By Tim Klingbiel
Northern Storm vs Maclean Bobcats
The Thunder produced one of their finest performances of the season last weekend as they tore apart Coffs Coast Tigers at home and emerged with a 6-0 win that sounded a warning shot to the rest of the division and forced local pundits to sit up and take notice. The men from Korora are looking very dangerous heading towards the pointy end of the season, and the cohesion and consistency of their squad – many, such as Nathan Skinner, Jamie Kennedy, Mykel Watson, Tristan Albert and Beajay Wendt among others, have been playing together since juniors – has proven an excellent asset in a topsy turvy campaign where most sides have struggled to settle on a winning formula.
For the Bobcats, the season had taken on an ever so slightly desperate complexion, having relinquished their top four position and now facing the prospect of their destiny falling out of their own hands should they suffer defeat at the Cove. With Grafton United and even Coffs Coast Tigers still breathing down their necks in terms of ladder position, last week’s heavy home defeat against the Raiders – which followed an away loss to the Lions and a late splutter at Barnier Park to throw away two points against Westlawn – hurt them badly and they now faced the very real possibility of tail spinning into a five game losing streak with a double header against Boambee awaiting them the following week. The win would be absolutely crucial if they were to stay in touch.
Storm gaffer Jade Porter was afforded a rare luxury for this fixture, being able to name an identical starting XI to the one who eviscerated Coffs Coast Tigers in their previous home game in round 14. Even the five man bench of John Omtha, Otis Barney, Michael Turner, Jordan Wildman and Felix Sinzinkayo remained exactly the same as that game. There was just one change from last week’s starting side in the goalless draw against Grafton – Josh ‘Buckets’ Harrigan coming back between the sticks for Sinzinkayo – but they have gone two straight home games with an identical 16 man squad, perhaps the first such instance for any side this season.
The Bobcats made just the one change to the starting side, James Austin being promoted from the bench for the unavailable Scott Grey. Coach Dennis Mavridis changed just one member of the 15 man squad who hosted the Raiders at Wherrett Park last weekend, as Taylor Corbacho was drafted in as an additional reinforcement on the bench. They would have been eager to replicate the outcome of their last visit to Plantain Road in round 2, where a counterattacking smash and grab saw them snatch a 3-1 victory largely against the run of play, but wanted to avoid a repeat of round 9 where they were torn apart 5-1 at Barry Watts Oval.
Marty Gadd took the whistle and commenced proceedings at 3pm, and unfortunately kick off was about as good as it got on the afternoon for the Bobcats. The home side were in the mood and passed the ball slickly around the park like a well oiled machine. Marty Skinner and Beajay Wendt scored one each before the unfortunate Brad Corbett made life even tougher for the men in green with an own goal. Even at 3-0 though, the damage hadn’t all been done.
Substitute Otis Barney climbed off the bench for the Thunder and his lively contributions caused no end of headaches for the Bobcats defence. Proactive dribbling, mazy running, pace, trickery and superb close control made for a devastating combination in attack and though he ultimately finished with a brace, it could well have been more. Barney has proven an excellent mid-season acquisition for the Thunder and should they secure finals football, he will be an excellent weapon to have in their arsenal as far as late impact and the capacity to break a game open individually are concerned.
By full time it was 5-0 and the Bobcats looked a slightly broken side. They must now refocus ahead of a critical double header this weekend against Boambee Bombers, knowing that defeat in both matches would make it an absolute mountain to climb to clinch a finals appearance. Whenever they face the Bombers, though, they seem to lift to another level, and have caused Shane Duncan’s men a degree of difficulty in recent meetings. Mavridis will likely be reading some Sun Tzu passages to his charges before Saturday’s blockbuster at Wherrett Park, as they now need to essentially adopt a ‘win or bust’ attitude for all of their remaining fixtures with a four point and 22 goal gap to make up to the fourth placed Storm.
