The country was treated to the magic of a Central Auckland derby at QBE Stadium on September 10, as two of the clubs based in New Zealand's true home of football served up an ISPS Handa Chatham Cup Final thriller on the ninetieth occasion for which the trophy has been played.
First-time finalists Onehunga Sports edged five-time winners Central United 6-5 on penalties in "The 008 Cup Final", after the 2016 and 2017 champions of the Lotto Northern Premier League shared six goals in an enthralling 3-3 encounter.
There was plenty of friendly rivalry - and occasionally less so - between the teams and their supporters throughout proceedings, the 1542 fans who braved the chilly elements witnessing the first-ever Chatham Cup Final between two clubs located on the same bus route - hence "The 008 Cup Final" moniker.
Central were swiftly into their stride, dominating the early stages and forcing a third minute Emiliano Tade corner which Lewis Caunter pawed out from beneath his crossbar.
This sparked a terrific ninety yard run at full speed by Sean Lovemore, Sports' terrific support crew roaring him on with every stride. It wasn't until he was well inside Central's penalty area that a yellow-shirted player finally caught up with him, Regont Murati's covering challenge thwarting the speedster in the act of shooting.
United retorted through Takuya Iwata, who buccaneered down the left to the by-line before finding Tade in support nearby. The Argentine's subtle pass split the defence to reward Reid Drake's run to the by-line, from where he pulled the ball back to the edge of the goal area. Nic Zambrano skied his shot from six yards - a bad miss!
Central continued to boss the ball, but didn't threaten again until the quarter hour, when Tade, lurking on the left, cheekily chipped the ball over the defence to find Drake charging through. He got the better of Caunter, but was crowded out by the covering figure of Ross Haviland, who was his usual rock-like self at the heart of "The Green Machine"'s rearguard.
Back came Sports, Lovemore again leading the charge, skipping inside Angel Berlanga in the process. The formidable figure of Marko Dordevic proved a bridge too far for Sports' lone striker, however, the defender recovering from his tackle to prevent Tom Boss from following up as the ball broke loose.
Mario Ilich, later named winner of the Jack Batty Memorial Trophy as the Cup Final's man of the match, played the ball forward to Zambrano in the eighteenth minute. The striker worked a one-two with Drake before being blocked at close quarters by Caunter, while Drake was denied seconds later by Haviland's timely intervention after Central appealed for a handball offence by Shohei Moriyasu.
Referee Campbell-Kirk Kawana-Waugh wasn't interested in awarding anything on this occasion, but in the 21st minute, he signalled the first goal of the afternoon's action as Central took the lead.
Tade led the charge once again, linking with Zambrano before the ball was played forward to Ignacio Machuca to chase down the right. Upon gathering it in, he checked inside and picked out Zambrano, who controlled the ball neatly before volleying home emphatically from six yards.
The goal rocked "The Green Machine", who had been denied the services of captain Joe Dawkins by a hamstring injury in the build-up to the match. Any attempts to get back into the contest foundered on the lack of support they afforded Lovemore, who all too often ploughed a lone furrow in attack, often beating multiple United players but finding himself outnumbered after doing so.
Central, on the other hand, always had options for their man on the ball to utilise. Their movement was fluid, their football flowing, Tade's guile enhancing their style.
He it was who surged away on the left ten minutes before half-time, at which point he worked a one-two with Zambrano before darting into the area with two defenders for company. Caunter was forced to save at Tade's feet in the end.
Sports were coming back into the contest, however, largely via a string of set-pieces, which brought the cultured left foot of Andrew Milne into play. Central managed to rebuff their rivals' prospects via this approach, but "The Green Machine" twice came close to equalising in the shadows of the half-time whistle.
Three minutes before half-time, Calvin Opperman played the ball forward to Lovemore, who was once more it as far as Sports were concerned attack-wise. He held up play well to reward Opperman's supporting run, however, the flank player promptly letting rip from twenty-five yards.
Danyon Drake spilled the shot, but Berlanga was on hand to tidy up, only for Sports to press again soon afterwards. Again it was Lovemore leading the charge, taking on all-comers before slipping the ball through for Milne, racing through from midfield. Drake saved at his feet, ensuring Central would go to the dressing rooms a goal to the good.
Where Central had dominated the early exchanges of the first half, 'twas Onehunga's turn to boss the ball after the interval, but they were enjoying little reward for their efforts.
