A surging performance over the last twenty-five minutes and a touch of class from skipper Chay Hews propelled the Brisbane Strikers to their fifth consecutive win and gave them some breathing space in the NPL Queensland top four as they overcame Palm Beach Sharks 3-0 at Perry Park last night.
Despite dominating proceedings against a stubborn Sharks team that was almost unrecognizable from the one that beat the Strikers 3-2 in May, the Strikers made heavy weather of getting the first goal. A host of scoring opportunities went begging before Josh Taylor finally calmed the nerves of the home team’s supporters with a goal in the sixty-fifth minute. Hews and Greg King, the latter with a penalty, then put the young Sharks outfit to the sword, adding further goals to provide an exclamation mark to the home team’s performance.
With Josh McVey, who has led the Strikers’ forward line for the last month, out of action this week coach David Large experimented with his line-up, moving Jonti Richter into the centre-forward position and Alistair Quinn into Richter’s regular spot on the right wing in a move that he admitted afterwards did not bear fruit. Tim Walsh was brought into the right back position behind Quinn, leaving Alex Henderson to partner Andy Callaghan in the centre of the Strikers’ defence.
The home team began well, with Quinn exchanging passes with Richter seven minutes in to send Richter sprinting to the byline inside the Sharks’ penalty area. But when Richter’s cutback fell beyond the back post to Greg King, whose powerful drive crashed against a goalpost and back into play, it hinted at a frustrating night ahead for the home team.
That is exactly what they got in a first half that saw the visiting team play with spoiling tactics, trying to squeeze the space in the middle of the pitch and frustrate the Strikers’ passing game, and employing a high defensive line that produced frequent offside calls against the Strikers.
Not that Palm Beach were getting much joy either, as Henderson blunted their most dangerous attacking weapon, Jarrod Kyle, by preventing the big man from turning and running at the Strikers’ defence with several well-won tackles and intercepts on the rare occasions when the Sharks tried to get forward.
The first half was to end in a 0-0 stalemate as the Strikers, despite having the majority of possession, failed to penetrate and to conclusively win the battle for midfield supremacy, where Sharks captain Justin McKay and youngster Jack McCue, both technically adept players, were matching it well with Hews, Michael Angus and Nathan Ryland for the Strikers.
McKay was to have the Sharks’ best chance of the half – no better than a half chance – when an opportunity opened up for him to shoot from just outside the “D” on his right foot. McKay accepted the invitation with a shot that had Strikers goalkeeper David Chambers scrambling anxiously across his goal line as the ball flew a half-metre wide.
The complexion of the contest was to change in the second half after Large opted during the break to substitute Callaghan with Taylor, moving Walsh into the centre half position vacated by Callaghan, Quinn back to fullback and Richter back to the wing.
The changes did not take long to take effect. Richter was unlucky to find Meskell diving away to his right to make an excellent save to prevent a crisply-struck twenty-yard shot from the winger from finishing in the corner of his net five minutes after the restart. And as the Strikers began to find the penetration they had lacked in the first half and to carve out some opportunities, Taylor struck the side-netting with a shot, then stumbled over his own feet inside the Sharks’ six-yard box as a low cross from King came in with the goal gaping, and sent a glancing header wide from another cross from King in the fifty-sixth minute.
Frustration was mounting for the home side, but they finally got the breakthrough sixty-five minutes in. Minutes earlier, Large had made his second substitution, bringing on Kyle Luetkehans for holding midfielder Ryland in an attacking move, and Luetkehans was involved in the move that saw play switched from the right out to King’s left wing. Once again King got the better of his marker and delivered a low cross into the Sharks’ six-yard box where Taylor, under desperate challenge from Palm Beach centre-half Rhys Lambert, got the slightest of touches with his left foot to glnce the ball past Meskell and send it rolling into the far right corner of the Sharks’ goal.
No sooner had the Sharks’ defences been breached for the first time than they were punctured again two minutes later by Hews, who finished off a short corner routine with Richter with a shot from outside of the Sharks’ penalty area that rocketed into the far corner of Meskell’s net with the goalkeeper given no chance.
