By Morgan Jarvis
Southern United’s 2016 National Women’s League season is over, and as many people would have predicted, they finished on the bottom rung of the ladder. It’s been more than three years since a Southern Women’s side won a National League match, and since that October 2013 victory over the Young Ferns, they’ve only gained a solitary league point. A cursory glance at the table would therefore suggest the Southerners were just there to make up the numbers.
A league table, however, can only tell you so much. Anyone who watched the Southern side in action against Auckland Football at Tahuna Park in Dunedin on Saturday can attest to that, in what was simply the most entertaining game of football I’ve seen all year.
As the final match of the season for both sides, you could be excused for thinking there wasn’t much at stake – Auckland was out of playoff contention, and Southern was yet to register a point. Just quietly though, Southern genuinely believed they could get a result from the match, with some encouraging recent form and a heart-breaking loss the previous week to Central. To add some further hope, Southern’s only point last season had come against Auckland in the same fixture exactly a year ago. Meanwhile, the Northerners remembered that and were keen to make amends and finish what had been a tough season on a high.
With a strong ocean breeze at their back Auckland started the match in sublime fashion, and they raced to an early 3-0 lead. Goals to Britney Cunningham-Lee, Isabella Richards, and Tessa Leong were brilliantly taken and well deserved. Cunningham-Lee was running rampant down the flank, an unstoppable mix of pace and power. Leong’s long-range goal was simply world class and left Southern keeper Catlin Taylor-Lynch with no chance.
We were less than half an hour into the match, and it looked like it was going to be a rout. Auckland could have had a few more, and Southern was making mistakes and distinctly second best. Many pundits would have expected a repeat of the 8-0 hiding inflicted by Northern Football in Southern’s first home match of the league. Their heads should have dropped. But they didn’t.
Instead, Southern started creating chances of their own. Renee Bacon, who scored a brace in the season opener against Canterbury Pride, spurned a couple of chances but finally buried one – the comeback was on!
Minutes before half-time, a dazzling run and cross from talented young winger Mikayla Gray was met by the head of Kate Guildford, and the header lobbed into the net. Only a goal behind going into the break!
Clearly head coach Hayley Stirling gave an inspirational half-time talk. All of a sudden, with a strong wind at their backs, the Southern girls were on fire and playing with a belief that’s been missing for so long.
The equaliser rivalled Leong’s stunner for goal of the game. Bacon utilised the wind brilliantly to curl in a free-kick from 35 metres, glancing off the post, to seal a second double for the season. 3-3!
The chances kept coming, and Auckland was largely camped in their own half. Auckland keeper Ashleigh Emery pulled off a couple of ridiculously good close-range saves. The crowd could sense something special. With only minutes remaining, you knew there was another goal in this game.
And there was, but it was a heart-breaker. Against the run of play, Auckland’s Annie Byrne found the net to deflate the locals in attendance. There were cries of offside from the stand, although it had to be said regardless of that the officials were outstanding, led by referee Sarah Jones.
The final whistle blew, and Auckland had won an amazingly entertaining rollercoaster of a match 4-3. Their coach Tracy Wrigley summed it up best after the match when she said “games like that are why coaches dye their hair”.
Southern coach Stirling was totally despondent, and so were the players. It was a cruel way to end the season, especially for captain Annie Gilchrist, in her last match for the side. It had seemed like it was going to be a fairytale ending to the season, finally nabbing that elusive win. Both sides, however, should have been immensely proud of their efforts.
What is probably most frustrating for Southern United is that their season is now over almost before it’s begun, after just one round and only six matches played in total. In that short space of time, it’s amazing to see how much the team has developed. In Southern’s first home match of the season, Northern Football put on an absolute clinic and destroyed the home side 8-0 (it could have been more). Only one month later and Southern have come within a whisker of taking points off two talented sides in consecutive weeks.
The improvements haven’t happened by chance. 2016 has seen the side renamed Southern United, and coming under the same structure as the Stirling Sports Premiership, National Youth, and Futsal National League sides, all run by Football South. That’s been an important advance – there’s an overall sense of professionalism and credibility that was perhaps lacking previously; and sometimes it’s the little things, like all Southern sides outfitted in the same (brilliant looking!) blue and gold kit.
Although the side is clearly disappointed to not be picking up points, perhaps things need to be put into perspective. Although most sides in the league have young squads, there’s unlikely to be one younger than the Southern side. With a couple of 23 year olds the “old heads” in the squad, most of the side are still in their teens, many still at school. There’s only three clubs in Dunedin’s Premier Women’s senior competition – Dunedin Technical and University with two teams each, and Roslyn Wakari with one – so the standard of football locally throughout the winter is going to struggle to compare with the depth in some other regions. Going up against National League sides full of NZ representatives is always going to be a big step up.
Again, there’s been some positive advances locally though. A breakthrough last year was Football South shifting all Dunedin senior women’s club fixtures from Sundays to Saturdays – all of a sudden, the girls were playing alongside the boys, which appeared to do a great job of improving the legitimacy of the women’s game in town. Football South is making efforts to work with the University of Otago to take better advantage of the footballing talent that comes to Dunedin to study. There’s already talk of additional clubs being involved at the Premier level in the city next winter. And the matches between the top Dunedin Technical, Roslyn Wakari, and University sides were wonderfully competitive with genuine rivalries (and friendships) developing.
In head coach Hayley Stirling, Southern United have a talented and respected young coach. Hayley recently had the rare honour of attending the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan as a member of the tournament’s Technical Study Group – an experience she learnt immensely from, and a great chance to connect with a network of coaches and experts from around the globe. That experience is bound to rub off on her young charges.
Hayley is ably assisted by Tom Stevens, who was in charge of the side while Hayley was attending the World Cup at the start of the National League season. As well as being assistant coach of the Women’s side, Tom is also the reserve goalkeeper for the Southern United Stirling Sports Premiership side, and has therefore been busy with either side practically every day of the week – all while studying for a Law Degree, the 22 year old is certainly keeping himself busy!
While anyone involved in football knows that you’ll ultimately be judged on results, the results alone simply don’t justify how much the Southern side has improved recently by playing against the best footballers the country has to offer. Having cheered them on in every home game, I can say with absolute confidence that if the National Women’s League season comprised two rounds then that continued improvement would have seen Southern claim a couple of scalps before the end of the season.
Heck, why stop at two rounds – why not three? Of course, financial constraints will be at play, but with the continued success of our Football Ferns sides, hopefully there will come a point where the investment in the National League will be considered worth it. Because it would be an investment – enabling teams like Southern and Central to play more games against quality opposition would surely end up boosting the quality of the women’s game at all levels across the entire country.
And not only that – but more matches would help spread the word about just how entertaining these matches are to watch! I’ve been blown away by both the standard of football, and the incredibly free-flowing attacking nature of the matches. It’s been great to see a few new faces each week get along to Southern’s home games and be impressed by the football on display. Hopefully that continues next year, and we can have a good crowd on hand to witness that elusive (but inevitable!) Southern United victory!
[Morgan Jarvis is a football fan & writer based in Dunedin. He is Southern United’s Media Manager and has been a regular contributor to the Otago Daily Times newspaper and other local football publications. You can find him on twitter via @zealmanNZ]
Categories: NZ Women's National League
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.