The Thunder are moving from strength to strength, and despite the blip on the radar in round 15 where they drew a blank against Grafton at Rushforth Park, they are looking imperious just at the right time. Porter said he was ‘happy [with] how the boys approached not only the game but also the moment’. He opined that it was ‘important to be solid and to stand up to the occasion, which was huge for [them] in the context of the season and was a credit to every position. From keeper to [their] last sub, everyone had to play their part to earn that result’. They will face a monumental challenge this weekend in the form of Coffs United under lights at McLean Street, but the belief within the side is at a high and they will back themselves to get the job done.
Westlawn Tigers vs Coffs Coast Tigers
A heavy defeat last weekend to the Lions knocked the stuffing out of James Joyce’s Westlawn side, who had previously turned in two excellent displays in rounds 13 and 14. A magnificent late comeback to snatch a 4-4 draw against Maclean, followed by a 5-1 defeat to the Bombers where the scoreline hardly told the story of the courageous display from the men in yellow, now felt like distant memories ahead of a ‘Tiger derby’ at Barnier Park. It would be a battle of the cellar dwellars – 8th place hosting 7th – and to most it would appear that the main thing on the line was pride rather than realistic finals prospects.
Coffs Coast Tigers, on the other hand, had other ideas. Despite a run of six defeats on the bounce, the last four of those had been to each of the top four sides in the competition, and coach Felipe Barrera and his men retained a sense of unwavering conviction that a late season comeback and an improbable finals appearance was still on the cards. The 3-1 defeat to the Bombers last time out was not without a host of positives, and ultimately the result was more a case of self-sabotage and an error riddled defensive display than being outclassed in general play by any stretch, which is saying a lot considering their opponents are top of the table and undefeated. Their last win was a pulsating 4-3 at home against none other than Westlawn, back in round 9, and they were confident of registering another positive result.
The home side welcomed back their fearless leader for this one, Joyce slotting back in to the defence as both Benfield brothers, Zack and Jesse, served suspensions, the former for being dismissed last weekend for using parlance that fell outside the bounds of the Queen’s English and the latter for picking up four yellow cards over the course of the campaign. The returning Mick Allen filled the remaining void, while Nick Lavender was promoted from the bench in favour of Harry Vidler who moved in the opposite direction. Luke Shipman and Balla Traoré came into the squad as substitutes, replacing William Pollock and Isaac Huxley who were each unused last weekend.
The orange and black decided to give regular gloveman Jake Mahoney another shot up front, and an unorthodox looking backline saw Josh Guy and Matt Guyatt replaced by Samson Bawiri and Trent Lakeman. Marko Kisose’s return from suspension was a timely boost for Barrera’s men, who had lost young playmaker Ethan Sechi to injury. Amidst the spate of injuries and absences, Mark Ifrah was drafted into a lean 14 man squad as a substitute, while indica filled part-time breakdancer ‘Squeezo’, one of Tigers’ best performers since being dropped to reserve grade and having both sparked a second half comeback earlier in the afternoon and sparked up a ‘leafy straw’ later in the evening, remained unused on the bench for yet another week.
The home side looked absolutely wired to begin with and it appeared the visitors might well have a long afternoon on their hands. The self-destruct mechanism seemed to be coming back out for the West Coffs men, whose replacement defenders were struggling mightily in the game’s early period. They gave away a penalty early on and then conceded another from distance, as Mick Allen and Tom Westmann each got on the scoresheet for Westlawn. The yellow warriors were playing some great football and opposing coach Barrera gave them full credit for the quality of their play, saying he believes they can have a very competitive team in the next few years once their young players gain more experience at Premier League level – much like his own side.
The travellers began to settle into a rhythm, though, and started to find the feel of makeshift striker Jake Mahoney. With the Coffs Coast attackers penetrating the lines with regularity, they were able to halve the deficit through Mahoney and then equalise courtesy of a penalty converted by Innocent David. Going into half time, the sides were on level terms – 2-2, one penalty each and one open play goal each. It was nigh on impossible to separate the teams based on the way the opening stanza had played out, though it was the away side who carried the momentum into the crucial second half of football.
