People, your patient wait is over. It is time for the second annual Premmy Files Team of the Season. And not just one team either like most jokers (I can imagine NZ Football putting together one which is just the top scorers in every position… hold up I’ll take a pop at this at the end), but three teams ranked in order. First team, second team, and third team. Sorta like how they do it in the NBA because the NBA has all these things on point.
A few ground rules before cracking into this thing. The teams aren’t intended to represent actual football line-ups, this is just a way of acknowledging individual players for their successes, so there’s no thought of tactical shape or balance. However I’ve set things up in a loose 4-3-3 formation to ensure reflective coverage of positions, since most teams seem to like a three-man attacking system or at least a long target man with creative dudes around him. Not really that important. Don’t overthink it. Decisions have been made taking into priority things like contribution to positive results, the good old fashioned eye test, consistency over the entire season if possible... that sorta thing. There are plenty of folks who were brilliant in short stretches but the priority’s gotta go to them that did it from week one to week twenty-one (or as close as it gets).
Yousif Ali of Auckland City is a great example of someone who might have slipped into one of the XIs had he played more often early on (he made nine starts in total and played four more times off the bench). Something tells me next season might be a big one for him. But his buddy David Browne, who only made one more start, gets away with it because he was so bloody sizzlingly good. Similarly it’s hard to go all in on guys like Mario Barcia and Hamish Watson who left midseason from Team Wellington. Fair enough reasons for going and best of luck to them… but I’ve gotta keep it all in context, you know? I’ll explain individual decisions as I go along.
Also in the past when I’ve done Premier League versions of this concept for example, I’ve included managers for each team but I don’t really wanna do that for this lot since it’s too hard to judge them against each other when some have immense depth and resources and others aren’t even getting paid on time. Just doesn’t seem fair. But manager of the year probably has to be Danny Hay because I think we underestimate how hard it is to succeed with such a young team, especially considering he was merging two squads together pretty much. And he did kinda win the title. Ramon Tribulietx would be second for the undefeated campaign and all that. And third can be Paul O’Reilly because Southern snuck in for fifth place, consolidating what they did last time around, and with every other team outside the top four going through drastic shifts in form they were the most consistent of the non-playoff teams by far. Unless you count Hawke’s Bay consistently conceding goals, that is.
GK – Conor Tracey (Canterbury United)
Tricky one here, as there are always a bunch of quality keepers in this competition. Conor Tracey is probably the sketchiest pick in the First XI but I didn’t make that call lightly. Recent years it’s been Enaut Zubikarai and Scott Basalaj holding things down for the GK Union. Those two kept up their usual exploits this season but neither was quite at their best, each missing a few games along the way. There was also Liam Little doing quality things for Southern United and if we’re going by clean sheets then you’ve gotta look towards Andy Withers at Eastern Suburbs. And let’s not forget the big hands of Nick Draper keeping Waitakere United in games they had no right to be kept in.
That’s what I narrowed it down to and there’s an argument for each of them, but for me it became a tussle between Super Zubi and Conor ‘The Panther’ Tracey. Tracey pipped it. Partly that’s because Zubi made a few more mistakes than usual this season, certainly not the flawless legend he was during City’s extended clean sheet streak last time. Funnily enough his backup last season was none other than Conor Tracey, who then moved to Canterbury United for minutes and despite changes all around the show in front of him, Tracey was solid throughout. Great shot stopper who reads the game nicely, always looking the part with his jet black gloves and boots. Started every games this season. A major factor in many of those narrow Cantab wins. And he’s a kiwi lad who doesn’t turn 22 for another week and a bit.
RB – Jack-Henry Sinclair (Team Wellington)
Outstanding season from JHS. Playing in that wing-back role for Team Welly, where he’s capable of bossing things on either side, Sinclair was a master at that inside one-two pass to get forward in space and then his delivery into the penalty area was as good as it gets. Between him, Eric Molloy, and Henry Cameron, there was never any deficiency in crossing at the TeeDubs. Sinclair’s pace and energy was always a threat and he never played better than he did in the semi-final at Kiwitea Street which is the sign of a big game player. Plus, incredibly, he scored six goals along the way. Second top scorer for the team and this from a bloke who is playing in a defensive role (although he tended to be more of a winger with the way Team Welly shape up).
