Nepean FC draw first blood in Playoff first leg thriller


A derby match with five goals, a red card and plenty of fire – the first leg of the 2023 Football New South Wales Promotion/Relegation Playoff between League Two Men’s Nepean FC and League One Men’s Mounties Wanderers FC had it all.

Nepean FC head into the second leg of the playoff with a 3-2 lead following a dramatic match; they are ninety minutes away from glory while Mounties will hope to mount a comeback at home in the second leg.

Here is how all the action unfolded:

Friday, 1st September 2023

League Two Men’s Promotion/League One Men’s Relegation Playoff, First Leg @ Wanderers Football Park

Nepean FC 3-2 Mounties Wanderers FC

The Skill Acquisition Program players for Nepean FC welcomed them onto the field as they faced Mounties Wanderers FC in front of a packed Wanderers Football Park – the stands were full, and the fences were lined with spectators.

Mounties kicked off the contest from right-to-left, but it was Nepean who had the momentum in the opening ten minutes of the contest.

However, the first shot of the match did not arrive until the 11th minute, when Mounties’ Anthony Windsor shot just wide of the left-hand post with a right-footed strike.

Mounties pressed well and allowed Nepean no time on the ball, while when they won it, they attacked quickly.

This disrupted Nepean’s usual play, where they have found time to pass around the back throughout the season; it meant they needed to be quicker and more decisive with their movements.

They were also missing Luka Zepina, who picked up and injury last week and was out for this contest; that meant they were missing that focal point in attack.

Nepean’s first chance came in the 21st minute when Lachlan Sepping launched a free kick from wide left into the box; the ball evaded all the players in the box and found Harrison Fox, whose effort went just wide of the right-hand post from six yards out.

Two minutes later, Mounties attacked down their left flank through Kuot Maliet; he passed the ball to Shun Maeta, who cut the ball to Marko Filipovic who shot his effort over the bar.

Leonard Abdo attacked back for Nepean as he played a ball from the left into the box for Jack Hoban, who shot straight at Mounties goalkeeper, Thomas Sutton.

Filipovic tried to set up Anthony Vastag at the other end for Mounties, but the ball was just too high for the target-man.

Mounties were relentless with their press – they continued to win the ball across the park and launch attack after attack, including a shot from Maliet which went over the bar.

Nepean looked rushed across the park, a second off the pace of the match as they struggled to create against a pressing Mounties side.

Mason Ingram helped get Nepean out of danger on multiple occasions as he sent diagonal balls down the field to set up Nepean into their attacking half of the field.

However, the pressure told in the 35th minute when a rare defensive mistake from Nepean cost them.

A wayward Mountie pass found Nepean’s Ingram at the back; he jockeyed the ball, waiting for goalkeeper Justin Biega to pick it up inside the six-yard-box.

However, miscommunication meant Mounties attacker, Maliet, snuck in between the two players, picked up the ball and struck it calmly with his left foot into the back of the net to give Mounties a 1-0 lead.

Nepean looked to settle a bit from there and created the next chance of the contest in the 42nd minute.

A free kick from the right into the Mounties box was half-cleared by the away side before it eventually fell to Matthew Crossley outside the box.

He settled and quickly hit the ball strongly on the half-volley with his left foot; the strike powered past all the players inside the box and flew right into the bottom-right corner to restore parity in the contest in front of a jubilant crowd.

The first-half action continued, however, as Mounties’ Andrew Holder fouled Jack Hoban in the box after Crossley had looked to play him through the defence.

Sepping stepped up; Sutton dived the wrong way as Sepping sent the ball straight down the middle to the sound of pure delirium from the Nepean fans as they took a 2-1 lead into half-time following four added minutes.

Mounties had won the first-half physical battle and pressed well but could not create more chances to score, while Nepean had completed a smash-and-grab just before half-time and took the momentum into the second half with a 2-1 lead.

Filipovic had the first chance of the half for Mounties six minutes in, but the first golden chance of the half fell to Nepean’s Hoban.

Paolo Laxamana had bombed on from left-back and combined well with Abdo into the Mounties box; he cut the ball back to Hoban in the box, ten yards out, but he rushed his shot and blazed his effort over the goal.

