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An Enlightening Fixture

Northern Lights 0 – 0 Southern United. Sunday 23rd September, McFetridge Park.

The recently rebranded Northern Lights had to wait a week to kick off their National Women’s League campaign, having been handed the bye in Round 1. That meant they got to watch, and ponder, Southern United’s 6-1 dismantling of Central. And, for many of the Lights players, they watched it with the memories of the Kate Sheppard Cup final still all too clear in their minds.

Northern’s week off and Southern’s first-up performance led to a number of questions, and led us here at ITBOTN to dub this game the match of the round (although I’m sure that we weren’t revolutionaries there). The bye could either help or hinder Northern, with their players insisting the former, but many who’d watched Southern find their form suggesting the latter. We wondered how the mental battle might play out after the Cup final that the majority of both squads took part in. Would Northern be motivated to avenge the result and would they, by now, have learnt to deal with Southern’s tactics? Would Southern’s confidence following the last NWL season and a brilliant winter carry them past a side that looks the best on paper, but has had that said about them before…

Basically, I turned up to McFetridge Park with absolutely no idea what I was about to witness. But there was the best kind of anticipation buzzing around the pitch, on a beautiful blue sky day. It continued to build as NFF played the obligatory songs with light-related titles. McFetridge is always going to be the rival’s fortress in my mind, but it is a cool venue. It’s going to work really nicely for the Lights this year.

The match itself did not yield any goals and ended up as a nil-all draw. It was not, however, a cagey affair at all. I think it’s fair of me to say that Southern can consider themselves lucky to have got back on the plane with a point from this fixture. Although they did not manage to score, Northern dominated this match, and the many questions I listed earlier were, in large part, answered. It might not have had a winner, but this was an enlightening game (I promised Saskia Vosper I’d use a light-related pun, and I keep my word).

First, Northern look formidable. Once they find their shooting form and get (a lot) more clinical in front of goal, they will be a force to be reckoned with. They weren’t even at full strength today, with Jane-in the back of the-(Bar)nett (from forty yards or anywhere else you find her) away and other players returning from injury. Yet they fielded an eleven filled to the brim with age group Ferns and the best of the best in the NRFL.

Second, the demolition of Central may not be entirely indicative of how Southern might fare against the traditionally stronger federations this year. For the first thirty minutes, Southern could barely get out of their half, let alone unleash the scoring barrage they inflicted on Forrest and Central. Faced with an effective Northern press and deprived of possession, they were quiet. Malia Steinmetz seemed to shut down Shontelle Smith and overall, Southern couldn’t play their game. They would come into it more in the second half, but really Northern should have won. The Lights had one goal disallowed for offside, and one cross go agonisingly over Dayna Stevens’ foot, but really weren’t anywhere near as clinical as they will want to be.

Southern’s resilience does bode well for them, and several mercurial runs from Lara Wall reminded the assembled crowd of just what they can do, given sometimes only half a chance. Today’s result also gave them a point in the North Island, something they didn’t achieve last season. Maybe they weren’t at their rampaging best today, but the game didn’t dispel my growing feeling that they’ll be up there again this season. They don’t look at all like a one-season wonder.

I am also optimistic for Northern this season, perhaps especially off the pitch. Another bright spot of my Sunday trip to McFetridge was getting to see the extent to which Northern have stepped up their game. They had a good set-up for streaming on the bank, the bar was serving drinks and food, there was an announcer and the programmes are slick. They also include activities like word searches, part of what seems to be a cool drive for youth engagement from the federation (alongside a colouring competition this week). All of that is really heartening to see, and it’s this kind of thing that can really light up a league -English Park is my Exhibit A. Together with the rebrand, the improvement in the supporter experience made for a good afternoon today. I found myself driving home very much looking forward to the next Lights fixture. Who’d have ever thought I’d be able to think of McFetridge as a home?

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Categories: NZ Women's National League

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Helena Wiseman

A lover of the game since the age of 4. Living and playing for club and school in Auckland and loving every second on the pitch (apart from the end of a losing match).

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