The familiar spectacle of the Brisbane Strikers taking on the Sunshine Coast Fire in a final will present itself again to football fans on Friday night, this time at Meakin Park in the deciding match of the Clem Jones Shield.
Three seasons of Hyundai QSL football have seen the two teams meet twice in the Grand Final, with both of those contests going to the Fire by 1-0 scorelines. Despite the fact that this Friday night’s encounter is ‘only’ a pre-season game, the Strikers will be hoping that it’s a case of ‘third time lucky’ for them.
They certainly should not be lacking in motivation. Coming off second-best to the Fire is not a feeling enjoyed within the Perry Park club’s playing, coaching or administrative staff and the memory of the team’s rather insipid and fortunate effort in the 1-1 draw with the same team twelve days ago is one that almost all of those involved in yellow shirts that night will want to expunge with a much better display this time around.
There is also the matter of playing for the trophy and prizemoney of a final and, with the latter being a generous reward of $5,000 for the winners, you can bet that both clubs’ administrators and owners are going to be fervently hoping that their team puts in its best possible effort on the night.
And if none of that is enough motivation to want to win the game, consider that both teams will want to take form and confidence into their first QSL fixture of the season a fortnight later – which just happens to again be against each other!
So Meakin Park on Friday night at 8.30 should be the setting for yet another hard-fought encounter between these best of enemies. Supporters of both clubs will already know that games between the two are seldom, if ever, lacking in competitive grunt, and that they almost inevitably seem to produce moments of controversy and surprise twists and turns. The most recent game was no exception, with two Strikers – Jordan Mason and Chris Di Sipio – receiving their marching orders before Michael Angus salvaged a draw for his nine-man team with a long range bomb with almost the last kick of the match.
The Sunshine Coast must have been sickened to find themselves deprived of a win in those circumstances and will want to turn the screw if they find themselves ahead again on Friday.
On first glance, their prospects of a win on this occasion look good. The vast majority of their championship-winning squad from last year has been retained, and those new faces that have come in – including former QAS player Dylan Roberts, youth product Josh Taylor and Japanese trialists Kota Shibahash and Sato Taka seem to have added pace and spark to the team. They are a settled and familiar group and appear to have quickly clicked into gear.
The Strikers, in contrast, are still getting by without a handful of the players who will be expected to form the backbone of the team’s QSL challenge once they are fit and available again, and are taking time to find the right players for the right positions, the right combinations and to field the same players from one week to the next.
Last week, by necessity, Strikers coach David Large was obliged to rely on the talents of a number of players from the club’s youth ranks but he might be unable to call upon the same young players this Friday. Both the Brisbane Strikers and Logan Strikers Under-19 teams have midweek pre-season games this week and Large will not know until after the dust settles from those games which players he can call upon to supplement his more senior players this time.
However, on the brighter side Large knows that he can again select Mason and Di Sipio, who have served the suspensions they earned in the last game against the Fire and will be looking to make up for their misadventures. While acknowledging that he cannot start with his strongest eleven, Large said last night he had “no doubt I will field a good eleven”.
In terms of tactics, the match should be an intriguing riddle. Neither coach will want to give too much away about the formation and strategies he will employ in the first game of the season in a fortnight’s time, but neither will they want to try out ideas that produce an indifferent performance or result.
The Sunshine Coast have been renowned throughout the QSL, and most certainly at Perry Park, for playing a direct, not particularly sophisticated, but undeniably effective and successful style of game over their three QSL campaigns. But there are signs that new coach Richard Huson is looking to change the tried-and-tested “quick transition, knock it up to Blackman, lay-it-off and shoot, or lay-it-off and cross it back to Blackman” method, supplemented by an ability to get everyone back behind the ball when not in possession, that has served them so well. In the 1-1 draw of twelve days ago the Fire showed an unfamiliar ambition to play the ball through the midfield and out to the wings and, while the Strikers struggled to adjust, it seemed to work reasonably well, even though the means by which the Fire scored – a penalty kick to Blackman – had a depressingly familiar tone to it for the Strikers. Time will tell if the experiment suits the playing group that the Fire have and becomes a permanent change.
“That certainly was unexpected”, Large conceded when asked about what he had seen from the Fire last time around “and it’s really got me thinking about whether I have to change something about how we approach them”.
For their part, the Strikers have focused for many years on having a squad with the ability to play under several different systems, while never losing their focus on a short passing game. That is unlikely to change, but precisely which system Large will use on Friday and then in a fortnight will (and must as far as he will be concerned) remain a mystery.
The Hyundai QSL season, which promises plenty with the addition of the Gold Coast Stars and Southern Cross United, and the apparent strengthening of some of the regional teams, is almost upon us. But until then, Friday night’s offering between the competition’s two strongest teams to date shapes as a very tasty entree.