The Brisbane Strikers maintained pressure on the top four teams with a display of courage and character as they wriggled off Western Pride’s well-baited hook at Perry Park last night, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to scrape home 3-2 in an absorbing NPL Round 18 fixture.
The Pride, winners over Redlands United and Brisbane City in their last two fixtures, showed those results were anything but flukes as they pressured a revamped Strikers early on to take a 2-0 lead. But the Strikers fought back to 2-2 by half time and went on to shade the visitors in a tense second half to earn three extremely valuable points as the battle for the top four positions intensifies.
Strikers coach David Large, mindful of the fixture congestion facing his team in the coming five weeks, made three changes to his starting line-up, giving starting debuts to new signings Kyle Luetkehans and Tim Walsh and resting fullback Alistair Quinn in favour of Andy Callaghan.
It was a gamble that almost backfired, with the new backline having its work cut out with a highly mobile Pride front four, who were spearheaded by the tall and lightning-quick Peter Drager.
There was an early warning sign for the Strikers that the Pride had not come to Perry Park intent on a draw. A flowing passing movement that began on the right side of the Pride’s formation was quickly switched to the left, where winger Will Jordan found space to launch a low left-footed drive that was bound for the far corner of the Strikers’ goal had it not been for a sharp one-handed save from goalkeeper David Chambers.
But a minute later the Pride drew first blood when the Strikers proved their own worst enemies when in possession of the ball. Perhaps the understanding and positioning between centre-halves Roby and Walsh was astray as Roby turned infield from the right touchline and aimed a pass in Walsh’s direction that was a little too square. Drager was on to it in a flash and left Walsh trailing in his wake as he jetted off towards the Strikers’ penalty area with the ball at his feet. Chambers came off his line but Drager was awake to it and beat the ‘keeper expertly with a low shot to Chambers’ left that rolled into the Strikers’ net.
With the home team struggling to penetrate a congested midfield, the Pride were the team creating the better scoring opportunities as they sweated on every Strikers mistake. They duly got, and punished, another in the seventeenth minute when the Strikers tried to attack down the left touchline through fullback Scot Coulson and Greg King but came unstuck with a loose pass. The visitors quickly threaded a pass down the right wing and then inside again to Drager, who again ran on to the ball at full pace. Again Chambers came off his line and Drager picked him off, clipping the ball delicately past him from about fifteen yards to find the far corner of his net and put the Pride two goals to the good.
At this stage of the game the Strikers had not established any real momentum going forward and were finding Drager and Jordan, in particular, a real challenge. And things looked slightly grimmer for the home team by the twenty-fifth minute after Luetkehans, scheming in midfield, created the Strikers’ first real opportunity when he put Callaghan into the clear with a well-timed pass that the fullback chased to the byline. Callaghan’s low cross found Clark Bradford only about eight yards out from goal, but the midfielder’s attempted first-time finish flew over the crossbar as the chance went begging.
But with fifteen minutes remaining in the first half the Strikers found a way back into the game through a goal out of the top-drawer from McVey. With the Pride trying to work the ball out of their defensive third near the touchline, Strikers skipper Jonti Richter (pictured), standing in for Chay Hews, forced a turnover of possession and passed the ball quickly infield, where a second pass found its way to McVey about twenty yards out from goal. McVey quickly sized up the situation and launched a curling, dipping shot with his right foot that screamed past Pride goalkeeper Steve Purdy and crashed against the underside of his crossbar before finishing in the net
The Strikers lived dangerously with another turnover of possession forcing a last-ditch tackle from Coulson and a save from Chambers to thwart Drager’s hat trick, but right on the stroke of half time they drew level after being awarded a free kick near the grandstand touchline. The dead ball was delivered teasingly towards the Pride’s six yard box by King, a lunging header from Richter beat Purdy to smack against the inside of the far post, where Coulson was on hand to touch the ball in for his first goal for the Strikers’ senior team.
Having spent the majority of the half calling the shots, the Pride must have gone into the break knowing that they had a serious job to do in the second half to hold out a home team who now had the wind in their sails.
To their credit, the Pride came out for the second half with every intention of denying the home team the upper hand. The Strikers made a substitution at half time, sending on Quinn in place of Callaghan, who had battled a virus during the week and had contributed plenty in the opening forty-five minutes, but it was the Pride who started the second stanza more brightly.
Within minutes, a fluent passing movement opened up the Strikers’ defence wide on its left to send Pride forward Russell Woodruffe sprinting into the penalty area. But Woodruffe’s angle was tight and although he hit his shot powerfully, Chambers was well-positioned at his near post to catch Woodruffe’s rising drive above his head from close range.
