FOOTBALL - A SECOND-HALF , four-goal blast by Gisborne Thistle gave them a 4-0 win against United, a result that clinched the Eastern League first division football title for them.
Thistle went into this game at Childers Road Reserve needing a draw to secure the championship. And in an action-packed goalless first 45 minutes it looked as if the game could go either way.
But Thistle’s midfield of Stefan Faber, Phil Gill, Dave Raggett and Steve Morrow put on a powerhouse display in the second spell.
On the right, the youngster Faber, always cool and safe when in possession, and Steve Morrow, who swept up and down the left flank as if he owned it, gave width to the Thistle attack and kept strikers Shaun Leeper and Jason Burgess well supplied with good deliveries.
In central midfield, Raggett was a powerhouse who tackled and ran all afternoon. His partner in there, Phil Gill, won the media award as player of the day for his 90-minute performance.
He won a lot of ball and used it well, set up one goal and scored another.
Leeper broke the deadlock when he fired in a 20-metre free-kick that gave keeper Grant Jones no chance in the 57th minute.
In the 75th, Gill won the ball in midfield, burst forward and split the United defence with a through ball to striker Jason Burgess, who cut in from the left and hammered it home.
And it was Gill who put the result beyond doubt when he blasted in the third goal from 13 metres in the 80th minute.
In the 90th, Burgess and Morrow did the spadework and excellent young rightback Brad Reymolds hammered home the fourth.
A 4-0 scoreline usually suggests a one-sided encounter but even Thistle coach John Stirton and his players would agree that they had to work hard for this one.
In fact, the first-half was probably the most keenly contested 45 minutes seen here this season.
United responded to referee Tony Lee’s opening blast on the whistle and set a frantic pace. They created their share of chances and both teams played a hard, no-nonsense game. But Mr Lee and his assistants, Dave Knubley and Eru Rawiri, coped with everything that came their way and kept the game flowing smoothly with a minimum of interruptions.
United midfielders Blake Mulrooney, Aaron Graham and player-coach Dean Wrigley set up attacks shrewdly.
Mulrooney’s skill in tight situations often turned defence into attack. And his brilliantly executed inswinging corners or far-post attacks from long-range free-kicks had the Thistle defence stretched to capacity to keep the slate clean.
As early as the fourth minute, Thistle were in the wars. Mulrooney’s first inswinging corner had everybody stretching and straining as it curled goalwards.
Keeper Raymond Rickard managed to fist it away but only to the edge of the box. In the ensuing scramble, right midfielder Tom Watson-Meek cracked a shot against the post and it was scrambled clear.
Fortunately for Thistle, keeper Rickard was again in top form and somehow managed to throw himself sideways and get a foot to a close-range rocket from Watson-Meek.
United keeper Jones also played remarkably well under pressure and had no chance with the shots that eventually beat him. In that opening spell, he dived out to hold a hard, low, bullet-like cross from Leeper who had burst through on the left flank.
He also came off his line several times to make braves saves as Leeper, Burgess and Gill came thundering through on the counter-attack.
But it certainly wasn’t one-way traffic and Rickard almost had to turn a backwards somersault to finger-tip a Mulrooney inswinger over his crossbar at the other end for another corner. This one was just as well-placed as the others and big midfielder Damon Husband got his head to it but there were others in the air with him and his touch edged the ball wide of the far post.
In that hectic first half, Thistle centreback Roger Faber won most of the high ball into the box. He, Andrew Black, Leyton Peters and Reynolds played no-nonsense football in their defensive third. They had no compunction in whacking the ball first-time to let Leeper and Burgess chase after it in the other half of the field.
But once again United’s young centrebacks Aaron Walters and Jonathan Purcell and veteran fullbacks Jim Holden and Chris Adams looked capable of weathering the storm.
This quartet were always competitive in the air and on the ground. And their substitutes, Charlie Priday, Kim Perano, Steven Husband and Tim Blair were on hand to help when needed.
Similarly, Thistle had a strong bench, probably their strongest of the season, with Josh Bates, Clint Ward, Kyle Gabriel and Dylan Callaghan all listed.
Bates, who has been a key player for Team Gisborne all season, took over as sweeper in the second half.
The game was virtually decided in a vital five-minute spell of Thistle pressure. In the 54th minute Morrow raced up the left flank and had the United rearguard scrambling to clear.
The ball was controlled on Thistle’s right wing by Stefan Faber, who combined well with Burgess. But Jones made a good save and hoofed the ball downfield.
United’s Stu Cranswick, who had battled hard with the strong Thistle rearguard throughout, was on to it in a flash. The pressure swung on to the Thistle defence but in the 56th minute keeper Rickard made a brilliant save to turn the ball away.
Moments later the action was in the opposing defensive third and Leeper stepped up to blast home the vital first goal from the free-kick.
From this point on, Thistle were in the box seat. They only needed a draw to clinch the title.
So United did what most teams would do in these circumstances. They needed two goals to win the game and keep the title race open.
So they pushed forward and Thistle grabbed those fine, late goals for a scoreline that suggests an easier afternoon than they actually had.
But I’m sure most of the Childers Road Reserve regulars would agree that this was one of the best games of the season and that Thistle deserved to lift the first division title.
In the other game between first division teams, Wainui Sharks beat Smash Palace Bohemians 2-1 in an action-packed match at Wainui.
The inclusion of the Hooks brothers, Shane and Darren, alongside Team Gisborne’s Max Logan, Daniel Willock and Mitchell Stewart-Hill gave the Sharks plenty of bite.
They also had clever Scot Dan Turner back and the young man who starred for Oban Red Stars and Lochgilphead worked in well up front with Jimmy Lawrence and Stewart-Hill.
Lawrence banged in the opener after 10 minutes and the always-dangerous Logan beat two players before hammering in the second in the 20th minute.
But in the 35th, Bohs livewire left-midfielder Stevie White cracked in a shot that gave in-form keeper Ryan Majstrovic no chance.
From then on the game was evenly balanced. But with Noel Amor, Marcel Campbell and Ben Inder strong in defence, Wainui kept their lead intact.
Bohemians coach Graham Maclean, who showed he could still match it with the first division lads, gave a hard-working 90 minutes to the cause and defenders Matt Moore, Matt Barratt, Brent Cryer and Phil Gloistein all played well.
“With Logan and Willock back from the Pacific Premiership side, Wainui are looking a big danger for the cup matches,” Maclean said.
“But we can take heart from the way we fought back after losing those two early goals. The power and pace of Barratt in defence and White in midfield, as well as a sound performance by Cody Keepa in goal, suggest we can always put up a hard fight.
“Matt Sowerby and youngster Josh Baty dazzled with their footwork and subs Hendrik Geyer and Matt Feisst looked sharp when they came on.”
Man of the match?
“No doubt about it,” said the man from Dunfermline, Scotland.
“It had to be the referee, Peter Stewart. He had no linesmen and the game was a fast, tense match even though nothing but pride was at stake. The ref was always in control. It just shows how lucky we are in Gisborne to have such a dedicated team of refs setting standards for the younger ones coming through.”