The Brisbane Strikers have earned the right to take their first NPL season into another week – and into the semi-finals – after defying the odds to beat second-placed Brisbane City 2-0 at Perry Park last night.
Going into their third match in six days, the depleted and patched-up Strikers needed only a point against City to climb above Redlands United into fourth position on the league table. But a first-half wonder strike from winger Jonti Richter gave them the opening goal before midfielder Michael Angus added another eight minutes into the second half to give them a two-goal buffer that a disappointing City team never looked likely to peg back.
Already reeling from an extensive list of injuries and a punishing playing schedule, the Strikers were dealt a further blow before the game when centre –half Tim Walsh, who picked up an injury in Wednesday night’s 2-1 loss to Moreton Bay, was ruled out of the starting eleven.
In response, coach David Large virtually threw his remaining pack of cards up into the air to see how they would land and put out a starting eleven that, at first glance, would seem almost eccentric to anyone who regularly follows his team.
The Strikers had players playing out of position all over the park – a left winger (Greg King) playing at centre half in place of Walsh, a natural right winger in Josh Taylor playing on the left wing, and two central midfielders (Clark Bradford and Kyle Luetkehans) playing as strikers. They also had seventeen year-old Brad Savage playing at right back in only his second senior game. But none of this seemed to matter as the Strikers produced a brave and composed performance to control a game in which they were seldom seriously threatened.
The opening quarter of an hour was a subdued affair as the Strikers had the majority of possession and territory but looked to give nothing away while City seemed content to feel their way into the contest. The visitors gave the Strikers an early scare when centre-forward Antonio Murray headed down a cross delivered from their left touchline to Alistair Pase, who was only about eight yards out from goal on the angle. But Pase was forced to take the chance on the volley with his left foot and skied his shot, failing to force Strikers goalkeeper David Chambers into a save.
It took the Strikers twenty-one minutes to create their first opportunity – a header for Bradford after King had been allowed by City’s forward line to stride forward from the half way line to find Bradford with a thirty-yard high ball. Bradford made good contact with his header only to send the ball looping up over City’s crossbar.
As the home team began to grow in confidence Taylor was the next player to try his luck, accepting a pass from Angus with his back to goal before spinning away from his marker with his first touch to fire a shot across the face of the goal patrolled by Matthew Stein.
Going into the last fifteen minutes of the first half the Strikers were the team most prepared to ask questions of the opposing defence. While the midfield battle between Chay Hews and Angus for the Strikers, and Ken Dougall and Dean Le Petit for City at this stage had no-one clearly in the ascendancy, there was more collective urgency coming from the Strikers. City’s prolific goal scorer, Murray, received virtually no service whatsoever so King and his centre half partner Roby were looking comfortable, while Richter and Taylor were getting more involved in the game than their City counterparts, Matthew Riggs and Jayke Cuschieri.
All the same, the first half looked unlikely to feature a goal until its final five minutes. First, City went close when Pase’s outswinging corner kick found centre half Luca Perico meeting it with a header, leaning back, just infield of the far post. It was not an easy one for Perico to keep down but he accomplished that only to see the ball pass inches wide of Chambers’ post with the ‘keeper probably out of the equation.
But then it was a case of ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’ for the Strikers as they worked the ball forward down their left side two minutes later. There was nothing much of beauty in the construction of the goal that followed – a header won by Luetkehans to a bouncing ball as it was played infield, and then a help-on by Bradford to give Richter the chance to chase the ball towards the byline.
But what happened next as Richter caught up with the bouncing ball was definitely a thing of beauty. When everyone in the ground was expecting Richter to hook his right boot around the ball and try to cross it into the six-yard box, the little winger produced an electrifying volley that sent the ball over Stein and crashing into the far corner of the net for the kind of goal that fills highlights reels all over the world.
It was also the kind of goal capable of inspiring teammates who need a lift and, coming as it did just before half time, it probably deflated the visitors who fired one shot in anger before the break – a twenty-five yard effort from Dougall that flew wide of goal – but not a lot else after it.
The Strikers came back out first after the break and looked as if they were keen to go on with the job. A team that is programmed to attack, as the Strikers are, is seldom comfortable sitting on a slender lead and the Strikers spent the first five or six minutes camped mostly inside City’s half. Richter drew a flying save out of Stein with a dipping twenty-five yard free kick to give him something to think about, before the home side struck again in the fifty-third minute.
Working some tight spaces near the grandstand touchline the Strikers played the ball to Bradford, who looked up and found the space to drill a pass infield to Angus. Angus then looked wide to the right where Richter loomed up in support and found him with a pass. Richter took on a defender and sprinted into City’s penalty area before squaring a low pass back to Angus, who clinically tucked the ball past Stein with the inside of his left foot to send the home team’s fans into celebration as they contemplated the fact that City would now have to score three goals to keep their beleaguered team out of the semi-finals.
That was a task that never at any stage seemed to be within City’s capabilities. While Le Petit and Dougall did their best to spark something for the visitors their probing running and passing was not enough. Murray continued to be starved of service and City were restricted by a very diligent Strikers midfield and back four to shots from long range, none of which really troubled Chambers who was able to gather in a couple of shots and watch others sail harmlessly wide.
With Roby and King producing a performance that belied it was the first time they had ever partnered each other in the centre of defence, and Couson and Savage both having solid games either side of them, the Strikers looked unexpectedly solid at the back.
As City ran out of steam the Strikers finished the stronger, controlling possession over the last ten minutes of the game to run out comfortable winners over a City team who seemed not to be ‘at the races’. One suspects they will have to lift considerably next weekend if they are to make a fist of their semi-final against Sunshine Coast Fire.
As the final whistle sounded to confirm that the Strikers had kept alive a decade-long sequence of qualifying for the finals series of every league they have contested since the 2003/04 NSL season, David Large’s battle-weary troops took a moment to celebrate their win and salute their supporters.
Large declared his pride in their performance and his admiration for the part played by Richter.
“We seemed to have our heads in the right place, even though we got beaten during the week, and I thought we showed a lot of composure and a lot of discipline tonight”, Large said.
“It was probably, if I dare say it, an uncharacteristic performance from the Strikers tonight and the ‘no goal against’ was a major plus for us so I’m rapt”.
When asked how important Richter’s goal had been, Large focused instead on Richter’s overall contribution to the team.
“Jonti is a special player and I think I’ve said this before – and I don’t say this lightly – Jonti has gone through some tough times and it has probably cost him A-League performances over the past four or five years”, Large said.
“But they couldn’t get near him tonight. Forget the goal – just his general game was unbelievable. He is an A-League player, there’s no doubt about that”.
The Strikers now have the comparative luxury of a week’s preparation before their semi-final against Premiers Olympic FC at Goodwin Park next weekend. Those who are still able-bodied will need every day of it to repair niggling injuries after a hectic August and if they are to have themselves mentally and physically ready to give a good account of themselves against a team that has already given them two almighty touch-ups this season.
But as last night has already proved – where there is life, there is always hope.
In the curtain-raiser the Brisbane Strikers Under-20s played out an entertaining and tense 3-3 draw with City which meant that their senior team counterparts were not the only ones having celebrations after the final whistle.
The draw gave the Strikers the premiership and a well-earned reward for a season spent defying problems mostly not of their own making. They also will now look forward to a finals series beginning next weekend.
So, what better way to close out this report than with a team photo of the inaugural NPL Queensland Under-20 Premiers?