By Tim Klingbiel
A real dogfight is brewing for Premiership line honours with a fortnight remaining in the men’s reserve grade competition, with Urunga’s 1-0 nailbiter over Coffs United on the weekend putting them firmly in pole position but not out of the woods just yet.
A crucial goal to the notorious ‘Rooster’, Nick O’Mullane, gave the Raiders a chance to put their previous meeting against the Lions – a confidence-sapping 4-0 defeat – behind them and put one hand on the Premiership trophy. One would fancy them to take maximum points in back to back encounters with Grafton United, though the northern troops have proven worthy adversaries in recent weeks with a come from behind 3-2 win over Boambee and a narrow 1-0 defeat to another team near the table’s summit, Northern Storm. But it is the trip to Barry Watts Oval that has the strongest potential to derail the charge of Tom Campbell’s side, the last meeting between those two adversaries ending in a runaway 6-2 blowout to the Bobcats.
The gloves will no doubt be off for the Raiders this time around, as every point is vital at this stage of the season and there is no margin for error. The boys will be full of morale after last week’s result, and motivation won’t be in short supply either as they look to atone for one of only two slip ups this season – both of which came in a costly fortnight between the dying embers of May and June’s first light. While key weapons in the Raiders arsenal, Fabrice Wamara and Kale Hopper, are likely to be in high enough demand from the premier league side not to feature too much in the last few reserve games, the Raiders’ squad depth is such that the players at their disposal would still go close to making finals in first division as a standalone entity. Like their premier league counterparts, they play a well organised brand of football and move the ball quickly in transition while remaining steadfast in defence, having conceded only 3 goals in their past 7 games – one of which, a Blake Herdegen strike from distance at Ayrshire Park, could hardly be blamed on any defensive structure.
While the Raiders’ odds have shortened considerably after the weekend’s result, the men on the wrong side of that ledger, Coffs United, will still have designs on being the architects of a late season upset. A surprise 3-2 defeat in Tuesday night’s catch up game against Westlawn Tigers has seen their stock drop further and could ultimately prove their undoing, but it has otherwise been a commanding season for the boys in red and black, with a +46 goal difference owing to both the competition’s best attack and best defence. The Tha brothers, Vichai and Somchai, are always a handful to deal with when in possession, while Gum Mayak’s appearances when not turning out for the first grade side have yielded a valuable haul of goals, and the recent return of John Omtha will bolster their stocks in midfield.
This weekend will see the Lions take on Orara on Saturday afternoon at home, and they will be looking to administer a repeat dose of the medicine they prescribed the Dingoes last time out, a dominant 5-1 win that won’t have pleased the Dairyville boys. The last round of the season proper will see a tough test in the form of Sawtell, who currently lie just 3 points behind the Lions and went within a whisker of taking a point at McLean Street last time as Coffs scraped home 2-1. This game will be a genuine ‘6 pointer’ and will have substantial implications on the final order of this season’s finals aspirants, so you can be sure that both the Lions and Scorpions will be well and truly fired up for that one.
Equal on points with the Lions in third spot are Northern Storm. It’s been an impressive season for the boys from the Cove, and having suffered only two defeats this season at their Korora home ground, they will be looking to continue that form with two home fixtures against Sawtell and Coffs Tigers to bring the curtain down on the regular season. Goal difference will no doubt be their enemy in such a tight title race – 24 behind Urunga, 34 behind Coffs and 19 behind Sawtell who are currently 3 points back in fourth – but they have had a knack for grinding out results in the close games and producing timely goals when their backs are against the wall.
Heading into oranges on the weekend at Ayrshire Park 1-0 down and with the home side enjoying the lion’s share of the attacking chances, Thunder’s enigmatic left winger ‘Zulu’ produced a lightning run and a thunderous top corner finish with the last kick of the half to go to the sheds at 1-1. The Thunder kept plugging away relentlessly in the second half and finally started to win the midfield battles, with two opportunistic finishes through a mass of bodies getting them over the line 3-1. It is gritty performances like this when the cards aren’t all falling their way that will have them well positioned for the arm wrestles and wars of attrition that finals football is renowned for. The experience of players like Musa Hamid and Manuel Rivera will be key to Storm’s chances and Enoch Marc will need to continue flourishing in attack as the games will only get harder from here on in.
Sawtell all but secured finals football with a 3-0 win over Orara on the weekend (they would need to drop their remaining two games as well as Maclean overturning a goal difference which is currently inferior by 26 – pundits predict a waning gibbous in rich azure along with aeronautical expeditions by members of the suidae family should such a scenario arise) but they may well be disappointed not to be realistically in with a shout of overhauling Urunga. The Scorpions occupied the loftiest reaches of the table until a run of 5 losses in 7 games brought them right back amongst the pack. The 5-4 loss to Northern Storm will sting but they have the chance to set things right this weekend with a quick trip up the highway to try and engineer a leapfrogging operation.
Perhaps the most entertaining matches of the Scorpions season thus far have come in their two match series against local rivals Boambee. Going into half time at Toormina 2-0 down and a man light after a rash challenge saw the man in the middle brandish a crimson ticket, the scene was set for a famous 3-2 come from behind win that kept the momentum rolling as part of a 5 match winning streak to open the season. The reverse fixture saw them edged out 2-1 but it was another back and forth, entertaining spectacle for the neutral. With 4-3 and 3-2 wins against Orara and Coffs Tigers respectively, the Scorpions certainly have a penchant for the dramatic, and it’s likely this will be on show both this weekend against Storm and in the regular season’s final matchup against Coffs at Toormina. A big couple of weeks ahead for the green and white and they will need every bit of big game nous they can muster to get them through some close ones.