A half time tweak in formation from Barrera saw a strong start to the resumption of play, as they built up patiently on both flanks and created numerous attacking opportunities. They were rewarded for their intent with a goal from Jye Buck, who put them up 3-2 with quite some time still left on the clock. Barrera said his men felt the momentum change at this point, and in the closing stages of the game they were able to score two further goals – another to Buck and a free kick to captain Dane Dixon – to push the final margin out to 5-2.
Barrera admitted that Westlawn were quite unlucky with the result, having squandered a couple of golden one on one chances, and said that if it wasn’t for the efforts of custodian Kliendienst, the outcome may have been different. With five games remaining in the season, Barrera says his men are still in with a chance, but is acutely aware that they need results against every team they face – as well as no small amount of good fortune in terms of the permutations of various other fixtures – if they are to mount a near miraculous comeback and make an appearance in September. The job continues with a trip to Rushforth Park this weekend to take on Grafton United, who have already beaten them twice this season, and then finishes with four consecutive home games to round things out.
Westlawn were left ruing missed opportunities on the afternoon and on another day could have easily claimed a point at the very least. Finishing profligacy has been a familiar problem for them throughout the campaign, and remains something that still needs to be developed if the club are to achieve greater successes in 2019. In many cases, their defensive lapses can be chalked up to dips in morale, having dropped their heads after sustained periods of attacking dominance fail to yield as many goals as they probably merit. That sense of resilience and mental strength will come with experience, and many of Westlawn’s young players will improve substantially in that respect as time goes on. A tough task awaits them this Sunday as they travel to the Cabbage Patch to face Urunga Raiders, who will be in no mood to take things easy on the men in yellow.
Boambee Bombers vs Grafton United
The Bombers haven’t even looked like losing in recent weeks – indeed, rarely have they at any point this season so far – barely needing to change out of second gear in a pair of 4-0 wins over fellow top four sides Urunga Raiders and Northern Storm Thunder, a 5-1 over Westlawn Tigers and a 3-1 over Coffs Coast Tigers. But one side who have made the Bombers rise to the occasion this season is Grafton United. Despite winning their previous encounters 7-1 and 5-2, the Bombers didn’t have things easy in either game and the final scores seem are very deceptive when taking into account the competitiveness of play on those two occasions.
United have looked strong in recent weeks, even with their captain Braydon Jones seeming to spend less time on the field than off it, and were arguably the stronger side against the Raiders at home – despite ultimately going down 1-0 to a freak floating strike – before securing a scoreless home draw against Northern Storm last weekend. Their preparation for the Bombers game could hardly have been better, and with a finals appearance still a genuine possibility, coach Scott Elphic didn’t have much of a job to do in order to motivate his men.
Shane Duncan, returning to the dugout after missing round 15’s game at Polwarth Drive, made two changes for the Bombers – the unavailability of Josh McIntosh and Mitch Brewster meant that Brady Parker came back into the starting side after resting last weekend as an unused substitute and Jamie Newling was handed his first start of the season. Ben Payne, backup keeper Darcy Newell and the notorious ‘Rooster’ were included on the bench.
United were missing regular keeper Matt McMahon, so Wylie Tynan took up the gloves as Ryan Earp came in as his on-field replacement. Hung ‘Tony’ Phung was also unavailable, so Mick Fox stepped up from the bench to take a starting role. Selwyn King’s straight red card against Northern Storm last week after coming off the bench meant he was suspended, so Josh Patterson was promoted to the bench. First Premier League squad selections of 2018 beckoned for Mick Unley and Jon Collen, who filled the gaps created by McMahon and Phung and their subsequent replacements in the XI, though neither would ultimately see any action on the afternoon.
