No business as usual for Spirit FC

By Corinthian (Paul Green)

PS4 NPL NSW Men’s 2 Major Semi Final, Sydney United Sports Centre, Edensor Park, Sunday 6th September 2015 4.15 pm

Spirit FC 1 (G. Sama 35) lost to Northern Tigers 5 (M. West 68, 88, T. Smith 81, 90+4, G. Cornwell o.g. 84)

NPL2 Premiers, Spirit FC, renowned for their impeccable defensive qualities, as well as their ability to score more goals than any other team in their division on the way to winning the title convincingly, stumbled on Sunday against third-placed Northern Tigers in the Major Semi Final for 2015.

The game appeared to be in their keeping up to midway through the second half, after which they somehow contrived to concede five unanswered goals, representing by far their worst defeat of the season.

In the process, the Tigers recorded their biggest win of the season, to rub further salt into the Spirit wounds.

Spirit, who carried all before them this season, will remain favourites to qualify for the Grand Final in two weeks time but, coming off a two-week break, they’ll now have to do it the hard way by beating fifth-placed Bankstown City Lions next weekend for the right to tackle the Tigers again.

Spirit had beaten the Tigers comfortably in pre-season and then won easily again in the season proper, both times at Spirit’s notoriously bumpy Christie Park home pitch, while a missed penalty at an equally uneven Mills Park, a few weeks ago, was all that stood between them and a clean sweep against their nearest northern suburbs neighbours.

They’ll have to do it without one key player, defender Tom Lovell, marched very late in the game for serious foul play by referee Katie Patterson —a rather rash and costly tackle made with the game already long lost at 4-1.

It seems likely that Spirit will be without the player in the Grand Final, as well, though there may well be an appeal against the severity of the suspension, if it extends beyond the one match, as it well might.

Spirit coach, John McLafferty, took the defeat on the chin, saying that his team’s defending against crosses was dreadful and that it was that which had cost them the game.

“If we don’t defend the crosses any better than that, we won’t beat Bankstown next week,” he warned, “as they’re a very good football side.”

After such a solid defensive record all season, it was unfortunate that the team blotted their copybook on such an important occasion.

It’s also worth mentioning that the team’s only defeats away from home have come on artificial pitches, at Hakoah’s Hensley Field and at Fraser Park, though excuses for both setbacks could be laid at the feet of missing personnel, as much as with any difficulties presented by the challenging surface.

Northern Tigers, on the other hand, have had a very good season away from home and have delighted in playing on plastic, winning at Hakoah and at Sydney University’s Lambert Park, not to mention the previous weekend’s triumph against Hakoah Sydney City East, on this same Sydney United Sports Centre pitch, where Spirit came to grief on Sunday afternoon.

Northern Tigers also beat Fraser Park away, but the game was held at Valentine Park (synthetic pitch) as Fraser’s own synthetic pitch was not yet finished.

“I think we perform far better on a decent pitch,” opined Tigers’ coach, Steve Hurd, noting that many valuable points had been lost this season on the bumpy Mills Park surface which the Tigers have had to call home for the last decade.

They’ll be looking forward to taking up residence at their new ground in North Turramurra, next March, with a synthetic surface already under way at the club’s new facility.

This game began as something of a tenacious midfield tussle and Spirit held sway comfortably, it seemed, going ahead in the 35th after being on top and then remaining well in control at the break.

While the Tigers did look more combative at the start of the second-half, they weren’t making much headway, either, so Spirit still appeared to have the upper hand, just as they had in all of the earlier encounters between the two teams.

But all that changed after the Tigers drew level.

Relatively well-contained players, like Tai Smith and Liam McConaghy, began to make more of an impression, while main striker, Matt West, who’d gone into the referee’s book very early in the match for dissent, looked the best player on show, but had been suitably taken care of by the experienced Spirit defence.

Spirit don’t have as many players at their disposal as they had earlier in the campaign, though, with main striker, Kuag Reec, injured and teenage find, Abraham Majok, now involved with the Central Coast Mariners youth setup.

