First Grade Grand Final
South Armidale United FC v Oxley Vale Attunga FC
New England Mutual Armidale Sportsground, Saturday 3pm
A blockbuster Northern Inland Premier League First Grade Grand Final at New England Mutual Armidale Sportsground this afternoon headlines a highly-anticipated weekend of deciders as South Armidale United FC and Oxley Vale Attunga FC prepare to go head-to-head.
It’s an exciting fixture made possible in 2023 by the reunification of football across the Northern Inland region, which saw Armidale clubs return to the fold this year, and now the two best teams in the region finally get the chance to battle for supremacy once again.
For OVA, tomorrow’s grand final appearance will be their fifth out of a possible seven since 2016 (there was no finals series in 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic). They’ve won three of their most recent four grand final appearances.
South Armidale United, on the other hand, have never won a Northern Inland Premier League first grade grand final since the club was formed more than 29 years ago back in 1994. The last time they were in an NIPL grand final was all the way back in 2016 when they were beaten 3-2 by their 2023 opponents, and the Scorpions are now determined to finally celebrate history when the full-time whistle sounds tomorrow.
Despite the fact that South Armidale United have never got the job done on grand final day in the top grade of the Premier League, this year’s grand final is certainly not a David v Goliath battle. In fact, the Scorpions enter the match as slight favourites as they boast an unblemished head-to-head record against OVA in 2023 and are the only team to have knocked off the defending champions in the NIPL competition over the past four years.
The Eamon Hynes-coached Scorpions became the first team to defeat OVA since August 2019 back in April when they won the sides’ Round Three clash 1-0 at Gipps Street to deny Tim Coates’ men what would have been a 50th-straight league game undefeated. South Armidale then prevailed by the same scoreline in the return fixture at New England Mutual Armidale Sportsground in Round 14 in July, and after finishing second to OVA on the ladder by just two points after 22 rounds, they beat the minor premiers 4-3 in an extra time major semi-final thriller earlier this month at Johnson Field to earn a home grand final.
After losing last year’s Armidale competition decider to Armidale City Westside in a penalty shootout, it has been a simply phenomenal year in 2023 for the Scorpions during their first season back in the Northern Inland Premier League competition since 2019 when they placed third but were knocked out in the minor semi-final, and coach Hynes said his club were ready to finish it off in style tomorrow.
“Our season, in moments, has been great, fantastic even,” the South Armidale United coach said.
“We did all the tough things but we couldn’t quite do some of the easier things. That’s why we finished runners-up rather than winning the minor premiership.
“We’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but on our day, we can beat anyone, as we’ve demonstrated. We just have to turn up.
“OVA are a great team with great players. They are a great club. They know how to win games and they don’t know when they are beaten. They’ve won more premierships than I’ve had hot dinners.
“They kept coming back at us in that semi-final and we got away with it in the end. As I said, they know how to win, and that’s something we have to learn, how to finish games off properly.
“Four out of four against them might be asking quite a lot from us, but here we go.
“Our players are really keen and really excited. As a Pom, the premiership or the ladder is what it’s all about, but for the players here, it’s the grand final. To get there is great for the club and we are really excited to have a home grand final.”
Hynes is expecting to line up at full strength tomorrow, with midfielder Mitch Turner the only South Armidale United player under an injury cloud after he limped off against OVA in the major semi-final two weeks ago.
Defending champions Oxley Vale Attunga well and truly proved they were the best team in Tamworth after the Armidale clubs departed the competition in 2020, and Coates’ men have a chance to prove they’re the top dogs in the entire Northern Inland region now that the Armidale teams have returned and they get to line up against one on grand final day.
OVA claimed their fourth consecutive minor premiership this season and now have their sights set on a third consecutive major premiership after rebounding from their major semi-final loss with a 3-0 preliminary final victory over Moore Creek Mountain Goats last Saturday.
“They are very determined, and they were very determined to get there,” OVA’s coach Coates said of his playing group.
“They are very focused and they know that the job is not yet done.
“South Armidale are a really good side. They have some really good players all over the park. They deserve to be favourites for the game; they’ve beaten us three times. Eamon Hynes has done an outstanding job.
