Gambier Centrals announced itself as the team to beat in the tight race for the 2021 Steeline Limestone Coast Football Association Senior Men’s Premiership Cup.
With a grand final spot on the line in, the stakes were never higher than Sunday’s qualifying final.
After two entertaining and high scoring draws took place between the premiership favourites during the home-and-away season, tension was a certainty.
A road trip to the cauldron of Casadio Park for a date with arch-rival and finals specialist International did not faze Gambier Central one iota.
The Lions proved they there to play and complete a mission by taking control from the kickoff.
The likes of Cameron Saint, Christian Fleetwood and Justyn Saint were in fine form in the midfield and launched a counterattack which left the home crowd in a state of shock.
A classy finish by Sam Shoemark put the visitors in front early after a nice passage of play before captain Cam Saint came to the party by launching a long-range bullet into the top-left corner.
The crushing opening was signed off in style by Thomas van Riet.
A long throw in put the Inter keeper under pressure and he could not stop Van Riet from sneaking into the back of the net.
Being 3-0 down, Inter needed to dig deep to stop the Lions from strolling into the decider and the home side managed to make something out of nothing.
After slowly shifting momentum the black and blue put themselves on the scoreboard when Connor Prior perfectly placed a free kick.
Despite International’s breakthrough, Centrals hit back instantly through Shoemark.
The striker cut through the home side’s defence before being awarded a penalty after colliding with the keeper.
Shoemark calmly put away the penalty to give the Lions an formidable 4-1 lead.
However, the home side refused to go down without a fight as things got heated both on the pitch and on the scoreboard.
As multiple spot fires emerged between players, Fedrico Pepa spectacularly kicked International’s second goal, while Matt Bueti struck from close range with minutes to spare.
Sadly both goals were marred by confrontations between the opposing players in the box on a day when seven cards were dished out.
Despite pulling the deficit from three goals to one, there was not enough time left on the clock for Inter stay alive and Centrals claimed an entertaining 4-3 win.
Gambier Centrals president Shane Dycer said the club was proud of the performance behind enemy lines.
“We are very happy because it is no secret Inter and Centrals have played off in the majority of recent grand finals,” he said.
“To not have Jake Blackwell or Craig Wright in the defensive line and still come away with the win was pleasing.
“It was probably as good as we had played since the Steeline Cup final.”
Dycer said the win was set up by the barnstorming first half.
“We dominated early and had all of the possession,” he said.
“The midfield group of Christian, Cam Saint, Broc Linden and Cam Saint had it all their own way and Inter started to get a bit frustrated.”
Even when Inter was attacking the finish line and threatening to challenge Centrals’ lead, Dycer was one of the few at the ground able to keep his cool.
“We conceded a couple of late goals which made it a bit tighter than we would have liked, but I did not think we were ever in any danger,” he said.
“They did come hard, but it was not until the last 10 to 15 minutes and I thought we had them at arm’s length all day.
“I think we needed the week off because we had some injuries and we already missed Jake Blackwell and Craig Wright.”
Although Blackwell and Wright sat on the sidelines, Dycer is confident the pair will be ready to return for the huge game in two weeks time.
Inter will have to overcome Apollo this weekend to defend its title after the blue and white made perfect use of the home conditions at Webb Street.
The elimination final against Naracoorte also got off to a slow start with no score before half time.
But with the season on the line the game went into overdrive and the visitors managed to make things interesting with a goal.
However, Tobbei Kennett and Cameron Wallace ensured Apollo stayed alive with a 2-1 win.