The always proactive United were on the front foot early, with Bombers keeper Jake Stitt heard shouting to his men to just defend for the first 25 minutes. That approach just about summed things up for the home side, who were forced to absorb waves of pressure from the visitors throughout the opening period. The men in purple were playing quality football and with both patiently built up attacks and fast breaks, they were demonstrating that there were more strings to their bow than many had anticipated in an attacking sense. Fox and Earp were doing a stellar job in midfield, and the compactness of the Grafton backline made life tough for Boambee’s vaunted and normally fluent frontline.
With five minutes on the clock until the interval, the Bombers had a crack from an angle and upon first inspection most observers believed it to have flown through the side netting. Ultimately, however, the goal was awarded by referee Jack Schafer and the home side were able to grab a vital opener. With a narrow 1-0 lead going into the sheds, the Bombers remained confident that their stamina would come through in the second stanza and they would be able to pull away from their northern foes, but coach Duncan would have been less than impressed with proceedings thus far. Elphic took his men into the shade and praised them for a lionhearted first half display, enthusing that ‘it was great to see them vibing and hungry’.
Coming out in the second half, things ultimately did pan out in the way most observers had expected, as the energy levels of the home side told and they were able to put several more in the back of the net. Elphic felt rather aggrieved at the rub of the green his men had been getting from the man in the middle, but remained proud of the way they stuck to the task and persisted until the very last. The highlight for the men in purple was undoubtedly when Corey Ford, coming off the bench after having played reserve grade earlier in the day, got his name on the scoresheet and in Elphic’s own words, ‘showing he has got what it takes to earn a spot in the top grades’.
By full time, the Bombers had come away with a strong 6-1 win, Luke France grabbing a double while Parker, James Lowe, Lachie Moye and Brandon Wyatt chipped in with a goal each, but the ever so slightly concerning aspect of the performance was that the margin of victory had largely come about as a result of fitness rather than a pure display of footballing dominance. It’s hard to be concerned about a 6-1 win, but there were definitely a lot of aspects that the ladder leaders could improve upon, not least their tendency to still lapse defensively in almost every game – having kept just three clean sheets in 15 games thus far in comparison to the Lions’ eight from 16 for example.
They will have to put their best foot forward this weekend in a gruelling double header against Maclean – away on Saturday and home on Sunday – before they take on the Lions and Raiders consecutively. Wins in all four of those fixtures would sew up the title race with two rounds left, regardless of other results, and that will undoubtedly be something Duncan and his men have their eye on, having never previously secured a Premiership at the top level under the auspices of North Coast Football despite coming close on several occasions.
Silverware is unlikely to be on the cards for United in 2018 at least, but the signs are all there that they will be a genuine finals contender within a couple of years. Indeed, there is still a mathematical possibility of qualifying this season, though they would need to overhaul a six point and 42 goal gap to Northern Storm with just five games remaining – a tall order by any metric. They will back themselves to secure a season defining triple over Coffs Coast Tigers as they host them at Rushforth Park this Saturday evening – something they have never before managed against any side in a Premier League season. It shapes as a close and entertaining battle and you could certainly do a lot worse than heading up to Rushy for some Saturday night footballing action.
Urunga Raiders vs Coffs City United Lions
The Raiders looked to have finally switched on last weekend against Maclean, picking up a 4-0 away win in a dominant performance that was timed to perfection ahead of their marquee fixture against Coffs United at the Patch. They had laboured at Rushforth Park in round 14 and scraped a 1-0 in a blustery and decidedly untidy affair, but round 15’s performance and result would have had everyone at Morgo Street feeling very confident of springing a minor upset and putting themselves in with a chance at leapfrogging their opponents into second place on the ladder by season’s end.
The Lions, however, had no designs on rolling over and relinquishing their table position, with half an eye still on the Premiership in the hopes they could keep their own winning streak going right up to the end of the regular season and take advantage of at least one slip up from the Bombers. They had looked a side possessed since being battered at home by the Bombers in round 11 – in a game where they had taken a very early 2-0 lead before conceding five unanswered goals in an almighty collapse – and had since strung together a four game winning streak, having conceded just two goals in those subsequent 360 minutes of football.
