Friday, 4 September 2015

SEASON REVIEW: Wallsend F.C (3rd)

1st Grade:

After making the finals of the Zone Premier League in Season 2014, Wallsend made the step up to the New-FM 1st Division for the first time in five seasons and did some fine recruiting to try and attempt to reclaim their spot in Northern NSW Football. Signings like former State League players Dave Hodgson, Chris Gazzard and Paul Wheeler were a sign the club were serious about success.

Wallsend's first competitive fixture of the season was a poor one as they fell 3-2 to Zone Premier League University F.C. It was straight out of the national knockout competition but it allowed Josh Rufo and his side to turn all their focus to the New-FM 1st Division.

The club completed it's stunning rise from fourth division (Zone League One) to the New-FM competition and were looking to take a major scalp in Round 1 in the form of promotion-hopefuls Valentine Phoenix. A goal from Lucas Gentle would be Wallsend's first in their return to the big-time but it wasn't enough to stop Valentine from winning 2-1.

Next up was one of the game's of the season as Wallsend took a lead against relegated NPL side Lake Macquarie City. The Roosters would turn it around and bang in goal after goal as the game ended Lakes 9-4 Wallsend. A crazy game to say the least and the highest scoring 1st Grade New-FM game this season. It was a sign though that Wallsend weren't in New-FM to make up numbers.

The first two rounds were tough tests against the two expected promotion hopefuls but Round 3 brought a familiar rival in the form of fellow promoted side Cooks Hill United to The Gardens. Big name signings Dave Hodgson and Paul Wheeler got on the scoresheet, along with Trent Richards as the Red Devils scored their first win of the campaign, 3-1 over Cooks Hill. A great way to end their first home game of the season.

No doubt Wallsend would have been looking to turn their home at The Gardens into a fortress of sorts and they would record a second-straight home win, beating the Thornton Redbacks 3-1. Dave Hodgson got two and Adam 'The Aussie Battler' Humble scored as well. 

Next up was the biggest game to date, a Good Friday derby against local rivals and long-time arch nemesis West Wallsend. Goals to Paul Wheeler and Tega Marcus would give the Red Devils one of their most memorable wins in recent seasons in very wet conditions at 'Wembley'. The Red Devils were back and they had the wood over their arch rivals.

Following a bye in Round 6, Wallsend faced their longest away trip as they headed up the valley to Singleton. The ever-present Dave Hodgson got his name onto the scoresheet along with two excitement machines in Tega Marcus and Winstone Oku. It was a gutsy 3-2 win that was Wallsend's fourth in a row.

A trip to 2014 Semi Finalists Belmont-Swansea was going to be a tough test, especially on a pitch heavily soaked by the April storms earlier in the week. This game was the only game to go ahead that week. Jason McGuire and Dave Hodgson were the goalscorers in a 2-1 victory for the Red Devils.

After a washout saw their Round 9 game postponed, Wallsend took to the road again, this time to Cessnock. A brace to the in-form Dave Hodgson was capped off with a goal from Trent Milton as Wallsend recorded their first clean sheet and defeated Cessnock City 3-0 at Turner Park. Form was really coming together.

Round 11 brought a form-lacking Toronto-Awaba to The Gardens and the Stags were stunningly up 2-0 at half-time. No doubt the Red Devils would have been blasted by Josh Rufo in the sheds and they came out firing in the second stanza, blasting in goals via Paul Wheeler (x2), Tega Marcus and Trent Milton. It proved Wallsend as a serious contender for finals football and proved their resiliency to turn around a deficit (something that would come in ever so handy at the back end of the season.)

A two week break didn't hinder Wallsend as they recorded a second clean sheet of the season, 2-0 against fellow promotion-earners Kahibah F.C. NPL-recruits Chris Gazzard and Dave Hodgson were the goalscorers in what was Wallsend's eighth win in a row. They were the form team in the competition and certainly troubling both Lakes and Valentine in the race for the title.