Ten minutes into the second half, a Milne free-kick wasn't cleared, allowing Jake Porter to let rip from twenty-five yards, only for Berlanga to block the goalbound shot with his leg.
Cue three flashpoints in four minutes before the hour mark, two of which ended in yellow cards being shown to Jordan Vale and Boss for rash lunging challenges which Reid Drake and Ilich did their best to avoid unscathed.
The other, sandwiched in between these incidents, earned the biggest roar of the match thus far - an Onehunga equaliser in the 59th minute. Milne, on manoeuvres down the left, linked with Lovemore, who burst between two defenders into the penalty area.
His shot then struck the leg of the advancing Danyon Drake and looped upwards, the ball arcing perfectly into the net despite the acrobatic efforts of Iwata to hook it clear from beneath the crossbar.
Now we had a game on our hands, and an incensed Sports team in the 66th minute as referee Kawana-Waugh waved play on, despite Berlanga having clearly checked Opperman on the edge of the penalty area for what was as clear-cut a free-kick as you will ever see.
It certainly wasn't the official's best game, with both sides having reason to take umbrage over some of his decisions during the course of the contest, which was about to be bolstered by four goals in nine minutes!
Not before Zambrano squandered a golden chance to give Central a 69th minute lead, however, the striker shooting at Caunter after Tade, Reid Drake and substitute Albert Riera had combined to prise open Sports' rearguard.
It was another Central substitute who fired them in front two minutes later. Danyon Drake picked out Murati on the right, the enterprising fullback's touch allowing him to get in behind Harshae Raniga and set sail for goal. Caunter came out to thwart him, but Murati was quite content to set up Seamus Ryder, whose unerring finish into the bottom far corner delighted the United hordes.
Their joy was short-lived, for in the 73rd minute, Sports restored parity for a second time. Lovemore worked a one-two with Milne before lobbing the ball over the defence in search of Porter, whose untimely stumble looked to have brought an end to the attack.
Boss wasn't of like mind, however, and with Central
defenders looking on, anticipating that the ball would go out for a goal kick, the midfielder's pursuit of a seemingly lost cause was rewarded as he retrieved the sphere on the by-line and gave himself an angle from which to fire a shot between a startled Danyon Drake and his near post - 2-2.
Now it was Central's turn to be stunned by their opponent's goal. But their response was perfection personified twelve minutes from time as they took the lead for a third time.
The goal of the game owed much to the mesmerising talent and vision of Tade. Zambrano and Reid Drake combined to pick him out in the inside-left channel, where he weaved his way past three challenges before outwitting the sliding tackle of Moriyasu superbly on the edge of the area near the by-line. A clipped cross to the far post found Ryder flying in to head home unchallenged - 3-2 Central.
Could Sports find a third equaliser? We had but ninety seconds to wait for the answer. Murati was caught in possession on half-way by the combination of Milne and Lovemore, who, between them, took the ball downfield at pace.
Milne charged into the area before seeing his shot blocked by Riera, off whom the ball rebounded perfectly into the stride of Boss, racing up in support from midfield. From the edge of the area, he steered a perfectly placed first time drive hard and low into the bottom left-hand corner of Drake's net - 3-3!
Only eight previous Chatham Cup Finals had seen both teams score at least three goals in the showpiece event, and two of those came in the 1980s, when some well-intentioned but short-sighted soul decided that, thankfully for only a brief period of time, the destiny of the trophy should be decided over the course of a two-legged contest!
The last 3-3 thriller had taken place at this venue in 2001, and Central were finalists on that occasion as well, bowing out on penalties to University-Mt. Wellington in a magnificent encounter. Would lightning strike twice sixteen years later?
Sports certainly hoped so, if they couldn't win the match in normal time. Just two minutes after equalising, Lovemore hurtled through on goal, having breached the offside trap. Danyon Drake dashed out of goal to clear off his toes well - the sweeper-keeper in action!
Four minutes later, Jack Caunter caught Ryder in possession and instantly released Milne, whose eighteen-yarder was smothered by Drake. Immediately Central counter-attacked, Tade picking out Ryder with a cross which the substitute headed down to Zambrano, whose volley sent the ball blazing over the bar.
Into the final minute of the ninety we charged. Would we get a grandstand finish, or thirty more enthralling minutes of Chatham Cup action to bring the 2017 winter football season to a close?