That places a greater strain on their traditional “number ten”, Gosue Sama, the man who has held sway all year in a constructive/destructive role, playing cleverly, just in behind the strikers.

The absence of those other attacking players has given wide men, Jacob Harris and Henry Wells, more to do going forward and both have risen to the challenge, though neither made anywhere near as much impact this time, especially in the second period.

Sama maintained his sound form throughout, however, and scored the Spirit goal, but the possession that Spirit had enjoyed during the first half and early in the second, began to diminish; once that happened and the Tigers got hold of the ball more, they were able to push more players forward and get in behind Spirit’s wide men.

This was where they began to make an impact, as Smith, in particular, could make incisive runs down either flank, with West holding the ball up well for the other attacking players.

Even Paul Davies, who’d had a very quiet first half at right back, began to take closer order and had a hand in two of the goals, which seemed to come out of nowhere and mostly very late, as Spirit chased the game, having gone 2-1 down.

Spirit had the edge, no doubt, in a feisty first half, where the battle for possession was fought keenly, with Northern Tigers barely able to gain any foothold at all.

Spirit forced most of the early corners and had almost all of the shots during the opening half hour, Brad Gibson firing wide after six minutes and also testing Tigers’ keeper, Matt Nemes, in the 17th with a fierce drive that the custodian couldn’t hold onto, initially, but just managing to smother before Gibson could rattle in the rebound.

Spirit’s Henry Wells, penetrating down the right as usual, was proving his customary handful for opposition defenders and was brought down in the 19th by Lucas Dawson.

Spirit won a free-kick and it was one of several that went their way early in the game, as they pushed forward relentlessly, being the more dominant territorially, forcing Nemes to make some important saves, such as a good stop in the 32nd from Gibson’s dead-ball attempt from the edge of the box.

But the relentless tide coming at Northern Tigers would not turn back and Spirit soon enough got to the front.

Harris, almost as effective on the left, at least in the first half, as Wells had been on the right, made a sensational run through the defence, taking on several players successfully, before coming down under a strong challenge.

Referee Katie Patterson, however, held onto her whistle, allowing play to continue and thus, when Gosue Sama found the ball at his feet six metres out, the Spirit team’s best player all year did well to beat Nemes with a powerful shot that went just inside the right-hand upright.

It was the kind of goal that lends immense confidence to a team and gives them a feeling of superiority.

And that’s how it continued, even after the break.

Where a Northern Tigers goal was coming from was looking a tough question, as so many of their players were caught up in dealing with the continuing Spirit assault.

After Henry Wells had gone close in the 48th, but failed to trouble Nemes, things began to look a little more promising for the Tigers.

Shervin Adeli, busy in central midfield and doing it hard with the absence of his regular partner, the injured Steve Baveas, showed the first sign of some positive resistance, when he made a big run on the left in the 54th and demanded a goal-line clearance from Spirit left back Lord Darkoh to deny him an equaliser, in a raid that had come rather against the run of play.

Perhaps encouraged by this promising effort, Northern Tigers began to show much more bite and earned several corners, with skipper Michael Rolston taking them, rather than their usual man, right back Paul Davies.

Then came the breakthrough.

Tai Smith, almost anonymous in the first hour of the game, operating mostly on the right, switched to the left and made a huge run to the by-line.

He whipped in a cross, despite the attentions of a couple of defenders clearly intent on stopping his progress, playing the ball low to the near post and it fell at the feet of Matthew West, who’d been playing his striker’s role aggressively and who then lashed the ball home powerfully from close range.

At 1-1 it still looked likely that Spirit could regain their dominance, but they never recovered and, even freshening the team up — with coach McLafferty sending on the fresh legs of Ossama Zaki, for the tiring Jacob Harris, and veteran Tim Simpson, for the busy Bradley Gibson — Northern Tigers suddenly seemed to gain some wind in their sails and became the dominant force.

In the 81st Adeli won the ball well in the centre, 46 metres out, then got the ball through to West, out wide, and from the ensuing cross Smith managed to steer the ball home at the near post, a goal that brought as much exuberance to his teammates as Spirit’s early goal by Sama had appeared to lift his own teammates.

