A fiery rematch, a score to settle, and two struggling teams with nothing to lose.
Wagga City Wanderers’ clash with Balmain Tigers FC might not have looked like much on paper, but the 2-1 win meant far more to the Wanderers than their State League rivals could imagine.
Thirsting for revenge after losing their last bout with the Tigers in a fiery 3-1 encounter, the Wanderers dove headfirst into the fray at Gissing Oval with hopes of gaining an early advantage.
However, it was the hosts who found themselves trailing after a John Nkpolukwu strike put Balmain ahead inside the 10-minute mark.
“It’s a situation we’re finding ourselves in often this year, being a goal down early on,” said Wanderers coach Ross Morgan.
“But we managed to recover this time around.”
The Wanderers did exactly that, consolidating in defence while pressing home their advantage through the midfield.
Stuart Smeeth and Sam Jones stepped up to the task, steering their side around the paddock and creating opportunities, but it was Caylum Barber who delivered a knockout blow in the 23rd minute.
The livewire forward took advantage of Balmain’s errant defence to send one rocketing past Tigers goalkeeper Ahmad Ismail, levelling the scores at 1-all.
The deadlock held until half time and fresh ideas were needed to punch through the Tigers’ tightened back line.
Enter new Wanderers recruit, Henri Gardner.
The Lake Albert regular transferred his Sharks form into the black and white strip, seamlessly slotting into the hosts’ attack alongside brother Fred Gardner.
“Henri came on and changed the dynamic of the game for us,” Morgan said.
“He was creating opportunities and looked really threatening.”
Fittingly, it was Gardner who scored the Wanderers second goal and eventual match-winner.
Jones made the breakthrough play, sending a cross into the box that was deftly worked by Smeeth across to Gardner, who wasted no time in hoofing it past Ismail and securing a 2-1 lead with 20 minutes on the clock.
Gardner threatened to triple their lead before falling victim to the assistant referee’s flag, but there was more drama to come after a late penalty was awarded against the Wanderers.
Steely-nerved goalkeeper Rob Fry proved the difference, enduring the penalty shot and rebound to keep the Wanderers in front and seal the win.
“The performances have been coming and I think we just needed a little bit of luck,” Morgan said.
“You need that sometimes to win, even when you’re playing well.”
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