For the home side, Josh McGovern and Scott Livingstone each made way in the starting lineup for Dominic Kelly-Ramirez – making his first Premier League appearance of 2018 having formerly been an absolute mainstay in the side – and Joe Soergel. Emar Foran, Darcy McGlashan came in as substitutes in favour of Simpson – absent due to work commitments out of town – backup goalkeeper Matt Smith, and Grant Homes. Simpson’s absence meant the coaching staff on the day were Paul Pomroy, Peter Snow and Luca Paolacci.
The Lions made a couple of changes as Aaren Allsop came in for his brother Callan, Alex Douglass was replaced by Addisen Mallett and the returning Nick Mallett took the place of Alik Santiago in midfield. Two of last week’s bench players, Dan Wiseman and Dut Garang, were replaced this week by Nathan Silvy and James Hough. Stand-in keeper Brent Turner remained between the sticks for another week.
Both sides were all too aware of how difficult the game – undoubtedly the marquee fixture of the round – would be, and the game started off with something of a feeling out process as each tried to establish a period of dominance. If anything it was the home side who were slightly the better in the first period, but the margin was razor thin and indeed it was the visitors who drew first blood through Chris Dooley. It didn’t take long for the Raiders to square the ledger, though, as some scrappy defending from the Lions led to a penalty that was converted well by talisman Kale Hopper. Not long before half time, the Lions again took the lead through Lorenzo Rigoni, and they went into the sheds with a crucial 2-1 advantage.
The Raiders came back out for the second half looking as spirited as ever, and clearly they hadn’t been mentally overcome by having gone down a second time. It took them just two minutes to get back on level terms courtesy of Jai Waddick, and all of a sudden it looked as if they might well be the ones who came away with the chocolates. The Lions were now on the back foot and were having to scramble in order to stifle the slick passing game of their maroon foes. But absorbing pressure is something the Lions are no strangers to and something they are perhaps the best in the competition at doing.
True to the very DNA of this Lions side, they proved themselves equal to the task and got themselves right back into the contest after soaking up quite some waves of Raiders attacking play, they launched a devastating counter of their own with time expiring. Caleb Lokpo produced a great run to penetrate the maroon defensive wall and launched a great strike that looked to have eluded Raiders gloveman Lee Kennedy, only to ping the crossbar and see the rebound bounce back out. No stress for the Lions, though, as Dooley was on hand to tap in the rebound and seal a famous 3-2 victory.
The Raiders will be bitterly disappointed with the result and can consider themselves unlucky to come out on the wrong end of the equation based on the balance of football on the afternoon. Most neutral observers would have deemed them the marginally superior football side on the day, but football is about taking your chances and that was something the Lions were able to do just a touch better than them on this occasion. They will need to dust themselves off quickly if they are to keep up the ladder pressure on the Lions, who they are now 9 points and 32 goals behind despite having a game in hand – what would appear a near insurmountable deficit with just six games remaining. They will need nothing less than three points in every game from here on in, and will look to start that run against Westlawn this Sunday at the Patch with a solid performance.
Lions coach Glen Williams said it was a ‘very hard game’ and although the game ‘started OK, [they] never really got on top and dominated’. It was a fair assessment of an afternoon where he was ‘happy to get the points’, but although the Lions were perhaps ever so slightly fortunate to pick up the result, full credit must go to them for keeping themselves in the contest and making their own luck. Their clinical finishing and resolute defence are both excellent assets, and will be of particular importance coming into the business end of the season where every game is a real battle and every team is scrapping and fighting for points harder than ever. The one percenters are going right for Williams’ troops at the moment, and they will hope to take advantage of that as they host Northern Storm Thunder on Saturday night in what looms as another tricky fixture to negotiate.