A DEPLETED Lismore Workers have secured a top three finish after holding on for a torrid 1-0 away win over minor premiers Byron Bay in Far North Coast Premier League football.
The Redmen went into the game with a disrupted backline because of the absence of two of their most experienced players in Clint Willoughby and Rick Austen.
But coach Scott Collis resisted the temptation to revert to a four-man defence. He stuck to their usual 3-5-2 formation and it paid off.
Byron began the stronger and with a howling wind at their backs had the better of possession and territory in the first half.
The Rams could have taken the lead when a spectacular bicycle kick from Connor Cannon found the net, only to be controversially disallowed for high feet.
The decision proved critical when Workers were awarded a penalty just before the break, with Rams defender Sam McIntyre sent off for a tackle from behind on speedster Ben Coulter.
The red card carries a minimum three-match suspension, so will end McIntyre's season.
With 'keeper Chris Jones also still suspended, both will miss the opening semi.
Jay Keevers calmly slotted the ensuing dot shot for a half-time lead, but despite being reduced to 10 men, Byron still had the better of the second half.
It was only Workers' stoic defence that limited clear-cut chances and allowed them to hold on for one of their most important wins of the season.
The back three of Jay Keevers, Daune Hoare and the promoted Xenon Kowalcyzk were outstanding, along with holding midfielder Kurt Walker, who is returning to his dangerous best.
"Right to the death, Byron was threatening with free kicks and corners, but a bit of luck went our way and I'm very proud of the effort put in by the boys," Collis said.
"I still think Byron deserves to go into the semis as favourites for consecutive titles, but we've got plenty of players with finals experience ourselves after winning it two years ago. Rick and Clint will return, and some of our key players are hitting form, so it'll be interesting."
Rams coach Damon Bell was unperturbed by the result, saying "it's a good outcome for us; they know that we outplayed them with 10 men".
Workers will now meet the winner of Tuesday night's clash between Richmond Rovers and Lismore Thistles in their first semi, with the winner to play Byron for the first grand final berth.
In the other two matches, Ballina had a 2-1 home win over Bangalow in what was a dead rubber, while Tintenbar have been thrown a lifeline to avoid relegation, after a 1-1 away draw against Lennox Head.
The 'Bar can now survive the cut at the expense of Goonellabah, if they win their final game against Ballina.