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Almost autumn

Manukau United 1, Birkenhead United 1
Walter Massey Park, Auckland, February 25 2018

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I am completely over summer. The weather gods have dished up nothing but stifling heat and oppressive humidity in strict rotation with pouring bloody rain, while the football gods haven’t really done their part either. The men’s national league has been the only game in town for the past couple of months, and with only one game in Auckland each week if you’re lucky there hasn’t been a lot to choose from.

That’s all about to change though! Because Autumn officially starts in three days’ time, and the winter clubs are already well into their pre-season programmes.

And while, for me, the summer league has been largely more of the same between a range of clubs and franchises that I struggle to muster up much enthusiasm for, watching Manukau United play Birkenhead promised to be the perfect antidote, injecting a healthy dose of much needed variety to my starved football palate.

Both of these 2018 Northern Premier clubs might be somewhat familiar, but it’s familiarity with a twist.

Kevin Fallon’s Manukau City have amalgamated with Mangere United to form Manukau United and take the former’s place in the top flight, earned via their second place finish in last year’s division 1. I was very keen to check them out and see how these two clubs with quite distinct cultures are melding together.

Their attack looks to be a particular talking point this year, with Mangere’s prolific marksman Sanni Issa joining forces with Maunkau’s Iwa Shaker who returns from a long term injury. Throw in a dangerous attacking midfielder like Prince Quansah and we should see some much needed bite from a Manukau side that only scored half as many goals as the teams immediately above and below them on last season’s ladder.

There was also the novel sight of Matt Chant, the Fencibles striker who broke Waiheke United’s hearts on the island last year, acting as goalie for the home side! He did an excellent job too for someone who in his own words has played in goal “a little bit mate not much tho lol”. What a natural! Probably one of those annoying types of people who is good at whatever he does in sport. I understand he won’t be a regular fixture at Manukau United though, sadly. This was just a one-off favour to fill a gap.

As for Birko, they are the same but different too! They have always been a club that has been big on youth, winning regularly in Napier and at Western Springs in recent years, but this season they have gone all in, showing the door to many experienced players who have been loyal to the club for a long time.

It must have been a tough call, but they had a lot of talented youngsters coming through who would have been getting impatient to break into the first team and probably could have walked if space hadn’t been made for them.

Paul Hobson has also brought a few younger players in, such as Nelson starlet  Alex Connor-McClean as well as Luke Jorgensen and Lachie McIsaac from Bay Olympic and Melville respectively. It will be fascinating to see if the youth gamble pays off or not.

The candy canes certainly looked good yesterday, particularly in the first half when Chant was called into action to make a spectacular save and the post and crossbar intervened in Manukau’s favour a few times as well before Jake Mechell eventually put away Birko’s goal.

Issa got the equaliser for Manukau in the second half of a match where the home side did well to draw, considering they appeared hampered by missing a fair few important players to a Fijian tournament which, judging by ‘Kevin’s Blog’ this week, was a bit of a sore point.

The other bright spot in my day was at half time, when I wandered over to a group of refugees who were having a kick about over by Buckland Road. Manukau City has a long association with the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre. They organise for kids from the centre, who almost universally come from football mad countries, to get out and play. And this has resulted in a fair few of them going on to play for the club at the highest levels.

It was a nice little reminder of an aspect of Auckland club football that wouldn’t ordinarily be highlighted much.

And when you add everything together, I got more interesting nuggets out of 90 minutes of NRFL pre-season than I have in the 450 minutes of national league I’ve seen since Christmas!

Roll on winter.

Categories: NZ Northern Men's Premier

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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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