The New Zealand domestic season once again came down to a contest between Auckland City and Waitakere United. The pair had won all six previous championships since the national league was restructured in 2005. This time Waitakere, from the western suburbs of Auckland, prevailed over their city rivals in a drama-charged grand final for their third title.
Waitakere reigned supreme over the course of the regular season winning the league by six points ahead of Auckland – a significant margin in a 14-round competition – losing just twice. However the championship decider was in keeping with the pair’s historic competiveness and it took a last-minute own goal to separate the teams at the end of a five-goal thriller.
Jostle for top four berth
Waitakere commenced their season with an impressive 2-0 home victory over Team Wellington, one of their likely challengers for the crown. The West Aucklanders were never headed after that, winning ten straight before Auckland finally knocked them over. The margin was always too much for the chasing pack, although Waitakere endured some late season wobbles also losing at home to Hawke’s Bay United.
Auckland remained in second but well clear of the rest of the field where a battle royale ensured for the two remaining finals berths. Ultimately regular finals participants Team Wellington finished third, with Canterbury United displacing Hawke’s Bay for the fourth and final berth.
Canterbury edged into the last four with an unlikely late win at Auckland City with a now famous goal from Ken Yamamoto. The result was a triumph of spirit for the team from Christchurch; a city which just weeks earlier had been hit by the devastating earthquake. Propping up the ladder were YoungHeart Manawatu with the Palmerston North-based club setting a new all-time lowest season tally of four points, beating Hawke’s Bay old record of five points set back in 2005/06 season.
Elite do battle
The Auckland duo confirmed their superiority in the finals routing their opponents with heavy aggregate scorelines. Waitakere defeated Canterbury 6-3 on aggregate, while Auckland overwhelmed Team Wellington 7-1. Despite the goal feast, it was arguably Auckland who started the final as favourites with Waitakere having suffered some late season hiccups, as well as losing their semi-final second leg against Canterbury.
Waitakere teenager Dakota Lucas proved one of the heroes in a dramatic finale to the season, scoring a first-half double. The league’s leading goalscorer, Allan Pearce, who had scored in all three previous grand finals for Waitakere, was kept largely quiet throughout. An Aaron Scott own goal, and then a Manel Exposito strike, saw things all square early in the second stanza before a pivotal moment in the match. Highly regarded Spaniard Esposito directed a 62nd minute penalty against the base of the post as Auckland missed the opportunity to take the lead for the first time. With extra time looming, Lucas saw his cross take a massive deflection off defender James Pritchett and loop onto Jacob Spoonley’s net for a 3-2 scoreline in favour of the home side.
Auckland heartbreak was Waitakere’s joy and perhaps just reward after finishing the regular season well clear at the top of the standings. It was also a fitting ending for 39-year-old Waitakere player/coach Neil Emblen, who only started the match after a spate of injuries, with the Englishman confirming his retirement while clutching a winners’ medal.
Auckland City will be able to earn redemption next weekend when they take on Amicale of Vanuatu in the second leg of the OFC O-League final. Victory for Auckland, who lead the tie 2-1 on aggregate, means qualification for the FIFA Club World Cup, where they achieved two famous wins at their last appearance in 2009.