Winter 2021, week one

The new men's National League kicked off – and there was nearly a major upset.

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The start of the new men’s National League, in the form of the Northern League and the Central League, made this the perfect weekend to kick things off, while there was also the opening round in the NRFL Women’s Premier Division, which will contribute four teams to the women’s National League, and the second and third rounds in the Mainland and Southern Premier Leagues, which will contribute five and three teams respectively to the men’s Southern League. In other words, there was plenty of football.

New digs

The one match I got to this weekend was the Northern League clash between Auckland United and Eastern Suburbs at Keith Hay Park, where United have recently opened what might just be the best clubrooms in domestic football, at least in terms of facilities. They might be lacking a bit of character (being brand new and all) but they made for quite a different matchday experience in Mt Roskill.

The contest itself was an engaging one, with Suburbs much-changed from their semifinal loss in the old national league two weeks ago, having waved goodbye to the players they had picked up from the Olé Academy, as well as to the Drake brothers, and to age-group international Kingsley Sinclair, who was now with their opponents, and scored the second in a 2-0 win. He joined Jack Duncan and former All White Monty Patterson in a lively front three for United and between that trio and the back four of Reggie Murati, Jo Dawkins, Ross Haviland, and Harshae Raniga, who is also a former All White, it will be quite a turn of events if they don’t make the top four and qualify for the inaugural National League Championship.

New names

The first round of the Northern League brought the first outing for the two ‘new’ Auckland teams in action this winter – Northern Rovers, who were formed when two clubs from the North Shore, Forrest Hill Milford and Glenfield Rovers, came together, and West Coast Rangers, who were formed when Norwest United and Waitakere City came together.

Unfortunately for them, neither team was able to mark the occasion with a win – Rovers went down 2-1 to Birkenhead United in a new-look derby, while Rangers were comprehensively beaten by Western Springs, 5-1. Rovers’ women’s team also had no luck, going down 4-1 to Western Springs under lights on Friday night.

Old faces

The under-20 mandate in the men’s National League has put a lot of focus on the All Whites of the future, but it’s worth noting the All Whites and Football Ferns of the past (and possibly still of the future – you never know) that are playing in it and passing on their experience.

Looking only at the three top-tier leagues, this weekend there was Monty Patterson and Harshae Raniga at Auckland United, Moses Dyer at Manukau United, Aaron Scott at Melville United, and Jason Hicks at West Coast Rangers in the Northern League, as well as Justin Gulley at Wellington Olympic in the Central League, and Liz Savage at Northern Rovers in the NRFL Women’s Premier Division.

Match of the week

North Wellington 3 (Cory Vickers 14’, Tom Scott 32’, Ihaia Delaney 61’) Wellington Olympic 3 (Tor Davenport Petersen 24’, Hamish Watson 84’, Ben Mata 88’). HT: 2-1

Wellington Olympic had marked themselves as the team to beat in the Central League by retaining Jack-Henry Sinclair and Hamish Watson (two of the top 10 male footballers playing in New Zealand) as well as Mario Barcica, Scott Basalaj, Ben Mata, and Alex Palezevic, then adding Justin Gulley, Nati Hailemariam, and Rory McKeown from the Team Wellington ranks as well. All of them except Barcia started in Olympic’s season-opener, even though they would have had precious little time together, given Team Welly’s run to the final old national league final last Sunday.

And they nearly found themselves on the losing end of a boilover, as North Wellington took a 3-1 lead in the 61st minute at Alex Moore Park, thanks to goals from Cory Vickers, Tom Scott, and Ihaia Delaney. North Wellington aren’t a team of mugs – all three goal scorers played in the old national league, at one time or another – and were in with a shot of making a real statement, before Watson and Mata rescued a point and spared the Greeks’ blushes.

Olympic finished third behind Miramar Rangers and Western Suburbs last season and those are the three teams favoured to advance from the Central League to the National League Championship, but on the evidence of this early showing, North Wellington could well be vying to be one of the lucky trio instead.

Player of the week

Seth Karunaratne (Lower Hutt City)

Karunaratne made history earlier this year by becoming the first (and last) player born in the 2005 (the same year I started secondary school, eek) to play in the old national league, for the Wellington Phoenix reserves. He made his Central League debut off the bench for Lower Hutt City (the Phoenix’s partner club) against Western Suburbs (one of the Olé Academy’s two partner clubs) on Sunday and scored a 90th-minute equaliser to give his side a share of the points. Having only just turned 16, Karunaratne (who has an older brother, Noah, alongside him in the Phoenix academy) is certainly one to watch.

Tweet of the week