Ravens’ season ends as it started

Gladesville Ravens 0 Northern Tigers 4

The 2023 Football NSW Girls Youth League Under 16 Division 1 concluded on Sunday and it was a heavy home defeat for Gladesville Ravens as a far superior Northern Tigers capitalised on their physicality to out-muscle the home team. Izabella Ziolkowski had the visitors ahead at the break with a tidy finish, and any doubts that the Tigers would earn the point that would take them into the finals were dispelled in the second half as Annie Hall and Elise Oliver gave the scoreline a more realistic look. A superb long-range fourth goal from Blake Hughes put the icing on the Fathers Day cake and the Ravens were left congratulating their opponents at the final whistle, wishing them good luck in the finals.

A strangely late kick off for an Under 16s game gave both teams a taste of what life will be like in the older age groups next season, and the sun dropping to eye-level would be another unwanted distraction for the players on a beautiful spring afternoon at the home of football, Christie Park. This was the third meeting between these teams this year, with Tigers having dominated a pre-season game as well as the reverse fixture in Turramurra. The familiar faces of Hughes and Oliver at the back, along with Ariana Garland-Powell in midfield and Ziolkowski up front, and Ravens knew that they would be in for a tough afternoon at the hands of a team hungry for goals.

It was though the Ravens who managed to get the first attempt on goal, Stef Lakic intercepting a stray pass out of defence, but her shot was blocked. Tigers then romped up the right, the pacy Sienna Cooper-Durant racing to the byline before teasing in a cross beyond Sophie Justinek at the far post. The distribution from the back by the visitors was wayward, perhaps a sign of nerves. Meanwhile the referee was keeping tabs on the hands-on tackling style of the skillful Angelina Zaiter, urging the Ravens midfielder to keep her hands down every time she got near the ball.

Ravens goalkeeper Chloe McCredie was called into action to push away a cross from Tegan Murray, and she managed to grab the ball at the second attempt before Justinek could pounce. The home team were hemmed in to their own half; clearances would come straight back, and there was no aerial presence in the middle of the park to counter the combative Tigers midfield. A delightful cross-field pass from Justinek then found Cooper-Durant in space, but she blazed over when well-placed. A glorious chance fell to the visitors when Natalie Russo played in Justinek who teased in a perfect cross for Cooper-Durant, but her clever volley was just wide of the post.

Ravens threatened from a free-kick on the right, Alessia Rizzuto’s cross headed away by Hughes, but it was all Tigers. Ziolkowski turned inside and fired in a shot that was saved by McCredie and left Justinek on the floor in the challenge requiring some treatment. It was a matter of time before the defensive line would be breached, but Ziolkowski played in Cooper-Durant again who fired just over the bar. Another smart turn by Ziolkowski saw her shoot but McCredie gathered at the second attempt.

The goal, when it came, will be studied long and hard by the Ravens coaches. Hughes had all day to turn, gain her composure and measure a ball forward over the top for Ziolkowski to run on to, and she finished well past McCredie to open the scoring and settle some of the nerves of the visiting team. It was route-one, simple and effective, but the time afforded to Hughes was outrageous.

Justinek played in Ziolkowski but Isla Giron did well to cut out the danger. Russo slipped in Justinek, but the offside flag was up before she hit the ball just the wrong side of the post. A free-kick was fired in by Hughes. Anna Wroughton’s clearance went straight to Russo whose shot was saved.

An advantage call that seemed just a little generous then handed Ravens a chance, Sienna Bell adjudged to have been pushed several seconds before losing the ball, and Rizzuto had a chance from the edge of the area. The curling shot just cleared the bar, Bethany Tate watching the ball over to hopeful oohs from the crowd. Ravens ended the half strongly, and Sinead Fisher got her foot to the ball to intercept a pass, allowing Sophia Grindlay to fire in a fine shot that was saved. That was the final action of the first half, Ravens down by a goal but with plenty of hope for the second half.

The unlikely figure of defender Aurelia Smith cut in from the left to fire in a right-foot shot as Ravens started the second half on the attack, the ball rolling wide. At the other end Abby Duggan had to be quick to foil Olivia Callaghan, but there was trouble for the Ravens when the lively Cooper-Durant blazed down the right and crossed for Annie Hall to meet with the perfect striker’s finish to make it 2-0 to the visitors.

The total dominance of the Tigers in the air was highlighted every time they won a corner. McCredie had to push away a corner to concede yet another corner. This time the ball in was deeper and Oliver met the cross with a close-range header, giving McCredie no chance, the score blowing out to 3-0 to Northern Tigers.

Grindlay fouled her player, Ziolkowski firing the free-kick just over, then the industrious Anika Watson was fouled giving Ravens a good position in the centre of the Tigers’ half. What happened next was like a breath of fresh air – the Ravens pulled a training-ground move out of the top drawer. Sylvie Karena looked to be hoisting in another low-percentage free-kick when she fooled everyone by playing the ball to the unmarked Fisher on the right. The one-touch ball back to Lara Green was like something from the WSL, and her high cross was punched clear by Tate under pressure.

Green then played in Maya Jones who won a corner, and all of a sudden the Ravens were on the front foot. The deep corner was caught on the volley by Grindlay, and the ball fizzed wide of the post. Another free-kick was played in by Rizzuto, but the Ravens captain found herself in the book soon after, her pull on the Tigers player, right in front of the referee, enough to see the yellow card held aloft.

Hall played in Russo soon after and Tigers won a corner. The ball fell for Oliver, who shot from an outrageous distance, McCredie making a comfortable save. Hughes was finding herself in advancd positions down the left, and when she cut inside, she unleashed a right foot shot that flew over McCredie inside the far post for a spectacular fourth goal. It was the icing on the cake for the visitors, both central defenders scoring and their place in the top four secured. A late corner from Russo was cleared by Zaiter and the referee brought this one-sided season-ending fixture to a close.

There were emotional scenes at the end, the Ravens players acknowledging the success of their opponents, coach Dali and manager Rick embraced like father and son, and the realisation that the season was over brought the players together in tears.

The Tigers go on to play Sydney University in the semi-finals on Saturday, a place in the Grand Final up for grabs. For the Ravens though, this is the end of the road. With no under 17s to move into, the majority of the squad will be moving on to pastures new at other clubs in the Under 18s in the Girls Youth League, or to Under 20s football in the NPL League One Women’s, and with important school years upon them, some will decide to put their football on hold.

While the season has not given anything like the buzz of the previous year in Girls Youth League Division 2, the cameraderie of the team has stood the test of time. While other clubs have been swamped by the top teams, conceding double-figures and finding the division well out of their depth, the Ravens have done well to consolidate in their first season in the top flight and narrow defeats to APIA Leichhardt and Sydney University towards the end of the season showed that they were not that far away from being a competitive team in this tough league. A tenth-place finish can be considered as a good building block for the future.

All with smiling faces – the whole squad together for one last time

Thanks for taking the time to read all about your favourite Girls Youth League Under 16 Division 1 team, the mighty Gladesville Ravens. What a pleasure it has been. This will be the final report in a long series of match summaries that has kept the art of long-form football journalism alive. Goodbye from Christie Park, and we’ll see you at a suburban Sydney football ground in the very near future.

A permanent fixture at Christie Park

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