CB – Angel Berlanga (Auckland City)
As classy a central defender as there is in this league. A mainstay at the back for City alongside Mario Bilen or Brian Kaltack or Te Atawhai Hudson-Wihongi, forging a major aspect of their incredible spine. He was rested for the game away to Southern which marked their only dropped points of the regular season. You want a calming presence when you’re building up from defence then here’s your bloke. One of the first name on the list – also one of three lads to crack the first XI in consecutive years of the Premmy Files Best Of.
CB – Tom Schwarz (Canterbury United)
Now this was a tough one. Dropping Tim Payne to the seconds was not an easy decision to make, but a few too many mistakes along the way didn’t help him. Schwarz obviously made the crucial error that led to the Andre De Jong goal that knocked Canterbury out in the semis but other than that the Englishman was, along with his keeper a couple spots above in this team, a rare face of stability for the Dragons defence. Cory Mitchell was his partner for two thirds, then Sean Liddicoat moved to the middle. There were swaps at fullback. Swaps in the midfield. But Schwarz held it all down and even scored three goals along the way. The Dragons had a fantastic season and Schwarz had a heap do with it.
LB – Dalton Wilkins (Eastern Suburbs)
Left backs were a little shallow this season. Henry Cameron was the early favourite but he and Eric Molloy swapped over too many times (and then Joel Stevens started the final over both of them), while it was just too hard to consider youngsters like Jorge Akers or Lachie McIsaac, each of them players I really like, when their wider defensive units were just so trash. There were basically two clear candidates here: Dalton Wilkins and Dan Morgan. Wilkins was the better choice. Defensively each of those two have their weaknesses but the way Wilkins gets forward, linking with those around him, is just a delight to watch. How about that flick over the top for the first goal in the grand final? Mate, he’s been doing it all season.
CM – Mario Ilich (Team Wellington)
His other Mario Brother left midseason, Mario Barcia, which put heaps of pressure on Ilich to hold down that midfield and he was his typically assured self in doing so. Clever rhythmic passing, keeping it all ticking over in that Team Welly midfield. Covers the defence as well and his positioning is as good as it gets. One of those players who is so solid you almost forget that he’s playing. Until he does things like this, at least…
CM – Cam Howieson (Auckland City)
Still controlling that ACFC midfield. Still dishing out passes like a waiter at a fine restaurant. Still leading the way as one of the most technically excellent players in the Premiership. Another one who didn’t play in the one regular season game that City dropped points in, and when you’re the leading midfielder for an undefeated team you’ve earned your way into this one too – although that semi-final defeat sure took the shine off some of it. Howieson is a full international and it’s pretty clear he’s one of the absolute highest candidates to step (back) into the pro ranks, although probably not with the Wellington Phoenix, all things considered. You never know.
CM – David Browne (Auckland City)
If Browne hadn’t copped a horrible facial injury in the second game of the season, causing him to miss several weeks, then it would have been a clear two-horse race for MVP between him and the next fella in the team. A month ago I’d have leaned towards this bloke, now I’m comfortable in leaning on the other one. It doesn’t matter. David Browne scored six goals in 13 games (10 starts) and set up a fair few more. Witness his close control and immense skill and ability to beat a player and you can’t help but get Eden Hazard vibes, especially with that low centre of gravity. Honestly, the PNG international was simply a class above in many games this season. The heart of the ACFC attack and if they’d played through him more in the semi-final then they might have gotten a different result. Returned to ACFC this season after spending time in Holland with PEC Zwolle and FC Groningen, the first Papua New Guinea player to play professional in Europe, and after what he did here it might not be long before he’s back in Europe for another go too.