The Strikers remained on the back foot for a while as the visitors crowded them out of possession and asked most of the questions, but having weathered the storm they were unfortunate not to hit the front when Richter, who was bringing his typical in-your-face, non-stop game to the Pride’s skipper and left back, Niall McCarthy, wriggled free down the right touchline. Richter squared a pass to McVey, who tapped in from close range only to have the goal disallowed by referee Michael Bozhoff for an offside infringement.
This incident signalled a change in the balance of power as the Strikers became the team asking the questions and refusing to let the opposition play, forcing a succession of corner kicks and generally keeping the Pride locked inside their own half. Eventually their refusal to take their foot off the gas paid off when, in the sixty-fourth minute, a blocked clearance near the edge of the Pride’s penalty area dropped kindly for King. There are few, if any, players in Queensland’s division of the NPL who strike a moving ball more powerfully than King, whose first-time drive rocketed past Purdy to cue vigorous celebrations from King in front of the more vocal contingent of the home team’s supporters.
Having got their noses in front the Strikers should probably have added to their tally when a long ball from Coulson on the counter-attack found McVey on a run through the inside-left channel. The Pride’s defenders appeared to hesitate, expecting an offside call that never came, leaving McVey in the clear as Purdy came off his line. However McVey’s shot, while beating Purdy, found the side netting as the Pride breathed a sigh of relief.
Strikers coach David Large went to his bench again, brining on Hews for Ryland, who had minutes earlier received a yellow card for a foul on Drager. Hews’s technique and experience came to the fore as the Strikers strove to retain control of the midfield in the face of renewed intensity from the Pride, for whom Robbie Livingstone had been having a storming game and proving to be almost impossible to dispossess when running from deep positions.
The Pride had another promising five-minute spell, with Chambers saving at his near post after a pass from Woodruffe had created a chance for Drager to shoot on the angle,. Then Drager fluffed a chance after running on to a ‘route one’ pass to again shred the Strikers’ defence with his pace. Just when 3-3 seemed to be the inevitable result of the counter-attack, Drager was forced on to his left foot and drove his shot into the side netting as Chambers came off his line.
Having survived this, the Strikers bossed most of the remainder of the game with Purdy having to produce a sharp save to his right to keep out a stinging twenty-yard drive from Luetkehans and Pride defender Devon Munn having to head a thirty-yard effort from King off his own goal line with Purdy once again out of the game after initially making a blocking save at the feet of McVey.
As the Pride began to run out of ideas the Strikers were able to play a patient passing game over most of the last ten minutes to starve them of oxygen. But in the very last minute the dangerous Drager gave them another anxious moment when he became the last man to receive a pass in a desperate Pride attack that sent him surging to the byline on the right side of the Strikers’ penalty area. Fortunately for the home team, no-one in a green-hooped shirt was able to get a touch on Drager’s low cross, which flew across the face of goal as the Strikers survived to secure three points that were, after the game, deemed as deserved by each team’s coach.
“They had four boys who were prepared to run at us and we struggled with them, to be honest”, said Large of the Pride.
“We obviously didn’t come out of the blocks the way we wanted to – you can always talk about it, but to do it is a completely different thing. But as strong as they were going forward, we found the chinks and I think it was a workman-like display. Even though we were two down, we were still in there grinding our way back and I thought we did that fantastically tonight”.
Pride’s assistant coach, Peter Bannon, who stood in for the absent Kasey Wehrman, refused to be downcast in his after-match summation when asked why the Pride, after leading 2-0, had not been able to convert that lead into their third consecutive win.
“I think the difference was the quality of the opposition tonight”, he said. “I thought they (the Strikers) played quite well.
“We let them off the hook a wee bit in the first half when we lost a little bit of patience and discipline. You know, from two goals up you’d like to lock it up until at least half time, but that wasn’t to be. But all credit to the lads, they always put in an excellent effort and I can’t fault that”.
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Andy Callaghan, David Roby, Tim Walsh, Scot Coulson, Kyle Luetkehans, Nathan Ryland, Clark Bradford, Josh McVey, Greg King, Jonti Richter (c). Substitutes: Chay Hews, Alex Henderson, Alistair Quinn.
Western Pride: Steve Purdy (gk), Joel Hancock, Lincoln Rule, Niall McCarthy (c), Will Jordan, Aaron Christensen, Russell Woodruffe, Jeye Comerford, Peter Drager, Devon Munn, Robbie Livingstone. Substitute: Jaye Kitching.