The wait is over. The 2019-20 ISPS Handa Premiership is underway. Can’t you hear that gentle dripping of perspiration on a rock-hard dirt surface? Summer football is here, baby.
We began in slightly inglorious circumstances as Waitakere United hosted the Wellington Phoenix reserves in the first game to kick off. This was at Seddon Fields in Auckland – the Waitaks really making use of that Western Springs connection. I say these were inglorious circumstances because these were the two bottom teams last season... but plenty has changed since then (which has kinda been the theme of every Premmy preview). Waitakere promised a young and exciting squad this season and with names like Dane Schnell, Robert Tipelu, Zac Zorocich, and Lachlan McIsaac in amongst the starters they weren’t lying either.
Yet it was the WeeNix who took a stunning early lead as their captain Sam Sutton popped a direct free kick in off the crossbar. This was a strong WeeNix side too, with three starters on senior contracts: defender Liam McGing, midfielder Cam Devlin, and winger Callan Elliot (who of course was a regular last season too). They also started new acquisition from Tasman United Ahmed Othman on the opposite wing to Elliot while between them at CF was Adam Hewson, the top scorer for Southern United’s NYL Squad last year before signing with the WeeNix mid-Premmy season.
So in many ways this was an ideal game for both teams, as the youngest team in the league face what’s probably the second youngest team in the league. Waitakere went close to getting back in it through Alex Connor-McClean, as both teams traded corner kicks for a while. Sure enough it was another set piece that provided the next goal. Nic Zambrano took it quickly and picked out the run of Dane Schnell and the OlyWhites midfielder put it past Zac Jones to level it up. Then it was Lachie McIsaac’s time to shine. Late in the first half he put his body on the line to clear the ball off the line and then just a few minutes later he was making it 2-1 at the other end after keeper Nick Draper had picked him out with a long ball.
Similar yarns in the second half where each keeper had their opportunities to catch a tan in the spotlight. This was definitely a game that was in the balance for a long time, the WeeNix were far from overrun which is a decent positive for a team that doesn’t tend to start particularly fast (being a youth team with a fresh batch of players each time and all). But the biscuits went to Waitakere United here as Jake Porter came off the bench and wrapped it up late on, 3-1 to the Waitaks was how it finished. A first up win for Paul Hobson’s lads and a lovely morale booster ahead of their trip to Tasman next week.
Speaking of Tassie, they were away to Southern United on the new turf at Logan Park in Dunedin. The new mayor was there to unveil the pitch and everything along with special guest and FIFA rep Juan Pablo Angel. Tasman rolled in seeking to spoil the party with a pretty attacking looking lineup, getting Facundo Barbero and Jean Philippe Saiko up front flanked by Labu Pan and Jama Boss with Matt Tod-Smith pushing through midfield... yeah that’s a team that’ll score some goals.
But not here they wouldn’t. Despite having a decent amount of the footy, it always sorta seemed like Southern were in control of this one and it only took a little over quarter of an hour before a short corner wraparound was curled in on the angle by Joel Stevens and headed home by Stephen Last. The high hopes for SU this season already getting some vindication.
Southern’s secret to success is the consistency they’ve been able to have under Paul O’Reilly, with the same core of high quality imports all returning year after year aided by some local favourites. This Southern team had seven starters who were all regulars last season, several of them for a year or two beyond that too. Canterbury United were the only other team with a centreback combo that was also first choice last time. That consistency matters. Especially with so much inconsistency everywhere else.
Yeah but it’s that signing of Joel Stevens that really pushes them beyond the fifth placed team of the last two seasons to where they’re realistically in the hunt for the top four. Stevens had a magnificent first game. Playing in the stonking heat, any stoppage became an opportunity for Crucial Hydration and after one such instance about half an hour in, Garbhan Coughlan made a quick move across the Tassie backline to get on the end of a sudden restart from a deep free kick and his cross picked out Stevens perfectly for 2-0. Oh but we weren’t done there. The heat was a big factor late in both halves so the early moments of the second stanza were going to be massive... well, five minutes into it, Abdullah Al-Kalisy stormed forward with the ball and fed a smart one through to Joel Stevens whose first touch beat the last defender and his next one put it smoothly past the keeper. Southern then polished it off with half an hour to spare as Garbhan Coughlan scored a similar one to Stevens’ second after the locals had won the ball in midfield.
4-0 was the way it finished, which wasn’t really a fair reflection for Tasman. Fox Slotemaker hit the post with one shot and Liam Little had to make a couple tough saves in goal for Southern. But Taz conceded early in both halves and that made it too tough for team searching for combinations away from home in the heat. They’ll have better opportunities to show what they can do... starting with that Waitak game next week in Nelson.
