The Brisbane Strikers took one more huge step towards winning their second QSL title today, and did so in the most satisfying way possible, removing the current champions Sunshine Coast Fire from the equation and banishing a Stockland Park hoodoo that stretched all the way back to March 2009 in beating the Fire 4-2.
Twice behind on the scoreboard, the Strikers eventually prevailed with two late goals to substitute Nick Robinson and Matt Thurtell in a tense and rugged struggle in which the Strikers had to defend for long periods as the Fire demonstrated that they will remain a threat in the upcoming finals series, even though their championship defence is now extinguished.
As expected by all and sundry around Perry Park, talismanic Sunshine Coast midfielder Tyson Holmes and New Zealand international striker Dakota Lucas were back in the home team’s starting eleven, but gangling target man Shaun Blackman was left on the bench. Meanwhile, the Strikers were inconvenienced by the absence of winger Sean Burke, who was left out of the team due to illness – his place taken by Josh Searle as Strikers coach David Large opted for Ryan Mottin at left back rather than Searle or Jack Boxell.
The Fire started the match with a moderate southerly wind at their backs and looked as if they were determined to make a statement after a disappointing month of results. They left the Strikers on the starting blocks as Holmes, David Muta and Koriak Upuiga initially made the Strikers’ midfield trio of Chay Hews, Michael Angus and Chris Di Sipio chase shadows. Play headed inexorably towards the Strikers’ goal as the visitors appeared hesitant in both their tackling and their passing and, after the Fire won a corner kick in the fourth minute that was hoisted beyond the back post from the left quadrant, the Strikers needed their winger, Greg King, to head clear off his own goal line as Fire centre half Greg Henslee latched on to a volley from a tight angle.
The Fire’s opening onslaught continued with Holmes having a shot from twenty yards comfortably saved by David Chambers in the Strikers’ goal, and Lucas latching on to a sloppy pass from Hews to skip past Strikers skipper John Costello to fire a low cross across the face of goal. And the Fire were to gain full reward for their early ascendancy with a goal in the eighth minute when Lucas escaped the attentions of Mottin and Costello again and got clear into the Strikers’ penalty area. Lucas’s right footed drive crashed into a goalpost and ricocheted towards the edge of the penalty area where it fell to Fire midfielder Brady Cronk, who despatched it past the Strikers’ spreadeagled defence and Chambers to ripple the back of the net.
The challenge of responding to the Fire scoring the opening goal has become a familiar one for the Strikers, but at this stage they did not seem to be ‘at the races’. The Fire continued heading off the Strikers’ attempted attacks at the pass, disrupting their midfield rhythm with frequent interceptions in midfield to continually turn the visiting team around. While the Strikers’ possession game began to improve, by the half way point in the first half they still had not been able to muster a shot on goal while the Fire had come up with seven.
The Strikers’ first shooting attempt came thirty-four minutes in, and was a good one that had to be palmed over the Fire’s crossbar by goalkeeper Robbie Lennsen. His reflexes needed to be sharp after Hews had turned defence into counter-attack with a pass to King, out wide on the left, who raced past Fire fullback James Stinson to dribble into the home team’s penalty area and sting Lennsen’s hands with a well-struck shot from fifteen yards.
A minute later, however, the Strikers drew level. Having won a corner kick on the right side of the pitch that was whipped into the Fire’s six yard box by King and headed clear by a defender, the ball was returned out wide to King by a pass from Searle. King considered hoisting a cross back from whence it came, but heard a shout from Hews out near the edge of the penalty area and opted instead for a push pass with the inside of his left foot to the midfielder, whose opening thirty minutes had been frustrating ones with numerous uncharacteristic misdirected passes and corner kicks. This time, however, Hews got his technique spot-on as the ball skimmed towards him from King’s pass, and despatched a thunderous first-time shot with his right foot that flew low past Lennsen to the ‘keeper’s left to make the score 1-1.
