In the end there was simply no containing them. Eastern Suburbs had been sweeping away any lesser competition all season, dropping just two points against teams outside the top four. It was only their results against the elite that left any doubt about them. Their four defeats all came against Auckland City and Team Wellington and once they snuck past Canterbury United in the semis last week they knew they were gonna be playing one of them. The biggest question of their season: Could they maintain this level of exceptionalism against the very top teams? Up until now they hadn’t been able to. Up until now it hadn’t really mattered.
And when it did… they were immaculate. As swiftly as the eighth minute of the game they carved their way up the left wing with some delightful play from Dalton Wilkins, nothing better than the flick over the top of the defence to find Callum McCowatt, whom he’d linked with to start the move, (and don’t forget a magical one-touch ball from Eli Just), and McCowatt unleashed his shot from a tight angle. It was off target. But it bounced in off of Mario Ilich, catching the far post on the way. Super unlucky from the TeeDubs but it all came from some remarkable build up from three Suburbs players, the oldest of which doesn’t even turn twenty for another two weeks.
The simplest way to judge this game was that if it were going to be an open game then Eastern Suburbs had the advantage. If it was, on the other hand, a tight and cagey matchup… that’d lean towards Team Wellington. It was an open game, at one end anyway, and there was nothing Team Wellington could really do about it. They didn’t play badly at all, in fact some of those counter attacks, a few of those attacking set pieces, plenty of those last-ditch defensive blocks… those are the signs of a team that’s completely in the zone, turning up to play in a grand final. There were elements where they were below their best but nothing cataclysmic. Yet still they were outclassed.
This was Eastern Suburbs at the culmination of all that they’ve been building towards. The front three in particular, who were all outstanding. Callum McCowatt scored the goals and won the plaudits but it was the combinations between the three of them (and chuck in Owen Parker-Price in midfield and Dalton Wilkins at left back too) where they truly stood out. The way that ADJ holds off a defender and chests the ball down to McCowatt as he dashes past, each knowing exactly what the other will do. Or Eli Just cutting back and feeding a ball across himself between two defenders because that’s where ADJ is running. There were countless examples of these little details and there was simply no stopping them on a day like that.
Then you chuck in a goal as utterly breath-taking as McCowatt’s first (to make it 2-0 – just to be clear the first goal was definitely an OG), and what can you do? Like, what was there that Jose Figueira could possibly dream up to change things? The one area where his team did have an advantage was when Joel Stevens, making his first Premiership start for the club since re-signing a few weeks back, was able to attack Wilkins down that wing. Several times he got the better of him however there were no goals on the end of any of them and Stevens, quite surprisingly, was subbed off early in the second half. They needed to change things at the back to get more guys forward, hence a double sub in the 50th min, but sacrificing Stevens when he’d been the best attacking threat in the first half was odd. Not that I think it would’ve made a difference.
And opening things up at the back only let McCowatt and De Jong run into more space on the counter attack. The more the TeeDubs threw forwards, the better Tim Payne and Nando Pijnaker played. Payne was especially brilliant, storming forwards when he could and timing his always exuberant challenges to perfection. The two CBs won header after header when it mattered. Then at the end Andy Withers joined the party with a couple excellent saves.
After McCowatt scored a third on the break (another deflection, to be fair – not that it’s any coincidence that the best player on the park gets the most luck), the only question left was whether there be more than three or would Team Welly perhaps get a consolation. Neither of those things happened. 3-0 to Suburbs was where it ended.
This was such a fascinating tactical battle to preview but the tactical side of things didn’t even matter in the end. Danny Hay spoke of easing off the press to be able to defend with more structure, asking Team Welly to break them down. That was a clever adjustment, sure. But mostly this game was about that extra touch of class that Suburbs had at their disposal. Being able to glide past a challenge, or get on the end of a through ball because it was hit exactly right. Curling one into the top corner. The movement and the anticipation. It was just so impressive.
In five years’ time we’ll look back on this Suburbs team and marvel at how truly stacked it was. This is a group of lads all at the very beginnings of their senior careers and look what they just achieved. They dominated a grand final against a team that’s been there in four of the last five years. A team that toppled Auckland City last week. To demonstrate exactly what I’m saying…
Andrew Withers (GK) – 24 years old
Kelvin Kalua (RB) – 19 years old
Tim Payne (CB) – 25 years old
Nando Pijnaker (CB) – 20 years old
Dalton Wilkins (LB) – 19 years old
Harry Edge (CM) – 25 years old
Dom Woolridge (CM) – 20 years old
Owen Parker-Price (CM) – 20 years old
Elijah Just (FW) – 18 years old
Callum McCowatt (FW) – 19 years old
Andre De Jong (FW) – 22 years old
They just won the national league with six starters still eligible for the U20 World Cup in a few months and one (guts to OPP) only missing out by less than a month. Not a single player aged older than 25… and off the bench came 24 year old Mohamed Awad, 16 year old Campbell Strong, and 26 year old Michael Built.
