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Auckland City v. Waitakere United, 21/12/06
The Game Which Had It All
by Jeremy Ruane
It is unlikely, as the fledgling history of local derbies between Auckland City and Waitakere United continues to evolve, that you will ever again see an encounter quite like this one.

It wasn't so much a Christmas cracker as an entire boxful of exploding bonbons, with any number of twists and turns occurring in a gripping encounter which saw United leading 3-0 at half-time, only for City to mount a stunning second half comeback which saw them prevail 4-3 in dramatic fashion at the expense of their arch-rivals.

While Auckland's triumph maintained a statistic which Waitakere fans must be sick to the back teeth of being reminded about - it is Christmas, so I'll refrain from saying it yet again! - it was a result which looked as unlikely at the interval as the pre-match prospect of referee Neil Fox going through the entire ninety minutes of this growing rivalry's latest chapter without brandishing a solitary card.

Sadly, this New Zealand Community Trust Football Championship encounter at Kiwitea Street on December 20 will end up being remembered more for the official's frequent flourishes of coloured - as opposed to Christmas - cards than for his use of the man-management skills which earned him the competition's Referee of the Year award for the 2005-6 campaign.

By the end of the game, Fox set a New Zealand record of which no match official should be proud. In an understandably highly competitive but far from dirty encounter, he brandished the yellow card sixteen times in total, three of those flourishes - for second bookable offences - being followed by the red card.

He will be the subject of criticism aplenty regarding his role in this match - Fox-hunting will be in season in the southern hemisphere, as well as the northern one, this Christmas! - and if he's honest, he'll reflect on a handful of instances at most when he allowed his exasperation with the players' antics to get the better of him, responding with the yellow card when calming yet authoritative words would have been suffice.

But only a handful. For in fairness to the official, the bulk of the bookings were for fouls which are regarded, like it or not, as offences punishable by the yellow card.

Shirt-pulling, tackling from behind, injudicious use of the elbow, entering the field of play without permission, time-wasting … every one a bookable offence, and Fox, as his FIFA officiating accreditation decrees, applied the letter of the law each time such incidents took place.

If criticism is going to be afforded the official for wielding a total of nineteen cards in the match, those whose indiscretions contributed towards this grotesque card count should not escape admonishment either.

That a single line in this report has yet to be devoted to the incidents which took place when the ball was in play reflects poorly on both teams, and on the code itself. Had this entertaining spectacle not enjoyed the riotous scoreline it did, even more attention would be drawn towards the indiscretions of United's eight booked players and City's five, at the expense of the raison d'etre of the country's foremost club sides.

Specifically, producing encounters as thoroughly entertaining as this one proved to be! It didn't take long for the usual niceties to be discharged - all of four minutes, in fact, as City, back home after savouring time spent among the elite in Japan, looked, through Keryn Jordan, to make the most of a stray Waitakere clearance.

The reigning Golden Boot evaded a challenge before seeing his clever cross-shot pawed out well by Michael Utting, who then gathered under pressure from Grant Young.

After Jonathan Perry had walloped a thirty-yard free-kick over the crossbar, Waitakere registered the game's first goal with their first attack of note, in the eleventh minute. A stray clearance by Perry was pounced on by Daniel Koprivcic, who threaded the ball through neatly for Commins Menapi, in the inside-right channel.

The Solomon Islands international drilled a low drive inside Ross Nicholson's near post, City's `keeper getting his hands to the ball but beaten by the power of the shot.

Back came City, six minutes later, Young evading two challenges along the by-line before Craig Wylie curtailed his charge. Jordan picked up the pieces out wide and picked out Jonathan Smith with his cross, the midfielder promptly unleashing a piledriver through the crowd which Utting didn't see until late, and did well to stop.

United's `keeper was visibly struggling with his groin injury throughout this fixture, but it didn't impact upon his awareness of danger at any stage, and certainly not in the eighteenth minute. That was when a low Neil Sykes free-kick arrowed into the Waitakere goalmouth, with Young racing in looking to convert. Utting swooped to smother - danger over.

After Wylie had again thwarted Young to prevent the South African benefiting from a neat move
featuring Chad Coombes and the outstanding Ben Sigmund - he improved as the game continued, and was in his element in his preferred central defensive role, Waitakere doubled their advantage in the 24th minute with a lovely move.