That was how the score stayed until half time, although not without anxious moments for both teams. Hews went on a dribbling run that took him deep inside the Fire’s penalty area only to have his shot from eight yards denied by a defender’s desperate block, before Fire fullback Greg Barlow whipped in a wind-assisted free kick from the Fire’s right touchline that eluded all defenders and attackers and had to be beaten away by Chambers.
The teams came out after the interval with everything to play for, with the Strikers entitled to expect that having the breeze at their backs would help them during the second half. But once again it was the home team who started the better, with Muta and Holmes exchanging passes in the opening minute to send Lucas away down the right touchline to shoot across goal. Chambers got a touch to the ball with his outstretched right glove, but that only helped it on to Barlow who blasted an angled shot over the top from ten yards.
The Strikers responded with an attack straight through the middle of the pitch in which Hews slipped a pass through to Searle, who poked the ball in behind the Fire’s defence for Thurtell to run on to and innovatively chip the ball over Lennsen on the angle only to see his effort drift narrowly wide of goal.
Then, in a nice piece of symmetry as far as the home team was concerned, they again went ahead in the eighth minute of the half, this time in slightly fortuitous circumstances after winning a disputed direct free kick about twenty yards out from the Strikers goal. Barlow slammed his shot into the Strikers’ defensive wall and the ball ricocheted out to Fire forward Jakob Lee, who thumped it goalward again. The ball flew into a clutch of players and appeared to strike Lucas, whereupon it deflected radically, leaving Chambers without a chance of saving it because he had leaned his body weight the other way in anticipation of having to dive to his left.
So the Strikers again had to go about the task of finding an equaliser. This time they didn’t have to wait long – just six minutes, as it turned out. King was bundled over to the left of the Fire’s penalty area as the Strikers attacked and, when Hews sent his free kick floating to an area beyond the back post, big Strikers defender Alex Henderson (pictured) jumped uncontested to plant a firm header from an extremely tight angle past Lennsen to make the score 2-2 and celebrate a goal against the club he left last summer.
The stage was now set for a tense and enthralling final thirty minutes in front of two sizeable sets of supporters. With both teams desperate not to concede the upper hand to the other, or to make a mistake that could lead to the conceding of a goal, time on the ball became a rarity. Both teams used their bench, with Large bringing on Robinson for Angus and Jordan Mason for Searle, as Fire coach Richard Hudson brought Nicholas Bechar on for Barlow and Sam Knight for Stinson.
For a while the Fire looked the more likely team to score the third goal, with Holmes having a trio of half chances. The first of these was shot straight at Chambers from eighteen yards, the second was deflected from a similar distance into the goalkeeper’s arms, and the third was saved by Chambers with his legs at his near post as Costello attempted to shepherd the Fire midfielder to the byline.
The Strikers, forced to defend in depth, successfully hung in before hitting back hard as the game went into its final five minutes. King, once again toiling out wide on the left, won a free kick much to the disgust of the Fire’s supporters as he went tumbling to the turf in similar territory to where the free kick for the Strikers’ second equaliser had been taken. Once again Hews floated the dead ball beyond the back post. It went too high for everyone and was chased back towards the edge of the penalty area by Di Sipio. The little midfielder was shadowed by two defenders and, as he got to the ball, he momentarily slipped over as he tried to turn. Instantly, though, he was back on his feet and turning past the now-static defenders almost in one motion to scurry towards the byline and square a low pass that eluded Lennsen and another Fire defender at the near post. Following in was Robinson, but the ball almost eluded him, too, before the tall substitute stretched out a long trailing leg to turn the ball into an empty net to cue jubilant celebrations in the Fire’s penalty area by the visiting team as they went ahead for the first time in the match.
The Stockland Park monkey was almost off the Strikers’ backs, but there was still some solid defending to be done as Hudson played his last card, injecting Blackman into the fray at the expense of Lee while Large replaced Hews with Boxell. As the final minutes ticked down the Fire threatened through Bechar, who checked inside from the left touchline onto his right foot, but again shot straight at Chambers.