Eight of those starters (and one of the subs) are from Declan Edge’s crew at Ole Academy, so the core of the team already was already established. But Tim Payne, ADJ, Kalua, Built, and Strong were all with the Suburbs lot last season and I honestly don’t think Danny Hay is getting enough credit for not only getting such success from such young players but for flawlessly combining two pretty distinct sections of his squad like this. The style and flair with which they play is an absolute joy. It was a joy the first time I saw them play in the second week of the season against the Wellington Phoenix and it was a joy in the grand final against the Oceania champs in the ultimate game.
By the way, this result means Eastern Suburbs get the second OCL gig next season at the expense of Team Wellington, who’ll stick together and try quality for the 2019 Club World Cup in a couple weeks but then will have twelve months off from the confederation rep. A bit stink, but somebody’s gotta miss out and Suburbs sure earned it.
Surely there’s no way Callum McCowatt comes back next season. He’s already good enough to be starting for the Wellington Phoenix and if he keeps challenging himself then I don’t see why he can’t try emulate the direction of his Ole buddy Ryan Thomas’ career (injuries aside). Eli Just has already spent some time with PEC Zwolle and must be well placed to find a permanent situation like that. Andre De Jong has a pretty useful CV these days. Parker-Price, Wilkins, and Pijnaker aren’t too far back. None of them will be rushed into less than favourable situations but they’re ready for when the good ones come along. Be very curious to see who hits up the European trial circuit in a month or two.
As for Team Wellington, like I said they didn’t even play that badly. Still, you’ve gotta acknowledge that they’re far from full strength. Mario Barcia, Hamish Watson, Justin Gulley, and Scott Hilliar have all departed for other opportunities in recent times and all four of them would have helped things at North Harbour Stadium. They were up against the smoothest front three in the comp with a mid-season signing who’d been cut by two other franchises in 2018 and a midfielder playing out of position alongside Taylor Schrijvers in the back three. That’s rough, that’s a lot to ask. Made even worse by the injuries that ruled out their intended replacements Adam Mitchell and Liam Wood.
Team Welly had to reshape their team on the fly and they did a pretty excellent job of it, really. It was unfortunate we didn’t get to see Henry Cameron in the final. Also unfortunate that Andy Bevin and Nati Hailemariam weren’t able to have the same impact as they did against ACFC last week. Angus Kilkolly wasn’t able to do it on his own. Jack-Henry Sinclair had his moments but was well covered. Watching Team Welly struggling to maintain a foothold here compared to how beautifully they controlled the game without the ball against Auckland City last week really highlighted how slow City were in that game because Suburbs were devastatingly rapid – check out how much running the front three did for ES, it was crazy. TW had beaten Suburbs twice this season but they never got them in this kind of mood before.
Also it’d be rude to go any further without wishing Aaron Clapham all the best. That knock he took was horrific, one of those scenes you never want to see happen on a football field. Clapham had a lovely season with Team Welly after surprisingly signing a couple weeks into things and going on to cap one of the great recent Premiership careers with a start and a goal at the Club World Cup. But Clapham’s only 32 years old. There’s no reason he can’t have another few years if he wants them – it’d be a blessing to see him keep it up, especially with Team Wellington who proved this season that even if they weren’t able to lift the trophy they are still legitimate superpowers in this league and will continue to be even as players come and go. All power and goodness to Claps, get better soon champ.
The clean sheet here made it eight teams out of nine that Eastern Suburbs have kept scoreless in a game this season. One against every team except for Auckland City. Two against the WeeNix. There were only three games out of twenty in which they conceded more than once (all defeats). Hence the finest defence in the league… and what’s weird about that is they do it without sacrificing anything for that defence. They’re very good in possession and they swamp teams with the high press all of which protects that defence but they don’t sit back with mass numbers to keep those clean sheets. Even at 3-0 in the grand final they had McCowatt and De Jong still holding on halfway for the counter attack. Nothing conservative about that at all.
There’s no other player that I could finish up with other than Callum McCowatt. The rightful MVP of the league. Sorry to Maxime Oliveri but let’s be honest that voting system is an absolute joke. McCowatt missed four games while still overseas but then got better and better as the season progressed. He scored in eleven of his last twelve games including ten in a row leading into the semis. All up he scored 20 goals in 16 games. And just in case you didn’t already realise that he’s a player with incredible determination and belief, he constantly shines in the big moments – scoring in consecutive grand finals. Winning the Steve Sumner Medal in consecutive grand finals. Appreciate the special ones while they’re still in our midst.
Sweet as, I’ve got my teams of the season coming later this week so keep ‘em peeled for that one
If you appreciate the footy yarns on TNC, or any of the yarns for that matter, then know that you can support us on Patreon for the insider access… as well as helping us pay the bills
We rely on the generous support of our readers to exist so if you’re feeling that way inclined then also whack an ad to say cheers for the effort and be sure to tell a mate about The Niche Cache too