By Tim Klingbiel
The two form sides in the top tier of local women’s football met up in a blockbuster on Saturday as the sun set over C.ex International Stadium. Riding a 20 game win streak, the Eagles came in as strong favourites, but the accomplished performances from the Wildcats in recent weeks meant this was hardly going to be a straightforward affair.
The game commenced with a level of commitment that typifies these types of matchups – fast counter attacks and urgency to get the ball forward that often saw structured build up play sacrificed in favour of desperation through ball attempts. It was undoubtedly entertaining for the neutral, but would have had Glenn Bennett and John Walker concerned about their side’s prospects due to the style that was playing out favouring Woopi’s attackers Chloe Wighton and Tanisha Wallace.
Claire Freeman carries the ball through heavy traffic as the Eagles go on the attack.
Wildcats captain-coach Kim Batty would have been encouraged by what she had seen in a very even first few minutes where her side may well have considered themselves to have had the better chances, but ultimately it was the Boambee outfit who scored first. A few quick passes through midfield culminated in a strong run by the dangerous Ella Shaw, who shook off her marker and made no mistake in front of goal, converting well one on one past Woopi custodian Jada Johnson in the 10th minute.
Ella Shaw puts the Eagles in the lead in the 10th minute.
Though the Eagles were one up, there had been nothing to suggest they would run away with the game, and Woolgoolga responded very positively with proactive football and a continuation of their quick release counter attacking strategy. A couple more chances fell the Wildcats’ way including a low strike that drew an excellent save from Diana Walker. The breakthrough came in the 19th minute when Wallace was able to sneak into some space and fire home the equaliser.
The girls in blue had by now well and truly signalled their intentions and it was very clear they were not planning to park the bus and try to eek out a draw, but rather get right up in the Premiers’ faces with waves of enterprising attacks and a brand of football that left little to chance. The next ten minutes saw an intriguing midfield battle where Bianca Oberleuter and Keira Plumbe ran hard but Kenishia Warren and Alexis Touzel were up to the task, so neither side were able to establish a clear advantage.
Kylie McDonald plays a cross field ball as Siobhan Deam gets into space.
The Eagles won a couple of free kicks but with Plumbe unable to find the target, shots on goal had been few and far between. Their attacking strategy thus far had been to head out wide and try to get to the by-line to deliver a cross, but the flanks had appeared to be Woolgoolga’s strongest asset as Jorja Murphy and Zoe Batty combined well to foil the darting runs of Siobhan Deam, while Jasmine Bennett followed Jasmin Kruger’s every move. Perhaps anticipating another wing raid, the Wildcats found themselves caught short in the 31st minute as the Eagles released a sequence of three through balls to ultimately send Kylie McDonald away one on one. McDonald’s finishing abilities came to the fore as she buried a low strike off the inside of the left post to put the Eagles ahead once again.
Once again, the lead didn’t last long for the Boambee girls. A scrappy melee in the box just 3 minutes later saw the backline unable to clear the ball despite a few opportunities to do so, and the Wildcats’ presence in the box ensured they were punished, as Wallace once again came up with the goods to square the contest up at 2-2.
The remainder of the first half was similarly entertaining, but the scorers were not troubled on any further occasions. Woolgoolga could arguably lay claim to having the better of the exchanges to that point, though the magnitude of their on-field superiority was exceptionally marginal and it would take a herculean second half effort to maintain the pace they had set.
The second half heralded a goalkeeper switch for the Wildcats – Jessica Midavaine coming on for Johnson, who had suffered a heavy knock during the opening stanza – and though the tempo was not quite as frenetic as the first half and the style of football was not quite as end to end, the closeness of the contest showed no signs of changing any time soon.
An excellent chance to the Eagles had the crowd on their feet as many seemed convinced the ball had made its way into the top corner of the Woopi goal, but it was ultimately only an optical illusion as the strike had sailed just wide of the right post. Shortly afterwards, in the 64th minute, an injury to Wighton looked as if it may thin Woolgoolga’s attacking stocks, but after a brief recuperative spell on the sidelines, she was able to return to the action.
It looked as if the Eagles may finally have been gaining the ascendancy and for a few fleeting seconds it seemed they had made the period of pressure tell on the scoreboard. A quality strike in the 69th minute looked to have put them ahead once again at a crucial point in the match, but to their chagrin the linesman’s flag was correctly raised to indicate offside.
