Warriors sink Saints to seal promotion
By Rusty Woodger (@rustywoodger)
North Geelong will compete in Victoria’s top flight for the first time since 1997 after overcoming St Albans 1-0 on Saturday.
Mark Paleka’s 78th minute-strike was all the Warriors needed to claim promotion in front of a healthy crowd at Elcho Park.
In what was a tight tussle between two sides desperate for the all-important second position on the table, clear-cut chances were few and far between throughout the encounter.
The home side almost started off on the back foot, with a superb one-handed save from Daniel Zilic all that stood in the way from Nicholas Cullen putting the Saints ahead in the sixth minute.
Moments later at the other end, it was Stuart Webster’s turn to shine, and the St Albans custodian was up to the task when some crafty acrobatics from Robbie Zadworny forced him into action.
Yet on 31 minutes, Webster almost turned to villain when he came too far off his line and was nearly rounded by Juso Julardzija, but the North Geelong striker was unable to get a clean shot away.
The half-time whistle signalled the end of a half in which neither side seemed willing to take the game on, and little changed when the teams returned after the break.
Adam Nakic had the best opportunity for the Saints on 59 minutes, but his free kick from the edge of the area curled just shy of the post.
With time fast running out for the Warriors, the vocal home fans yearned for a hero. On 78 minutes, Paleka became that hero.
The former Saint was released for a one-on-one opportunity with Webster, and with glory in sight, the midfielder calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net for arguably the most important of his 12 goals this season.
Paleka’s finish sparked wild celebrations among the North Geelong faithful, and despite having to defend its lead for a further 15 minutes, there would be nothing that stood in the way of the Warriors and promotion.
The win caps off a remarkable turnaround for a side which was languishing in ninth spot – with four wins and six losses – before Micky Colina took over after Round 10.
After the game, Colina was almost lost for words.
“It hasn’t sunk in just yet,” Colina said.
“We’ll probably realise what it really means when the season is done.”
The Warriors coach said his side’s return to top flight football was “massive” for the club and the local region.
“I’m hoping that everyone embraces this opportunity now to get behind the club and support it,” he said.
“North Geelong Warriors represent Geelong now, and they always did.”
Despite a week that saw coach Toby Paterson and son, Brodie, sacked from the club, St Albans’ stand-in manager Ryan McGuffie refused to use the disruption as an excuse.
“Football is a funny game, you’ve just got to move on quickly,” McGuffie said.
“You can’t dwell on things, so I don’t think that played much relevance.”
Aside from gaining promotion, North Geelong’s win means it remains a mathematical chance of claiming the NPL 1 title as it sits six points off Avondale Heights with two games in hand.
In next Sunday’s matches, the Warriors travel to Richmond to take on the Eagles, while St Albans hosts Dandenong City at Churchill Reserve.
NORTH GEELONG WARRIORS 1 (Paleka 78’) defeated ST ALBANS SAINTS 0 at Elcho Park [HT: 0-0]
NORTH GEELONG WARRIORS: 1. Daniel ZILIC (GK), 16. Michael GRGIC, 2. Darren LEWIS, 3. Matthew TOWNLEY, 99. Nathan LONG, 8. Vito CICHELLO, 7. Reardo LUKA, 14. Mark PALEKA, 9. Michael ANDERSON, 10. Robert ZADWORNY, 77. Juso JULARDZIJA (21. Matija DRAGOVIC 78’)
UNUSED SUBS: 6. Stipe TRBUHOVIC, 4. Nikola JURKOVIC, 17. Nicholas JURCIC, 31. Joel GAWNE
YELLOW CARDS: LEWIS (20’), GRGIC (59’)
RED CARD(S): None
ST ALBANS SAINTS: 1. Stuart WEBSTER (GK), 2. Ryan MCGUFFIE, 4. Barry DEVLIN, 8. Ross HARVEY, 14. Christopher ROSS, 15. Konrad DOBRASZKIEWICZ, 17. Adam NAKIC, 18. Tedros YABIO, 11. Yusef YUSEF (19. Ante KOZUL 90’), 9. Sean MCILROY (16. Ajak PANEK 77’), 13. Nicholas CULLEN
UNUSED SUBS: 21. Tonio BARESIC, 12. Nyok CHOL, 38, David SIMMS
YELLOW CARDS: MCILROY (18’), HARVEY (67’), YABIO (73’)
RED CARD(S): None
Image credit: Roberto Filitti