“I’ll be perfectly honest – and with no disrespect to the Strikers – if they are the benchmark, I’m happy with how we’re coming along”, McCloughan was to say after his team had trooped off in dejected fashion after succumbing to the league leaders.
Whether he might have been thinking along those lines after five minutes of the action is doubtful. The QAS had begun the match in unconvincing fashion, allowing the league’s top scorer, Matt Thurtell, a free header from a Chay Hews corner inside the first minute that Thurtell failed to convert, and then going behind in the fifth minute when Thurtell popped up wide on the right to dribble past a defender to the QAS byline to pass to Chris Di Sipio, who was left unmarked to despatch the ball first-time past goalkeeper Matthew Stein for the opening goal.
But the youngsters tightened up their defending and steadied to spend the next half hour matching the Strikers for possession, movement and physicality as the match became one of quick, sharp and accurate passing by both teams. As the half wore on the QAS began to find space for their wingers, Brandon Borello and Josh Riis, to deliver a series of dangerous crosses that had the Strikers central defensive partnership of John Costello and Nick Robinson, and their goalkeeper David Chambers, scrambling to deal with them.
Borello had the first dangerous shot on goal for the QAS as he was released on a run towards the Strikers’ penalty area by a pass from a quick breakout from defence. Pursued by Strikers left back Jack Boxell, Borello let rip with a shot from twenty-five yards that flew just past the top right corner of Chambers’ goal.
This proved to be a warning shot across the Strikers’ bows that they failed to heed. In the thirtieth minute a quick switch of play by the QAS found their skipper, Jack Bladen, wide out on the right with space and time to measure to perfection a cross that found Ben Litfin on the edge of the Strikers’ six-yard box heading the ball past Chambers with real force to level the scores.
As the QAS continued to make inroads down their right channel the combination was soon reversed, with Litfin driving in a cross that Bladen struck on the volley twelve yards out. But Bladen’s contact was less than perfect and his shot did not trouble Chambers as it bounced wide of his right-hand goalpost.
The QAS were to pay for this missed opportunity when the Strikers regained the lead in the forty-first minute. A long crossfield pass from Costello found Josh Searle on the Strikers’ right touchline and Searle made ground before turning the ball infield again to Di Sipio. The diminutive midfielder in turn fed it centrally to Thurtell, who had his back to goal but turned quickly to pick out Searle, who had continued his run, with a pass. Searle was into the QAS penalty area with the ball at his feet and drew Stein off his line before hammering a low shot past him to send the Strikers ahead 2-1 – a lead they held until half time but only because QAS defender Lachlan Jackson missed the target with a free header off Borello’s cross a few minutes later.
With the game still in the balance the second half loomed as a test of each team’s fitness and mental resilience, because the first had been played at a very high tempo. The Strikers appeared to adapt better to the challenge than their younger opponents, lifting their work rate to close down the QAS player on the ball all over the park and forcing the QAS into errors.
Five minutes into the second half the Strikers almost went further ahead. A corner taken short to winger Greg King enabled King to whip a cross into the QAS six-yard box where midfielder Michael Angus went within millimetres of glancing the ball past Stein with an attempted header almost on his goal line.
The QAS hit back with Kwame Yeboah getting past Robinson to cross low into the six-yard box at the other end of the field, triggering a desperate goalmouth scramble that finished with the Strikers clearing the ball as far as QAS winger Josh Riis, whose shot from twenty yards went a couple of yards wide of the target. Shortly afterwards Borello accepted a crossfield pass from the right before skipping infield past Strikers right back Lorenzo Sipi and Robinson to force Chambers to dive sharply to his right to pull in Borello’s shot.
The midway point of the half came with the Strikers still holding on to their slender lead as both Strikers coach David Large and McCloughan began using their substitutes. Sean Burke replaced Hews and was immediately into the action, turning swiftly to nutmeg a QAS defender before crossing low into the QAS six-yard box where Thurtell’s outstretched right boot failed narrowly to connect.
But Thurtell did connect – with a vengeance - a few minutes later when King delivered another dangerous cross from a free kick taken with his left foot wide out on the Strikers’ right flank. As attackers and defenders arrived at the edge of the QAS goalmouth to contest the ball, Thurtell timed his run the best to blast a header past Stein to make the score 3-1 and give the Strikers breathing space.
A great chance to make it 4-1 was soon created by King on the other flank with a cross from open play that found Burke racing in on goal, but Burke’s touch was not solid enough and the ball flew just wide of Stein’s far post instead of finishing in the net as the QAS began to open up.
Then, in the eightieth minute, the Strikers’ relentless pressure on the ball payed dividends when the QAS turned over possession inside their defensive third and King again got away down the left. This time he ran the ball into the QAS penalty area, beating a defender to get to the byline before rolling a pass into the path of Di Sipio, who was again unmarked and turned the ball left-footed into the far corner of Stein’s goal to ensure that the Strikers took all three points.
McCloughan, however, was far from dismayed with his team’s performance even though he admitted his players were “devastated” to have lost 4-1.
“It’s part of their development”, McCloughan said. “The bottom line is that they are young lads and they are learning, and they need to learn that when you dominate the game for periods like we did you need to kill teams off, or at least assert all that dominance and turn it into goals, you know?
“Unfortunately we didn’t and then obviously we went down the other end and copped a pretty cheap goal, for mine. And to be fair I thought that most goals they (the Strikers) scored tonight were pretty cheap”.
QAS Football: Matthew Stein (gk), Alistair Quinn, Tremayne Sadler, Joe Franze, Ross Archibald, Brandon Borello, Jack Bladen (c), Ben Litfin, Josh Riis, Lachlan Jackson, Kwame Yeboah. Substitutes: Patrick Theodore, Max Brown.
Brisbane Strikers: David Chambers (gk), Lorenzo Sipi, John Costello (c), Nick Robinson, Jack Boxell, Chay Hews, Michael Angus, Chris Di Sipio, Greg King, Josh Searle, Matt Thurtell. Substitutes: Sean Burke, Jordan Mason, Chris Maher.