The proverbial ticking of the clock grew louder by the minute as neither side seemed to be able to find the vital breakthrough. Woolgoolga’s defensive players had been excellent, with Kim Batty’s outstanding reading of the game key to a number of important interceptions, Emily Nudd’s commitment to tight marking seeing her stubbornly refuse to allow Shaw – who had been perhaps Boambee’s most potent attacking threat on the night – to escape
her attentions and Annie Wales covering a great distance at left back to cut out the Eagles’ crossing options. Ultimately extra time beckoned, and after the epic reserve grade affair culminating in a penalty shootout that had preceded this game, it seemed as if the Men’s Premier League decider may not start until some time in the early hours of Sunday morning.
A decent opportunity fell the way of Shaw late on, but she was unable to control the ball in close quarters.
Extra time played out similarly to the way the second half had gone – even on the base of midfield interplay but with the Eagles able to carve out just a few more attacking opportunities. A lot of players looked to be running out of gas including McDonald, who was stretching out calf cramps and seemed not to have too many sprints left in her. Krista Paunovic had been excellent and displayed incredible composure throughout – her calm ball playing from the heart of defence was an invaluable asset for Boambee as was her seemingly endless stamina, which saw her getting back to clean up anything that found its way through right up until the final whistle.
Perhaps the best player on the park on the night had been the Eagles’ Hannah Steele. Covering a huge amount of ground and seeming to pop up all over the wide expanse of the main field at just the right time to make key contributions in both attack and defence, she stepped up to a new level in extra time and caused the Wildcats all sorts of problems with her energy and commitment to getting forward with speed.
With just five seconds on the clock in extra time, a golden opportunity broke for the Eagles to put the game to bed once and for all, but despite the ball pinging around inside the six yard box, neither McDonald nor Shaw were able to produce a decisive touch, and the dreaded penalty shootout thus loomed large.
The shootout is never an enjoyable occasion for either team. Many see it as something of a lottery, though other camps variously view its alternatives in a similarly disdainful light. Detractors of the replay claim it is an archaic and perhaps anachronistic relic of bygone days in cup competitions – as well as leaving spectators on the night disastrously unfulfilled and creating a litany of logistical issues – and those against the extra ‘drop off’ period cite it as more of a novelty than anything else. Ultimately, opinions of the merits of the shootout weren’t going to matter one iota, and the reality for the Eagles and Wildcats is that they would have five strikes each of a dead ball from 12 yards to see who would lift the trophy
(or more on a sudden death basis in the event that scores were still tied) – perhaps with defibrillators on standby lest any of the coaching staff from either side suffer any untimely stress-related medical incidents.
After some hubbub within the ranks of the spectators as to whether the new ‘ABBA’ pattern of takers would be employed in lieu of the traditional ‘ABAB’ pattern, it was ultimately the tried and tested latter that would be utilised on the night. Keira Plumbe stepped up first for the Eagles and buried memories of failing to convert from the spot a couple of years back in the decider against Coffs with a well placed shot to the right hand side at mid-height. Jasmine Bennett took the Wildcats’ first but could only find the right post. It’s a game of such fine margins that a few inches one way or the other can decide which way a title goes and it certainly seemed that might be the case as the Eagles led 1-0 after one penalty each.
Jasmin Kruger was tasked with the Eagles’ second, and her strike into the bottom left hand corner was just the tonic the Boambee girls needed, cementing a 2-0 lead and turning up the heat on the Wildcats. Woolgoolga’s second, courtesy of Alexis Touzel, might well have been the pick of the bunch, purely down to the fact that keeping it out would have been an impossibility – a deftly placed lob into the top left corner, one would be hard pressed to ask for a better positioned strike as it went through around a foot each from the post and the crossbar. 2-1 Boambee after two each.
After one of the best placed penalties seen for a long time in a grand final came one of the most audacious. Krista Paunovic, whose calm and assured presence at the back throughout the game had been a key facet of the Eagles’ play, harked back to Antonin Panenka’s memorable display of cojones for Czechoslovakia in the final of Euro 1976 as she coolly deposited the ball straight down the middle at around chest height with the absolute minimum of power. This courageous tactic was reliant on the keeper having well and truly committed to one side, but thankfully for Paunovic, this was the way things played out – in this case Woolgoolga glovewoman Midavaine had already started the leap to her left – and thus her approach paid dividends. Jorja Murphy strode to the spot for the Wildcats and deposited the ball low to Diana Walker’s right – despite Walker guessing the direction correctly – to keep the pressure on. 3-2 Boambee after three each.
