Auckland City clinched consecutive NZ Community Trust Football Championship Grand Final triumphs in dramatic fashion at Kiwitea Street on April 22, breaking Canterbury United hearts by prevailing 4-3 on penalties, after the ensuing two hours of football had seen the teams share six goals.
It was a case of going from villain to hero for City goalkeeper Ross Nicholson, who made up for inexplicably palming the ball into his own net in the 75th minute by saving the penalties of Daniel Terris and Glen Collins in the shoot-out, the latter's effort needing to hit the net to bring about sudden death spot-kicks.
But Nicholson's stop meant despair for Canterbury and delight for both Auckland and Youngheart Manawatu, who, as NZFC premiership runners-up, join City in representing New Zealand in next month's Oceania Club World Championship qualifying series at North Harbour Stadium, a place the Cantabrians would have taken had they won this match.
The Grand Final started in fiery fashion, the willing beginning seeing referee Kevin Stoltenkamp brandishing the yellow card to Michael Lilley and Chris Morris inside the first five minutes as both teams sought to impose themselves early on.
From the resulting free-kick, Keryn Jordan's twenty-five yard effort brought the best out of James Bannatyne, what was to be his only save of what was to prove a rather sterile half of football.
Both teams tended to cancel each other out, although when chances did come along, it was United who enjoyed the greater share of them. But efforts inside the first quarter-hour from Andrew Barron and Stuart Kelly went wide of the mark, the latter's effort rattling the sidenetting when better-placed team-mates were screaming for him to pull the ball back after the striker had upstaged Greg Uhlmann.
The peripheral Jeremy Brockie, who was to hobble off at half-time with a foot injury, was afforded just one opportunity to shine, in the sixteenth minute. Even then, he could find no way past Riki Van Steeden, but his pass found the unmarked Morris on the edge of the penalty area. His first-time drive prompted Nicholson to produce a fine save, diving to his right.
Ben Sigmund was in colossal form at the heart of Canterbury's defence, and both Grant Young and Jordan each found the stopper in imperious form on separate occasions half-way through the half - his tackle on the latter as Jordan looked to weave his way through inside the penalty area was superbly timed and executed.
As was that of Jonathan Perry on Kelly in the 27th minute, as the striker looked to capitalise on an Uhlmann slip. The defender had another let-off six minutes before half-time, the last man foiling Kelly by foul means more so than fair as the striker looked to get in behind City's defence and exploit Canterbury's route one tactics to the fullest.
Auckland's response saw Jordan thunder an effort across the face of goal following good work on the left by Neil Sykes. But the chasers of the `double double' - successive premiership and Grand Final triumphs - suffered a setback just before half-time when Jonathan Smith hobbled off with a knee injury.
It presented Chad Coombes with a chance to make his mark off the bench, and the substitute took the opportunity with both hands. For within four minutes of his entrance, he had played his part in the game's much-needed opening goal, struck in the second of four minutes of stoppage time at the end of the spell.
A Canterbury raid broke down, and James Pritchett secured possession and steered the ball towards Jordan. He played a deliciously weighted pass into the path of the galloping figure of Coombes, who swept a first-time cross in towards the near post.
Arriving on cue was Young, who steered the ball beyond Bannatyne and into the bottom far corner of the net - a splendidly conceived and executed strike, and not a hint of the long-ball tactics of which Auckland are oft accused.
The early stages of the second half hinted little at what was to come, because aside from a wayward Barron free-kick and Sigmund's timely intervention
to thwart Young once more, the sterility of the first half had continued unabated.
All that changed in the 59th minute, as Canterbury resorted to the long-ball method. This time, it worked. Bannatyne's raking clearance downfield wasn't dealt with by Uhlmann, and Kelly followed up his neat control of the bouncing ball with an unerring finish beyond Nicholson - 1-1.
This stung City into action, and within two minutes, they came close to regaining the lead. Coombes was again involved, feeding the ball into Young, who held off challenges before playing the ball wide to Pritchett. His cross arced towards the far post, and the fast-arriving figure of Jordan, whose header flashed a foot past the upright.
But a further two minutes was all the reigning champions required to assume the ascendancy on the scoreboard. The goal-kick resulting from an off-target free-kick by Kelly was sent forward by Nicholson, with the combative figure of Paul Seaman flicking the ball on beyond half-way.
Jordan was onto it in an instant, and scampered clear of the chasing figures of Terris and Lilley before deftly slipping the ball under the advancing figure of Bannatyne - 2-1.
That goal stunned the Cantabrians, who struggled to find a way through City's defence in the next ten minutes. By this time, route one had again been resorted to by the visitors, and in the 75th minute, another raking clearance by Bannatyne forced Auckland into conceding a corner.
Barron's delivery to the near post appeared to be of little threat to Nicholson, as there was no-one challenging him as he leapt for the ball. What happened next was Keystone Cops material, the goalkeeper inexplicably turning the ball into his own net to gift Canterbury an equaliser.
But within three minutes of drawing level, United found themselves behind on the scoreboard once more, City regaining the lead via a Canterbury own goal. Pritchett powered inside off the left flank and swerved past an opponent en route to the by-line, from where he played a dangerous low cross into the near post.
