The stage could hardly have been more perfectly set for today’s National Women’s League Grand Final. Trusts’ Stadium’s pohutukawa-lined pitch looked flawless and Auckland produced one of its best December days. Most importantly, the two sides in the final were so evenly-matched that no one could predict what was about to unfold, as the Canterbury Pride and Northern Lights (two sides with a large number of Ferns and their own identities) settled in to their pursuit of the title.
It was the home side that struck first, through Jane Barnett in the sixth minute. The Pride’s defence failed to deal with a bouncing ball in the 18-yard box. Barnett didn’t need a second invitation to waltz through and clinically side-foot the ball home, past Victoria Esson who could do little to stop the strike. Even as the Lights wheeled away in celebration, though, you got the sense that despite their fast start, this was not going to be a simple march to victory for Northern.
Maybe the goal was a wake-up call for the Pride. Annalie Longo, aka Flea, then did what she was probably always going to do: took control. The midfield was hers to run and roam through, and as the Pride climbed into the ascendency they also took the lead a mere ten minutes after falling behind. This goal, too, was in part the result of some shaky defensive work. Vosper failed to effectively clear and eventually the ball wound up at Longo’s feet, with time and space. Time, space, Longo in the box: death, taxes, goal for the Pride.
The next 15 minutes were dotted with chances, but largely belonged to the Pride who got their second goal, through Annalie Longo again, on the half-hour mark. Again, Northern’s downfall was partly of their own making. Leat’s attempt to play out from the back was intercepted by the ever-dangerous Rennie. The Young Ferns winger, fresh from terrorising fullbacks at the U17 World Cup, picked out her captain. Longo took two touches and made no mistake.
It was a see-sawing grand final from the outset and it continued in that vein. The last 10 minutes before the break were all Northern, and like the Pride had done, the Lights capitalised. Barnett swung in a well-placed corner, which the Northern captain Claudia Bunge headed home to level the scores.
In the second-half it seemed like the heat took a toll and although Northern had a goal disallowed for offside late on, extra time threatened, then came. Northern were actually enjoying some dominance in the first period, but it was the Pride who went up the other end and scored. Rennie used her pace to beat her Young Ferns teammate Mackay-Wright and find Barker all alone in the middle. The Pride were 3-2 up, and that’s how it stayed.
As the Lights dropped to their haunches in disappointment, the Pride sprinted together in celebration. Like Enzo wisely said on the podcast this week, the side from Canterbury will not care that they failed to secure the minor premiership. This was a special final, as the first to conclude a double-round league. The Pride have been the most professional and consistent team in the last few seasons, and in a year that most emphasised consistency, there is some poetry in the Pride lifting the trophy.
However, when the immediate emotion of a Grand Final fades, all that was special about this game and the league will remain. Today’s match was the meeting of two leading female coaches and displayed some of our best talent, of our present and future. A handful of footballers who now own World Cup bronze medals took to the pitch. And that, to me, is one of the best elements of the National Women’s League: the final was a reminder of just how lucky we are to have a league that puts Football Ferns on our suburban pitches week in, week out, representing our federations.
Categories: NZ Women's National League
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).