The Northern Inland Premier League’s 22-round regular season wrapped up last weekend when Oxley Vale Attunga claimed the First Grade minor premiership and Moore Creek Mountain Goats secured top spot in reserve grade. The business end of the season has now officially arrived and the three-week finals series will get underway tonight.
Armidale’s New England Sports Ground will host Friday night football when Norths United tackle South Armidale United in the Reserve Grade minor semi-final in less than two hours.
The reserve grade major semi-final between Moore Creek and North Companions will then be played from 11am tomorrow at Gipps Street, and then the two first grade semi-finals will be contested during the afternoon when OVA host South Armidale United at Gipps Street and Armidale City Westside welcome Moore Creek to Harris Park.
The First Grade minor premiership battle went to the final round this year as OVA were given their toughest fight for the crown in a few seasons, but no side was able to stop them from finishing on top for the fourth season in a row. Their 2-0 Round 22 victory against Demon Knights saw them finish the campaign on 48 points following an impressive 15 wins, three draws and two losses.
Both of the defending champions’ losses this year were against South Armidale United, who returned to the competition in style in 2023. Despite their best efforts they fell two points short of the minor premiers as their 14 wins, four draws and two losses saw them end the campaign on 46 points.
Armidale City Westside were next best in third spot on 42 points following 12 wins, six draws and two losses, and then five points behind them in fourth were Moore Creek as the Mountain Goats scored 11 wins, four draws and five losses to accumulate 37 points.
Tomorrow’s major semi-final between OVA and South Armidale United is one of the most highly-anticipated contests in the Northern Inland Premier League competition in years as the side with the most rock-solid defence challenges the team that’s found the back of the net the most.
The old cliché is that defence wins premierships, and that proved to be true again in terms of the minor premiership this year as Tim Coates’ OVA conceded just 10 goals in 20 games off the back of 12 clean sheets. They finished the season with a sublime run of seven consecutive clean sheets to add to the five they had already earned before that, and the top-ranked side were impressive at the other end of the park too as they piled on 62 goals in 20 matches.
South Armidale United bettered that by scoring a near unthinkable 74 goals in 20 games during the regular season, and the Eamon Hynes-coached team finished the campaign with the largest for and against difference as they only conceded 20 goals.
The top-ranked of the Armidale clubs were the only team to beat OVA this year and they managed to do on both occasions with 1-0 wins in Round 3 in Tamworth back in April and Round 14 in Armidale in July. That sees an unusual situation arise where the side that finished second to the minor premiers heads into the grand final qualifier as the favourites.
OVA’s coach Tim Coates said he was proud of the way his side has performed throughout the regular season and was thrilled to have won the minor premiership, which he said he has always viewed as the pinnacle of the game.
“In Australian football, it’s a job half done because we go into this raffle called the finals series. Being brought up in English football, winning the league is always the pinnacle, and that’s what I’ve always judged it by. But here, it’s a job half done, so the cork is back in the bottle and we have to win two more games,” Coates said.
“South Armidale are a good side, and even though we won the minor premiership, technically we are the underdogs on Saturday because they’ve beaten us twice this season.
“They’re a very good football side. They’re well-coached, they do all the little things well, and they pose a threat to anyone they play. It’s nice to have more teams at the forefront of the competition.
“We’ve changed the way we play a little bit as a result of the (most recent) 1-0 loss against South Armidale, and defensively, obviously that’s worked, and then attack-wise, we had a run of scoring 23 goals in three games at one stage there as well.
“Defence will be important in the finals. We only conceded 10 goals in the regular season this year, and our goalkeeper is one of the better goalkeepers in the competition.
“But we’ll just have to see now. Any of the four teams in the finals can beat any on their day.”
The minor semi-final is also shaping up to be an entertaining contest between two quality sides.
Armidale City Westside have enjoyed a superb season that has seen them only lose as many games as the two teams ahead of them, with more drawn games ultimately costing them a spot in the major semi-final. The Anthony Gray-coached side managed to score more goals than OVA as they found the back of the net 65 times and they only conceded 24 at the other end.
Moore Creek were even better defensively as they let in just 21 goals in 20 matches, and they managed to score an impressive 53 goals of their own.
Armidale City Westside heads into the minor semi-final as the favourites considering the head-to-head form between the two sides this year. The Mountain Goats went down 3-2 against the Armidale outfit in the opening round of the campaign back in April and then suffered a 4-1 defeat when they met in Round 12 in June. Dean Hoy and his men never shy away from a challenge though, and they are confident heading into the do-or-die clash.
This year’s reserve grade minor premiership battle also came down to the final week of the regular season as Moore Creek faced an agonising wait while they sat out with the Round 22 bye. They went into the final day on top with 40 points following 13 wins, a draw and six losses this year, and just two points behind them were Northern Companions. But Northies slipped up as they went down 2-0 against Tamworth FC and had to settle for second as the Mountain Goats stayed on top.
North Companions ended up on 38 points following 12 wins, two draws and six losses, two points ahead of third-placed Norths United who won 11 games, drew three and lost six. Rounding out the top four were South Armidale United on 35 points following 11 wins, two draws and seven losses.
Remarkably, OVA lost the least number of games this year but had to settle for fifth spot as they ended up on 33 points, having won nine games, drawn six and lost five.
Moore Creek were the best side in front of goal this year as they finished with a league-high 62 goals in 20 matches. They scored six of those the first time they met North Companions in Round Five back in April, but the two sides’ Round 16 match in July was much closer as the Mountain Goats edged out North Companions 2-1.
Moore Creek’s coach Nathan Peterson said that his team had a great mix of youth and experience, and he thought they all worked well together to earn the first-place finish.
“It’s been a really good team effort. We’ve had lots of young kids come through, which has been quite pleasing to see for the club,” he said.
“I’m proud as punch to have won the minor premiership. It was hard there in the last round because it was out of our hands and we were relying on other results. But it was pleasing. The job is only half done now, though. We want the major.”
The minor premiers will advance to the grand final if they can make it three from three tomorrow, but a North Companions side reeling from a missed minor premiership opportunity are ready to make amends.
Tonight’s minor semi-finalists have also met twice this year and managed to score a win each. South Armidale United claimed the three points with a 4-0 victory when they met the first time in Round Five back in April, but Norths United won the return fixture 2-0 in Round 16 in July.
The blockbuster derby is the ideal way to kick off the finals series as two teams playing to keep their season alive get set to leave it all on the line.
This year’s finals series will be contested under the usual four-team format. The winners of the major semi-finals will progress to the September 23 deciders, with the losers to line up in the preliminary finals next Saturday against the winners of the minor semi-finals. The losers of the minor semi-finals will be eliminated.