The home team were given added cause for hope when the fourth official signified that four minutes of time would be added for stoppages, but instead it was the Strikers who would use the extra minutes to add an exclamation mark to their side of the scoreboard. Stepping up their defensive intensity, and doing so from the front, the Strikers pressed the Fire deep into their own half as the fourth minute arrived. With the Fire pinned into their left corner in their defensive third, the Strikers’ persistence paid off in forcing a rash pass across field that missed out the Fire’s centre half and rolled towards Thurtell. The league’s top scorer had been forced to toil mostly isolated throughout the game, but like a hawk about to pounce on his prey he sized up the situation instantly. As the ball bobbled across the playing surface to him he went for bust, slamming an unstoppable first-time shot from about twenty-five yards that flew past Lennsen and into the top right corner of his goal as the ‘keeper flung himself into the air in vain.
If the Strikers’ celebrations of their third goal had been jubilant, this time they were perhaps a little more frenzied with the realisation that, with almost the last kick of the match, they had definitively erased the bitter memories of the 4-0 thumping they received at this ground earlier this year and the 4-3 loss in the championship decider last year.
Moments later referee Alan Milliner’s full time whistle brought to a close a contest that the Strikers had managed to win without ever appearing to play their most fluent football. Perhaps they had ‘won ugly’ but, if so, there will be plenty of supporters and others involved with the club who will feel that perhaps they owed the Fire that kind of performance.
It was a relieved and smiling David Large who attempted a few minutes later to sum up what he had seen and what the win meant for his team’s 2012 campaign.
“I’m very excited and very happy”, Large said. “It’s the old cliché – the job’s not done yet, but certainly it’s going to take a miraculous effort now from the (Whitsunday) Miners to ‘do’ us. I just couldn’t be happier. I wanted the win, and we got the win, and in fairness we did it in very untidy circumstances, which I suppose you come to expect when you come here.
“I think we learned so much when we came to this ground, what, four or five months ago? What we do now is, we just don’t allow people to bully us any more. We’ve got the silky skills, but I think we’ve also got the grunt when it’s required”.
Fire coach Richard Hudson felt that his team had played well, but was currently lacking the battling qualities and confidence to turn good performances into wins.
“We were 2-0 up last week against Bundy (Bundaberg Spirit) and then missed a penalty to go 3-0 up, and we’ve missed chances, one-on-ones and what have you, and we end up losing 3-2. Against the Miners the week before, here, we were winning 1-0 and playing all the football. We stopped battling. Today, we stopped battling again.
“Our problem is that we want to ‘play’ all the time, and the experience of teams such as the Miners, such as the Strikers, is that they know when to battle and when to play”.
Sunshine Coast Fire 2 (Cronk 8, Lucas 53) v Brisbane Strikers 4 (Hews 34, Henderson 59, Robinson 85, Thurtell 90+4).
Sunshine Coast Fire: Robbie Lennsen (gk), Tyson Holmes, Greig Henslee (c), Koriak Upaiga, Brady Cronk, Steve Hindmarch, David Muta, Alex Barlow, James Stinson, Dakota Lucas, Jakob Lee. Substitutes: Nicholas Bechar, Sam Knight, Shaun Blackman.
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Lorenzo Sipi, John Costello (c), Alex Henderson, Ryan Mottin, Chay Hews, Michael Angus, Chris Di Sipio, Josh Searle, Greg King, Matt Thurtell. Substitutes: Nick Robinson, Jordan Mason, Jack Boxell.
Shots on goal: Fire 17, Strikers 9
Shots on target: Fire 12, Strikers 7
Crosses: Fire 10, Strikers 7
Crosses into dangerous areas: Fire 1, Strikers 3
Corners: Fire 9, Strikers 5
Fouls: Fire 10, Strikers 17
Yellow cards: Hindmarch (Fire); Sipi, Thurtell (Strikers)
Red cards: None