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Keeping up with the Cantabrians

Southern United 0
Canterbury United 1
Tahuna Park, Sunday 16 December 2018
ISPS Handa Premiership Match Week 10

Otago vs Canterbury. It might not be Rangers vs Celtic, but it’s a big local rivalry nonetheless. Whether it’s rugby or football, netball or cricket, there’s always an extra incentive to win against our mainland neighbours.

The rivalry has been a little one-sided in recent years in the ISPS Handa Premiership though. Southern has won just two of the last fourteen matches between the two sides, and only one of the last eight encounters.

I was fortunate enough to have been in attendance for that most recent of wins, almost two years ago now – Eric Molloy inspiring Southern United to fight back from a halftime deficit to shock the Cantabrians 3-1 on their own English Park turf for a memorable victory.

Incredibly, there hasn’t been a single draw in the last 24 match-ups between the two teams.

Today’s fixture was meant to have been played at the Caledonian Ground; a recent Athletics event though had left that pitch pock-marked and simply unsuitable for football. Par for the course sadly.  On this occasion, it was the grand old Tahuna Park that would step up to save the day.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Tahuna Park. It has a tremendous amount of history dating back more than a century; the ground has hosted everything from elaborate speedway to horse racing to A & P Shows. In 1905 it hosted the first ever rugby match between the All Blacks and Australia on New Zealand soil. Funnily enough, that match was originally scheduled for the Caledonian (the original site in South Dunedin), but flooding saw a last-minute change to Tahuna Park. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the ground probably haven’t changed as much as they should have over the last 113 years. While the grandstand is quite serviceable, the general facilities for the playing squads and officials simply aren’t up to scratch.

The playing surface can be rock hard, barren, and brown one week; and then sodden, patchy, and overgrown the next. Credit where it’s due though, for today’s match it was in probably as a good a condition as I’ve ever seen it. If you could ignore the surprisingly icy Pacific breeze drifting across the pitch, Tahuna Park really was looking a picture with the summer sun beaming down.

Tahuna Park

Today’s Premiership match definitely won’t go down as a classic, although it still had its share of drama. Early on, there was a certain bite to the match – Southern midfielder Danny Ledwith was booked for a crunching challenge inside the opening minute, and a number of tackles from both teams could (and probably should) have received similar punishment.

Southern probably edged the opening 20 minutes, creating a couple of good chances; firstly striker Garbhan Coughlan was sent through by Abdulla Al-Khalisy to be one-on-one with goalkeeper Conor Tracey, and soon afterwards defender Markus Fjortoft had a shot from close range; on both occasions, the Canterbury custodian pulled off stunning saves. He made another couple of impressive stops later in the half on his way to ensuring a clean sheet for the visitors.

Tracey has an interesting background, having had a spell at Queens Park Rangers as a teenager, and having been part of the Auckland City setup for a while, primarily in the National Youth League. Still only 21 years old, he’s jumped at the chance of a national league starting spot for the Dragons, and judging by today’s performance he’s surely one to watch over the coming years.

At the other end of the pitch, the home team’s keeper Liam Little hadn’t had a lot to do; that was until the 23rd minute, when Canterbury’s Adam Thurston was sent through on goal. Little raced out to the edge of his penalty area and cleared the ball – before the referee’s whistle blew, and Anthony Riley had flashed a red card. Little had been adjudged to have hand-balled outside his area, and the decision caused immediate debate among the crowd.

A number of people much better placed than me were adamant that the goalkeeper hadn’t left his area; they might be more one-eyed than me, but either way a sending off seemed harsh for an incident with such a tiny margin of error. The referee had made up his mind though, and seemingly was left with little choice once he had decided the keeper had left his area. To Little’s credit, he didn’t make a scene as he was forced to leave the field.

Unsurprisingly, the match immediately became a more dull affair. Al-Khalisy drew the short straw and was subbed off to be replaced by young Stewart Catto, the goalkeeper coming off the bench to make his first national league appearance. Southern predictably decided to tighten up, moving from their fluid 4-3-3 into the compact 4-4-1 structure typical of sides reduced to 10-men.

Catto was soon involved, pulling off a fine save to deny Sean Liddicoat’s powerful long-range effort. The rangy keeper looked remarkably settled throughout the match, tallying up a number of excellent saves and, much like Tracey at the other end, often racing out bravely at the feet of oncoming attackers.

Catto was, however, left with no chance in the 37th minute. Canterbury broke in behind the Southern defence and Maksym Kowal cut the ball back for Stephen Hoyle to expertly place the ball into the corner to put the visitors in front.

Much of the remainder of the match resembled one of those boxing matches where neither fighter wants to take the ascendancy at the risk of being dealt a vicious blow themselves; 10-man Southern United understandably cautious about over-committing, while Canterbury United seemed quite comfortable with sitting on their one-goal cushion.

The intensity lifted towards the end. Southern United boxed away, and had a couple of late penalty shouts waved away. Both the head coach and his assistant picked up yellow cards late on as frustration grew at a perceived inconsistency in the decision-making.

Truth be told, while Southern had kept themselves in the match right up to the final whistle, they had barely tested Tracey in the second half. The Dragons had a couple of good chances to kill the game off but couldn’t find their way past a defiant Catto.

Final score 1-0 to Canterbury United; an identical scoreline to the opening round fixture between the two teams in Christchurch. Another win notched up for the neighbours to the north; perhaps 2019 will see Southern United start to even up that ledger.

Categories: NZ Men's National League

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