Northern Tigers, somehow, had found a way to score and after doing so they looked capable of scoring more.

With Spirit trying to find a way back into the game and in the unfamiliar situation of being caught and then passed, which they’d not had to face much in the season proper, the space opened up for the Tigers to go on and score three more.

Liam McConaghy was replaced by the fresher legs of Braden Cheng in the 83rd and the pressure didn’t let up.

A corner, won on the left in the 84th, saw Paul Davies taking the flag-kick this time, with the delivery proving too powerful for Spirit defender, Grant Cornwell, who steered the ball into his own net in attempting to clear at the near post.

Smith provided the spadework that enabled West to complete his brace in the 87th, after the former’s run down the right had seen a strong ball played into the goalmouth.

A tackle on Adeli by Spirit right back, Tom Lovell, earned the wrath of referee Patterson as stoppage time began and also saw the influential Tigers’ midfielder gingerly leaving the field, indeed looking in some trouble, but there was, by then, no way back for the Premiers.

A free kick four minutes into stoppage time, another task entrusted to Paul Davies, was fired goal-wards fiercely and the Spirit keeper, David Lowery, could only parry the ball to the feet of Smith, who made it 5-1 with virtually the last kick of the game, for what could only be described as a most unlikely result.

“I think when we have the ball and are playing on a good pitch we are a very good side,” said Northern Tigers’ coach, Steve Hurd.

“It’s difficult for us to show what we can do on our own pitch, or others that are in poor condition, so playing here allowed us to show our best game today.

Northern Tigers’ faithful midfield servant, Steve Baveas, injured in the sudden-death match the previous week against Hakoah, was optimistic about his chances of making it into the Grand Final squad.

“If we’d had to play again next week I don’t think I’d have been able to recover in time, but the extra week off may allow me to take the field again in the Grand Final,” he said with a grin.

Spirit’s McLafferty, meanwhile, won’t have the luxury of another week off now.

“We’ve booked artificial pitches this coming week for training ahead of the Grand Final, so we’ll be well prepared,” the affable Scotsman said.

But he’d declared this strategy before the game, it should be pointed out, not after his team had been beaten.

No doubt he’ll now not only be working on how to deal with the plastic pitch, but how to limit the number of crosses his hard-pressed central defenders might have to deal with.

spirit v tigers

Match stats:

Spirit FC:
41 David Lowery (gk); 19 Tom Lovell, 2 Daniel Cunningham (c), 4 Nicholas Trimble, 13 Lord Darkoh, 3 Henry Wells, 8 Grant Cornwell, 14 Ryan Johnstone, 7 Jacob Harris (11 Ossama Zaki 78), 22 Gosue Sama, 12 Brad Gibson (9 Tim Simpson 66).
Subs not used: 1 Murray Nelson, 15 Andrew Robertson, 18 Ross Kethel
Yellow cards: Daniel Cunningham 20, Gosue Sama 89
Red card: Tom Lovell 90+1
Coach: John McLafferty

Northern Tigers:
1 Matt Nemes (gk); 6 Paul Davies, 4 Michael Rolston (c), 12 Russell Farrell, 13 Jamie Craig, 18 Tai Smith, 2 Samuel Ryder, 10 Shervin Adeli, 3 Lucas Dawson (5 David Kanaley 89), 7 Matthew West (23 Julian Lim 88), 9 Liam McConaghy (17 Braden Cheng 83).
Subs: 21 Harrison Devenish-Meares, 11 Mitchell Smith
Yellow cards: Paul Davies 56, Matthew West 5
Red cards: Nil
Coach: Steve Hurd

Referee: Katie Patterson
Assistants: Scott Edeling and Lance Greenshields

Crowd:  approx 150

Weather: Mild and with little breeze

Game: 7/10

Pitch: 10/10 (Synthetic)

Players noted: Gosue Sama (SFC), Nicholas Trimble (SFC), Grant Cornwell (SFC), Shervin Adeli  (NT), Matthew West (NT), Michael Rolston (NT).

By Corinthian (Paul Green)