Nepean kept pressing, however, and were rewarded a penalty in the 58th minute when Hoban was sent in behind the Mounties defence and was fouled as he chased the ball he had pushed in behind for himself.

Sepping was the man who stepped up to the spot once again for Nepean; he made no mistake as he sent Sutton the wrong way once again, the ball nestled into the right-side of the goal as Nepean extended their lead to two goals with a 3-1 scoreline.

That two-goal lead lasted about thirty seconds, though, as straight from kick-off, Mounties attacked down their right and launched a ball into the box.

Biega saved well down low to deny Vastag, but the ball fell straight into the path of Mounties’ Andre Schroeder, who slotted the ball home from five yards to the disbelief of the home crowd; the match sat at 3-2 to Nepean.

Despite Nepean’s strong start to the second half, one mistake at the back, once again, cost them and meant Mounties had the momentum going forward; the mistake was unlike Nepean, who had the best defensive record in League Two Men’s in 2023.

Tensions started to flare between the two sets of players following some rash challenges across the pitch.

In the 71st minute, Mounties’ Vastag had a free header in the Nepean box, but as he was falling it meant he headed it well over the goal, while two minutes later Mounties substitute Matthew Self shot a free kick straight at Biega.

A strong run from Nepean substitute, Andre Cavallaro, set up Sepping, who shot over the Mounties goal.

Mounties could not get through a strong Nepean midfield, where Kye Soares was big in defence alongside the legs of Sepping, while the Nepean defence of Ingram, Mitchell King, Laxamana, and Richard Stewart put in strong tackles.

Both Nepean full backs were more nullified in this contest than usual as they did not have as much time or space to run with the ball down the field in wide areas.

In the 81st minute, a Mounties free-kick swung in from the left was headed wide by Maeta, while a free-kick three minutes later from Self was caught by Biega.

Mounties pushed for the late equaliser and that cost Nepean late.

Self had made a strong run down the right flank in a counterattack for Mounties; Laxamana tracked back and tried to keep up with him but was adjudged to have fouled Self when contact occurred between the two at high speed.

The referee came across and issued Laxamana his second yellow card, which meant he was sent off with a red and will miss next week’s second leg away for Nepean.

Into the fifth minute of stoppage-time, Schroeder almost grabbed his second goal late to level the match, but his header went just wide of the left-hand post following a cross in from the left late.

The crowd thought the ball was in as they breathed a sigh of relief.

The final chance of the night fell to Mounties’ Tong Muorwal, who headed just wide of the right-hand post following a free kick from the left in the seventh added minute.

Following that, the referee blew his whistle to an explosion of applause as Nepean held on for a 3-2 victory; they just held on, in the end, and took a one-goal advantage into the second leg away.

Speaking post-match, Nepean Head Coach Stephen Appleby said he could not understand why Laxamana was sent off in the match.

“We had a player sent off, which I am still baffled by; I cannot quite work that one out, but it is what it is.”

Appleby said he knew that Mounties would know how to counter them but knows his side can do better to take control in the tie.

“They tried to stop us from- they did their homework, they have evidently come down and watch how we play; they nullified how we play, which I am not going to say too much, in case they see it.”

Looking ahead to next week, Appleby is expecting plenty more chaos in the playoffs.

“It is going to be another helter-skelter game, no two ways about it; there is a lot on the line – they do not want to get relegated, we want to get promoted, so it is going to be another big ask for both teams to put another ninety-minute shift in.”

Appleby said he knew the tempo would be high and that was how the match played out.

“The tempo was quite high from both teams… everyone looks quite knackered – the polite word.”

Speaking on the two goals conceded by his side, Appleby was very honest with his side’s defending.

“I hate having goals conceded against us and the two goals were just absolutely poor defending, which we do not normally do, so we put that in the bed and get to work on that in the week and make sure we are a lot better.”

A pulsating contest which created plenty for both sides to ponder ahead of the second leg next week has set up a clash which, if possible, should provide even more drama at Cook Park in Cabramatta West, the home of Mounties Wanderers FC, where the aggregate winner will take all.

By Football New South Wales League Two Men’s Reporter, Dylan Costa @_dylancosta