NCF Golden Boot and Player of the Year Kylie McDonald made the long walk to the spot for Boambee’s fourth as she looked to make things even tougher for the Wildcats. A successful penalty would mean Woopi would require both of their subsequent strikes to be converted in addition to an error on the Eagles’ behalf just to keep the shootout alive and send things into sudden death. McDonald struck well and targeted the right hand side of the goal, but Midavaine was equal to the task and made one of the best saves you will see at this level to keep the ball out at around chest height. All of a sudden a path had opened up for the Wildcats to claw their way back into the fight, and with the experience and composure of Kim Batty to call upon, the chance to level proceedings at 3-3 was well and truly alive. Batty got decent purchase on the ball and the connection was solid, but she watched in agony as it whizzed over the bar and let the Eagles off the hook. Still 3-2 to Boambee after four each.
The outcome was now in the Eagles’ hands – or more accurately, at their feet – as they knew a successful fifth penalty would put things mathematically out of reach for the
Wildcats and seal the result in their favour. Ella Shaw was given the responsibility of securing the Premiership/Championship double for the Eagles, and with ice running through her veins that belied her youth, she looked every bit a seasoned campaigner as she slotted a well placed strike just inside the right post and gave Midavaine no chance. Scenes of jubilation abounded as the victorious Eagles gathered in a heap at the edge of the box.
The Eagles exult after scraping home in a nailbiter, while the Wildcats begin to gather in commiseration.
Although the shootout loss would have been heartbreaking for the Wildcats, they have reason to be immensely proud of their efforts and few would argue they worked the Eagles much harder than any other side have been able to manage this season. Indeed, it was the first time in 21 games the Eagles were unable to win inside 90 minutes, and Woopi very nearly pulled the rug out from under them entirely.
Batty’s girls were excellent value and worked relentlessly for one another from the first minute until the last. Having twice fought back from deficits, their resolve was put through some rigorous tests and ultimately passed with flying colours. There is no shame
whatsoever in going down on penalties and the 2-2 scoreline after two hours of play is an indisputable argument that they never allowed the Premiers the breathing space they have become accustomed to.
In Wallace, Murphy and Shaw they have three of the competition’s brightest young talents across attack, midfield and defence and the future looks very promising up at the Northern Beaches – the 14 Girls and 16 Girls sides each won a Premiership/Championship double, the 2nd Division girls came within a whisker of achieving the same feat, and the 12 Girls followed up a 2nd place regular season finish with a grand final appearance.
The Eagles were expecting to be faced with a tough test in the form of the Wildcats but even they would have been surprised at just how formidable the Woolgoolga defence proved to be. After McDonald’s 31st minute strike, they were only afforded a handful of chances across the next hour and a half of football and had to survive a few hurdles thrown in their direction too.
Bennett was full of praise for his girls even though he acknowledged they had nearly sent him into cardiac arrest on a couple of occasions through the evening. It certainly tested their character and though the savoir-faire of the side’s long time members shone through, the most impressive takeaway for the coaching staff will be the way a few of their younger squad members stepped up to the plate and took on the responsibility of getting the Eagles out of a tight spot. The experience will further all of them as footballers and they will gain some nous from having been in the trenches and come through on the right side of the equation.
Having now gone 21 games without defeat, this Eagles outfit have achieved a level of unbroken success rarely seen in any of the senior divisions, and a strong case could be made for them being the standout senior side across the region. To borrow from pugilistic parlance, the 2016 and 2017 Eagles squads have cemented a place as pound for pound greats, but they won’t be entertaining the thought of stopping their roll just yet. While contract extension talks have yet to be finalised with Bennett, it’s clear that this side has a strong enough nucleus that player retention and old fashioned hard work in pre-season should have them figuring as favourites again.
On the balance of the season as a whole, even the most pessimistic observer would find it difficult to assert that the Eagles deserved the win, but the Wildcats ensured this will be remembered as one of the most entertaining affairs for several years – perhaps since their own most recent triumph in 2011’s pulsating extra time barnburner. In all, it was an incredible back and forth tussle separated by the finest of margins, and a genuine credit to local women’s football. 2018 harbours exciting possibilities for both clubs and with any luck we will be in for more displays of this level down the line.
Boambee Eagles 2 (Shaw 10’, McDonald 31’) def. Woolgoolga Wildcats 2 (Wallace 19’, 34’) after penalty shootout 4-2 (Plumbe ✓, Kruger ✓, Paunovic ✓, McDonald ✘, Shaw ✓; Bennett ✘, Touzel ✓, Murphy ✓, Batty ✘)