Despite Maclean’s finals prospects being extinguished in all bar a surrealist, Salvador Dalí-conceived version of events, it’s been a season of improvement for Nick Potente and Grant Neilson’s men. Starting the season with 5 losses from their first 7 games, the Bobcats have gone on to string together a 9 game unbeaten streak since then including a commanding 6-2 evisceration of Urunga, a 1-0 victory over Sawtell and 2-2 draws against Coffs United and Northern Storm. 19 points from the last 9 games puts them equal with Urunga and Coffs, 3 points ahead of Storm and 6 ahead of Sawtell over the same period, so a massive amount of credit has to go to the Bobcats for turning their season around in such an impressive way.
With a difficult assignment this weekend against Urunga awaiting them, the Bobcats will be eager to maintain their unbeaten streak and send out a statement to opposition clubs that they will be a force to be reckoned with come next season. If they can carry this level of play with them into 2018, they will be a genuine title contender and certainly a team that others will need to sit up and take notice of. Their final game comes against Orara, who they will be frustrated to have drawn against at home in their last meeting. They will fancy their chances to get one over the Dingoes this time around and finish the season on a high note.
Regular lineup changes, struggles for numbers and a congested schedule full of catch up games have given something of a Jekyll and Hyde feel to Coffs Coast Tigers’ season. Perhaps nothing is more telling than the rather bizarre statistic that a full strength Tigers dismantled Orara 9-0 at home after going down 8-0 in the corresponding away fixture, putting the head to head record between the two sides at 9-8 on aggregate to Tigers. It is this kind of inconsistency in personnel and performances that has kept the Polwarth Drive side from mounting any sort of serious finals challenge. The potential is undoubtedly there, as a 2-0 win over Coffs United and narrow 1-0 defeats to Urunga and Storm will attest, but they will really need to be able to get the same cattle on the park every week next year if they want to push the top contenders over the course of a full season.
Tigers will see this weekend’s away clash against Boambee as a chance to pick up a morale-boosting 3 points, but the Bombers are a side who have been in much the same boat as far as player availability issues are concerned, and will have designs on a consolation win of their own. It’s sure to be a close contest, and the last meeting of these teams yielded the only 0-0 result in the entire competition this season. On a bouncy and unpredictable surface however, both teams should be presented with a few more goal scoring opportunities and a repeat scoreline is highly unlikely.
Orara Valley weren’t having a lot of success against the competition heavyweights this season, but that all changed two weeks ago as they thrashed Northern Storm 5-1 away. The Cove has been a tough place to pick up points in reserve grade this season but the Dingoes had no such trouble. The result would no doubt have pleased the brains trust at Dairyville but falling 3-0 to Sawtell last week will be disappointing.
With games against Coffs United and the surging Maclean to come, the Dingoes will have a real task on their hands to add to their current points tally of 17, but a respectable goal difference of -1 shows that they have been right in most contests this season and certainly haven’t been embarrassed, only losing two games by a margin of greater than 3 goals.
Westlawn have put together a highly impressive couple of games to hold the in form Bobcats to a 2-2 draw and then sneak home in a famous 3-2 victory over their heavily fancied opponents Coffs United in Tuesday night’s catch up game. A 3-1 win over Orara and a narrow 4-2 loss to the Scorpions in the two games prior to those results proved there is some substance to this crop of Tigers and while they are still some way from reclaiming the glory of their triumphant Youth League campaign in 2009 where they captured the Championship in a thriller against Coffs United, the bones of a solid side are definitely there.
While scheduling issues have meant their away fixture against Boambee, initially down as a catch up at Leisure Park next Tuesday, has gone down as a ‘mutual forfeit’ with a 0-0 result recorded, they will look to this weekend’s match against Grafton United and the following weekend’s home game, where they will run it back against the Bombers, to try and pick up another 6 points and finish the season with a strong run of results.
Starting the season without a coach, regularly fielding a bare eleven and sometimes less, and dealing with a litany of player availability issues has meant Boambee have rarely fielded the same XI two weeks in a row this season. But the young Bombers, many of whom are backing up from 17s on Friday nights and then 2nd division on Saturday afternoon, will grow from the experience, and Jon Fergusson has come on board to give them some direction on the pitch.
A 2-1 win over Sawtell and competitive 3-1 losses to Urunga and Northern Storm where they were right in the contest will give Boambee some moments to take heart from, and the emergence of young players like Tom Cooper and Haydn Smallwood will help them in the coming seasons, but the team’s finishing remains a cause for concern as they have created more chances than their opponents in the vast majority of matches without finding the net nearly often enough. With Coffs Coast Tigers and Westlawn Tigers awaiting them in the season’s final fortnight, the Bombers will be looking to collect some consolation wins to end 2017 on a high note.
Grafton United have continued to improve throughout the season and the last 4 weeks’ results will be a cause for great encouragement up at Rushforth Park. After shipping an average of close to 7 goals a game in their first 11 games, United have strung together close contests against Maclean and Coffs Coast Tigers in 3-1 defeats, a 1-0 loss to Northern Storm that would have given Thunder fans a few heart palpitations and threatened to derail the Korora outfit’s Premiership aspirations, and a late win against Boambee where they weathered an astronomical shot count to come back from 1-0 and then 2-1 down and snatch a 3-2 victory for their first points of the season.
Courtesy of a packed defensive unit and a knack of dangerous counter-attacks, the South Grafton side seem to have struck a successful formula in recent weeks to stifle opposition teams and make the trip up north genuine hard work for 3 points. With substantial crossover between the reserve and premier league squads, Grafton have proven themselves a hard working unit and the on-the-job experience gained from the minutes they have racked up against quality opposition this season will definitely improve their prospects come 2018.