Riera released Tade on the left, the striker duly taking on four opponents and somehow engineering the space in which to shoot. His effort rattled the side-netting as Central's fans roared, thinking for a split-second that their man had struck a late winner.
There was still time for a Central corner, which Reid Drake delivered onto the head of Ilich. Lewis Caunter was right behind his effort, however, which meant the extra thirty minutes was now a reality.
From the very start of extra time, Central signalled their intentions, Danyon Drake's clearance picking out Tade in the centre circle, and the striker instinctively turning and executing an attempted chip of the goalkeeping Caunter brother. Lewis looked on gratefully as the ball dipped too high over the bar.
Sports' 'keeper was in acrobatic action two minutes later, flying across his goal to punch the ball to safety after a six-man Central move saw Tade, Ilich, Berlanga, Dordevic and Riera combine to present Murati with the chance to deliver a hanging cross, Ryder, Reid Drake and substitute Maro Bonsu-Maro the targets.
Seconds later, Reid Drake skipped between two opponents before setting up Iwata for a twenty yarder which whistled over the bar - the 2007 Lotto Northern Premier League and Chatham Cup double-winning club had come out all guns blazing in extra time against the team looking to emulate their feat a decade later.
Central continued to pile on the pressure as sweeping wintry showers propelled them forward. In the 98th minute, the Drake brothers teamed up with Riera, whose one-two with Ryder allowed the Spaniard to dart into the area and start off a brief game of penalty box pinball before Tade took charge of proceedings and battered a shot towards the target.
Lewis Caunter blocked this to safety, then turned a twenty-five yard grasscutter from the Argentine round the post on the stroke of half-time in extra time, Tade having evaded three challenges prior to shooting, having initially latched onto a pass from Riera, who had lifted United's game considerably since his introduction to the fray on the hour.
Fifteen minutes of play in the final remained, and now it was Sports with Mother Nature's tempest behind them. Jack Caunter signalled "The Green Machine"'s intentions from the outset, surging forth before firing one over the top from distance.
Four minutes later, Milne flighted a delightfully weighted thirty-five yard free-kick to the far post, where three green-shirted team-mates were arriving bang on cue. How none of them failed to make contact with the ball defies logic - it just needed a touch and "The Green Machine" would almost certainly have hit the front for the first time in the final.
The groans from their fans spoke volumes, but they were roaring again two minutes later as substitute Boon Ozawa stormed out of defence before releasing Lovemore down the right. Towards goal the striker surged, his acute-angled drive being grabbed by Danyon Drake at the second attempt by the near post.
Six minutes from time, Sports were breathing a sigh of relief as Tade's free-kick from wide on the left arced into the danger zone but wasn't capitalised upon by someone in yellow, to which "The Green Machine" responded via a Lewis Caunter clearance which was allowed to bounce, permitting Lovemore a headed chance which he couldn't direct on target.
With two minutes left, Central mounted one final threat on goal, via a Tade free-kick. It slammed into the wall, and Opperman was onto the rebound in an instant, igniting a four-on-three counter-attack which had Lovemore as its fulcrum.
One of Central's trio, however, was Murati, and just as he did in the fourth minute of the match to thwart Sports' very first attack, he raced across to execute a terrific covering challenge on the speedy striker, extinguishing the very last chance of this barnstorming 3-3 thriller.
So to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, which was an outstanding display of precision and panache from twelve yards for all but one of the twelve spot-kicks required to settle the destiny of the silverware.
'Twas the twelfth shot which decided the contest, however, Lewis Caunter diving to his right to turn Riera's shot to safety and clinch a maiden Chatham Cup triumph for "The Green Machine", Onehunga Sports, 6-5 on spot-kicks.
Central: D. Drake; Murati, Dordevic, Berlanga (booked, 115), Iwata; Lausev (Riera, 62), Ilich (booked, 95), R. Drake; Machuca (Ryder, 57), Zambrano (Bonsu-Maro, 88), Tade
Onehunga: L. Caunter; Moriyasu (Ozawa, 106), Haviland, J. Caunter, Raniga; Vale (booked, 56), Boss (booked, 60) (Hoyle, 102), Milne (booked, 102); Opperman, Lovemore, Porter (booked, 85) (Mata, 91)
Referee: Campbell-Kirk Kawana-Waugh