By MARK ROBINSON
WHEN Goonellabah returned to Far North Coast Tursa Premier League soccer at the start of the season, few observers would have given them a chance of going all the way to the minor premiership.
But the Hornets have done it and done it in style, with a 5-1 thrashing of a depleted Ballina at Weston Park, Goonellabah, on Saturday, wrapping up their fifth title and first since 1998.
The remarkable achievement makes Goonellabah the first club to win the title in its first season of promotion, with coach Renato Cheli heaping praise on his squad.
"It's nice to coach a bunch of guys who are so professional in their approach and while our strikers had most of the limelight, captain John Eakin also deserves a lot of credit for his contribution all season," Cheli said.
The talismanic Cheli was also at the helm when the Hornets won their previous three titles in 1998, 1995 and 1994, twice taking them to grand final success.
The win over Ballina was a result rich in irony, not only making up for the Hornets' loss to the Seahorses in the Anzac Cup final, but eliminating them from the semi-finals, leaving Ballina sixth, missing out on goal difference.
While top scorer Peter O'Neill will receive the Golden Boot award at the presentation night next Saturday, it is striking partner Ben Andrews who is in a rich vein of form, having a hand in four of the Hornets' five goals.
Andrews got behind the defence to set up the opening goal for Adam Holmes, scored two himself including an acutly angled header from a bullet-like free kick from Will Marwick, and set up another for Matthew Olley.
O'Neill picked up the fifth goal, after Ballina had clawed one back through a penalty from Justin Stockham, in an overwhelming display of attacking soccer from the Hornets.
The only down side for Goonellabah came in the final minutes when captain John Eakin was sent off for pushing a Ballina player and he will now miss at least one semi.
Bay's equal best season finish
BYRON BAY equalled its best finish in the Premier League after a 3-1 away win over Lismore Thistles cemented second place.
The Bird brothers, Paul and Tim, starred for the Bay, with Paul chipping the goalkeeper from a wide angle for the opening goal after just five minutes.
Early in the second half, Paul Bird was brought down in the box to trigger a penalty for Aaron Richter-Steers, before Tim Bird chimed in with the Rams' third goal.
Luke Edwards scored the Blues' late consolation goal, but Rams coach Peter Ware summed up by saying: "We did what we had to do and not much more."
The Rams now face Rovers on Tuesday night, but cannot be knocked out of second place and may well rest key players for the major semi next Saturday.
Workers: Stayin' alive
LISMORE Workers have kept their season alive by breaking a four-year drought at Nielson Park, East Lismore, downing Richmond Rovers 2-1 on Saturday.
The Redmen had to win to scrape into the semis and responded with a powerful first-half performance to set up the vital win.
A solo effort from cagey striker Steve Morrissey opened the scoring when he took on several defenders in the box before stabbing home his finish after 18 minutes.
A free kick gave Lucas McPherson the chance to score Workers' second goal for a 2-0 half-time scoreline, but the Redmen had to work hard to protect their lead as Rovers fought back in the second half.
Pressure around the box allowed Rovers to claw one goal back with an awkward free kick from Russell Dent, which spilled from the grip of Workers goalkeeper Rhys Evans for Troy Matthews to pounce.
Rovers came close to a late equaliser when Adam Gray hit the post with a blistering shot, but Workers hung on to end their Nielson Park bogey.
Sweeper Damien Keevers was a tower of strength for the Redmen, while Anthony Alvos also dropped back to do a lot of important work in defence during a tense second half.
"The boys realised what they had to do and went out and did it, and that's a good sign for us coming into the semis," coach Kevin Keevers said.
Stars timing right
ITALO Stars are peaking at the right time for the semis, after a comfortable 3-0 home win over Maclean on Saturday lifted them into third place.
There were plenty of good signs for Stars including a solid defensive performance and the good form of dangerous striker Wayne Mortimer.
The two-time Golden Boot winner set up the first goal for Mark Maslen, before scoring the second himself.
Substitute Matt Weir chipped in with their third goal, in a performance that has coach Kevin Wilson optimistic Stars can make an impact in the semis.
"The boys are really starting to come together as a group now and that's a good sign," he said.
Stars will now have to await the result of the Byron Bay v Rovers match on Tuesday night to see if they meet Byron in the major preliminary semi or Workers in the elimination semi.
Bangalow bows out
AFTER a two-year stint in the Premier League, Bangalow is destined for relegation after a 1-0 home loss to fellow relegation candidate Casino.
The Bluedogs went into the game needing a win to survive, but their hopes were dashed by a second-half free kick from Kevin Butwell.
Butwell angled a floating kick to the far post and it bounced off the woodwork into the net to guarantee survival for the Cobras.
Premier division: Goonellabah 5 d Ballina 1, Italo Stars 3 d Maclean 0, Byron Bay 3 d Thistles 1, Casino 1 d Bangalow 0, Workers 2 d Rovers 1.
Premier reserve division: Italo Stars 5 d Maclean 1, Goonellabah 2 d Ballina 1, Bangalow 4 d Casino 1, Byron Bay 4 d Thistles 1, Rovers 6 d Workers 0.
First division: Alstonville 3 d Woodburn 0, Lennox Head 14 d Nimbin Headers 2.
First reserve division: Alstonville 6 d Woodburn 0, Lennox Head 6 d Nimbin Headers 2.
Second division: Italo Stars 3 d Eureka 1, Goonellabah 3 d Ballina 2.
Over-35s: Alstonville 1 drew with Ballina 1.