By Morgan Jarvis
Sunday was a pretty special day for southern football – our National Women’s League side defeated Auckland Football Federation to record their first victory in a long time. A very long time, in fact – it’s almost four years to the day since Southern United notched a 2-1 win over a NZ Football Development side in the 2013 national league. You have to go back a few more years for the last time they beat another federation team.
Of course, there’s been plenty of close matches and heartbreakers in between times – in fact, their final match of the 2016 season (coincidentally also against Auckland) was as cruel as they come, the northerners winning a rollercoaster match 4-3. I wrote about that match here, and re-reading it now, notice that I didn’t quite convey the emotions that were so evident after the match – the home side feeling like it was on the brink of finally breaking its bogey before the fairytale ending was snatched away. There were gallons of tears from players, coaches, fans – and writers!
That’s why Sunday’s victory is so special. It’s a genuine turning point for women’s football locally. You can talk all you like about “belief” but now the girls know they really can beat one of the best teams (on paper at least!) in the league. They now know they truly deserve to be playing amongst the country’s elite.
It was one heck of a football game. The Auckland side is stacked with young talent. That didn’t faze Southern who took it to the visitors right from the start, and opened the scoring on the half-hour when Shontelle Smith converted a penalty after an Auckland handball. The home side held the lead until the break.
Auckland came out a different side in the second half, and quickly equalised through captain Steph Skilton. The commanding Eleanor Isaac once again put Southern ahead, but the lead didn’t last long as a determined Auckland once again equalised through Jacqui Hand. That familiar feeling crept in, and you couldn’t help but think Auckland were once again going to pip us at the post.
With just six minutes to go, that script got blown up when Southern striker Renee Bacon scored a screamer, somehow turning and shooting in the one motion to blast it past Auckland keeper Nadia Olla. 3-2!
It was an anxious final few minutes as Auckland desperately laid siege on the Southern defence, but after what felt like an eternity, finally the referee’s whistle went – history had been made!
The crowd erupted, and the players leapt for joy. Southern United had won for the first time in years, and victory doesn’t get any sweeter than that.
Although it was certainly a big upset to defeat a team stacked with talented representative players, the result didn’t just happen overnight. It’s just the next step in the gradual progression and improvement of the game locally. It was hinted at when club side Dunedin Technical made it to the Knockout Cup semi-final in August and made eventual winners Glenfield Rovers work hard for a 2-0 win.
There’s a good number of Technical players in this squad, and a solid base of players returning from last year’s NWL campaign, another year older and wiser. Importantly, there are a few new faces too, some genuine talent as opponents will soon discover. Midfielders Eleanor Isaac, Shontelle Smith, and Elise Mamanu-Gray bring oodles of experience, class, and composure to the side.
Just as importantly, coach Terry Parle has returned to Dunedin to take the reins after a few years overseas. Terry’s spent many years in Dunedin and coached some of his squad in their younger years – in fact, it seems it was Terry’s appointment which convinced Mamanu-Gray to return to her roots to be part of his project.
Southern may have copped some flak over the years (not so much for their performances, but rather their results), but I’m a strong advocate of ensuring that all regions are represented in our elite domestic competitions – otherwise there’s a missing link in the footballing pathway. Within the Football South region there’s such a strong long-term focus on developing young footballers (male & female), and I want them to be able to see what they can go on to achieve.
Young fans can witness their local heroes playing against the best in the country. On Sunday they saw Mosgiel’s NZ U20 rep Tessa Nicol pull off a string of brave saves in goal, and watched Football Fern Steph Skilton tuck away a classy goal for Auckland. Along with the likes of Shontelle Smith, Elise Mamanu-Gray, and others, these players have all had opportunities to travel across the globe in the name of football. Does it get any better than former local star Sammy Murrell, who is currently on a scholarship at prestigious Ivy League university Harvard of all places
The long-awaited move to a two-round competition next year will only help our team’s development even further, with more matches against top-class teams.
There were around 400 joyous fans at Forsyth Barr Stadium on Sunday, including plenty of young girls and boys. I just became a first-time dad myself to an adorable wee daughter. Although I’d never force her hand to pick up a sport or activity, I’m looking forward to in the very near future being able to take her along to games like this, and I’m sure she won’t be able to help falling in love with the beautiful game.
[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.