Eastern Suburbs had never previously made a final in their brief time in the Premiership. They broke through with a young side of predominantly kiwi players last season on their way to the semis but then fell to Auckland City. Since then they’ve gone even deeper on the young kiwi player mentality and have gotten even better in the process. Declan Edge and his Ole Academy lads are in on the journey. Suburbs bossed their way to second on the ladder and it’s no surprise to see them about to take their place in the big finale.
Team Wellington, on the other hand, might have been in four of the last five finals and won two of them but at the same time they’d been sorta plodding along for a lot of this season and had to deal with numerous key players departing midway through. They’d lost two of their opening day starting back three (as well as a midfielder and a striker) and then lost two more to injury before the semi away to undefeated ACFC. Safe to say I anticipated a dogged but humble performance from the TeeDubs, probably going out to a late goal. Ha, mate. Not even close. They went up to Auckland and put the premiers in shackles for ninety minutes to earn their tickets to the main game the hard way. The most rewarding way.
Tell you what else, it gives is one hell of a matchup here too. Auckland City would have been favourites against Suburbs just as they were favourites against Team Welly. They beat both teams twice during the season. After their record points tally, just one draw spoiling a perfect haul, it was always going to be a case of gotta-see-it-to-believe-it when it came to them ever losing. It’s not that they didn’t have their weaknesses, just that they’d continually overcome them.
A lack of consistency in the centre-forward position was one weakness and as talented as Maro Bonsu-Maro is (and will be), he’s also a young lad in his first full season at this level who only made his first Premiership start five weeks earlier. Gotta say there was similar pressure on forwards like Dylan Manickum whose futsal priorities had him in and out of the squad earlier in the season and Omar Guardiola who was a midseason acquisition. Even Fabrizio Tavano, who’d been playing really well until that semi, missed the first half of the season with a carry-over suspension from the winter season. Albert Riera and Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi spent large portions of the season injured. David Browne missed time too. Brian Kaltack was injured. Micah Lea’alafa was away on international duty.
All lots of reasons why individuals might be vulnerable to a poor game. But mostly what happened was that they got stomped by a rampant Team Wellington side who, despite their own changes, still had that inherent belief that they could beat the City Slickers and they played with the experience of having done so in the past. Scott Basalaj, Bill Robertson, Nati Hailemariam, Joel Stevens, and Andy Bevin have all been victorious over City in a grand final (or two) before. They believed they could do it, they played with that complete and unwavering belief, and they got the benefits of that belief as it came to beautiful fruition.
Which now puts them up against a team that they beat twice during the regular season. Eastern Suburbs have only lost four times, every one of those defeats against ACFC or TW. The first of those two games was a televised match at Riverhills in AK in Week Seven. It was a brilliant game of football in which Hamish Watson and Andre De Jong traded goals before a foul from Tim Payne cost Suburbs a penalty in the 23rd min which Watto made no mistake of. This was Hamish Watson in peak early goal-scoring form (he scored all of his eight goals in the first seven games – this penalty was the last of them). Basalaj then made a few top shelf saves and Team Welly hung on for a 2-1 win.
The second time they played was in Week 16, the week that Auckland City booked the minor premiership with a win over the WeeNix coupled with this simultaneous defeat for Eastern Suburbs. Callum McCowatt had scored to put them in front (smack bang in the middle of his ten-game scoring streak which only ended on the weekend against Canterbury in the semis), however in the ten minutes before the break Aaron Clapham set up a goal for Ross Allen and then scored one of his own. Allen added to the madness with a penalty right before the half ended. Suburbs’ potential comeback was then ruined when Tim Payne was sent off early in the second stanza. 3-1 to Team Wellington.
A couple lessons to learn from those two games:
Auckland City just showed us that the regular season means nothing now
Tim Payne had better be a careful boy
The game might just be decided by which goalie has a better game
Callum McCowatt and Aaron Clapham will be crucial
Team Welly can play past the press
There’s enough there for Suburbs to feel that without their own mistakes they could have won both games. Conceding a penalty in each is never ideal. A red card only makes it worse. However it’s also true to say that Team Welly are a tricky matchup for Suburbs. Team Welly’s webbed formation (in terms of how players are distributed around the field with an emphasis on passing options) gives them an ability to pass around the outside of the ES press in a way that no other team can in this league. City’s plan would be to pick their way through but only Team Welly, with their attacking wingbacks, have this specific ability.
We saw this in both games. Suburbs began with more energy and possession but Team Welly were able to largely withstand that and then strike themselves in return. Especially that second game where they scored three times in the back end of the first half. Suburbs have that tendency to them. They come out of the gates playing fast and furious and they tend to score in bulk. But cling on through that drama and they often tire at the end of halves. Second halves are irrelevant because they’re usually up by multiple goals by then and can cruise. Incredibly the semi-final win was their fourteenth win of the campaign and their first by a single-goal margin. First halves? Teams can’t just go hundies for forty-five full minutes plus change, it’s only natural to slow down. That second TW game was the only time it’s actually cost them but it’s a suspicion that you always get from them.