On a personal note, I was excited to catch my first Wallsend game of the season as they traveled away to Cooks Hill United. A near-perfect opening stanza saw Wallsend up 3-0 inside the first half-hour, via goals to Tega Marcus, Mitchell Cook and a Cooks Hill own goal. The second half saw the Cookers come back to life and almost steal a point but Wallsend would hold on for a gutsy 3-2 victory.

The second Wallsend derby of the season saw a severely out-of-form Bluebells outfit make the trek to The Gardens. It was victory again for the Red Devils and it was emphatic, 5-0 against their arch nemesis. Dave Hodgson did no harm to his goal tally as he blasted in three on the day. It was clear Wallsend were the best in Wallsend derby and they were fast becoming the best in the league, ten straight wins to be exact.

Next were the two games that in my opinion cost Wallsend the Minor Premiership, a 2-1 home loss to in-form Belmont-Swansea and a shocking 1-0 away loss to a resilient Thornton outfit. Suddenly ten straight wins were two straight losses and the Red Devils were losing out on the race for the league title and a chance to block Lakes or Valentine from promotion.

A lot of controversy surrounded Wallsend's transferred home fixture against Lake Macquarie City on Wednesday July 8th. A few other clubs raised their eyebrows at this move but Wallsend did the rightful thing and let the federation know their field wouldn't be up to it and Northern NSW Football made the decision to move it to Macquarie Field. A move that worked well in my eyes.

The game would be played on a wet Macquarie Field pitch and there was no sign of the thrilling thirteen goal mayhem that these teams produced in Round 2. Wallsend led at the break courtesy of a Dan Rufo goal and with Lakes' promotion hopes circling the drain, the Roosters spurred and went on to win 2-1. It was game over for Wallsend's minor premiership hopes.

After missing out on July 8th, I finally made it to a game at The Gardens on July 22nd. It was near darkness as foggy conditions meant you could barely see the opposite side of the ground from the grandstand. It was freezing, it wasn't the most technical game and unfortunately for Wallsend, they'd go down 1-0 to the Phoenix of Valentine, an opponent they'd end up meeting again.

A Foggy Night at The Gardens (and Valentine wore all white!)

Next is a bit of a personal story. I was on the AirBus from Melbourne Airport into the City for the Real Madrid v Man City match when I was sent an email from head coach Josh Rufo. He asked if I'd be keen to come to the Charity Match v Cessnock City on the Sunday and get a chance to meet the team and be given a squad number. I happily accepted and wrote back to him, struggling to hold luggage and an iPad on a very bumpy bus ride.

After leaving Melbourne on a 6am flight to watch the Cooks Hill v Belswans 17's match on the Saturday morning, I was fairly tired out but the time Sunday rolled around. I got to The Gardens and was soon met by Club President Chris Gallagher. From the get-go he was as polite and as friendly as any club member I've had the honour of meeting this season.

 He took me into the changerooms to introduce me to Josh Rufo and his side. Straight away I was taken back a bit by the amount of trophies up on the mantle in the sheds. A lot of clubs would have these items sitting somewhere else (like a club room or a lobby) and it's a credit to Wallsend as it no doubt fires the team up to see all their trophies before each and every game.

Later that day I was given a purple Wallsend kit that was being worn that day for Brain Cancer Awareness and it was a great, great day for everyone involved. I sat with some Cessnock City fans to watch the 1st Grade fixture and despite being one of the poorer technical games I've seen this year (this coming less than 48 hours after watching the likes of Ronaldo and David Silva in Melbourne), it was a thrilling match that really had everything.

Both teams had chances in the topsy-turvy affair but it was Wallsend who'd win 3-2. After the match I spent a while talking to some players and officials in the bar area. It's not very often you see home players, away players and the referees all enjoying a drink and a chat whilst remaining at the ground. Great to see Wallsend taking advantage of the facilities at The Gardens.

Chris Gallagher and Myself after the game. (Photo: Whoever was holding my iPad!)

