Maitland FC 3 (M. Thompson 12’(P), 22’(P), Pratt 71’) def. Devonport Strikers 2 (Barnard 25’, C. Bidwell 85’)
Saturday 21 September, 1:00pm, Cooks Square Park
Maitland may have fallen short in the Grand Final two weekends ago, but a following a gutsy 3-2 victory over Devonport Strikers in the first round of the NPL Finals Series, have now advanced to the final four of Australian NPL clubs and just one game away from the ultimate Grand Final.
Despite missing creative men Joel Wood and Nick Cowburn, the Magpies started well at home producing early chances, the most notable from James Thompson who forced a strong save from Strikers’ goalkeeper Nathan Pitchford.
The first goal of the game came not long after though after Andrew Swan was brought down in the box and veteran Matt Thompson made no mistakes from the spot, as he did again just ten minutes later after Alex Read was fouled to double the hosts’ lead.
The visitors weren’t going to go down without a fight though and it was their key striker, Miles Barnard who latched onto a Max Fitzgerald cross to easily score from close range.
Fitzgerald continued to trouble Maitland’s defence and proved to be threatening with almost every touch. He went close to almost scoring one of his own after blasting a shot from an acute angle into the upright.
Edward Bidwell and Dominic Smith both had chances to equalise the game just before the half-time break, but in the early second half it seemed the Strikers had found their second goal from a Joel Stone corner, but a deemed foul ruled the goal out and drama ensued.
While Devonport were celebrating the presumed goal down one end, a long through ball fell nicely for Ryan Clarke down the other while he sped away from the defenders before placing his shot inches wide of the goal.
The Maitland speedster may have forgotten his shooting boots, but he proved pivotal in assisting his team’s the third goal knocking in a dangerous ball towards the back post of which Sean Pratt smashed in, giving his team a two-goal cushion once more.
As was the nature of the match though, Devonport refused to die, and it was young substitute Charlie Bidwell who slotted home an effort just minutes before stoppage time, scoring his first-ever First Grade goal.
Although the Strikers fought right until the end, the hosts held on to seal the victory and cement themselves as only the second-ever Northern NSW club to feature in the national Semi-Finals.
Coach of Maitland Mick Bolch admitted that the incredible season the club has experienced, including the NPL NNSW Grand Final loss, took its toll on the side, but he believes the win may have reignited their ambitions.
“We probably took a pretty low-key approach to it [the game],” Bolch said.
“It’s a long season, especially with FFA Cup, finals and catch-up games, but now we’ve won and were in the semi-finals, it’s sort of hit home with the playing group. They’re now one win away from playing for the Australian title.
We still created plenty [without Wood and Cowburn]. If we took our chances in the first half the game would have been dead at half-time.
“Sean Pratt started at number 9 and I thought he was outstanding for us. He was very busy and created the third goal.”
Leading into the first-round match, Bolch admitted that he and his coaching staff put a lot of research into the Devonport side in order to find an edge, but that his team weren’t just playing for the Maitland club and region.
“It was massively important not only for Maitland, but for the region,” he said.
“We’re not just representing Maitland now, we’re representing the competition. We want to show that Northern NSW are as strong as the other federations around Australia.
“I watched quite a few of their games. We identified that Fitzgerald out wide was going to be very dangerous, Barnard up front that scored 28 goals this year and Joel Stone in the middle of the park – he created for them all day. We knew where they were going to be strong.
“All credit to Devonport though. They conceded two penalties, they were unlucky not to also have one, they were very good on the day. They’re a good side.”
Bolch and his Magpies’ will now face NPL heavyweight in Queensland’s Lions FC who defeated NPL South Australia Premiers Campbelltown City. They will meet at Cooks Square Park once again with the winner to advance to the Grand Final against the winner of Wollongong Wolves (NPL NSW) and Perth SC (NPL WA).