Nah, this one was all about what Southern achieved. Paul O’Reilly reckoned it was the first time he’s won his opening game with Southern. It was also only the third time one of his teams have scored four in a game. Add in that they only kept two clean sheets in all of last term and this could not have been a better way to kick it all off. Next week there’s a very tasty derby game against another South Island team as they visit Canterbury United, one of their main rivals for that top four. Big ramifications on that one already.
And then of course Auckland City beat Hawke’s Bay United down in Napier. That result wasn’t a surprise at all... but the manner of it might have been because while HBU didn’t get anything tangible to show for their efforts they sure came bloody close.
Despite being without their manager Jose Figueira (Ivan Vicelich holding fort) and also missing the injured David Browne, Auckland City wasted no time in shooting out to a 2-0 lead after twenty minutes. Myer Bevan scored both of them. But HBU pulled one back thanks to a wonderful free kick from Gavin Hoy and if they could have held on until the break down by one then it would have really been all on. Instead Myer Bevan completed his hatty in stoppage time and ACFC had that two-goal buffer restored.
Hell of a way for Bevan to get it all underway. He’s a guy who’s had a lot of words dedicated in his direction and this is a bit of a pivotal season for him. A hat-trick in week one... mate, too good. Let’s not forget that he scored 12 goals in five games at the Oceania Olympic qualifiers a month ago too. Someone ask the dude if he found some magic boots in the attic or something... or maybe it’s like Michael’s Secret Stuff in Space Jam. Myer’s Secret Stuff. Whatever it is, it’s working.
You know what though? Hawke’s Bay didn’t cower. They threw more fellas forward in the second half and pulled one back midway through the second when teenager Jack Parker scored off the bench with his first touch of the ball. Youngblood’s studying for exams right now and he still found time to, you know, score on debut in the National League. RIP that Excellence Endorsement. Chris Greatholder and Bill Robertson have made a concerted effort to spark up the Hawke’s Bay flavour in this squad and having a school-age local fella, fresh off cracking the Team of the Tournament at the Napier U19s nationals (the first HB local to do so for several years)... this is what that local flavour is supposed to look like. Kaeden Atkins was another young fella given a prominent role here. Same deal with Ihaia Delaney (who Parker subbed in for) and Karan Mandair.
Hawke’s Bay weren’t able to get a third to tie it up but they did shut City out in the second half and there’s plenty they can build off from here. But ACFC should be chuffed enough with this too. Logan Rogerson was sharp. Jordan Vale set up the first goal. Both Adam Mitchell and Mario Ilich got ninety minutes after signing from Team Welly. And they did so with their manager in another country. Oh and just in case you thought that City’s squad wasn’t formidable enough already, they just announced that they’ve signed Clayton Lewis after his release from Scunthorpe United. Lewis, Rogerson, and Bevan. That is a triumvirate of kiwi U23 talent, all of whom were dominant at the Olympic qualifiers recently. God have mercy on the souls of their opponents.
(Although pretty sure he has to do that whole 30-day stand-down period before he can regain his amateur status, which would mean missing the next two or maybe three games – so there is a brief reprieve).
Team Wellington also had a statement win. At home against Hamilton Wanderers they scored twice in the first half hour and led the rest of the way. Hamish Watson tapped in from an Andy Bevin pass and then, with Bevin having already hit the inside of the post himself, new signing Ollie Bassett scored from a deflection to confirm the TeeDubs dominance.
Derek Tieku bagged a screamer to make it 2-1 going into the break which gave the Tron Wands something to work with. They were without a few of their sexy signings, with the likes of Brock Messenger and Rodrigo Santana Morais not there, however they did have German fella Thilo Wilke getting a debut and Jake Butler wore the captain’s armband. However guts to HW NYL grad Quest Tipping who had to be subbed off late in the first half with injury.
They had a great chance to level it up early in the second half but Scott Basalaj made the save at his back post... and then Hamish Watson buried another striker’s goal and Watto went on to set up Andy Bevin to make it 4-1 and the life went out of this one as a contest. Angus Kilkolly scored off the bench at the end for a 5-1 Team Wellington win. Really not the way Ricki Herbert will have planned it, but rookie coach Scott Hales was loving it. There’s a different look to this TeeDubs side, particularly at the back, but nobody should be shocked to see the familiar faces of Hamish Watson and Andy Bevin leading the way for them. They do it every other year so might as well.
A couple lineup notes for Team Welly, their squad is a bit of a mix of the last era and the new era. Imports Rory McKeown, Stevan Markovic, and Ollie Bassett all started which made for a bit more of a cosmopolitan feel than normal however they did also welcome back Justin Gulley, Mario Barcia, and Hamish Watson after that trio all departed for various opportunities elsewhere last season.
