The day after final day last year I noted that Auckland City had lost three games in fourteen months – a problem most supporters would be delighted with. A year on and the Navy Blues have lost five games, including yesterday afternoon’s Stirling Sports Premiership Grand Final. To Team Wellington. Again.
Many of the same players who lined up a year ago were out on the pitch last night – but in the case of Jose Figueira’s Team Wellington, this wasn’t the same team – or the same style of play – that I’d credited for hustling Auckland out of the title last year.
At the season launch Joel Stevens, surely a candidate for player of the season told me that the squad had been told that the team would be playing a certain way and if players had an issue with that, then they wouldn’t be in the team. Their storming of the goalscoring charts this season, outscoring every other team, was only tempered by their tendency to ship goals at the other end. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle played a similar style, but could never convert it into success.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t fully explain the energetic performance put in by the Capital men yesterday. In just over a year their coach, former Auckland City youth and Lotto NRFL Prem winner with Central United, has altered the formation and drilled in a confidence in possession and movement that last year’s blood and thunder side didn’t possess.
Auckland, by comparison, had the tightest defence in the league. Across fifteen games they had conceded just twelve goals, four of those coming in the remarkable meltdown against Waitakere. Both teams had identical records in the league and only Auckland’s staunch defence put them two goals ahead on goal difference – not that it would have counted, the NZFC classing head to head more important than goals scored (er, NZF – change that).
City hadn’t had a bad season, but a run of draws and losses had made the title race exciting and added some genuine uncertainty – the City steamroller of previous years wasn’t as evident, even if they still topped the table come the season end. There’s a case to be made that City had a great season, scoring the first goal against Kashima Antlers and holding out until the very end against the Japanese Champions, while also winning the Nike Lunar New Year Cup – taking out Korean pro side F.C Seoul on the way.
The game itself was absorbing. Team Wellington came screaming out of the blocks, pressing City high and not allowing Angel Berlanga, Alfie Rogers or Darren White time on the ball. In midfield, Cameron Howieson and Mario Bilen found themselves swarmed by white shirts. The breakthrough came when an angled Andy Bevin cross was ducked under by Marko Dordevic, assuming his keeper was coming. Enaut Zubikarai wasn’t though, and Ben Harris stooped to power the header home.
It could have been two a few minutes later, Bevin spotting Zubikarai out of his area and hammering a looping shot which spanged off the crossbar. For those of us who’ve watched City and Central play, Zubikarai’s positioning is known as the Danyon Drake – the only Keeper/Holding Midfielder in the game.
The momentum swung City’s way, and it was Emiliano Tade who ducked, dived, dipped and twisted before rifling a low daisycutter past the despairing Basalaj. Team Wellington took on the challenge and Joel Stevens had a cross which rolled across the face of goal before being slid into to side netting – to the disappointment of the few hardy travelling supporters.
The best not-a-goal chance probably fell to Ryan De Vries, who got away from Justin Gulley and attempted to lob Scott Basalaj on the angle – the Wellington keeper backpedalling before clawing it to safety.
Half Time 1 – 1
The floodlights came on and the rain began to pour down. At halftime the discussion had been whether Team Wellington had the legs to go 90 minutes after last weeks heroics, and whether they could continue to match City for fitness and commitment.
Those questions were answered with Ben Harris’ second within ten minutes of the restart. Stevens again was instrumental in the goal, receiving the ball from a short corner, then crossing for Harris to head home from close range.
Having taken the lead, Team Wellington did not let up. Sitting back against Auckland City would be fatal, and while they stepped up their combativeness in midfield – Mario Barcia coming on with half an hour to go – they trod the fine line between assertive and aggressive.
City kept knocking on the door though, and last ditch tackles by Bill Robertson, Justin Gulley and bodies thrown in front of shots prevented the scores being level. Former City player Nate Hailemariam was played on the wing in place of Taylor Schriver and added pace and energy as the game wore on.
The conditions were dreadful, but the Wellington defence had City at arms length. A nasty fall for Ryan De Vries ended his game, with Clayton Lewis coming on in his place. Joao Moreira had been introduced earlier, but his best efforts came while falling backwards – slicing the ball into the side netting.
Four minutes of added time. Last season the game went to extra-time with a late Team Wellington equaliser, Auckland having taken the lead late in the second half. This year City never led for a single minute, and found themselves pouring forward in an effort to extend the NZFC season for a half hour longer.
The whistle blew with City on the attack. Bill Robertson stretched his arms wide and leapt in the air. As the Team Wellington bench raced across the pitch, their coach Jose Figueira kept his composure and shook hands with Ramon Tribulietx and the City staff. For the travelling support, sheer delight (and a long night bus ride back to Wellington). For Auckland City, something to chew over in the off-season.
Photos by Enzo Giordani
Categories: NZ Men's National League
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.