Menapi's through ball was a beauty, and Allan Pearce wasted little time in darting through City's static back-line to capitalise on it. The approaching figures of Sigmund and Nicholson saw him check his run, however, only for Koprivcic to swoop and steer the ball past the stranded goalkeeper and into the net - 2-0 to the visitors.

Worse was to follow for City, as United made it 3-0 on the half-hour. Menapi motored down the right and whipped in a cross which went behind Koprivcic and Perry, who was behind him. The defender pushed the striker over in his eagerness to clear the danger, and referee Fox, who had already booked four players by this time, didn't hesitate - penalty. Up stepped Pearce, out of the way dived Nicholson.

The reigning champions looked deflated - 3-0 down to their arch-rivals on home soil, just days after returning from the biggest experience of their collective careers in Japan, this was looking like a bridge too far for City, and a day to savour for United fans at the expense of their arch-rivals.

The visitors could have added to their advantage eight minutes before half-time, Jakub Sinkora having scythed inside off the left flank. But with the better-placed Koprivcic in support, he opted for glory, and instead gave Nicholson an easy save.

The one City's `keeper had to produce within ten seconds of the start of the second half was decidedly more demanding of him. Straight from the kick-off, Pearce buccaneered down the right, turning Sigmund hither and thither before thrashing the ball towards the target.

Nicholson battered the ball away at a time when a fourth goal would surely have killed off any hopes Auckland harboured of “doing a Liverpool”, even though they had a lot longer than the seven minutes The Reds required to work “The Miracle of Istanbul”.

A lot, lot longer, in fact - a full nine minutes of stoppage time was played in the second spell, as injuries, substitutions and a flurry of fluorescent flourishes added to the colour and conviviality of this sun-drenched after-work attraction.

Aided by a bizarre change of tactics which saw Waitakere opting to sit on their lead rather than look to exploit any tiredness from which Auckland may have been suffering from their recent travels, City set about the task of trying to fight their way back into the contest.

After Jordan had seen a shot deflected to safety, half-time substitute Paul Urlovic got to the by-line before angling the ball back to Young, who had dropped into an advanced midfield role in City's reshaped five-man midfield. The reigning NZFC Player of the Year produced a curling effort which brought a fabulous save low to his right out of Utting, who turned the ball round the post in the 51st minute.

Four minutes later, United mounted what proved to be their last attack of note in the entire match - it says volumes for how introverted they became that they won their first corner of the game in stoppage time at the end of the second spell!

Menapi and Prince Quansah powered down the left, working a neat one-two which opened up the now three-strong City defence completely. Menapi's low cross had Koprivcic as its intended target, but Sigmund was anticipating the danger, and cleared accordingly.

The home team were encouraged in the 57th minute, following a Sykes corner which was cleared to Coombes. His curling cross picked out Paul Seaman, who directed his header against the upright.

Four minutes later, Seaman turned provider, playing Young through the middle. Utting's anticipation was superb, the `keeper foiling the shot at close quarters. But the rebound fell to Urlovic, who fired narrowly wide as Waitakere defenders scrambled back to cover.

Waitakere edged ahead on the booking count 5-3 soon after this, but in the 68th minute it was Auckland's turn to register on the scoreboard - 3-1. Urlovic's deep cross went beyond Seaman on the far post, but as he turned and chased, he received some unwelcome assistance from Sinkora, who pushed him down in the penalty area. Jordan's spot-kick dribbled past Utting into the net.

Within seconds, City were on the prowl for a second goal. Sigmund and Sykes worked a one-two with the former thrashing a twenty-yard drive towards the target. Utting grabbed this, but was given no chance in the 75th minute as the home team closed to within a goal of their rivals.

Sykes was fouled out wide on the left, from where he delivered a delicious curling free-kick into the danger zone. Seaman edged out Jordan in the race to win the aerial duel, the midfielder's glancing header angling the ball wide of Utting and in by the far post - 3-2, and game now very much on.
Jordan fired a shot on the turn over the bar before, with the game having had so many bookings - the count was now at nine, the inevitable happened, and referee Fox was brandishing his first red card of the afternoon after issuing a second yellow, in the 81st minute.

