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Guest Post – Sapphires show steel securing silverware

Wellington United Sapphires

By Michael Welsh

The Wellington United Sapphires have had a season to remember. Pipped at the post on goal difference last season, coach Juan Pablo Silva is on the record (as in, he said it where I could hear) as saying that this season would be a development season, with results taking a back seat. In his final post-match speech, he said as much, admitted how incredibly wrong he was, and then let the team loose on his hair.

So, what happened? First, a bunch of the older players left. Nic was promoted to the Diamonds (though she did turn out five times for the Sapphires), Tabitha (last year’s captain) retired, Tara and Alana were on the long-term injury list, Karlijn went travelling, and other players were gone as well. In to replace them were a bunch of girls (actual girls, 15 and 16 year olds) – Nat Olson and Lucy Jones chief among them. However, golden boot winner Dani Ohlsson was back, and a year older. Would this be her year? (Hint: the answer is yes).

Dani Ohlsson with her golden boot trophy.

The season started with the Sapphires hosting KCU at Newtown Park. With Dani out with a concussion she picked up scoring a goal in a futsal game, the burden of scoring the goals (and saving the butterfly) fell on Nat Olson’s slender frame. She marked her senior debut with a hat trick, as the Sapphires ran out comfortable 5-1 winners. The next game was away to Vic. The attacking stocks were quite empty, and in a case of girls against women, Vic scored two early long-range goals and won 2-0.

The real highlight of the game: saving a butterfly.

The next game was back at Newtown, hosting Tawa. Tawa were newly promoted from the far more social Women’s 1 grade, and it showed. The Sapphires were ruthless (eventually), running away 11-1 victors after only being 2-1 up at half time. This was going to become one of the Sapphires’ strengths: finishing strongly. This game is also notable for Tash Ingram, the Diamonds’ keeper. As Sophie Armitage, the Sapphires’ keeper, was away, she filled in between the sticks for three games. In the first half, all she had to do was watch Tawa’s goal sail in over her head, and then send the ball back to half-way for the restart. Deciding this was too boring, partway through the second half she switched to playing up front, and everyone tried to set her up. She eventually managed to get one in the back of the net.

I missed the 2-1 victory over Petone. Their next match was a 3-0 victory over one of the other title contenders, Waterside Karori. This game was memorable for Alice Cooke Harvie picking up a yellow card, much to the delight of her husband on the sideline.

With the tough games out of the way, the Sapphires cemented their place in the top three. A 6-1 win over Upper Hutt (the Sapphires scored all the goals) that I missed was followed by an 8-1 victory at Wests. By this point, I had seen Nat score ten goals and Dani had only managed five, so it looked like Nat was going to take over as the provider of goals…

Next, the Sapphires hosted Phil’s Brooklyn, coming away with a 3-0 victory and another goal for Nat. The first round was rounded out with a 0-8 defeat of Island Bay. This game is memorable for one of Dani’s goals. She collected the ball near half-way, beat five players (six if you count the goalie) and slotted home. One of her friends went through and counted all the players and upon finding out she got two more, asked Dani to teach him how to score. Her reply: “Hahah I missed like 4 tho so idk if u wud want me to teach” – Dani is a rather humble striker. She scores a bucketload of goals, but then just shrugs and gets on with scoring the next goal.

Dani decided that anything Nat could do, she could do better, so she scored four in the return fixture against KCU, leading the Sapphires to a 5-0 victory. Next up was another game I missed, the 1-0 victory over Petone. I do believe this was settled by a Nat goal in the first minute however…. A 7-0 victory over Tawa (I also missed this) followed, before the rematch with Uni. Uni had been bolstered by ITBOTN’s very own Ella, and Ella whipped a corner in for Nicole Baird to poke home, giving Uni an early lead. The Sapphires stuck to it, however, and were rewarded with two goals in the last ten minutes, the first an unfortunate own goal, with Hannah Wignall grabbing the second.

Next up was Wharfies at a horrible Wakefield. The weather dominated the game, and it felt like it would either be a draw or somebody would win with an ugly goal. Said ugly goal was scored by Nat, and the Sapphires had opened up a five-point lead with four games left. Next up was another young second team, Upper Hutt. What happened was crazy. Zoe Barrott smashed home a thunderbastard (probably my pick for goal of the season) to open the scoring for Upper Hutt, and then Dani woke up (at about the 20 minute mark). She promptly scored six goals, before she got yanked around the 40th minute. Hannah chipped in with four, and Nat grabbed a brace, whilst Upper Hutt managed to get another one back (that goal has to be the one with the loudest cheers from the sidelines that I’ve heard at a girls’ game this season), to give the final result: 12-2.

Juan was away, so manager Tara Elmes took over the coaching duties for the next game: A 3-1 victory over Wests. Wests played a defensive high line, which caused all sorts of problems for the Sapphires, as Hannah was the only one getting on the end of through balls and managing to remain onside, and she’s notoriously bad at finishing. Tara made some tactical changes at halftime, such as pushing Hannah back into the hole, and the Sapphires finally broke through in the second half. Dani got all the goals, to leave her with 21 goals (that I’d seen) for the season, with Nat on 15 and Hannah somehow managing 11. This game also contained a perfect advertisement for goal-line technology: Wests thought they had bundled the ball over the line, but Sophie clawed it away, and the ref (no linos at this level) didn’t give a goal. The Sapphires were now two points (but realistically one, as their goal difference was massive) off winning the league.

Dani Ohlsson completing her hat trick.

The visited Brooklyn for the big game, which was another game at a terrible Wakefield, and went into the sheds with a 3-0 lead, and whilst the second half honours were shared, they had done it. A representative from Capital Football was there with the trophy, and Jemma Hall raised it.

Jemma Hall raises the Women’s Premier League trophy.

All that was left now was Island Bay. The Sapphires were never going to lose this game, and so once they had a few goals, Juan rotated everybody except Sophie and great fun was had by all.

Island Bay and the Sapphires after the match.

All in all, the Sapphires only lost that once (the second game of the season), and scored an impressive 86 goals – Dani Ohlsson picking up 31 (according to my records, 32 according to Capital Football) of them, retaining the golden boot for another year – and conceding just twelve.

Nat Olson was impressive in her first senior season, knocking in twenty goals, and a bunch of assists as well. She was also one of only two players to play every game – Jemma Hall being the other. Lucy Jones was a revelation in Juan’s favourite position – holding midfield. I can’t single out every member of the squad, so I’ll stop there.

Wellington United Sapphires 2017

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[Michael Welsh is a Wellington football photography enthusiast who often very generously contributes his photos to this blog. You should like his Facebook page here and follow him on Twitter here.]

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

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