Next up was an away trip to Kahibah where goals to Tega Marcus and Kevin Orr gave Wallsend a 2-1 win over the Green and Blacks. The last regular season game saw the same scoreline, 2-1 over Toronto-Awaba away from home with goalscorers this time being Brendan Nichols and Kevin Orr.

With their position in the finals secured, I'm lead to believe (looking at the line-up on SportingPulse) that the Red Devils gave some younger upcomers an opportunity in this game. I might be wrong on that but player development is a big thing at Wallsend and something they obviously take very seriously.

Finals football rolled around and it was a tough assignment at The Gardens against Lake Macquarie City for the 1st Leg. I was there at 9AM and by the time First Grade kicked off, quiet a crowd had built at The Gardens to watch what was always going to be a crucial match.

Daniel Rufo gave the home side the lead after twenty minutes and it looked as though Wallsend were taking the first step towards the Grand Final. That was until Lakes turned the tables on the Red Devils. The Walker brothers (Sam and Tom) combined for three goals and suddenly it looked as though it was curtains on Wallsend's first season back.

The curtains were drawing close until an infamous day at Macquarie Field. No one within the Wallsend F.C community will ever forget Sunday August 23rd; the day they stunned Lake Macquarie City and indeed the entire New-FM competition.

Straight from the start, goal after goal after goal after goal, one, two, three, four, five, six of the best! Kevin Orr with two, Dave Hodgson pouncing on a horror keeper error, Jason McGuire, it was 4-0 inside the first half-hour! Trent Milton got on the scoresheet and Tega Marcus put the icing on the cake. It was a dream result and despite a late goal from Lakes, it was Wallsend that stormed into the most unlikely of Grand Final appearances. This was in my opinion the game of the year as it was just a stunning result that no-one in their right mind was expecting.

Finally it was the big day; Wallsend's first Grand Final at this level in twenty years; their opponent in 1995? Weston Workers. The same Weston that dropped everything mid-week to agree to host this year's New-FM Grand Finals at very short notice.

A look back at history. Wallsend's last State League and/or First Division Grand Final win came all the way back in 1965, against West Wallsend! Seven times they'd been back to the big stage and seven times they'd failed. Sure there were Interdistrict or Zone League titles but a title in the top two tiers of Northern NSW Football was becoming elusive.

That was until Trent Milton beat two Valentine defenders and brought what was looking to be a 0-0 Grand Final bore draw to life. The hundreds of fans in red came to life in the North-East corner of Rockwell Automation Park. Was this the day Wallsend completed a five-year story of redemption?

Chances came to bury their NPL-bound opponents but they were crucially missed. Valentine too had their fair share but nothing was working for them. Sunday August 30th 2015 belonged to the Wallsend Red Devils and the full-time whistle brought a sleeping giant of Newcastle football to life. 50 years without a First Division trophy was finally over.

And the celebrations went long into the night (trust me I know, I was invited back to the Fire Station Hotel!). The club were proud of their achievement and proud of their first season back in this level. Five years ago it was almost rock-bottom, it was a dark time in the history of the North's most successful footballing side. The sleeping giants had awakened and it was glorious to anyone wearing the red and white or the purple and white on this day.

Congratulations Wallsend on what was an amazing year and I'm sure the first of many successful years in this competition and higher for the club.


Keys Players:

It'd be quiet ignorant of me to not mention the recruited trio of Dave Hodgson, Chris Gazzard and Paul Wheeler. They were at Wallsend to bring a famous club back to the winners' circle and that they did. Hodgson was crucial, goal after goal after goal, the former Hamilton Olympic captain was vital all season.

Pacey and exciting wingers Tega Marcus and Winstone Oku brought an unpredictable style to the Red Devils and defenders like Daniel Rufo, Mitchell Cook and Kevin Orr were strong all season and how fitting was it that long-time club man Trent Milton, who's been their over the rise from fourth division to New-FM to score the winning goal in the Grand Final. Wallsend's not just a team of champions, it's a champion team!


