The Brisbane Strikers waved goodbye to the chance of hosting an NPL semi-final, and raised question marks about their ability to reach the semi-finals at all, with a hugely disappointing performance in going down 2-0 to Northern Fury at Perry Park this afternoon.
Needing just one point to secure a finals place and three to keep alive their hopes of hosting a semi-final, the Strikers fell victim to a well-organised, determined and efficient Fury outfit who, despite having nothing left to play for this season, played as if they were the team intent on making the semi-finals.
But the Strikers also, once again, fell victim to themselves as they revisited a theme that has continued to turn up like a bad penny this season. Just as they had against the Sunshine Coast last Sunday, the Strikers conceded two soft goals to leave themselves chasing the game. And also just like last week, they simply lacked the spark to retrieve the situation – a factor that coach David Large was to concede after the game has become deeply concerning to him.
The opening twenty minutes offered little in terms of pulsating football as both teams struggled to put passages of play together, but the Fury looked the more likely team to break through as they sweated on errors from the Strikers, who looked unconvincing in their attempts to play the ball out from the back and through their midfield.
Fury winger Mitchell Robinson was the major early concern for the Strikers as he twice delivered crosses that found his captain, Reyze Kelly, arriving at the back post. But on neither occasion could Kelly make anything of the situation. Similarly, for the Strikers, fullback Scot Coulson was able to make a couple of promising overlapping runs to get in good crosses, the second of which flew across the Fury’s six yard box without anyone being able to get a touch.
Fifteen minutes in Robinson had the first shot on goal, dribbling infield from the right touchline to strike a rising shot from twenty yards that forced Strikers goalkeeper David Chambers to fingertip the ball over his crossbar.
The overall feeling was the home team did not have their minds on the job, while the visitors looked sharper. This impression was confirmed when the Fury opening the scoring in the twenty-second minute with a quick thrust through the centre of the field as a Strikers passing movement broke down inside the Fury’s half. The ball was quickly threaded forward to Michael Eisenhut, whose perfectly-timed run had split open the Strikers’ defence. The diminutive Fury midfielder then burst into the clear to find Kelly in support and fed him a pass. With Chambers coming off his line, Kelly then calmly dribbled around the goalkeeper and finished the movement by rolling the ball into the Strikers’ goal despite the despairing attempts of Coulson to get to the ball before it crossed the line.
Six minutes later the Fury were in again, feeding off another turnover of possession by the home team near the half way line inside their left touchline. Once again it was Eisenhut plunging the dagger, with his perfectly-timed through-ball dissecting the Strikers’ defence to find his midfield team mate Gareth Edds running through. Again Edds had little difficulty converting, dribbling around Chambers to tap in from close range with his right foot.
So, for the second week in succession, the Strikers were two down. But with still sixty-two minutes of the game remaining there was time to find a way back into the game and the Strikers of only a few weeks ago might have found one. But at the moment the team seems to be laboring without a creative spark and they struggled to impose themselves upon the contest.
With only a few minutes remaining in the half they almost found a way through as Josh Taylor won the chase for a long pass from Tim Walsh and held the ball up before passing to Clark Bradford, whose right-footed shot drew a sharp, blocking save from Fury goalkeeper Matt Symes. The ball then broke free for the Strikers to pass to winger Jonti Richter. His teasing cross was aimed perfectly for the head of Taylor, who had found space between Fury centre halves David King and Ari Isman but directed his lunging header harmlessly wide of the right-hand upright as the Strikers’ best attack of the half came to nothing.
This allowed the Fury to take their two-goal advantage into the half time break, whereafter the Strikers re-emerged with more urgency and intent than they had shown at the beginning of the first half. Tackling with more venom and trying to increase the pace of their game, they soon had the Fury under pressure. But the visitors’ back four of King, Ismand, Caleb Hobson and Daniel Tinker were resolute and relatively untroubled in weathering the storm before the visitors fashioned another chance for Edds that drew a very good close-range save from Chambers to keep his team in the contest.
Twelve minutes into the second stanza the Strikers were unfortunate not to get on the scoreboard as Taylor linked with Richter to send the winger driving towards the Fury’s byline to whip in a low cross that travelled at pace to Chay Hews beyond the far post. But it was one of those opportunities that allows only one touch on the stretch. It either sticks or it doesn’t, and Hews’s attempted finish with his left foot finished in the side-netting instead of inside the goal and the chance again had gone.
