The New Zealand Knights produced their brightest performance for some time when holding the Newcastle Jets to a 1-1 draw in a lively fifteenth round encounter in the Hyundai A-League at North Harbour Stadium on December 3.
The visitors were all over their hosts like a rash for the majority of the first half-hour, at which point the Knights struck totally against the run of play, the goal giving them the confidence to take the game to the Jets, who themselves were hungry for the points in their pursuit of the play-off placings.
They started out in lively fashion, Nick Carle inevitably pulling the strings. A combination of his probing defence-opening passes, and the right flank raids of Joel Griffiths and the overlapping Steve Eagleton had the Knights on the back foot throughout the first ten minutes, after which shots from the fullback and Matt Thompson were blocked by the Knights’ central defensive partnership of new recruit Dean Gordon and old hand Che Bunce.
Newcastle hit the front in the thirteenth minute, Knights goalkeeper Mark Paston guilty of a serious error of misjudgement. Griffiths raced down the right in pursuit of a wind-assisted clearance, but Gordon had the situation in hand when Paston raced out towards the edge of his penalty area to offer assistance.
The offer was gleefully taken up by Griffiths, who artfully lobbed the lanky goalkeeper from way out on the right wing, judging the trajectory of his effort perfectly so that the ball bounced into the top far corner of the net.
While still reeling from that early setback, the home team survived a couple more scares, Bunce and Gordon respectively blocking the efforts of Griffiths and Carle, the latter incident sparking a swift and neatly-contrived counter-attack which featured the well-performed Neil Emblen, Marik Buari, Noah Hickey and Gregory Duruz on the overlap. His cross targeted Emblen’s head, but that of Paul Okon prevailed.
Newcastle were being allowed the run of the park, particularly in midfield, and nearly doubled their advantage in the eighteenth minute. Milton Rodriguez played the ball forward for Vaughan Coveny to latch onto, the striker outpacing his All Whites’ team-mate Bunce before lashing a drive at point-blank range into the face of Paston.
Being so dominant in possession lured the visitors into a false sense of security, and they were made to pay for their failure to fully capitalise on that advantage just shy of the half-hour mark.
The Knights, with just their second forward foray of the match, were presented with a right-wing free-kick after Jonti Richter had been fouled. Darren Bazeley flighted the ball over, only for Newcastle’s Jade North to inexplicably punch the cross to safety. Referee Peter O’Leary didn’t hesitate - penalty - and nor did Alen Marcina, who fair smashed the ball home from the spot to level the scores.
That goal startled the visitors, and while they were recovering from the shock, Gordon - a midweek signing from NZ Football Championship title-holders Auckland City with FA Premier League experience - continued to prove his pedigree when turning defence into attack in the 34th minute.
Emblen was the beneficiary of the newcomer’s labours, the versatile player - a striker today - producing a neat touch to wrong-foot North before scampering down the left to the by-line. His pull-back presented Richter with a volleyed chance, but the speedster skied it.
Irked by the cheek of the bottom-placed side in coming back at them in this manner, Newcastle rounded on their hosts, and the half-time whistle couldn’t come soon enough for the Knights.
Rodriguez released Thompson down the left in the 37th minute, the winger returning the compliment with a measured cross perfectly weighted for the head-banded striker to meet with a downward header. Paston made a fine save, but was indebted to Duruz seconds later, as the fullback made the tackle of the match to prevent a certain goal.
A scintillating interchange between Paul Kohler, Carle and Griffiths culminated in a back-heel from the last-mentioned rolling perfectly into the stride of the Jets’ talisman. As Carle was about to pull the trigger, Duruz lunged in and flicked the ball to safety.
Carle attempted twice more to restore the visitors’ lead before the interval, to no avail, while after it, the game developed into a real end-to-end affair between two teams determined to take the three points, yet who were guilty of, in the Knights’ case, indifferent final passes, and over-elaboration where the Jets were concerned.
It made for a lively spectacle. In the 52nd minute, Kohler got the better of Buari in a tackle and set up Rodriguez to chance his arm from twenty yards. Paston turned this effort round the post at full stretch.
The resulting corner was cleared, with Dustin Wells leading the counter-attack. Down the right he scampered before whipping in a vicious low cross measured to perfection for Marcina to hit in his stride. The striker never got the chance, however, as Ivan Necevski raced off his line to bravely save at his feet.
Newcastle’s ‘keeper saved from Hickey before the hour mark, while three minutes after it, the offside flag denied Rodriguez a headed goal from close-range after some splendid combination play between Griffiths and Carle.
Two minutes later, the duo ripped the Knights’ defence apart with a breathtaking series of one-twos as they surged downfield from half-way to the edge of the penalty area. Carle’s final lay-off presented Griffiths with a shooting chance, but he slid his effort wide of the mark - it would have been a “Goal of the Season” contender had the visitors’ lone marksman in this match doubled his tally.
Back came the Knights, Duruz firing a quite splendid driven free-kick into the danger zone from wide on the left. So good was the quality of the delivery that no-one made contact with it, not even Bunce, who missed a sitter as the ball zoomed across his bows just four yards out from goal.
Eighteen minutes from time, a long throw-in by Darren Bazeley was flicked on by Emblen towards Marcina. North stepped in to quell this threat, and launch a counter-attack which culminated in Gordon producing a timely tackle to deny Griffiths, who was looking to capitalise on another Carle lay-off.
Downfield stormed the Knights, Richter leading the charge on receipt of Emblen’s lay-off. His cross on the run to the near post saw Marcina arriving looking to finish it off, but the safe hands of Necevski put paid to his hopes of snatching a second goal for the home team, which would have delighted the 2,039 fans present.
Instead, they had to watch nervously as Paston grabbed a difficult volley from Carle, then eagerly as North headed a well-flighted Bazeley free-kick off the head of Emblen.
Four minutes from time, a Hickey shot was blocked for a corner, which Buari delivered, Emblen again the target. This time, the striker got his head to the ball, his close-range effort being punched out by Necevski. Buari was following in, but sent his attempt to snatch what would surely have been a dramatic late winner soaring over the crossbar.
Cue stoppage time, with both goals surviving scares. Marcina just failed to get on the end of a Bazeley ball over the top, while at the other end, a twenty-five yarder from Musialik warmed the gloves of Paston as the visitors saw two points slip from their grasp.
The work acting coach Barry Simmonds has done to date has certainly improved the Knights, who, after the initial half-hour, looked a relatively well-organised unit. They were certainly deserving of a point in this match, as much a reflection of their improvement as it was Newcastle’s inability to turn their plethora of possession into shots on goal.
All too often, the visitors over-indulged in carving open the opposition, for by the time the act of shooting came to pass, the Knights had more than adequate numbers back behind the ball to nullify the threat which looked very distinct when Carle and company initially secured possession.
With six rounds left until the play-off positions are determined, Newcastle are plum in the middle of the six teams who are covered by just seven points as they trail in runaway leaders Melbourne Victory, the Knights needing a minor miracle to avoid the wooden spoon as a Christmas present!
In such a tightly contested competition, the two points the Jets dropped in this encounter against the bottom-placed side could yet prove crucial to their finals hopes, points they needn’t have dropped had they applied the old standard, "Simplicity breeds success".