Young Stars:

If there's one thing Wallsend pride themselves on, it's player development and there's some quality young players coming through at the Red Devils. The club's vote for Under 19's Player of the Year Jordan Tselembis has been given a lot of praise and has featured in the top grade a few times this season. Fellow 19's players Adam Pilkington and Ethan Brogan have also been standouts in the development ranks at Wallsend this season.

Off topic a little bit, it was good to see so many of Wallsend's lower grade New-FM players at last Sunday's Grand Final. The club from 1sts to 17's have a combined feeling, a community feeling if you will and everyone cares a lot about the badge on the front of the shirt. A great club culture that the upcomers seem to enjoy a lot.


Full Results:


Under 23's Wrap-Up:

This is a side that never really got into form in Season 2015. My vote for the worst game I've seen this season was Wallsend's away game at Cooks Hill in the Under 23's. That game just never got going, just like this side's season, inconsistency was a big factor on their lack of success.

Standouts have to include the top goalscorer Shayne Knight as well as the man the club voted as their best in the 23's, Cody Simpson. I think, like I do with a few 23's sides that weren't successful this season that this team need to find that perfect blend of youth and experience. The 23's is a great way to introduce 17/18/19 year olds to a tougher age group and I think it should be utilised more next season.

Their were some decent results though. A pair of draws against eventual Grand Finalists Lake Macquarie City, a 2-0 win against a Kahibah side that came close to earning finals football and a convincing 6-0 win over arch rivals West Wallsend. Improvement will be key in Season 2016 and I'm sure the Red Devil 23's will be aiming for that.


Under 19's Wrap-Up:

It was an irregular season for the Under 19's at Wallsend with inconsistency really affecting the side's chances this year. They had their standouts though with Jordan Tselembis being praised as one of the best up and comers the club have. As mentioned in the Rising Star section, Adam Pilkington and Ethan Brogan have been standouts in the Under 19's squad this season.

As well as those above, Bandu Kwabo tallied a fair few votes in the Player of the Year vote this very site hosted earlier this week and Jacob Maher has been the side's top goalscorer in Season 2015. Again, consistency is needed for this side to find more success next season and I think the experienced gained this year will no doubt come in very handy for next season's campaign.


Under 17's Wrap-Up:

Whilst a lot of the attention will go to Wallsend's Grand Final-winning 1st Grade squad, the Under 17's have been more than successful this season, coming to within a few minutes of forcing a penalty shootout for a place in the Grand Final. They'd fall however to a heatbreaking late goal to eventual champions Lakes.

I've seen this side play a few times this season and they've got an entertaining style to them, enjoying wide-attacking football with exciting pacey wingers like Shuku Sunzu and Chris Stefoulis. Goalkeeper Matt Pennington was voted by his peers as Player of the Year, narrowly beating midfielder Ryan Mclure.

Other standouts for this squad include top goalscorer Nick Hagan (who I've been told may have won the club's Golden Boot with his tally) and central defender Danny Herivel. It was a real team effort and I think regardless of the age group, the majority of these boys will be back representing the Red Devils with pride in Season 2016.


Keys To The Future:

There's not much to add here apart from keep doing what you're doing. Getting the NPL license is crucial for the club's ambition and with the processes in place already I can see that happening within the next few years. There's absolutely no reason this club can't climb back to the pinnacle of football in this region. The glory days of the 1960's could be on their way back. The history is there, the present is bringing success and the future is indeed bright.

Blast from the Past! Wallsend's old ground Crystal Palace (now Stocklands)
The connection this club have with their junior club is a strong one and they're aiming to become one of the biggest clubs in the area. So my key to the future for Wallsend is to keep heading in the same general direction and filter your younger players into the 1st Grade squad over the next few years. I have no doubt that Sunday's Grand Final win was the first of many successful days to come at the Wallsend Red Devils.

On a personal note, I'd like to thank those at Wallsend who have been ever so supportive of myself and what I do. The first day I spent out at Wallsend I felt like I was an adopted part of the club and I've enjoyed having an informal relationship with the club. Well wishes for the off-season and will see you all in Season 2016!

-Ty Stedman

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