Which means that while there’s been heaps of chat about Eastern Suburbs’ lack of continuity from the grand final, Team Welly also only had three players starting both that game and this game. With Bill Robertson, Mario Ilich, Aaron Clapham, and Joel Stevens all starting for respective rival clubs that means there were more of Team Welly’s grand final XI playing elsewhere than there was playing for the TeeDubs. Of course that’s misleading though - Watto, Barcia, and Gulls know this club inside out and have been fan favourites for ages. And sweet as to see Ollie Whyte coming straight in to start. He’s spent a year at Rio Ave in Portugal since leaving the Phoenix system and if his glimpses at for the U23s are anything to go by he’s added some proper fizz to his game during his time in Cristianoland.
And finally it was the telly game as Eastern Suburbs hosted Canterbury United. A rematch of last season’s semi-final and the scoreline was exactly the same. It was about the only thing that was the same too. Tony Readings is in charge at Suburbs now and Kelvin Kalua was the only remaining starter from the grand final. Plus they even got to play at their actual home ground of Madills Farm, which was looking a peach in that hot spring sun... except for the pitch itself which looked like it had been blowtorched. Council groundsmen, aye?
Actually there is a little more continuity than it initially seems from Suburbs. Michael Built and Mohamed Awad were regulars last season while Adam Thomas was in and around the squad. Thommo is captain now and was running the show in midfield with his lanky limbs, reminiscent of the great job Harry Edge and his own lanky limbs did in the same role last time. Stephen Hoyle was injured for ES, unable to play against his old team, but they still had a formidable front three of Awad, Martin Bueno, and Jake Mechell.
The first two are proven Premmy heroes from last season and sure enough they were at the heart of a lot of what Suburbs mustered here – Awad especially who really deserved a goal or two but having been the best on the park for long stretches he just couldn’t quite get his finishing in line with the rest of his game, including rocking the underside of the crossbar. But how about the wildcard there in Jake Mechell? 20 years old, hailing from the Waikato region but having played a handful of games for Waitakere last season, he’s a big fella with, dare I say it, a bit of that Chris Wood body shape about him – a tough guy image that was boosted when he spent a chunk of the game playing with a bloody tissue up his nose. And he can do the business too. Guess who scored the winning goal?
That goal didn’t come until the 63rd minute and it was no less than Suburbs deserved. It was clearly an early season game with both sides still working on those combinations but Suburbs did have a little more flash to them up front. As captain Thommo said afterwards, it might be a new manager and a new squad but they’re trying to play a similar style of fluid attacking football and there were hints here of what that could look like. They also got solid showings from left back Dylan De Jong and midfielder Reid Drake – DDJ was the major factor in creating that winning goal as he jinked up the sideline and whipped in for Mechell’s diving header.
As for the Cantabs, they hung in there and despite not creating a whole lot else a flicked header from a corner near the end from Dan Schwarz nearly snatched a point. The Dragons haven’t been able to replace some of their key departures, Stephen Hoyle the main one there, but they shouldn’t fall off a cliff all of a sudden. Sean Liddicoat and Tom Schwarz are holding it down at CB and Danny Knight had a decent game in goal and at the very least they’re going to be tough for anyone to break down.
Aaron Clapham did some things too, though you do wonder if there won’t be a lot of pressure on him as the main source of creativity. Gotta wait and see how they go against Southern next week before casting even premature judgements though. George King is an English fella who’s been around a couple years and might have a new lease on life playing up front in a strike duo while Calum Ferguson is a Scottish-born Canadian import, presumably hooked up by old mate Stevie Hoyle who he played with at Valour FC (Canadian Premier League) earlier in the year. HBU’s Dylan Sacramento also came from that club so Stevie’s been spreading the Premmy gospel like a champion. A Missionary of the Premiership. Ferguson did score the winner in a 2-1 preseason win over Southern so there you go.
Interestingly no teams drew this week. Also interesting that only two teams were kept scoreless, with four of the five games featuring at least four goal. Somehow I suspect that goal scoring pace won’t continue into next week though, which will be headlined by Auckland City versus Team Wellington on Sunday for the Sky TV game. Canterbury United versus Southern United will also be a belter, while the two teams that lost big this week, Tasman and Hamilton Wands, are both at home - Tassie host Waitakere in a game that should tell us a lot about where each team is at while the Tron Wands welcome Eastern Suburbs for the Martin Bueno Cup. The Phoenix Reserves host Hawke’s Bay in the other match.
This week feels like the predictable winners all triumphed. Next week serves up five games that are going to be a lot harder to predict. Hey, we might even get a draw in one of them!
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