High drama in semi-finals
By MARK ROBINSON
AFTER two semi-finals filled with high drama and 15 goals, defending champions Goonellabah and premiers Byron Bay have claimed their places in Football FNC's Tursa pre-season Anzac Cup final, setting up a rematch of last year's decider.
Both semis went to extra time yesterday, with Goonellabah eventually edging out Stars in a penalty shootout after a remarkable 4-all draw at Crawford Park, Alstonville, while Byron Bay got out of jail with two late goals allowing them to escape with a 4-3 win over an unlucky Maclean.
Goonellabah got off to a bad start against Stars by conceding an early penalty which was duly despatched by Matt Weir, but recovered by half-time thanks to a solo goal from Daniel Morrow.
But Stars were finding holes behind the Hornets' defence and early in the second half Wayne Mortimer again gave them the lead, breaking free and gliding past Goonellabah goalkeeper Craig Attewell to roll the ball into an empty net.
A similar breakaway from Zac Innes saw him score a controversial goal, with some doubt over whether the ball crossed the line, but it gave Stars a 3-1 lead and with time running out they looked on track for a place in the final.
But Goonellabah lifted and forced several good saves from Stars custodian Trent Battistuzzi before Peter O'Neill eventually found a way past the agile 'keeper with a spectacular overhead bicycle shot that found the corner of the net.
Chances continued to flow for both sides and at the other end of the field, Mortimer hit the woodwork and Innes had a goal disallowed as Stars tried to put the game out of the Hornets' reach.
But with only minutes remaining to the end of normal time, Goon-ellabah were awarded a penalty and Stars had defender Cory Murphy sent off for a hand ball in the box.
O'Neill banged the penalty home to force the game into extra time, but for a third time Stars again took the lead, with Max Latimer scoring after a shot from Brenton Mumford could only be parried into his path by Attewell.
Reduced to 10 men, Stars tried to wind down the clock, but in a cruel twist Goonellabah scored with the final touch before the end of extra time as young striker Brenton Perrin surged down the left flank and hit a superb shot from an acute angle that curled around Battistuzzi for a remarkable goal, sending the Goon-ellabah fans into raptures.
Seconds later the full-time whistle blew and Goonellabah went on to win the penalty shootout with superior shots and two good saves from Attewell.
While Stars will consider themselves a little unlucky to lose, the defending champions never gave up, with the Hornets senior players such as Peter O'Neill, John Eakin and Clint Willoughby showing a lot of grit and determination to help inspire the side to come from behind not just once but three times.
Rams below par
PREMIERS Byron Bay are so used to winning that they even defied a substandard performance to somehow come away with a 4-3 extra-time win over in-form Maclean in a nerve-jangling semi-final at Weston Park, Goonellabah, yesterday.
While Maclean outplayed Byron for much of the match, the Rams ability to lift at key moments when under pressure allowed them to win yet another big match, giving the 2003 and 2004 Anzac Cup champions the chance at another title.
The Bobcats showed good cohesion from the outset and scored the opening goal 18 minutes in, after some trickery in the box from Travis Armstrong set up Jeremy Walters for a stunning volley that gave Rams goalkeeper Kai Connell no chance.
Maclean went on to create more chances in the first half but paid the price for not taking them when Byron Bay equalised just before the break with a penalty from Aaron Richter-Steers, after Brazilian Thiago Priori was brought down in the box.
The second half opened with a flurry as both sides scored within the first few minutes, first Tom Ruhl putting the Rams ahead after a Todd Knaus shot bounced off the 'keeper, before a long throw from Gary Carmichael at the other end set up Travis Armstrong for a close-range blast to equalise.
The Bobcats used their width well and created a string of corners that kept Byron under pressure, but the Rams held on to send the game into extra time.
Todd Knaus hit the woodwork for Byron Bay as they searched desperately for a winner, but it was Maclean that broke through for a 3-2 lead when Aaron Bylos surged forward, worked a one-two with Grant Nielson and slammed home an angled finish.
But in the second half of extra time the Rams conjured up two vastly different goals to steal an unlikely win.
The first was a sublime left-footer from Bruce Morhaus, his 30m shot sailing into the top corner at the far post, then the second was a close-range tap-in for Tom Ruhl in the dying moments after confusion in the Bobcats' box following a penalty appeal.
The bizarre goal was belatedly celebrated by the Rams only after many players and spectators initially thought Maclean had been awarded a free kick.
Despite playing below their best, the ability to come from behind and do what had to be done reaffirms the Rams' status as premiership favourites for the coming season and sets up a fascinating Cup final rematch with Goonellabah, which showed a similar ability in their gritty win over Stars.