After struggling to reach the heights many thought they would in the regular season, Wollongong United are finally edging closer to their peak.
The Berkeley-based Illawarra Premier League club booked their spot in the competition’s grand final with a thrilling 2-1 extra time win over Wollongong Olympic at Memorial Park on Sunday.
A Kenta Azechi strike three minutes into the opening period of added time propelled his side back onto the biggest stage in Illawarra football.
It’s a place many thought they would be at the beginning of the campaign. However, after being touted as the regular season title favourite, United only came into the finals in fourth spot.
They’ve saved their best for the post-season.
Olympic were their third victim in a tense elimination game, which sees United set up a blockbuster stoush with Bulli next Sunday at WIN Stadium.
“Our confidence will improve even more after a result like that,” United coach Jeff Allport said.
“They threw everything at us. We showed a lot of character at the back end there to keep competing and keep them out.
“They had opportunities and we did. It was just one of those games but we got there.”
United had to do things the hard way after losing Matthew McNab (knee) to injury inside the opening five minutes. They found the front in the 34th minute when Daisuke Yuzawa played in Kazuta Kushida, who tucked the ball past an outstretched Hayden Durose.
After trailing 1-0 at the break, Olympic drew level in the 69th minute after an error from United keeper Sam Nastic.
The gloveman came out to claim a cross but spilled the ball into the path of Vaughan Patterson, allowing the former George Naylor Medallist to fire home the equaliser.
Olympic pushed hard for a second, but when the game went into extra time they fell behind again.
Azechi was well found on the left flank before the substitute cut inside and finished into the bottom corner for what proved to be the match winner. Allport credited his team’s intensity for the performance.
“The intensity we are playing at gets us into the games and that work rate then allows us to play our football,” he said.
“We are getting that combination right now where I think earlier on in the year we just wanted to play and not necessarily do the hard stuff.
“The boys are in a really good space now and we will give Bulli a good crack next week.”
Olympic coach George Antoniou thought his side had enough chances to win the match.
“I thought they probably had the better of the first 25 minutes and got a goal, but I thought it was all us after that,” he said.
“We had chance after chance. Whatever it was in extra time, but I don’t think the score reflects the dominance we had. It comes down to goals. They took theirs and we didn’t. That happened the last two weeks.”