Also, Team Wellington scored five goals against Suburbs in two games. Auckland City scored four in two games. That right there is nine of the 16 total goals they conceded this season. The clean sheet in the semi vs Cantab ticked off the seventh team that ES has kept a clean sheet against this season. They won’t get the chance against ACFC again but they could make it eight teams out of nine in the final.
This is the league’s top defence we’re talking about (which is as much to do with an excellent midfield and attack as with their excellent goalie and defence – football’s a team sport, remember). But it is a tad concerning that they leaked five against this one team. Like, that’s a drastic enough difference to feel like maybe the TeeDubs have cracked the code. While on the other side I suspect that the TeeDubs back three – a shape which only really the WeeNix and sometimes Hamilton Wanderers really share – is kinda well poised to deal with the Suburbs front three man to man.
The other thing with Eastern Suburbs is that most of the Ole lads played in the Western Suburbs vs Birkenhead Chatham Cup final at this very same venue at the end of the winter season. A game which Birkenhead won on penalties despite Wests probably looking like the more fancied team. It’s a trend with young and revolutionary sides that they often aren’t the ones that actually win the trophies. The Netherlands in the 1970s, for example. Then again, there’s also the case that you’ve gotta lose one to win one and that Chatham Cup experience will be huge in bridging the gap between Team Welly’s big game experience and their own.
Team Wellington will likely look a lot like they did in the semi-final, depending on the fitness of Adam Mitchell (I don’t think Liam Wood’s a chance to return yet but who knows). If Mitchell’s good to go then he comes in for Alex Palezevic in the back three and, honestly, they could really use his defensive abilities against the ADJ/McCowatt/Just frontline. There’s so much movement and creativity there, with the way the trio all link together (and with their fullbacks and midfielders) that you really want three specialists. Even Bill Robertson for all his quality is going to be up against it trying to keep up with the pace of what Suburbs have to offer. Structurally I trust the TeeDubs. But in those individual battles… Suburbs tend to get the better of those. Callum McCowatt is the Rightful MVP, after all.
Other than that I doubt anything changes. Angus Kilkolly should start again, to be replaced by Ross Allen for impact in the second half. Joel Stevens scored off the bench in the semi and you can expect to see him if things are tight but Nati Hailemariam’s loping strides are pretty important to the way they want to pressure that Suburbs defence, including Harry Edge at the base of midfield, so probs gonna be the bench for Stevens. Heck of a game-changer to introduce if it gets to that. Harry Edge is going to have to cope with Andy Bevin a lot better than Albert Riera managed too. Also Hailemariam is an Ole chap so it’s mate against mate for him.
One more battle to keep an eye on is Andre De Jong versus Bill Robertson. Another is Tim Payne against any Team Welly attacker. He’s been fantastic again, Timmy has, and his ability to distribute the ball with precision from the back is enormous. But he’s prone to a physical challenge and after the last two games vs these lads he’ll need to be careful. Also keep an eye out on Mario Ilich patrolling that midfield against the likes of Mohamed Awad and Owen Parker-Price. Or Dom Woolridge if he starts. But I kinda expect both these teams to go with their more attacking midfield options. Awad for Suburbs, and Hailemariam for Team Welly with Aaron Clapham in central mid.
Team Wellington lost four of their starters from the Club World Cup in the months afterwards but they’re well set to enter a new era and should have plenty of continuity leading into next season. Eastern Suburbs it’s harder to say that about. The Ole connection could be fragile. A few of those blokes are honestly on the fringes of big things overseas – McCowatt and Just have already tasted the trial circuit before. This might be their one chance in this incarnation and you don’t wanna waste that. In five years’ time we’ll be looking back on how stacked this team was and it’s not just the Ole lads. Andre De Jong. Tim Payne. Kelvin Kalua. Maybe even more fringe guys like Kingsley Sinclair and Campbell Strong. Knowing Danny Hay you can basically lock in an unchanged XI from the semi-final.
All the same, on the back of last week’s performances I think Team Wellington are the favourites heading into this final. The psychological boost of beating Auckland City like that is enormous. Suburbs will get plenty out of having to grind out a result themselves so don’t worry too much if you’re not on the same buzz as me. Either way I doubt there are too many goals. And don’t forget that Callum McCowatt scored the winner in the final last season.
What’s wild is that it’s really all on the line here. Not just the title but also the second Champions League position for next season. Suburbs would have already qualified had ACFC won through but with the fourth-placed TeeDubs making it this far the winner of this game takes it all and the loser can forget about it. I’ll see you there.
Appreciate the domestic footy yarns? Then please consider supporting us on Patreon so we can make a legit living out of all the hard yards and continue to serve up the best stuff possible for you
Also whack an ad whenever you read something worthy and maybe share it with a mate too
Keep cool but care