FW – Callum McCowatt (Eastern Suburbs)
The Rightful MVP. The two-time Steve Sumner Medallist. CMC began the season training with Dutch side Sparta Rotterdam which caused him to miss the first four games of the season. He then started every one of the remaining 16, scoring 20 goals in the process including netting in ten consecutive leading into the semis. That strike rate is mind boggling, for any player to score at such a clip is madness let along a 20 year old kiwi player. The grand final was basically his graduation party. He scored twice and effectively set up the other goal. There was no stopping him, just miles ahead. Gonna go out on a limb and say I doubt he’s back next year because how could he be? After a season like this, and with the U20 World Cup to follow, the sky is the limit (in as much as limitations even exist – limits are just mental barriers).
CF – Sam Mason-Smith (Hawke’s Bay United)
If he hadn’t left early then SMS might just have held off McCowatt for the golden boot. With 16 goals in 16 games, he was so often the only thing holding Hawke’s Bay United together as his copious goals made up for all the ones they conceded coming back the other way. With his strength on the ball and his clever positioning, not to mention top notch ability to finish, Mason-Smith was the best pure striker in the Premiership this season. Facing goal or with his back to it. In the middle or dragged out wide. No dramas at all. A hat-trick against Wellington Phoenix was a particular highlight. He would have played the WeeNix in his final game too had he not left for Aussie, which could have really put McCowatt’s golden boot on notice.
FW – Andre De Jong (Eastern Suburbs)
Is it even possible not to be impressed by ADJ? Each of the last three seasons he’s taken a clear stride forwards in his development to where he’s now a full international and one of the leading players for a championship team. Sure, McCowatt scored the goals in the final. But ADJ’s presence was huge. The combination he has with CMC and Eli Just, the way the trio can anticipate each other’s movement and vision as if they were telepathic, it’s pretty amazing. ADJ has really blossomed as a hold-up striker from his attacking mid origins. Really strong on the ball with a lovely ability to give and go. Decent finisher too with 17 goals in 20 games, including the winner in the semi-final.
GK – Enaut Zubikarai (Auckland City)
Sorta had to be, right? If he missed the coin toss for first then he had to be second. Even a downbuzz Super Zubi is still better than most and in terms of pure ability he remains the top of the Premmy pops. Nobody plays the ball out with their feet better than Zubikarai and his positioning is so flawless he tends to make it all look so easy.
RB – Conor O’Keeffe (Southern United)
He’s basically the Prince of Dunedin at this point. O’Keeffe has famously played just about everywhere for Southern United but usually he’s involved as the league’s most versatile right back. Does his bit getting forward yet is also able to operate as an almost bonus midfielder, such is the bloke’s quality in possession. Plus there’s no getting past him on defence. He missed one start with injury but still came on as the first sub off the bench. He missed one other with suspension. Mr Dependable if ever there was one.
CB – Tim Payne (Eastern Suburbs)
Couldn’t be any lower than this. A few dicey moments throughout the season, thinking specifically of a penalty conceded in one game versus Team Welly and a red card he got in another, generally stemming from his ruthless attitude towards getting stuck in. But he’s also a born leader and an influential figure on the pitch. Not the tallest defender (and a few years ago he wasn’t a defender at all) yet he never seems to have much trouble winning headers and, mate, if there’s a player in the entire league who hits a cross-field long ball cleaner and more accurate than Tim Payne then you’ll have to introduce me. The abiding memory of his season will be him sprinting seventy metres in possession in the 80th minute of the grand final with his team already up 3-0 because no amount of effort is too much effort, only pausing his sprint so he could get his defender to hesitate as he boosted past him again.
CB – Fox Slotemaker (Tasman United)
Very exciting one here, folks. Fox Slotemaker is a 23 year old centre back and a Nelson lad through and through. Did the American college thing, played a bit for Cairns FC over in Oz, now leading the way as Tasman’s top performer this season (credit to Ahmed Othman too, though). A tall defender with a bit of poise about him, Slotemaker’s also pretty useful in the challenge and with the ability to play in defensive midfield he can dish the ball around too. Tasman had a very inconsistent season and it would’ve been much worse without this fella.
