Rams chase first title
by Mark Robinson
A SENSE of history will surround Oakes Oval, Lismore, tonight as Byron Bay attempts to win a Far North Coast premier league soccer grand final for the first time, going up against in-form minor premiers Goonellabah.
Only once has Byron reached the ultimate game of the season, back in 2001 when they had a heart-breaking loss to Maclean.
But under coach Peter Ware, the Rams have cut a swathe through the premier league this season with the pace and precision of their game, leaving only Goon-ellabah standing between them and a first major premiership.
But Goonellabah also has its own special incentive tonight, with the Hornets looking to become the first side to win the grand final after being promoted in the same season.
The two sides have been the best all year, finishing first and second on the ladder, setting up a fitting climax tonight.
In what may be a positive omen for Goonellabah, they last won the title back in 1995 when talismanic coach Renato Cheli was at the helm, and again Cheli has guided them through to the decider.
The Hornets are in awesome form, having gone 13 games without defeat, and they haven't lost to the Rams all season, making them clear favourites.
The two last met a fortnight ago in the major semi, with Goonella-bah starting strongly then shutting out the Rams to win 2-0.
Since then Byron Bay has bounced back with a confidence-boosting 4-1 win over danger side Italo Stars in the preliminary final, leaving coach Peter Ware quietly confident.
"Sure, Goonellabah has had a great run, but we've experienced the odd defeat here and there and that hardens a side," Ware said.
"It's made us stronger and even more determined."
Ware hinted at an aggressive start from the Rams.
"Scoring the first goal will be vital; it will let them dictate terms tactically from there on," he said.
Ware will look for big games from captain Shaun Packham and his defensive partner, Northern Star Player of the Year Aaron Richter-Steers, at the back, stalwart Bruce Morhaus and pocket rocket Todd Knaus in midfield, and the in-form Paul Bird up front.
Bird scored two goals against Stars, but Ware is tossing up options for his striking partner, with Adam Bostock, Tom Ruhl and Eden Robinson all in the mix.
Goonellabah has the most lethal attack in the league, with the deadly combination of Peter O'Neill and Ben Andrews yielding 35 goals in the premiership, and Matthew Olley waiting in the wings.
"We might be slight favourites, but grand finals are notorious for upsets," coach Renato Cheli said.
"Handling pressure is something the boys have been doing well all year, so it's a matter of showing our discipline and maturity and staying positive again.
"Byron has the capacity to control possession well and that's a concern, but I think they still lack a bit of patience and sometimes rush their options, so we'll look to keep constant pressure on them."
With both sides at full strength and determined to stick to their attacking style, a fast-paced, free-flowing game with plenty of goal-mouth action is expected.