Coombes was arriving on the scene, but Sigmund was right with him, and prevented the substitute from turning the ball home of his own volition. Instead, it went into the net via the chest of the unfortunate Lilley, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for Canterbury's sake as Coombes' attempt to score ricocheted off Sigmund right into the path of the retreating defender.
United were still reeling from this blow when Jordan galloped clear from half-way down the right flank. After cutting inside, Coombes took over from him, but the substitute was denied by a fine tackle from Lilley, although the defender's heart was in his mouth as his lunge directed the ball goalwards, the sphere creeping narrowly past Bannatyne's right-hand post.
It was a let-off from which Canterbury took heart, for five minutes from time, they drew level once more, Kelly latching onto a loose ball before thrashing a twenty-yard drive beyond Nicholson's dive into the top left-hand corner of the net - 3-3 the score now, in a match which, for the best part of an hour, looked like being a one-goal game.
City's goalkeeper wasn't having a great game, nearly gifting United another goal at one stage with a wayward free-kick which struck Justin Lucas and fell perfectly for Kelly. But the offside flag fortuitously came to Nicholson's rescue, and once he'd grabbed a stoppage time free-kick from Barron, the game was destined for thirty minutes more.
Auckland began the first half of extra-time brightly, and Canterbury could well have been reduced to ten men when last defender Terris felled Jordan just outside the penalty area. Referee Stoltenkamp awarded nothing but a free-kick, however, an opportunity which Sykes fired a yard over the bar.
After Glen Collins and City substitute Paul Urlovic had fired long-range efforts towards the target, United came desperately close to taking the lead for the first time in the contest. Kelly appeared on the left flank in the 99th minute, and conjured up an opening for Collins which he sent careering a foot wide of the far post, Nicholson well beaten.
Ten minutes later, United came closer still to scoring what would surely have proven the decisive strike. Collins slipped Morris through the inside-right channel to the by-line, from where he pulled the ball back for Kelly. With a Grand Final hat-trick beckoning, the striker was stopped in his tracks by a timely tackle from Coombes.
City scrambled the ball away, but within seconds it was back in the danger zone, courtesy a cross from Brockie's replacement, the far more effective Michael White, whose right-flank raids were a frequent threat to the reigning champions' rearguard, even though they almost always came to nought.
This one didn't, however, for White's cross picked out young Greg Draper. From point-blank range, he directed a header at the target, only for Nicholson to somehow block the ball to safety with a purely reflex save.
White then had a chance to turn the game United's way, seven minutes from time. But after racing through from half-way, and aided greatly by the decoy run of Kelly in the process, he went for goal, only to shoot straight at Nicholson.
It was to be the last chance of the match, and when referee Stoltenkamp blew his whistle for full-time, it was somehow fitting that two teams who had crossed swords four times previously this season, with each sporting two wins in the series, should find themselves on level terms at the conclusion of this decider.
The respective coaches, City's Allan Jones and United's Danny Halligan, shook hands, the influence of both on the NZFC now at an end, given both had announced they were stepping down from their respective posts at the conclusion of the campaign.
So to the lottery of the penalty shoot-out, with Jordan's nonchalant finish from the first kick of the compulsory ten not matched by Terris, whose effort was turned onto the post and to safety by Nicholson.
Urlovic then spurned the chance to extend Auckland's advantage - Bannatyne saved a poor penalty solidly, which allowed Kelly the chance to draw Canterbury level. He, Coombes and Morris all sent the goalkeepers the wrong way with their efforts, before Perry's hammered effort down the middle was matched by White's walloped finish.
3-3 again, then, from four shots apiece. On Sykes the spotlight fell, with City's captain sending Bannatyne the wrong way to put all the pressure on Collins. Score, and the shoot-out became sudden death.
Miss, and the Oceania Club World Championship play-offs would remain so far away for Canterbury, a reality for Manawatu, whose squad and fans must have been nervous beyond belief as they watched the drama unfold on TV, knowing that their own destiny could well hinge on this kick.
The one-time All White placed the ball on the spot, turned round and trudged to the edge of the arc before facing up to his destiny. Hard and low to the `keeper's right, the side Nicholson had opted to dive to on three other occasions. This time he guessed right, parrying the ball away before milking the moment for all he was worth.
As his City colleagues engulfed Nicholson, and the bulk of the 1800-strong crowd exploded with joy - not to mention the Manawatu contingent down country - the Canterbury players, to a man, stood dumbstruck, their season-long dreams dashed by football's cruellest means possible.
Meanwhile, having led on three occasions in the final, the lottery of the shoot-out saw fortune favour Auckland City, the team which had prevailed throughout the premiership rounds, and, as a result of this Grand Final triumph, NZFC champions once more.
Auckland: Nicholson; Pritchett, Perry, Uhlmann, Van Steeden (booked, 67) (Hyde, 69); Mulrooney, Smith (Coombes, 42), Seaman (booked, 77), Sykes; Jordan, Young (Urlovic, 84)
Canterbury: Bannatyne; Lilley (booked, 4), Terris, Sigmund (booked, 36), Pitman (Moir, 72); Brockie (White, 46), Morris (booked, 5), Collins, Barron; Kelly, Lucas (Draper, 84)
Referee: Kevin Stoltenkamp