Auckland 3, Southern 1
Keith Hay Park, Auckland, December 3 2017
“Run, run as fast as you can!
You can’t catch me. I’m the Gingerbread Man!”
Just about everyone who has written about Southern United this year has used the words ‘fairy tale’ at least once, and probably multiple times. Of course in football there are many stories of unlikely success – think Leicester, Nottingham Forest, Iceland, Greece, Parma or Hellas Verona – all of which we often refer to as fairy tales.
But which particular tale do they most closely resemble?
They’re often touted as “Cinderella stories” for their so-called rags to riches features. But I’m guessing Cinderella would have had trouble trying to be an effective box-to-box midfielder in glass slippers and when Igor Belanov shocked the world by winning the Ballon D’Or in 1986, he turned up the ceremony without anyone having to queue up to try on one of his size 9 Adidas Specials. Somehow, it doesn’t fit. The story, not the shoe.
Pondering this vitally important and serious football question, I thought of all my favourite childhood stories – Snow White, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Puss in Boots, Goldilocks, the Ugly Duckling – and realised that none of these actual fairy tales seemed to fit.
Except one – The Gingerbread Man.
In The Gingerbread Man, a little old lady, who could just as easily be an unfashionable football club president (Delia Smith?), follows a standard recipe to make a little something nice to dunk in her afternoon cup of PG Tips. She mixes all the ingredients together, rolls the resulting dough out on a tray, adds raisins for eyes, a cinnamon drop for a mouth, chocolate chips for coat buttons and bakes her magnus opus in the oven.
Then, when she opens the over door again, out jumps Mohammed Salah at his blistering best. He outruns her, outruns a whole lot of other finely honed athletes like the little old lady’s octogenarian husband, a pig, a cow and a horse – and he leaves them all trailing in his wake.
He only gets his comeuppance at the final hurdle. All he had to do to win eternal freedom is get across a river. But, alas, he accepted a ferry ride on the snout of a fox. Bad move Momo, I mean Gingerbread Man.
This too is often how football fairy tales end. Everyone is shocked and awed at the little team that could, other teams flail around trying to match them, but then after the underdogs get so far the run comes to an end at the hands of a more savvy opponent, we all celebrate what a jolly good effort they put in and normal service resumes.
It’s not always like this, of course. But it often is, and it was yesterday when Southern United managed to cross the river, Cook Strait, for the first National Women’s League play-off in their history, but couldn’t quite make it past their cunning opposition from Auckland Football Federation. The Southerners finally met their match via the snout of a team that just had more teeth on attack than they did.
For me, it was still a treat. Southern were the one team not scheduled to play north of Lake Taupo in the round robin so had they not qualified for this game they would have remained the one team I didn’t get to see in action.
Thankfully they exceeded all expectations and gave us Aucklanders the pleasure of seeing such exciting talents as Elise Mamanu-Gray and the league’s newly named MVP Eleanor Isaac in the flesh along with the highly recognisable figures of Mikaela Hunt, Tessa Nicol and others. All transformed overnight by coach Terry Parle from an outfit that had never won a National Women’s League game in the current format to genuine title contenders.
But end here it did. After Southern more than held their own for the majority of the first quarter of the game, Grace Jale struck with a screamer for the home side. Then Hannah Blake made sure the Aucklanders went into the half time break with a two goal lead. Renee Bacon halved the deficit for Southern early in the second half but Jacqui Hand put the result beyond too much doubt with 12 minutes of regular time left.
Auckland now travel to Christchurch as the competition’s new Gingerbread Women. They haven’t won a title for eight years, which is a long time between drinks for such a big population area, while their opponents Canterbury will be trying for their fourth title in five years.
As for Southern, I hope they push on into next year and continue their vast improvement. I also hope one or two other federations follow their recipe! This league gets more and more exciting every year and with a double round robin in 2018 it’s definitely going to be the best season ever!
I’m already counting down the days.
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.