The New Zealand Football Championship season has ended with a familiar name placed in gilded lettering on to the honour board after Waitakere United held off Canterbury United in the title decider. Waitakere claimed a second championship in three years, which along with Auckland City’s four title wins, ensured the continued hegemony of these two clubs across the six-year history of the NZFC.

A 3-1 win for Waitakere against a ten-man Canterbury in the grand final not only ensured more silverware for the Auckland-based club, but guaranteed yet another tilt at the OFC O-League. They will be joined once again by Auckland City, who took the premiership crown after finishing the regular season with a two-point winning margin over Waitakere, who in turn enjoyed an eight-point gap over Team Wellington in third.

Despite winning just a third of their matches, Canterbury edged into the finals in fourth spot, storming into contention on the back of some superb late-season form. A 4-0 win over Waitakere during the regular season and a 3-0 semi-final victory against Auckland, had the south island team on the cusp of glory. Tom Lancaster’s early goal had aroused Canterbury hopes in the championship decider, only for Paul Dirou to be red carded before the interval, allowing the experienced Waitakere to take full advantage with a double from Benjamin Totori and another from Allan Pearce.

Multiple fronts
That the domestic showpiece was sandwiched between the two legs of the OFC O-League final meant Waitakere were fighting on more than one front, much to the concern of player-coach Neil Emblen. “We were apprehensive because we’ve come so far, got ourselves into two finals, but there’s still the chance you could end up with nothing,” Emblen said after the win over Canterbury.

We were apprehensive because we’ve come so far, got ourselves into two finals, but there’s still the chance you could end up with nothing.
Waitakere United player/coach Neil Emblen.

“That fear of failure does scare you a little bit especially at a club like Waitakere that’s been so successful over the past few years. It’s nice to get the first one out the way and now we will start thinking about the Hekari game, how we overturn the lead they’ve got and how we win that competition as well.” Waitakere’s task next weekend will be much harder, with the New Zealanders needing to overturn a 3-0 first-leg deficit if they are to overcome Papua New Guinea’s Hekari United and reach another FIFA Club World Cup.

The NZFC has continued to provide a stage for some of the Pacific’s best footballers to show their wares. None more so than prolific Vanuatu striker Seule Soromon, who was the league’s top-scorer after bagging 11 goals across the 14-match campaign, where he formed an all-South Pacific strikeforce alongside speedy Samoan striker Desmond Fa'aiuaso at YoungHeart Manawatu. However, arguably the most decisive contribution came from Fiji’s Roy Krishna and Solomon Islander Totori, who proved a constant source of inspiration throughout Waitakere’s championship push.

South Africa the target
Although all are semi-professional, several players from the NZFC have pushed their way into contention for New Zealand’s squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. With a clutch of regular All Whites hampered by a lack of football after the Australian A-League season concluded in February, players in the NZFC have come into sharper focus for national team coach Ricki Herbert. New Zealand’s squad for the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup featured a number of NZFC players including Team Wellington duo James Bannatyne and Andy Barron, plus Waitakere central-defender Aaron Scott, and the squad for South Africa 2010 could see a number of locals again rewarded.

Superb domestic and international club form saw uncapped Auckland City pair Jason Hayne and Chad Coombes included in the All Whites squad to face Mexico last month, as were Bannatyne and Barron. Ultimately, only midfielder Coombes made his debut, though with over 90,000 present at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena it was a quantum leap from the humble environs of the domestic arena. The versatile Coombes, who has played at full-back, right midfield and striker, and who impressed at the FIFA Club World Cup last December, will have a last chance to press his claims when a NZFC All Stars side faces the All Whites early next month.

Without a doubt, the biggest surprise in the All Whites squad for that match is Canterbury United’s versatile midfielder Aaron Clapham, who helped last season’s wooden spooners move to just one win short of the championship. Also included was Team Wellington’s impressive 21-year-old midfielder Cole Peverley, plus the evergreen Ivan Vicelich, who plies his trade for Auckland City. Now New Zealand’s most capped international, Vicelich showed his quality during last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup and the South Africa 2010 playoff victory against Bahrain, and proved that playing domestically is not an impediment to competing at the highest level.