Hoani Edwards was his unwilling victim, but the United midfielder soon had company, in the form of Rupesh Puna three minutes later, again for a second bookable offence - Waitakere were down to nine, and were understandably incensed.

Mr Fox's take on the three-card trick wasn't over by any means, however. The 1200-strong crowd had barely sixty seconds to wait before it was Jordan's turn to pick up his second yellow card of the day, and with it a red card against his old club - now everyone was calling the official everything under the sun, not to mention a few things of a less salubrious nature!

The cards continued to flow, and so did the chances for Auckland, who were now in hot pursuit of an equaliser. Another Sykes free-kick curled tantalisingly into the penalty area, with Perry rising high to meet it, only to direct his header over the crossbar in the 88th minute.

Seconds later, Sigmund's delightful jinking run down the left culminated in a twenty-yard piledriver which careered narrowly past the unmoving figure of Utting and, in turn, the far post.

City were desperate now, and as fourth official Michael Brock held up a seven to indicate the number of minutes of additional time to be played, they stormed downfield once more. Jason Hayne played the ball across to Seaman, who took on a couple of opponents before being forced to turn back, the chance seemingly lost.

A crossfield ball found Perry now having joined the attack, and he sent an inviting cross curling towards the far post. Racing in was Young, and he rose high to send a header crashing against the underside of the bar. The ball bounced down, then up into the roof of the net - 3-3, a remarkable turnaround given the 3-0 half-time deficit which the league leaders enjoyed at the break.

Now, Waitakere were in turmoil. A man down in a ten versus nine affair, and having hardly been seen as an attacking force in the second half, the game was there for both teams to win. Go for it? Or hold what they had?

Auckland, their tails up, resolved their visitors' dilemma for them. In the third minute of stoppage time, Young burst into the penalty area and saw Utting swat his volley to safety. There was nothing for it - Waitakere had to attack.

They forced two corners, the outcome of which saw another flurry of fluorescence from Fox - the last two of these, in the 98th minute of running time, thankfully the last such interventions from the match official. But not the final act of the match itself - that was mere seconds away.

The ball was now in Nicholson's possession, and he promptly hoisted it downfield. It bounced once, but before it could do so again, Urlovic, his back to the goal some twenty yards away, leapt high.

Utting, ten yards off his line, stood rooted to the spot as the striker's header sent the ball arcing over him and into the net - 4-3 City, a character-laden comeback many would have thought improbable at half-time now very much a reality. And as their players and supporters delighted in the thrill of it all, those of a United bent looked on in utter disbelief.

There was barely time to kick off again before referee Fox blew the final whistle to conclude a thrilling encounter between these cross-town rivals. The official came in for pillorying aplenty from both teams' supporters on leaving the field, a couple of fans particularly incensed at the impact of his interventions upon proceedings.

And while the bookings element was certainly a factor in the game which had it all - to an extent, they enhanced a vibrant spectacle - from a footballing perspective one can only wonder why Waitakere chose to rest on their half-time laurels, rather than kick on and look to claim the cross-town bragging rights for the first time, especially in the Christmas derby … only one thing can possibly be said in response - “Bah Humbug!!”

City's ninth on-field triumph in this fast-growing rivalry is the best present their fans could have wished for. For them, `twill be a Merry Christmas indeed! And I hope it is for you, too!!

Auckland:     Nicholson (booked, 90); Sigmund (booked, 22), Perry, Vodanovich, Sykes (booked, 76); Coombes (booked, 29), Smith (Hayne, 65), Seaman (Boxall, 90), Mulrooney (Urlovic, 46); Young, Jordan (booked, 60, 85 - sent-off)
Waitakere:     Utting (booked, 62); Jasper (booked, 26), Pearce, Wylie, Puna (booked, 45, 84 - sent-off); Menapi (Gwyther, 87 (booked, 90)), Sinkora (booked, 15) (Hogg, 76), Edwards (booked, 63, 81 - sent-off), Quansah (booked, 90); Koprivcic (Ellensohn, 74), Pearce (booked, 87)
Referee:     Neil Fox

National League