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Grand Final 2011
Absorbing Grand Final Settled In Cruellest Manner
by Jeremy Ruane
An own goal two minutes into stoppage time from luckless Auckland City fullback James Pritchett handed arch-rivals Waitakere United back-to-back ASB Premiership Grand Final triumphs at Douglas Field on 10 April, the reigning champions prevailing 3-2 after an absorbing ninety minute affair between two well-matched teams.

It took a goal to spring the game into life, and thankfully it came early - after ten minutes, in fact, at which point Angel Berlanga’s woefully under-hit back-pass was pounced upon by Dakota Lucas, who rounded the stranded figure of Jacob Spoonley and gleefully stroked home into an empty net to put United ahead, despite the best efforts of the retreating City captain, Ivan Vicelich, to deny them the pleasure.

The goal clearly rattled Auckland’s resolve, and Waitakere weren’t slow to take advantage. They piled on the pressure, with Ryan de Vries leading the charge four minutes later.

He played in Lucas, who worked a one-two with Tim Payne before, as Ian Hogg clattered him from behind, slipping a pass to Allan Pearce. The Golden Boot winner executed a shot more suited to another code on this occasion.

Two minutes more had elapsed when Waitakere forced a corner, which the well-performed Martin Bullock delivered onto the head of United’s player-coach, Neil Emblen.

His bullet header was blocked by Pritchett, off whom the ball rebounded to Jason Rowley. From eight yards, he let fly with a ferocious volley which cannoned off the crossbar to safety.

City were on the ropes at this point, and only a timely tackle by Berlanga thwarted Payne in the act of shooting in the 22nd minute, after a buccaneering run from Bullock saw him travel unchallenged deep into City territory before he pivoted and played a splendidly angled ball in behind Auckland’s defence for his young team-mate to capitalise upon. But for Berlanga’s redemptory challenge, It would have been 2-0.

Instead, it was 1-1 five minutes later. After Tim Myers had stepped in to thwart City’s first raid - Albert Riera, Manel Exposito and Hogg combined neatly down the left, the OFC Champions League Grand Finalists levelled the scores in bizarre fashion.

Jacob Spoonley played the ball out to Berlanga, who fed it up the line to Exposito. His deft touch allowed the overlapping Hogg to gallop towards the by-line, from where he whipped in an angled cross.

The ball ricocheted off the retreating figure of Aaron Scott and flew in between the wrong-footed Andy Ralph and his near post to leave the frustrated fullback looking at the heavens - an own goal his offence, "Why me?" his plea.

Straight away, United sought to restore their early advantage, de Vries, Payne and Bullock combining for Pearce to unleash a fierce cross-shot which Spoonley pawed to safety.

City’s ‘keeper was in action again on the half-hour, saving an early shot from Lucas after the scorer had mounted a solo raid upon Auckland’s fast-retreating rearguard, Jake Butler having broken down a City
attack half-way inside Waitakere’s half.

Waitakere’s next attack of consequence, seven minutes before half-time, saw them restore their lead, although it came about in controversial circumstances. Referee Peter O’Leary was almost blowing his whistle before Dickinson and Scott came together in a shoulder-to-shoulder challenge as both fought for the ball, and while City debated the decision, Scott got on with matters, and fired a quickly taken free-kick downfield.

Lucas was quickest to react to the set-piece, and within seconds had forced Spoonley to produce a parried save which denied his first header. Lucas quickly latched onto the rebound, and as Vicelich again beat a hasty retreat towards the untended goal, headed the ball over the defender and into the net to put United in front once more.

2-1 is how the scoreline remained until half-time, but after Lucas and Pearce had linked to good effect on the right - the latter’s driven cross only needed a touch as it flashed across the face of goal, City drew level in comical fashion in the 49th minute.

Exposito had given up his pursuit of Daniel Koprivcic’s over-hit through ball when Ralph, who could so easily have gathered the ball in the customary manner, had a rush of blood to the head and booted the sphere straight at Emblen.

The ball cannoned off the stunned defender and back towards the gaping goal, Exposito not alone in his disbelief at what had just unfolded. Like any good striker, he followed in to make sure, and ensured it was his name which went on the scoresheet and not that of the retiring Waitakere player-coach, whose last game this was.

