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Great Expectations

“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

A lot can change in 12 months!

Less than a year ago, a Southern United side with zero expectations placed upon them faced a star-studded Auckland side in the opening round of the 2017 National Women’s League. In front of a big crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium, Southern stunned the northerners with a 3-2 win – the side’s first victory in more than four years.

Of course, Southern proved that was no fluke by also tipping over heavyweights Canterbury United Pride and Northern on their way to a first-ever playoff spot. But, in that moment on that day, there was a cathartic release of emotion as the final whistle sounded and the reality of the achievement was realised.

Following on from that impressive campaign, around half of the national league squad featured for Dunedin Technical as they conquered some of the country’s best clubs on their way to the Kate Sheppard Cup title.

So fast forward to NWL round one 2018, and Southern United were firm favourites hosting a youthful Central Football side at Forrester Park in North Dunedin.

This might have been the first time ever that the Southern girls went into a game as clear favourites. A crowd of close to 200 made their way to Forrester Park with a certain sense of expectation a million miles removed from previous seasons.

They were facing a Central side that hadn’t had to travel to Dunedin for more than four years, a peculiarity of the single round-robin format that has finally been upgraded this season to a full home & away draw. It’s a long and tricky journey down to Dunedin. The kick-off was shifted back two hours to 3pm – initially the visitors had somehow been expected to get from Dunedin Airport into the city and onto the pitch in 20 minutes; that’s a feat even Sonic the Hedgehog couldn’t achieve.

Speaking of animals- there were some interested spectators boosting the crowd numbers at Forrester Park.

What a delight Forrester Park turned out to be as a national league venue. The stunning weather certainly helped. The pitch is perched at the far end of the city’s North East Valley, far above the suburb itself, and has a surreal rural setting, with a natural steep embankment making the perfect grandstand to watch the action from. Bliss!

It was the complete antithesis of the setting of last season’s opening match, Forsyth Barr Stadium. And, for 90 minutes, it was perfect (for the home fans at least).

Southern, under new coach Ignacio Sande and featuring a handful of new players to complement last season’s impressive squad, were immediately out to show their attacking intent. It didn’t take long for midfielder Chelsea Whittaker to open the scoring, after a raking direct ball from defender Mikaela Hunt.

Central quickly equalised though – after some good hustle from captain Mikaela Boxall, a clearance only found Sophie Crewe, who calmly blasted a half-volley into the back of the net from 25 yards out.

Southern quickly regained the ascendancy though, and midfielder Shontelle Smith fired in a brilliant free-kick, before moments later new acquisition Britney-Lee Nicholson found the net.

There had already been some impressive goals, but Smith, who was awarded the Maia Jackman Trophy in the Kate Sheppard Cup final, topped them all with a stunning long distance strike that almost burst the net! Just as well the competition’s gone to two full rounds this year, just to give everyone else a chance to beat that for goal of the season!

Southern United were now 4-1 up after just 28 minutes – almost shades of the Kate Sheppard Cup final?

Central had their moments too. Boxall was always dangerous, and winger Casey Ralph was a constant threat on the ball. The Southern defence was generally pretty composed though, happy to build from the back and control possession.

The halftime break saw the home team make three substitutions. One of these was exciting Queenstown youngster Amy Hislop – I’m looking forward to watching her develop on the national stage this season.

It didn’t take long for her to get on the scoresheet – Smith’s centering ball not cleared by the Central defence, and Hislop pouncing to make it 5-1 after 51 minutes.

The final goal came in the 69th minute – some patient build-up from Southern before substitute Tahlia Roome’s cross was cruelly deflected in off Central defender Mackenzie Barry.

It was a tough day out for Central. No doubt the competition’s youngest team will appreciate the expanded league, and there’s clearly some talent there that will be nurtured throughout the season.

But this day belonged to the home team. A 6-1 victory to open the new season. After the match, the crowd all wandered back down to the car park with smiles on their faces. It was a very different feeling though from after the final whistle of that opening game last season. That had been a feeling of shock and surprise. This time around, it was satisfaction. Make no mistake, Southern United won’t be a one-season wonder.

Categories: NZ Women's National League

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