Nepean FC 0 Gladesville Ravens 1

The Girls Youth League Under 15 Division 2 saw a most dramatic finish to an absorbing encounter at Cook Park on Sunday, as Gladesville Ravens kept their finals aspirations alive with a smash-and-grab victory against Nepean FC. On a day when the home team showed their physical presence, it was a single goal that separated the two sides, a close-range finish from Tahlia Butcher to notch her first goal of the season. Scenes that will remain with all those present for years to come were straight from the book of footballing dreams and this tight-knit group of players in black and white rejoiced in their hard-earned victory.

A chilly morning in St Mary’s in Sydney’s western suburbs greeted the players, and a field that has been given a test by the elements this season was certainly looking a little chopped up. The visitors were without Stef Lakic following her head injury the previous day, but had a number of players returning to action, while the hosts were again without former Ravens player Issy Franks in the heart of their defence. The Gladesville team started the game on the offensive, Annika Lee finding room down the right and Ella Moar down the left, and Nepean were being cautious, finding touch when in doubt. A horrible moment for the home goalkeeper Alexis Hyde saw the referee inexplicably pull her up for a double touch from a goalkick – if anything it was simply a retake as the ball was moving. Ravens all of a sudden had a glorious opportunity from an indirect free-kick right in front of goal, with the Nepean team on the line. Maya Jones tapped the ball back for Alessia Rizzuto who smashed the ball goalwards, through the wall, but Hyde was there to make a fine stop on the line. The rebound was lashed in by Moar only to hit the side netting and the chance was gone.

The Nepean players and coaching staff were still feeling aggrieved by the indirect free-kick, and that set the scene for a tricky game for the officials. The home team boasted a dynamic midfield lynchpin in Kiera Geoghegan and a tough-tackling defender in Amalija Meissel and they started to dictate the play, good play by Eva Buterin, running at Jas Waters, winning a corner for Nepean that was dealt with by Ava Pirozzi. Stylish midfilder Charlotte Douglas intercepted well to thwart another Nepean raid soon after, and Butcher played a long ball into the feet of Jones as Ravens truned defence into attack. Jones held off her marker to roll the ball back for Jackie Rice, whose hit was good and only just wide of the goal, a great move to give the visitors confidence. When Jones was upended on the edge of the area while holding up play, a free-kick was awarded centrally, prime position for captain Rizzuto, who curled the ball over the wall but also over the bar.

Jones then held the ball up again on the edge of the area and eked a free-kick from her over-eager defender. Jones took the free kick herself which didn’t clear the wall and another good situation evaporated. Sienna Bell was then alert to a goal kick, intercepting well and forcing a shot on goal that was defleced wide. A mad scramble from a second corner had Maya and Ravens defender Aurelia Smith chopping at the ball to free it from between the defender’s feet, the shot from Jones rolling just past the post. A goakeeping change then Hyde replaced by Maddison Machon, and the onslaught continued.

Rizzuto brought down her player after the ball had gone for a free-kick and was lucky to escape a card, then Jones won a free-kick and was then yellow-carded for an alleged push on her aggressor, but again the decision seemed unusually harsh. A long ball into the box then caused panic in the Ravens defence, Rizzuto hooking the ball out for a corner. The corner kick was well dealt with by goalkeeper Chloe McCredie and the half-time whistle sounded to send the players into the changing rooms to receive instruction on how they were going to win the game in the second half.

The formula that has served the Ravens so well this season was evident at the beginning of the second half, Anika Watson winning the ball in midfield, Rizzuto supplying the killer pass, and Jones racing through but the shot was wide. In reality though, both teams were struggling to get meaningful possession, until Moar took control up the left, jinking her way past two to fizz in a cross, and Bell did well to force a corner to keep the pressure on the Nepean defence. Great work by Butcher sent Jones away down the right, but the cross went behind, then Moar again jinked her way up the line and crossed well for Jones to win another corner. This time, the corner was right into the danger zone, Jones slashed at the shot and the ball spun in front of goal, Smith reacted but couldn’t connect cleanly and the ball was hacked off the line, Rice having the rebound deflected just wide from close range. The visitors were in full command, and the sight of a five-player substitition gave Ravens a whole set of fresh legs to continue the barrage.

Ravens escaped another card when Sophie Steele left a boot in on Machon, and they escaped up the other end when Amelia MacDonald beat her player in midfield and advanced, slipping the ball through the legs of Pirozzi and slamming a shot goalwards, but McCredie was right behind it and saved well. The dangerous Angie Le Roux then fed Steele who raced up the right to win a corner. Rizzuto’s corner led to a game of head tennis in the six yard box, the ball finally falling for Smith on the edge of the box who smashed the shot wide, another chance going begging.

Marli Williams then beat a player on the left and played in Jones, but Ellena Hilton was alert to clear the danger. Steele was harshly adjudged to have brought down her player, the referee clearly remembering the earlier incident with the keeper, and Hilton had a hit from long range that was easily dealt with by the Ravens defence. When Rizzuto played Jones through in another trademark move and Jones again shot first time from distance, the ball rolling harmlessly through to the keeper, the game seemed to be heading for a stalemate. The complexion of the game changed with one moment though as Sienna Monardo slipped when challenging Jones. Play continued but was then halted and the referee produced a red card instantly for the Nepean defender, who had given the official a mouthful for not awarding a freekick.

Ravens were straight on the attack. The free kick from Rizzuto was palmed away and half-cleared, but Steele won the ball and smashed a fabulous shot from distance which whistled past the post. Butcher was thrown on for the final moments to inject some urgency into the atack, and her run and cross went unrewarded as the clock ticked down.

Fine control by Le Roux saw her bring a high clearance down and she wriggled around her player only to be pulled to the ground, a free kick awarded on the right edge of the area. Smith was urged to join the attack and she ghosted into the area unmarked to meet Rizzuto’s delicious free-kick with a thumping header. The ball crashed off the underside of the bar with the keeper beaten to excited cheers from the sideline; the ball bounced out and there was a moment of silence, suspended animation as if the game was frozen in time, and Butcher reacted first, steadied herself and smashed the ball into the net from inside the six-yard box. The whole team raced to congratulate her and the celebrations were immense, this was truly a season-defining moment.

There was still a minute or so to play out, and Ravens did so in a professional manner, taking no chances and seeing out the remaining time until the final whistle sounded. This was a fantastic moment for Gladeville Ravens Under 15s, the whole team was pumped at the end of the game and the excited chatter continued long into the changing rooms.

A masterstroke from the boss to throw on Butcher up front to find a winner, and again to call Smith up from the back at the free kick; the delivery from set-piece specialist Rizzuto was done with precision and accuracy and the moment the ball hit the net will be etched in these girls’ memories forever. The Nepean players were so unlucky not to come away with something from this game, and they battled ferociously, playing on the edge with a strict referee, but the red card was definitely a turning point.

Nepean now travel to Mt Druitt Town Rangers to get their season back on track, while Ravens take on league leaders Northbridge Bulls in a fire-cracker of a game next Sunday back at the home of football Christie Park. See you there.

Thanks to Steve for the amazing photos today. We all need a sit down.

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