LB – Dan Morgan (Auckland City)
He wasn’t first team so he had to be second. Began the season as a winger but then moved back into a reliable role at left back, pushing forwards with purpose and contributing a few goals in the process. Just a proper reliable squad member like any team would love to have. Don’t wanna be standing in the way of that shot either.
CM – Danny Ledwith (Southern United)
Lots of decent midfielders out there for once and it’s taken a heap of consideration to pick the second trio. Probably the most difficult position to judge, especially when it’s already harder to compare midfield performances in the first place. Danny Ledwith didn’t miss a single minute of action until suspension cost him the final game of the season. By then Southern had already locked themselves in to fifth place on the ladder. With such a regular team selection, the Southerners knew their roles inside out and Ledwith is the heartbeat in the middle. Doesn’t mind getting stuck in and his delivery forwards is always excellent. Only surprise is that none of those rockets from range found their way into the top corner.
CM – Gary Ogilvie (Canterbury United)
A familiar face in that Dragons midfield. Ogilvie has a presence. You always know he’s there. The Englishman continued on his usual exploits this season as the Dragons started a little slow but ground out plenty of results and built into a run of eight wins from ten games to finish their regular season as they really hit their straps (not including the abandoned game at the end). Ogilvie’s influence was pretty huge on that. From his leadership in the middle to his flawless penalty taking (helping him on the way to six goals in his 17 games from midfield, no less).
CM – Elijah Just (Eastern Suburbs)
I call him the Assist King for a reason. There’s nobody else could have even gotten close to his numbers, the way he’s able to pick that final pass is an act of sorcery (playing with ADJ and CMC helps too, to be fair). It’s crazy that he’s only 18 years old. Word was that he’s one of the best prospects in the kiwi game and this season very much confirmed that – when his finishing gets on par with his vision he’ll be MVP calibre… although it’s pretty unlikely that these humble shores can hold him much longer.
FW – Andy Bevin (Team Wellington)
There’s a reason that Andy Bevin was named captain of Team Welly after Justin Gulley left. He’s exactly the kind of player that others love playing with. Bevin has that vision to pick a pass which not too many others can see, let alone execute, and regardless of the opposition he’s always going to wriggle his way into space between those lines where he can pull some strings. His performance in the semi-final was absolutely immense – there aren’t too many that can give Albert Riera headaches.
CF – Garbhan Coughlan (Southern United)
Another of the Irish Diaspora doing the goods for Southern, Coughlan took until his fifth game to get off the mark and was never again kept without a goal in consecutive matches. He scored 13 of them all up, playing in all 18 matches. That finishing prowess is something special and his movement gives fits to defenders around him. Plus if you try get physical then he’ll hold you off that way too. A proper complete centre forward, this guy.
FW – Tommy Semmy (Hamilton Wanderers)
Tell you what, if the season ended in December then not only would Tommy have been in the first XI but he’d have probably been MVP. But the Tron Wands faded miserably over the second half of the campaign, only taking one point from their final nine games after taking 16 from their first nine. Tommy Semmy, at his best, is unstoppable. Thinking here of games like the opener against Waitakere, the 3-3 comeback against Canterbury, the 3-1 win over the WeeNix… he had some absolute blinders this season and even over the sorry second half of the season he still continued to score goals. 10 in 17 games and some of those strikes were as good as you’ll see anywhere in the world.
GK – Nick Draper (Waitakere United)
Yeah, yeah. I know. Your favourite didn’t make it and now you’re mad. This could just as easily be Andy Withers or Scott Basalaj, the two grand final glovemen, or even Liam Little, but I’ve gone with this fella instead. English import who was one of a handful of key players who lasted the whole season with Waitakere (along with Sam Burfoot and Oli Bassett) and although his team was mostly rubbish and conceded obscene quantities of goals, Draper was comfortably their best player. Some quality saves along the way which limited the damage long enough for his team to give the ball away again leading to more pressure… hence he’s the only Waitak player here. They had lots of young guys over the second half of the season (and blokes like Alex Connor-McLean, Luke Jorgensen, and Lachie McIsaac who were around from the start) and they’ve all got plenty of promise, yet Drapes was the only one who consistently turned it up. So much so that I’ve forgiven him for being a goalie who went to the season launch where he had to model the outfield kit.