Hews’s dance of delight seemed to confirm that he fely what most observers would have thought – that the second goal would be enough for the Strikers to take all three points, given that the Sharks had offered little attacking threat over the previous hour.
The last twenty minutes were to be the ‘Hews and King Show’. Hews made light of his thirty-six years to run the middle of the park and even make several telling runs deep into the Sharks’ penalty area in combination with Richter and Taylor, while King gave the Sharks defenders a miserable time whenever he got on the ball.
The Sharks threatened for a moment through a long-ball attack through the middle of the park aimed at Kyle, who found himself one-on-one with Walsh, with the defender doing well to force Kyle wide so that his shot could be comfortably saved by Chambers.
Shortly afterwards Hews was desperately unlucky not to ice a fine individual performance with an outrageous goal when he received a pass inside the centre-circle before spinning around to see Meskell off his line andlaunch a long-range bomb that had Meskell beaten but thudded back into play off his crossbar.
With eight minutes remaining, Walsh’s glancing header from Hew’s corner kick skewed just wide of goal before King ventured acrossfield to combine passes wide out on the right side of the pitch with Hews to open up the Sharks defence again. As Hews got to the byline and cut the last pass back for King the winger was upended just as he was about to pull the trigger and referee Jason Crow signaled a penalty for the Strikers.
King converted the spot kick by placing it high to the left of Meskell and, although the Strikers were to create more chances – with fullback Scot Coulson missing perhaps the best of them with a shot that cleared the crossbar from twelve yards – the scoring was over and the Strikers had accumulated the full fifteen points from their last five games.
When combined with the night’s other results – which saw Redlands United draw 0-0 with Northern Fury, Sunshine Coast Fire flog Brisbane City 6-1 and Central Queensland defeat Western Pride 4-2, the Strikers’ win left them in fourth position on the league table but with four points separating them from fifth-placed Redlands.
It also set up a huge match next weekend with the Fire, whose typical end-of-season burst now has them in third position one point ahead of the Strikers.
When asked after the game if the Strikers had wondered at any stage that the game might not go their way, Hews answered in the negative.
“I don’t think we ever panicked’, Hews said. “I think probably at some stage in the first half it felt as if it wasn’t quite clicking. I think we were probably trying too hard – we were going at a hundred miles and hour.
“But I think Largie and Graham (Harvey) spotted a few things and we changed it at half time and it seemed to work for us – it seemed like things improved and, once we got a goal, I think we settled”.
Palm Beach coach Grae Piddick said the Sharks had come to Perry Park with a containment plan.
“We’re in a position where we had a number of players missing – we had three players out there tonight having their first game for the team and another two off the bench playing their first game”, Piddick said.
“So the game plan was to try and hang in there and hit on the counter. I think the game plan worked for an hour, but we didn’t really get a chance to take, and then as we got a bit tired yes, we did get punished.
According to McKay, Hews’s goal had been like a dagger to the heart of the Sharks.
“I think up until the sixty minutes stage we were quite comfortable and doing quite well, and it probably was frustrating them because I think they thought it was going to be a bit easier than it was”, McKay said.
“I think they did get a bit frustrated, and the thing that killed us was the second goal a minute after the first. It seemed to deflate us a little bit. Where we had a couple of young lads playing they did really, really well up until that point – but I think it was just a big ask to get back into it from then on in”.
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Andy Callaghan, Tim Walsh, Alex Henderson, Scot Coulson, Jonti Richter, Greg King, Nathan Ryland, Chay Hews (c), Alistair Quinn, Michael Angus. Playing substitutes: Josh Taylor, Kyle Luetkehans, Clark Bradford. Non-playing substitutes: Corey Hooper, Will Rockett (rgk).
Palm Beach: Ryan Meskell (gk), Riley Dillon, Jarrod Kyle, Dimitri Sofatzis, Jack McCue, Justin McKay (c), Rhys Lambert, Jonathan Camilleri, Alex McWilliams, Kurdistan Kawalu, Nick Hulme. Playing substitutes: Kento Ito, Ethan Grimley, Harry Phillips. Non-playing substitutes: Grae Piddick, Jack Littlejohn.