THIS week end saw the commencement of the Football Far North Coast finals season and both Spell & the Gypsy Collective Byron Bay Wildcats teams found themselves matched up against determined opponents in qualifying semi-final matches.
The Division 2 Wildcats kicked off the action at the Byron Bay Recreation ground on Friday night. It was never going to be a walk in the park given the unavailability and injury of key players Zoe Corbett, Alex Chakos and Liv King but given the talent available on the Bay's bench, the Byron coaches hoped that they would still be able to comfortably qualify for the next round.
Things looked bright for the Wildcats, early on, as the backs and midfield knocked the ball around confidently putting early pressure on their Goonellabah opponents. The Bay had the better of the first quarter demonstrating speed, athleticism, touch and sound passing technique. However, as the half progressed, the brave Goonellabah women found another gear and began pressing the Wildcat's midfield to good effect. Suddenly, some passes that minutes earlier would have found their mark with ease, were ill-timed and ill-directed in execution. The second stanza of the first half saw Goonellabah pressuring the Bay's goal for the first time.
Effectively, the game had become an arm wrestle, with the ball moving from one end to the other and both sides giving their opponents defensive systems much to consider. Goonellabah were first to score despite the Bay having been dominant early on. The referee blew the whistle with the Bay women down 0 - 1 at half time.
Despite the Wildcats being favoured by a strong breeze in the second half, they were unable to reassert their early dominance. The arm-wrestle that characterized the later parts of the first half continued as the match progressed. Both teams put effective pressure on each other's goal and both teams missed opportunities through hitting the woodwork, inaccurate shooting or having shots deflected off the line. It was a long ball from the Bay's defensive line, brought down with a deft touch then forwarded on to the Wildcat's super-scorer, Lisa Bolt, that saw the home team finally get onto the board and tie the game up 1 - 1.
Late in the match the Bay's mid-field inability to connect with its goal-hungry forward line saw Grace Pattison moved forward from her normal full-back role, to spark some attack. While the strategy ignited Wildcat's offensive energy it was not enough, in the time that was left, and regular time saw the semi-finalists locked at 1 -1.
While both teams executed enterprising play in extra time, both teams were also clearly running low on petrol as the clock wound down. Ten minutes extra, each way, had no impact on the score sheet so, at full time, the referee was forced to draw the players onto the half-way line to observe the cruel ritual of a penalty shoot-out.
Wonderful strikes from Nambi Rembe, Mel Bradshaw and Su Young Moon and a smart save from Wildcats keeper, Ekala Boyd, during the shoot-out, saw the Bay finally take the victory 4 - 3 and move into the second round of the finals.
The Division 3 Wildcats' assignment was against the Lennox Head Sharks at Skennar's Head on Sunday afternoon. From the kick-off, the Byron team threw themselves into the task with skill and passion and only just missed out on scoring on many occasions. Most of the first half seemed to involve the Shark's defence scrambling to keep the Wildcats away from the goal or the Sharks keeper pulling down corner after corner, such was the Bay's dominance. While the Wildcats could claim to be unlucky to not go into half time with several goals on the score sheet poor decision making at the end of offensive thrusts was less a matter of bad luck than poor finishing execution from the Bay. Half time, 0 - 0.
The early part of the second half saw the Bay playing with more coherence. Coty Llorente moving into the backs, delivering quick ball into the mid-field and front line, saw the Wildcats even more dangerous than they had been in the first stanza. Only outstanding work from the Sharks keeper was keeping Lennox Head in the game at this stage. Finally, the Sharks defence was cracked when Christel Kikkert slammed the ball past the Lennox keeper with a mighty shot from the edge of the box. It appeared that the Wildcats should be able to go on and close out the match with more goals. However, no-one showed that script to the Lennox Head women!
For the next twenty-five minutes, the Sharks dug deep and with great skill, toughness and tenacity started winning possession in every corner of the field. Suddenly Lennox were winning most of the one-on-one contests and, much to the Wildcat's horror, were knocking the ball around with purpose and direction. With around fifteen minutes on the clock the Sharks constructed a fine goal mouth passing play which saw them grab an equalizer. Lennox Head were not finished. Almost in shock from the Shark's tenacious play, the Bay were coughing up possession consistently and five minutes later, after an error in the Wildcats penalty area, the Bay conceded a second goal sending the brave Sharks into the lead 1 - 2. The Wildcats struggled on in the last few minutes to drag a goal back but the Lennox Head Sharks second-half pressure had told and the Bay's play had gone well off-song. An equalizer was not to be.
Next week the Division 2 Wildcats will play in a second round qualifying final while the Division 3 women will get a second chance in an elimination final. After a terrific season for both teams it is great that both are still in the running... though both have some hard work ahead to get back to their earlier winning ways. Coaches Ben Ahearn and John McKay know that their teams are well up for the fight ahead!
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