Now it was Waitakere’s turn to be rattled, Ralph particularly - he was suddenly playing with all the confidence one would associate with someone who had bought the winning Powerball ticket, only to have gifted it to a complete stranger prior to the draw.

City looked to exploit their rivals’ nervousness, not that Auckland were playing anywhere near their best themselves. Berlanga burst forward, only to see his pass blocked by Butler. The rebound fell perfectly for Exposito, who unleashed a curling twenty yarder which beat Ralph all ends up, only to cannon back off the post in the 57th minute.

Sixty seconds later, Berlanga was still in the vicinity of Waitakere’s goal when Koprivcic picked him out with a cross. The defender attempted a shot on the turn most strikers would have had difficulty executing, with predictable results.

Quite what Scott was thinking about when he flew through the air with the greatest of ease in the 61st minute only he will know. That his Superman impersonation took place in Waitakere’s penalty area, and took Koprivcic out of play, meant referee O’Leary had one of the easiest spot-kick decisions of his career to make.

The official duly pointed to the twelve yard mark, from where Exposito sent Ralph the wrong way. Unfortunately for the Spaniard, he struck the same post he had fired against five minutes earlier - yet another twist in this compelling drama, which was heading for a grandstand finish.
Defences began to dominate proceedings, with chances few and far between in the final half-hour as a result. The next one came eighteen minutes from time, with Riera working a one-two with Alex Feneridis before feeding Exposito, who laid the ball off to Dickinson before dashing into the penalty area for the return pass.

Seeing the danger, Emblen launched into a despairing challenge, one which the striker looked to exploit to the full. Down he went - another penalty? Not on your life, and it would have been to referee O‘Leary’s eternal detriment had he awarded one!

Swimming pools are far more appropriate locations in which to go diving, Senor Exposito, not opposition penalty areas. City’s Spanish talisman was booked for simulation, and rightly so.

Waitakere began to tire, and in the dying minutes, City pressed for a late winner - having won their previous Grand Final clashes by 3-2 scorelines, few would have been surprised had they repeated the feat yet again.

But Vicelich saw Payne hook his flying header off the line in the 87th minute, before Koprivcic went for glory in stoppage time, with both Exposito and substitute Luis Corrales far better placed to make the most of a Dickinson-inspired opening. The ball soared towards Henderson Creek, rather than the top far corner of Ralph’s net, leaving the shooter to shrug his shoulders apologetically towards his team-mates.

As he was doing so, Ralph launched the ball downfield from the resulting goal-kick - surely United’s last chance of glory before extra time became a reality. Pearce turned the ball on, but it was very much a lost cause Mike Gwyther found himself chasing, with Berlanga well placed to shepherd the sphere out for a goal-kick.

Whatever possessed the defender to refrain from such a simple act is something which will haunt him long after what was easily his worst performance yet in a City shirt. United’s fresh-legged substitute caught Berlanga in possession, Gwyther skipping past the stunned defender before delivering a low cross into the goalmouth.

Pritchett, conscious that Lucas was lurking unmarked beyond him and moving in fast to complete his hat-trick, denied the striker that pleasure, only to look on his horror as his lunging attempt to clear sliced past Spoonley and into City’s net by the far post - an own goal two minutes into stoppage time which put Waitakere in front, 3-2.

City immediately launched onto the attack, but time was their enemy, and when the final whistle sounded shortly after, Waitakere were celebrating victory over their arch-rivals and, more importantly, back-to-back ASB Premiership Grand Final triumphs, their third Grand Final success in four seasons.

Waitakere:     Ralph; Scott, Rowley, Emblen, Myers; Payne (Sole, 90), Bullock, Butler, de Vries (booked, 19) (Gwyther, 80); Pearce, Lucas
Auckland:     Spoonley; Pritchett, Vicelich, Berlanga (booked, 90), Hogg (booked, 14); Riera (Thomas, 79), Feneridis, Koprivcic, Kelly (Corrales, 60); Dickinson, Exposito (booked, 72)
Referee:     Peter O’Leary

National League