The Wollongong Wolves came hungry, on the run, and hunting in a pack. They were fortunate to find a meek Newcastle side opposing them - ready for the taking.
Wollongong travelled up the NSW coast to former fellow steel city Newcastle with the embarrassing late submission to Cosmos last week still fresh in their minds but buoyed by the return during the week from overseas of Scott Chipperfield.
Newcastle had acquitted themselves well on the road in Adelaide and was hoping for some home form to keep the crowds up and to salvage hopes of a top 6 berth.
Newcastle included new signing Anthony Magnacca in their side and Scott Chipperfield's suspension was deemed to have been served whilst overseas so he was on the park for the Illawarra team. Newcastle coach Lee Sterrey was annoyed about this apparent about-face by the NSL but in the end the player wasn't really needed.
Newcastle started enterprisingly enough with Magnacca working to his coach's instructions and playing the ball on the deck into the mounting wind, but soon the Wolves started to apply pressure. When Todd McManus fouled Chipperfield in the 6th min the resulting free-kick was struck by Chipperfield straight at keeper Bobby Catlin and the force almost knocked him back so hard was it struck.
Despite continuing pressure from Wollongong a great chance for Newcastle passed by when the improving Travis Dodd hit a hard shot which cannoned off Huxley and forced a save from Grant Barlow at the near post. Dodd was receiving close attention and he limped through much of the match, but not before he struck a shot on target after a 25m weaving run into the area.
Wollongong were handling the deteriorating conditions better with long balls being played with the wind after quick lead-up interchanges in a midfield which Newcastle gradually conceded. As early as the 14th min Chipperfield was found this way in the box and it was only the agility of Bobby Catlin that saved the day.
In the 23rd minute McManus challenged Cervinski and the ball fell badly for Catlin, leaving him in the wrong place and Chipperfield swooped on the ball and made no mistake.
From a quick move out of midfield by the increasingly fluent Wolves Robbie Stanton drifted into the area and receiving a great cross nodded it hard and fast past an advancing Catlin. By now it was all Wollongong as United retreated further thus leaving the Wolves engine-room, the centre midfield, entirely to the red shirts. Only a late run by Wieczorek, who got behind the defence and wrong-footed 4 defenders with a lobbed cross to Buonavoglia, lifted Newcastle fans spirits.
After the intermission and with the wind at their backs United applied some real pressure with Magnacca shooting over after only 2 mins of the resumption, teenage substitute Daniel McBreen receiving a great ball in the box but snap shooting over the bar, and a Magnacca freekick curling just past the upright. Stuart Young was active and in the 59th min he shot wide.
Brad 'Witchy' Wieczorek was coming into the game, grasping opportunities that he was denied in the first stanza, due to poor service from a disjointed midfield and shackling Chipperfield at the same time.
Still Newcastle pushed up with a move started by Buonavoglia and carried on by Dodd breaking down when Peter Tsekenis shot wide, and soon after a 'Witchy' speculator.
Rallying, the Wolves pushed up the middle at speed with firstly Reid waltzing through the defence but miss-kicking and then in the 68th min Stanton received in space and with a free route to goal but chipped the advancing Catlin, and the crossbar!
Daniel McBreen had been causing some consternation in the Wolves camp with his movement and it was no surprise when in the 70th min he turned on a ball in the area and placed into the bottom left hand corner of Barlow's goal. Wiezcorek was again the provider of this cross, but Newcastle was assisted by a deflection off a Wolves player en-route.
Wollongong didn't sit back but played some beautiful free-flowing football and they almost punished United when Catlin was forced 10m out from his goal line to clear to ball off the feet of an attacker. By now the game was being played in an almost horizontal tropical downpour driven by a fierce wind. Wieczorek crossed into the danger zone but no one was able to capitalize and then he tried to chip the rain-blinded keeper from distance. Newcastle at last finds some spark but way too late!
Coach Lee Sterrey is alleged to be under pressure due to the lowly position on the table of a talented collection of players but he sheeted home blame to the players who 'had no passion, no commitment'.
Having seen Olympic play twice I suggest that the Wolves are capable of beating them but with 3 teenagers on the bench the journey through the NSL season and the WCC may be more than they chew on!
The Queensland referee Peter Green gave no cards at all, but perhaps missed one or two challenges which deserved formal caution. The pitch is improving rapidly and looked lush but not very dense over the sand base as yet.
Newcastle face three powerful teams in the next few weeks so Santa may find no 'good boys' (at least in some fans eyes) when he visits the lower Hunter on Christmas Eve. Will the crowds fall? I might add 'fall further' because - let's just say the announced crowd was generous.