RB – Stafford Dowling (Hamilton Wanderers)
Another of those few Tron Wands who actually kept it up for the whole season. Dowling is a young local winger but was often asked to play as a fullback this season depending on needs and he did both great. Every time he played he got people off their seats with his ability to create things going forwards. Des Buckingham knows what I’m talking about because he picked Staff for his latest U20 training camp. Dowling beats out Jordan Vale as his closest challenger.
CB – Scott Hilliar (Team Wellington)
I know he left near the end but he still started 12 games plus came off the bench a couple other times. The last two seasons, I’d suggest that Hilliar has been TW’s best defender. Dude’s just all class. Reads the game well and wins that ball when it’s there to be won. The TeeDubs defence copped a fair bit of rotation over the campaign and that wasn’t always to their advantage but Hilliar always locked it down. The first two games after he left were the only consecutive defeats of their season. Those games were away to Canterbury and home to Auckland City to be fair… but they beat Suburbs 3-1 in his final game so there’s your retort.
CB – Stephen Last (Southern United)
Southern United were the kings of consistency, with eight different players starting at least 16 games. Chief amongst them were the centre back duo of Stephen Last and Erik Panzer. Last gets the nod ahead of his buddy here because he was that little bit more error-free and he scored a couple goals along the way too. But rest assured he represents them both. Other CBs on the shortlist that missed out were Tino Contratti, the Argentine enforcer at Hamilton, Birhanu Taye, the ever-reliable Hawke’s Bay captain, Taylor Schrijvers, the Team Welly sweeper, and Ronan Wynne, the standout in the WeeNix’s backline. Oh and Nando Pijnaker too.
LB – Sean Liddicoat (Canterbury United)
This one might be cheating slightly because I’m not actually sure if Liddicoat played left back at all this season, however I had his teammate Aaron Spain in here before deciding that Liddicoat deserved it slightly more. As a fullback, he did fine things. Then Dan McHenery came and made the right back spot his own and Liddicoat moved into central defence where he continued to do fine things. The two games he missed were two clunkers from his team, a 3-2 win over the WeeNix in which they had to come from 2-0 down and the 5-1 defeat at home against Suburbs. Versatile and dependable. Tough to beat. There’s an alternate history where he doesn’t go off injured at 0-0 in the semi-final against Eastern Suburbs which would be bloody curious to read.
CM – Adam Thurston (Canterbury United)
Another fantastic English midfielder for the Cantabs. Thurston played for HBU last season, did a pretty good job, then came back to CU and was great. Imagine if that thunderbastard of a shot in the semi-final had gone into that top corner instead of rocketing off the crossbar. That’s what Thurston brought all season, laying it down in the middle whilst also being the guy to push that ball forwards into the attacking third. Special mention to his buddy Seth Clark too, while I’m at it. Wee fella really broke through this season with his magical efforts and another with a shot at that U20 squad.
CM – Owen Parker-Price (Eastern Suburbs)
Couldn’t ignore the Suburbs midfield, who have done such a great job at controlling games this season. Hard to single anyone out when it was such a well-oiled machine there, especially with the guys in in the lines in front and behind them getting most of the individual accolades. Harry Edge was extremely close to this spot. Love the way he anchors that team, winning back possession and distributing it around, however OPP is the one I’ve gone with instead. The most creative of that trio (with Dom Woolridge the other member). The one who brings that punch in getting the ball to the front three. OPP was one of three Ole chaps to sign with Auckland City last season. Callum McCowatt and Dalton Wilkins were the others, with McCowatt really bursting onto the scene. But OPP started the first few games that season and if it weren’t for injury then he might have made the same strides. No worries, those three have been in consecutive Premiership winning squads with two different clubs.
