Its all Rovers
By MARK ROBINSON
THERE was thunder and lightning on and off the field in a tempestuous Football Far North Coast Premier League soccer grand final at Oakes Oval, Lismore, on Saturday night.
There were two hotly disputed penalties, two send-offs and plenty of passion before Richmond Rovers finally clinched their first premiership double in more than 20 years, with a 1-0 win over Italo Stars.
Storm clouds rolled in on cue with the opening whistle and persisted throughout the match, with swamp-like conditions making normal play virtually impossible, but in the end a first-half penalty from Troy Matthews proved to be enough for Rovers to record their first win over their arch rivals this season.
Both sides defied the heavy conditions initially and began with early shots on target to test the goalkeepers, but as heavy rain continued play slowed and chances became fewer.
Set plays were becoming the best option to create openings and 20 minutes into the game a corner for Rovers triggered the game's only goal.
Stars 'keeper Trent Battistuzzi fisted the ball clear through a crowd of players, but young referee Luke Mackney spotted an infringement and awarded Rovers a controversial penalty.
Troy Matthews made no mistake from the spot, smashing his shot past Battistuzzi to give Rovers the vital edge.
The 2007 Player of the Year was Rovers' most dangerous weapon and soon after forced a desperate save from Battistuzzi with a dangerous cross.
Stars also carved out several half chances as strikers Wayne Mortimer and Brenton Mumford tried to crack Rovers' stubborn defence, which was well marshalled by Joel Saye and Scott Coster.
Stars' best opportunity of the first half fell to flanker Jeremy Pollard, but his angled shot was brilliantly handled by Rovers custodian Andrew Marshall, who adapted well to the greasy conditions.
There was late drama as the first half drew to a close, with a hand ball from Scott Coster in the box drawing a penalty appeal from Stars that was turned down by Mackney.
Soon after Mackney was again at the centre of attention when he flashed the red card at Stars midfield playmaker Billy Latimer after a strong challenge in a tackle.
Reduced to 10 men for the second half, Stars worked hard to stay in the game but were always going to struggle, leaving Battistuzzi to make several vital saves, including a dot shot from Matthew Olley after a second hotly disputed penalty for Rovers.
Wayne Mortimer had the best of Stars' limited chances in the second half, but scuffed his shot into the waiting arms of Marshall.
Stars' frustration with the scoreline and the referee began to spill over in the dying stages and with barely a minute remaining, Brenton Mumford became the second Stars player to be dismissed, after a nasty, studs-up tackle.
The final whistle brought relief and delight for Rovers, ending a 21-year wait for the cherished premiership double, just the third in the club's history.
In only his second year at the helm, young player-coach Tim Sheridan has achieved what has eluded many of his more experienced predecessors, by making Rovers the most consistent side throughout the season.
"I couldn't have done it without the depth of quality players at the club and the camaraderie between them, so they deserve all the credit," Sheridan said.
"It culminated in a grand final that was a great team effort under tough conditions against a tough side, so the boys couldn't have done any better."
Troy Matthews capped his best season with the player of the match award and with few changes expected to their squad for next season, the new champions will already be thinking about consecutive titles.
Stars coach Darren Cormick was philosophical.
"I'm absolutely proud of the guys' effort with 10 men in the second half they gave everything and out-played Rovers at times but we just couldn't find that elusive goal to get us back in the match," he said.
"Obviously some of the refereeing decisions didn't help us, but we should have been able to rise above that."
While the match was acrimonious at times, that just illustrated the depth of hunger and passion of the two proud clubs, in a grand final that left plenty to remember, including controversy, wildly difficult conditions, and Rovers' historic double.