The New Zealand Knights produced the shock of the eleventh round in the Hyundai A-League on Guy Fawkes Day, the bottom-of-the-table team ending their eight-match losing streak in dramatic fashion by downing second-placed Queensland Roar 1-0 at North Harbour Stadium.
Ironically, it was the visitors who contributed the only goal of the game, which came in just the seventh minute. It had been a scrappy opening to this point, but when the ball broke for Jonathan Richter on the Knights’ right flank, he took off downfield, with debutant team-mate Dustin Wells in close attendance.
The newcomer’s overlapping run was rewarded with a pass which allowed him to drive a low cross in towards the near post area, Malik Buari his intended target. But in his desperation to clear the danger, Roar defender Sasa Ognenovski only succeeded in diverting the ball over the diving figure of his goalkeeping team-mate, Liam Reddy, and into the net by the far post.
It says much for the Knights’ campaign so far that as a result of this goal, opponents currently lead the club’s Golden Boot race! Not that the 2,675 present to witness this match, nor the players and coaching staff themselves, were complaining. When you’re stone motherless last, and enduring a dire run of form, if something goes your way you cling to it as if your life depends on it.
And that’s exactly what the Knights did, with regards their 1-0 lead. Wells and Scott Gemmill were working overtime in midfield to break up Queensland’s passing game, so much so that the visitors were forced to knock the ball over the top in an effort to penetrate their opponents.
But Sime Kovacevic and company weren’t having a bar of that, and so effective were they that the only save debutant goalkeeper Mark Paston had to make in the first half-hour was a routine denial of a long-range free-kick from Yuning Zhang.
The Chinese star, whose presence had attracted a fair number of the local Chinese community to the ground to watch him in action, was a contributing factor again in the 32nd minute, as he sparked a move which featured a delightful back-heel into the penalty area by Reinaldo.
It put the charging figure of Matt McKay in on goal with just Paston to beat, but no-one had anticipated Wells producing a covering run which allowed him to thwart his opponent’s attempt to equalise - the Knights’ new recruit had a whale of a game.
Four minutes later, a Zhang free-kick was cleared to Hyuk Su Seo, whose angled cross picked out the head of Roar captain John McCloughan. His diving header was superbly turned round the post low to his right by Paston, the custodian flinging himself high to his right five minutes later to prevent another Zhang free-kick from finding the target.
Save for a long-range free-kick from Buari with which Adam Casey just failed to make contact as it careered narrowly past the post just shy of the half-hour mark, the Knights had rarely been sighted as an attacking force since the goal, but they enjoyed the last chance of the first half, two minutes before the interval.
Kovacevic and Wells combined, the newcomer slipping Casey in behind the defence. But before he could capitalise on the opportunity, Reddy was off his line in an instant to save at the striker’s feet.
Queensland, given their need to overhaul the deficit, altered their approach to the second spell, offering a more incisive edge to their attacks, along with crisper, sharper passing. It served to prise open the Knights defences on a far more regular basis, but putting the ball in the net proved far harder.
First half substitute Simon Lynch came into his own in this half, and in the 53rd minute, was picked out by a crossfield ball from Ognenovski. The Scot did Darren Bazeley all ends up before lashing a low shot across the face of goal and just past the far post.
Two minutes later, the Knights spurned a glorious chance to clinch the points. Noah Hickey outpaced Stuart McLaren down the left and fired over a cross which Richter controlled neatly. His shot was blocked by McCloughan, but the rebound fell to Casey, who hit the crossbar from twelve yards. Buari, following in, was denied the chance to turn home the rebound by the vigilant Reddy, who blocked well at his feet.
Cue even more frenzied attacking by Queensland. Spase Dilevski lashed a first-time shot over the bar after being set up by Reinaldo, then saw his free-kick gobbled up by Paston on the hour mark.
Five minutes later, Dilevski beat Paston all ends up with a delicious chip of the lanky goalkeeper, after Andrew Packer and Reinaldo had teamed up in attack. The crossbar came to the Knights’ rescue on this occasion, with Lynch, racing in for the rebound, seeing Bazeley block his attempt to turn the ball home.
Such was the Knights’ desire to hold on to what they held - the lead - that all bar Reddy were camped in the half of the pitch the home team was defending at times in this half of the match. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but as far as the Knights were concerned, needs must, and damn the purists!!
Still Queensland pounded away, Seo’s superb defence-splitting pass sending Reinaldo racing through with just Paston to beat. The ‘keeper prevailed with a top stop at the striker’s feet in the 68th minute.
After Reddy had thwarted the Knights’ last raid by diving to his right to save from Casey eleven minutes from time - Hickey and, unsurprisingly, Wells had been involved in the build-up, the visitors laid siege to the Knights goal, the clock an additional enemy as their pursuit of an equaliser continued unabated.
Reinaldo and Dilevski sparked an eightieth minute raid which also featured Seo, who switched play to Lynch on the left. His cross picked out McKay, but again Paston prevailed, diving to his left to grab the header.
Five minutes later, Reinaldo just failed to get a touch to a low, driven angled cross-shot from Dilevski, who sparked off another move seconds later which also featured Reinaldo and the overlapping McLaren. His well-weighted cross found Reinaldo rising high, but Paston grabbed his header, much to the Knights’ relief.
Two minutes from time, home fans’ hearts were in their mouths as Ognenovski picked out Lynch with another raking cross-field ball, and the Scot lured Paston out of goal with an inviting cross. Reinaldo, the smaller of the two without accounting for Paston’s reach, managed to beat the goalkeeper in the air, but was unable to guide his header on target.
It was to be their last chance, for referee Craig Zetter - an error-ridden performance of which he should not be proud - sounded the final whistle soon after to end the Knights’ woeful run, and leave Queensland to contemplate their numerous missed opportunities against defiant opponents who will savour just their third-ever A-League victory for a wee while yet.