HIT106.9 Northern League One Finals Week Three Review: The Gunners eliminate premiers Toronto to storm into the grand final

Preliminary Final
Toronto Awaba FC 1-3 South Cardiff FC 

South Cardiff have booked their ticket to the big dance following a 3-1 preliminary final victory against Toronto Awaba at Lyall Peacock Field on Saturday.

The Stags were expected to win the grand final qualifier after claiming the 2023 premiership, while South Cardiff only just scraped into fifth on goal difference ahead of Wallsend. 

But the Gunners knocked off higher-ranked sides Kahibah and Singleton in the fortnight leading up to the preliminary final and rallied once again to earn their biggest scalp yet following a flurry of second half goals.

The two sides produced a rather lacklustre first half, during which chances were scarce, and then the visitors looked as though they had forgotten to come out of the sheds early in the second stanza. 

Toronto Awaba created two early chances after the break but the score remained 0-0 as a 47th-minute Clancy Muddle strike was cleared off the line by Jock Thompson after beating South Cardiff goalkeeper Izaac Terry. Then a Nick Roberts header from the edge of the six-yard box that he should have at least directed on target flew over the crossbar in the 54th minute.

It looked as though it was only a matter of time before the hosts opened the scoring but they were stunned in the 59th minute when South Cardiff hit the lead as central midfielder Elijah Nyman charged into the box onto the end of a Brendon King cross from the right edge and headed home the goal that made the score 1-0.

The goal sparked an almost immediate response from Toronto Awaba equalising with a classy goal in the 61st minute. Peter McPherson, who produced arguably the best individual performance on the day, intercepted a pass on the halfway line and made his way forward before playing the ball in behind into the path of Jarrod Purcell, who squared it into the box to an unmarked Roberts for a tap-in.

The score remained 1-1 for 13 minutes but there was a sense around the ground that more goals were coming, and it was South Cardiff who found the back of the net with a goal almost identical to the one the Stags scored earlier in the half. 

Tom Walker picked up possession just inside Toronto Awaba’s half and made his way forward before picking out King down the right edge and the dangerous attacker provided his second assist of the day when he whipped in another perfect cross to find striker Vincent Asembo at the back stick for a tap-in.

Playing in just his third game since May following a suspension and a holiday, Sam Modderno was introduced into the contest in the 75th minute. He looked dangerous from the get-go and only needed six minutes to get on the scoresheet as he picked out the bottom left corner with a strike from just inside the 18-yard box in the 81st minute to make the score 3-1.

The Stags pushed hard for their second goal of the game with hopes of then finding an equaliser, but it never came as their season came crashing down with a 3-1 loss.

For the fifth-placed South Cardiff side and their coach Perry Mellon, booking a spot in the grand final was a dream come true.

“You just can’t beat it, to be honest,” Mellon said. 

“I’ve said multiple times now, if we could get into the finals, we’d back ourselves against these better teams. We’ve played well against them all year, so I knew that if we got here, we’d cause some upsets or at least not be an easy team to play against. Would I have said we’d get to the grand final? Probably not, to be honest. But based on today, I think we well and truly deserve it.

“I think today shows that when the pressure is on and you have to perform, they (Toronto) rise to the occasion. We have struggled against the teams who are below us and we should beat, but when we play the good teams, we always lift and usually put in a good performance. It says a lot about the character of the group.

“I thought the first 20 minutes today, we were really good. We had a couple of half chances and maybe we should have scored. The back half of the first half though, I thought Toronto were dominant and should have scored themselves. The second half is a bit of a blur, but I think we started a bit slow and we were camped in for a little bit. Our first goal was out of nothing.

“When it went to 1-1, we could have put our heads down and let Toronto get the momentum. But we refocused and our attitude was ‘we’re going to go score again’. That was really good to see.”

Toronto Awaba’s coach Jarrad Hiles said that his men and the club could hold their heads high following a successful season that included winning the premiership. But he was shattered following the preliminary final loss and conceded that the Gunners took their chances while the Stags didn’t.

“Devasted really. I’m shattered,” Hiles said.

“We had chances and couldn’t score goals. We started both halves really well and we just weren’t clinical. You’ve got to score goals to win games. Southy took their chances, and in the end, they deserved the win.

“We’ve had a good year, but for me, it feels like a failure. But we can still be proud of the year we’ve had. Over the 27 rounds we finished on top, but the grand final’s where you want to be, and unfortunately, we’ll be watching on Bar TV.”

Hiles is expected to go around again as Toronto Awaba’s first grade coach in 2024, and he is now determined to use the preliminary final loss as fuel for an even more successful season next year.

The Gunners will now go head-to-head with West Wallsend at Johnston Park in the grand final this Saturday.