Belmont-Swansea United 1 (Mitch Cook) drew with Cooks Hill United 1 (Lee Ashton)
Saturday 18th August, 2:30 pm, Blacksmiths Oval
There was a finals-like atmosphere in the air at Blacksmiths Oval – tense and adrenaline-charged – and that same energy was witnessed on the field as nothing could separate last year’s Grand Finalists in a heated, drawn 1st leg contest.
Despite the dry, windy conditions, the game began with a frantic pace and it was the home side who were the first to take advantage of their opening opportunities. A Belswans corner whipped into the danger area and Mitch Cook rose above his opposition defenders to bang home the first goal of the game and sending his home fans into a whirlwind of celebration in the process.
Their celebrations were halted quickly though as Cooks Hill almost grabbed a goal just minutes later through Daniel Yaxley, but his shot went just wide, and Belswans looked to capitalise once again.
Klaudon Ahmataj forced a brilliant save from Jake Hamilton in goals but looked as though he’d got the better of him not long after. Hamilton rushed out to pressure Ahmataj but left his goal wide open after going down on contact, however, the Belswans forward’s shot went agonisingly wide.
Still chasing a goal, the premiers finally got their wish answered just before half-time when a corner kick found the head of Alex Gillespie and landed at the feet of Lee Ashton who levelled the score.
As half-time ticked over, bad news came for Cooks Hill as Daniel Johnson was forced from the field following a bad challenge from Ahmataj, however, that didn’t dent their momentum in the second half.
The Cookers amped up the pressure and kept the majority of possession after the break and it almost led to a nicely headed goal by Golden Boot winner Nick Russell if it wasn’t for a terrific save from Ben Parmenter.
Heavy challenges continued throughout the half, but the physicality of the encounter seemed to have lift Belswans substitutes Cameron Lodge and Josh Sutton who began to trouble the defence of the premiers.
The emotion of the game seemed to get the better of Lodge though; with just ten minutes to go, he was shown a second yellow sending him from the field having only come onto the field fifteen minutes earlier.
Up against a ten-man team, Cooks Hill pressed looking for a goal, and a chance came when Brad Miller had a crossed ball sit up nicely for him, but he blasted over the bar, and it proved to be the last opportunity for the contest.
Cooks Hill can be considered to have the advantage with the away goal, however, there’s still everything to play for in the second leg at the AthField.
The defending champions may be without a few of their players who picked up injuries from the weekend’s match, and coach Graham Law let his frustrations show.
“I’m not happy at all with Belswans,” Law said.
“I’m really disappointed in the way they approached the game.
“I just felt it was just way, way over the top. It was the worst I’ve seen in a NEWFM Northern League One game.
“All they were interested in was taking us out.
“At the end of the day, all these guys have to go to work this week and now I’ve got three guys who are bruised and injured.”
Despite his dismay, Law admitted that he felt the draw was justified and that next week will once again be a battle.
“I thought the result was absolutely fair based on chances. I thought they had as many chances as we did,” Law confessed.
“Belswans put a lot into the game, as did we, and it’s proven that there isn’t much at all between the two sides.
“I think we’ll be able to avoid a physical game next week because it’s a bigger, wider park.
“Belswans were as much in the game as we were…they’ve got some really good players that I respect.
“But my issue coming from the game is not the draw, it’s the fact that I’ve got four or five players who won’t be at work on Monday, and somewhere, you need to draw the line.”
West Wallsend Bluebells 1 (Sam Holt) drew with Thornton Redbacks 1 (Jye MacKellar)
Sunday 19th August, 2:30 pm, Johnston Park
The second semi-final of 2018 contained much of the same features as the first – it was dry and windy forcing both teams to adapt, but in the end, the two teams couldn’t be split.
Johnston Park was a large sea of blue as the side made their first finals appearance in five years, but their anticipation would quickly turn to disappointment as Thornton found a way through in the opening minutes.
A defensive error at the back from West Wallsend gifted Thornton’s Jye MacKellar an easy opportunity, and he graciously took it giving the Redbacks an early lead.
Bailey Jensen came close to equalising but sprayed his shot before Ryan Cole was played in behind with a brilliant ball but couldn’t finish his 1-on-1 chance as Redbacks’ goalkeeper James Wand got the better of him.
Finally, though, the Bluebells would find a way through as a high-crossed ball was allowed to bounce in the box, and after a strong effort by Tye Jones to out-muscle the Thornton defence, the ball landed for Sam Holt who made no mistakes putting it past Wand.
The second half saw Thornton continue to keep possession and hold the ball but were unable to create any clear-cut chances and it was West Wallsend who seemed the more likely to find the leading goal.
Captain Jarrod Olivieri went close after just missing a header from a free-kick, while Holt tried to attain a double but was this time denied by Wand in goals.
Tensions began to rise across the ground and the crowd were begging for the home team to score and their hopes seemed to have come to fruition.
Cole found his way in behind the defence once again and got a great shot away, but his strike was met by an even better save by Wand and he somehow managed to tip it over the bar to keep the scores level.
West Wallsend goalkeeper Jesse Cook made a similar but easier save down the other end of the ground when Jake Millstead attempted to curl a free-kick over the top of him, and as the match wore on, the Bluebells seemed content to hold the Redbacks to a draw especially so after going down to ten men due to a second yellow card being shown to Bailey Maxton who had only been on for thirteen minutes.
Substitute Mitch Maxton tried to create a spark, and in doing so launched a shot from distance that went inches from nestling into the goal.
Minutes later in stoppage time, he won a late free-kick, effectively being the last chance of the game.
Brendan Frost stepped up to the mark, but couldn’t get it past the wall, leaving the result drawn and setting up next week’s second leg fixture at Thornton Park to be an absolute cracker.
Thornton coach Gary Wand said there’s plenty that they’ll need to work on to get the victory in their home leg next weekend.
“We were about as good as the weather,” Wand joked.
“The boys seemed to get the game-plan a bit wrong today.
“We got down the other end okay, but we seemed to play one pass too many and things were just breaking down.
“Their two main outlets were their two boys [Holt and Jones] up front, and we had plans in place to stop them, but our defenders just got it a bit mixed up, that was all.
“Our blokes like to play little one-twos, and with the bobble, as well as Westy’s large number of defenders, it makes it rather hard to do that.”
Wand admitted that for next week’s home leg, they’ll be looking to change things up and better their game-plan.
“We need to have a better transition…we sat back too much today,” Wand said.
“We might also look to bring Nick Thompson back in.”