CM – Sam Sutton (Wellington Phoenix)
Last member of the midfield crew is Sam Sutton, captain of the WeeNix and one of their three supreme performers over the course of the season (along with Ronan Wynne and Ben Waine). A pure midfielder who understands the value of space and can move the ball around to manipulate that space. Part of this pick is the context of doing that for the bottom side in the league as well, which tipped him over some bloody top midfielders, the likes of Harry Edge, Tony Whitehead, Brad Whitworth, Karan Mandair, and Sam Burfoot.
FW – Abdullah Al-Kalisy (Southern United)
Everybody knows Southern for their Irish lads and they’re sneakily getting a deserved reputation for bringing through fellas from their youth team too but don’t ignore their kiwi-Iraqi superstar on the wing there. Al-Kalisy, brother of Yousif Ali from ACFC, brought a bit of pace and directness to the way that Southern play. When the team was finding its way in the early stages of the season it was Al-Kalisy bringing the spark that got them going. Only the two goals for Abdullah but you already know he set up a whole bunch more. Southern were at their most potent for that month or so when they had Al-Kalisy and Azaraiah Soromon on the wings with Coughlan through the middle.
CF – Martin Bueno (Hamilton Wanderers)
Who could forget the time that Marty Bueno scored at Porritt Stadium and ran off to give his missus a hug in the crowd in celebration? Bueno was always doing memorable things. Not one to play it casual, the Uruguayan probably upset a few defenders with his antics but he thrilled plenty more fans with some of the stunner goals that he scored along the way. A hatty in the comeback 4-3 win over Waitakere was surely the high point. What an incredible game.
Bueno was a tough call ahead of a couple others. Hamish Watson’s early form was first team calibre but he fell to the bench as it became clear he was leaving for Melbourne (where he has commenced with scoring in buckets again). Longevity matters and with 12 goals Bueno had the better case. Also Stephen Hoyle is usually in or around and with 10 goals and his usual influence it was tough to exclude him. Then there’s my new favourite player Maro Bonsu-Maro, coming off the bench to score crucial goals and working his way into the starting XI for Auckland City for the semi-final. Not quite enough over the entire course of the campaign to edge Marty here but it’s only the beginning for MBM.
FW – Ben Waine (Wellington Phoenix)
Last of the forwards and this was a tricky one if only because of some of the players I had to leave out. No place for NZF’s MVP Maxime Oliveri at all, poor fella. Still can’t believe he won that thing, to be honest. Very good player but come on. Also had to skip out on my boy Ahmed Othman despite his carrying that Tasman attack at times. Super player who might well have cracked this team with more support around him (top of the Tasman wishlist is a centre-forward next season). Pity Micah Lea’alafa couldn’t get more games in either. ACFC missed him bad in the semi. And also Oliver Bassett was a regular standout for Waitakere and not just because of the ginger cuts.
But Ben Waine, mate, how good!? He started the season training with the top team and making his senior debut in the FFA Cup. He was then the Nix’s best attacking weapon all season, only missing one game because he was called up to the A-League side (and he made his debut off the bench last game). As the WeeNix struggled for consistency, Waine was one bloke they never had to worry about. Scoring eight goals for the bottom team is something decent, alright. Best indication: the WeeNix had five positive results and Waine scored in four of those games, only failing to do so in the season finale because he didn’t play. Big things coming from Benjamin Waine.
(The NZ Football Sponsored Best XI Which Is Really Only The Top Scorers In Each Position:
GK – Umm… Garbhan Coughlan? / RB – Jack-Henry Sinclair / CB – Mario Ilich / CB – Tom Schwarz / LB – Dan Morgan / CM – Gary Ogilvie / CM – Elijah Just / CM – David Browne / FW – Callum McCowatt / FW – Andre De Jong / FW – Sam Mason-Smith)
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