“Obviously I have to try and figure out how to turn the tables. They’ve got us on the odd goal in three games, so it’s not like we’ve been pants down smacked. We’ll try and tweak a few things in search for an answer.
“It should be a good game and we’re looking forward to the challenge. It really is a battle of tactics for the coaches, and the players seem to bring out their best by playing against each other.
“It’s going to be about 22 degrees and it’s a very picturesque setting over there. We’re looking forward to it.”
Coates added that it had been fantastic to have the Northern-based teams back in the competition this year, which he said had really upped the ante and made it more interesting.
OVA have all 20 players that they have predominantly used during the 2023 season available for tomorrow’s game, and Coates now has the tough task of refining that down to 16 players.
Reserve Grade Grand Final
Moore Creek FC v North Companions FC
New England Mutual Armidale Sportsground, Saturday 1pm
Today’s Northern Inland Premier League Reserve Grade Grand Final in Armidale will feature the two top-ranked teams when Moore Creek FC challenge North Companions FC in the big dance.
These two teams were separated by just two points on the ladder after the Mountain Goats took out the minor premiership with 40 points following 13 wins, a draw and six losses, and North Companions placed second with 38 points following 12 wins, two draws and six losses.
They met twice during the regular season and Moore Creek prevailed on both occasions after they downed North Companions 6-0 in Round Five back in April and then 2-1 in a much closer Round 16 contest in July. The Mountain Goats then made it three from three earlier this month when they defeated Northies 3-1 in the major semi-final, but the second-placed side booked a rematch in the grand final by outscoring South Armidale United 3-1 in last Saturday’s preliminary final.
Moore Creek are looking to make history today. They qualified for their maiden Northern Inland Premier League Grand Final last season but went down 1-0 in the decider against Oxley Vale Attunga. The Mountain Goats returned bigger and better this year though, and club president and Reserve Grade centre-back Matt Bridge said they were pumped for this weekend’s match.
“It’s great to be in the grand final, in fact, we have seven teams playing in grand finals this year,” Bridge said.
“Under-12s it’s Goats versus Goats, under-14s it’s Goats versus Goats, we have one team in the under-15s/16s versus Hillvue, then we have fourth grade men’s tonight too.
“I think that shows the strength of the club and the loyalty of our players. They aren’t stitched up teams, they are all friends playing together. We aren’t the biggest club, but we’d be up there as one of the strongest and most competitive clubs.
“It’s been an up and down season for us in reserve grade. Of course, in reserve grade, players fill in for first grade, so players are in and out all the time. We used 38 players over the year.
“It’s been a good season though. To get the results we have and to get into the grand final is really good.
“We’ve had a couple of wins against North Companions, but they are always a strong team to play against. They have a huge history and they’re the biggest club in Tamworth. They have a lot of older heads in there with good football brains and they control the midfield really well.”
Bridge said that the Mountain Goats would have their strongest side available for tomorrow’s decider and declared it would be the strongest side they have put together in a couple of months.
North Companions are also expected to line up at full strength tomorrow when they go in search of their first reserve grade grand final victory since 2018. They went down by one goal in 2019 and 2020 before COVID-19 cancelled the 2021 finals series and they were knocked out by Moore Creek in the preliminary final last year.
Adding to tomorrow’s motivation is the fact that the club are determined to send long-time coach Gavin Thompson out a winner when he takes charge of his final game for North Companions in the decider. He and David Johnson have been coaching the reserve grade side together in 2023 but Thompson will step away for next season.
“Gavin has been with Northies for a long time as coach and he’s part of the fabric. It would be a nice way to send him out if we can claim the trophy on Saturday,” Johnson said.
Johnson declared he was proud of his players for reaching the big dance and added that he expected a tough game against Moore Creek.
“Both teams are very competitive and very skilful, so we expect nothing less on Saturday,” he said.
“We are back at full strength now and we’re firing.
“The Mountain Goats are a very tough team, a very well-drilled team. They’ve got us all three times this year. They take their opportunities and that will be the key in the grand final. In the major semi, they took their opportunities, and we had a lot of opportunities but didn’t take them. Hopefully we will take them when they arise on Saturday.”