Try as they might from this moment forward, the Strikers could fashion little that qualified as a genuine scoring opportunity. The spirit was willing but the technique and execution, the link play, the fluency and the timing just wasn’t there as the home team huffed and puffed and the Fury simply waited for their mistakes.
To make matters even worse for the Strikers their already worrying injury toll continued to mount, with centre half Andy Callaghan and his substitute, Alex Henderson, both having to be assisted from the field with the kind of ankle injuries that did not, at first glance, appear likely to heal within a week.
The home team’s frustrations over not being able to open up the Fury’s defence were symbolized by an ambitious attempt from Richter to make something of a nod-down from substitute Kyle Luetkehans, with Richter swinging his left boot at the ball from fully thirty yards to send it sailing high over the Fury’s crossbar.
The Strikers’ third substitute, Chris Roulston, did succeed in bringing a fingertip save out of Symes, who had to leap skywards to prevent an eighteen yard screamer from finishing under his crossbar. This was followed by a sharp save by Symes from close range as Roulston climbed high at the back post to meet a cross from King with a powerful header while Henderson lay injured in the Fury’s goalmouth.
The match ended with a save from Chambers to a left-footed drive by Fury midfielder Corey Waples and was followed by well-earned celebrations by the Fury and a very lengthy on-field inquest within the Strikers’ camp.
“You can’t dig a hole that deep and then expect to pull yourself out of it within forty-five minutes”, said Large immediately after he had addressed his players.
“We spoke at half time about what I felt was just a very ordinary, lackadaisical effort and I don’t think the boys prepared themselves well for the game. I just think that their heads have been in the wrong place and when you let two stupid goals in, where midfielders have not tracked their players – we put ourselves in that position and it was very difficult to have pulled ourselves out.
“There’s no doubt about it, we are lacking a bit of form and, when you go two goals down to just pull it out of the fire is just very, very hard”.
Large agreed that the Fury had fully earned the win.
“I really don’t want to take anything away from the Fury because they obviously came here with a plan and tried to press us”, he said. “And as much as I don’t think that that was the real problem for us, I thought they held their shape well – especially in the second half when they were under the pump a little bit and they looked like a team that was desperate to finish well. And in the end they did that, so you’ve got to applaud them for that”.
Large also acknowledged that his team’s go-forward swagger – a quality that has not deserted it even in defeat this season, at least prior to this last week – appeared to have gone AWOL.
“We just seem to lack that drive going forward. Our ability to actually create chances was almost non-existent today. Every time we went through the guts they dealt with it, and every time we went in wide areas they dealt with that”, Large said.
“We can use all the excuses under the sun, with (losing) Matt Thurtell and Josh McVey but at the end of the day we’ve got players who are strikers and we expect them to do their jobs – and we’ve just struggled to change our shape and our system to accept new strikers into it”.
The Strikers now have two more opportunities this week – away to Moreton Bay United on Wednesday and at home to Brisbane City on Saturday – to claim the point they need to qualify for the semi-finals.
But a significant improvement will be needed on today’s performance if they are to tip Redlands United out of fourth place. The Strikers’ mojo in going forward has been misplaced for the moment and, if it can’t be found by Wednesday, it will need to be replaced by courage and a stubborn willingness to ‘hang in there’ until it is rediscovered.
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Tim Walsh, David Roby, Andy Callaghan, Scot Coulson, Nathan Ryland, Chay Hews (c), Clark Bradford, Greg King, Jonti Richter, Josh Taylor. Playing substitutes: Alex Henderson, Kyle Luetkehans, Chris Roulston. Non-playing substitutes: Corey Hooper, Will Rockett (rgk).
Northern Fury: Matt Symes (gk), Caleb Hobson, Daniel Tinker, David King, Ari Isman, Reyze Kelly (c), Gareth Edds, Newie Cobbo, Mitchell Robinson, Michael Eisenhut, Corey Waples. Playing substitutes: Angus Campbell, David Lecorno, Michael Millios. Non-playing substitute: Tristan Russel