“Relieved” is how Jaime Gomez described himself. It wasn’t the feeling at the final whistle after his Bulls FC Academy women’s team clinched a 2-1 win over minor premiers’ APIA Leichhardt in the semi-final, but his emotions four minutes earlier when his side was awarded a last-gasp penalty to seal the victory.
With just two days to prepare for the sudden-death clash after sealing a finals spot, Gomez was severely limited in what he could do in the training sessions prior. His players were battling exhaustion, overcoming the niggles and knocks that come from the hard battles on the pitch. It rendered much of the final training a session on penalties.
When Lambert Park was swept with an eery silence as Charlotte Lancaster stood over the 87th minute spot-kick, Gomez was the most relaxed figure in Leichhardt.
“I knew that Charlotte hits them very well. We practiced it, just to be prepared and what to expect so when we got that penalty I was confident Charlotte would nail it. And she did that very well,” Gomez said.
Regardless of his confidence in the outcome, that goal sparked a wild celebration. The Bulls – a team that had only just been promoted to the top tier of NPL NSW this season – was on the brink of a grand final. Come the full-time whistle, that celebration tinkered on the brink of delirium.
“It’s awesome, it’s an unreal experience. I can’t believe I’ve done this,” Lancaster said. “For the first year of the Bulls coming into NPL and making it to the grand final is unreal. We are all so happy and we can’t wait for the final.”
Her performance earned her the match ball. A finely taken penalty followed an instinctive poacher’s strike that put the Bulls into the lead in the first-half. It capped-off a near flawless first-half for the Bulls FC Academy. They took to the minor premiers with a confidence and swagger that shocked APIA. Marshalled by a superb performance in the midfield by Avaani Prakash, the Bulls created a flurry of chances. Isabella Volkanovski came close from distance, another long-range attempt from Lancaster almost sailed into the top corner, Tammy Souza was denied by a goal-line clearance before Lancaster broke the deadlock with a neat left-foot finish three minutes before the break.
Even when Ash Croft pulled one back for APIA midway through the second half, the Bulls didn’t crumble. When APIA goalkeeper Emilija Vidakovic brought down Souza inside the box, the visitors had the chance to seal the historic win. Lancaster showed nerves of steel, piercing the silence with a thunderous penalty into the bottom corner to make it 2-1 and put the Bulls on course for a first-ever NPL1 title.
“The spirit is amazing. Day in, day out we work hard and we put in for the 90 minutes and we got the result we deserved in the end,” Avaani Prakash said. “The short turnaround after Sunday was a bit hard but we pulled through. Credit to all the girls because they did it out there on the field.”
The victory sealed the Bulls passage to the decider, where they’ll play the winner of Macarthur Rams or NWS Spirit next weekend – a date Gomez told his players to keep free at the start of the season.
“From day one we had that belief. We weren’t coming in just to survive or just to compete, we said we can go all the way and we honestly believed it,” Gomez said. “I said to the girls from day one to put a big ‘X’ on grand final day and make sure nobody is away because we are going all the way to the end. They bought into and they believed it. I’m just super proud.”