though, and there is no doubt whatsoever that they will rebuild and put together another winning run. They should still comfortably make finals, and that part of the year is truly where anything can happen, so the Morgo Street brains trust will still be backing themselves to make some waves come September. They return to the Patch this weekend to take on a Coffs Coast Tigers side who have looked sub-par of late, and that fixture will present them with an excellent opportunity to recapture some much needed momentum ahead of a run of potentially three straight lengthy away trips – depending on when the postponed Westlawn fixture will take place.