A highly inexperienced and very young Newcastle side produced a mighty defensive effort to draw with a star-studded Parramatta side at Energy Australia Stadium, Newcastle Friday night.
The Newcastle line-up already missing three players in Greg Owens, Scott Thomas, and Jobe Wheelhouse, from last week's match against Marconi was rocked further by the last minute withdrawal of experienced midfielder Peter Tsekenis due to illness. Subsequently, sixteen year-old Keegen Wolfenden was rushed into the starting line-up earning his first cap for the club.
Wolfenden's inclusion left the Newcastle side with a highly inexperienced backline as nineteen year-old goalkeeper Tom Willis, nineteen-year old Josh Mitchell and twenty-four year old Adam Griffiths made up the numbers at the back. By the time thirty minutes struck on the playing clock Newcastle had no less than six players under the age of twenty on the field.
The start of the match was devoid of opportunities as both sides struggled to gain ascendency. Parramatta's striking duo of Travis Dodd and Ante Milicic were looking threatening but the Newcastle defence was holding up well.
In the 17th minute Milicic nearly put the away side ahead when he cracked a half-volley onto the crossbar. Milicic was left open after a defensive mistake gave Dodd the ball on the edge of the box. Dodd's cross was a little behind Milicic but the gifted striker's effort was quite spectacular.
Newcastle was dealt a massive blow in the 25th minute when both skipper Robert Middleby and Esala Masi were replaced because of injury. Masi had his nose broken quite badly after a collision with Clint Bolton, while Middleby strained a hamstring.
Replacing the two crucial players were sixteen year-old Mitchell Wallace and nineteen year-old Peter McPherson. This only left Craig Deans on the bench who had previously played a full game in the youth grade, and was only there because of Tsekenis' late withdrawal.
Unbelievably, United hit the lead two minutes later. A speculative Mitchell Johnson corner saw Wolfenden ghost at the far post. Wolfenden volleyed across goal, with the ball deflecting off Alvin Ceccoli's head and into the net.
Parramatta equalised on the stroke of half-time when Dodd broke free from two defenders and lobbed a Andre Gumprecht cross over the head of a charging Willis.
The second half started as the first and set the tone for the rest of the match. Parramatta pressed hard, but could not find a way through the packed Newcastle defence.
The first opportunity of the second half again came through Milicic. Simon Colosimo put a through ball to the striker on the left. Milicic's shot from a narrow angle was skewed across goal and went out for a goal kick.
Milicic missed what could only be described as a sitter in the 78th minute. A perfectly placed Ahmad Elrich found Milicic free inside the six and in front of goal. Amazingly his header went way wide.
With five minutes to go Willis was forced into a point blank save from a Matt Thompson shot. Milicic was again the culprit with one minute to go when he missed from inside the six.
Parramatta were their own worse enemy in not securing the three points. They had plenty of possession, but squandered some very good chances.
At the post-match press conference Power coach Nick Theodorakopoulos was left to lament the game that got away. "If we were to replay that second half again we would win by four goals. Our passing in that half was exceptional and we forced them on the back foot, but they had the tenacity to hold on." "If we create that many chances in subsequent games we will win most."
Newcastle mentor Ian Crook was naturally pleased with the effort produced by his young charges. "Full credit to the commitment put in by the boys. If you looked at the side out there it was basically our youth side from last year." "It is encouraging to see this young talent step up, but not to degrade the performance of these boys tonight - they will have to step up every week now."