Three Kings United produced one of the most incredible comebacks in the 45-year history of the Lotto Northern Premier Women's League at Keith Hay Park on April 23 in overcoming Norwest United 5-4, after the visitors had stormed to a 4-0 lead inside the first 27 minutes.
There wasn't the merest hint of what was to come inside the first five minutes of the match, during which the reigning champions carved out the first opening via the searing pace of Paige Satchell, who took advantage of a quick throw-in to get in behind the defence and pick out Jessie Mathews.
Three Kings' captain steered the ball back into the stride of Hannah Blake, who lashed her twenty yard drive wildly wide of the target.
Nadia Olla took the resulting goal-kick, and when it was flicked downfield Jane Barnett set off in pursuit at a huge rate of knots, far faster than Caitlin Pritchard could muster in response.
The Football Ferns Development Squad member raced on before executing the perfect volleyed lob over the head of the stranded figure of Rivalina Fuimaono, the ball arcing perfectly into the top far corner of the net to give Norwest a 1-0 lead just six minutes into the contest.
Straight from the kick-off, Satchell stampeded down the right, sweeping past three opponents en route into the penalty area, where her low cross found Mathews just a stride away from touching home what would have been the perfect riposte.
Three minutes later, Claudia Crasborn pounced on a Meikayla Moore free-kick and instantly sent Blake dashing through the inside-left channel. Streaking clear, the striker found herself with just Olla to beat, but looked to do so at her near post - the low percentage option - only to rattle the side-netting.
After Hannah Robert had caught Jaedici Uluvili in possession and set up Blake for a great chance which she directed straight at Olla, Norwest stunned the title-holders with three goals in a five-minute burst just prior to the half-hour mark.
All three were very similar in nature, and fully exploited a flat defensive line plus, in Fuimaono, a goalkeeper who made no attempt to keep the ball out - she didn't even dive to at least try to save the shots which went past her.
The first of them was fired by Barnett in the 22nd minute. Pritchard made a meal of Courtney Noble's ball forward, and the striker with over 160 goals to her name so far this decade wasted little time in adding to that tally.
2-0 became 3-0 three minutes later, and again it was Barnett leading the celebrations - the eighteenth time she has scored a hat-trick in senior level club football. This time round, Moore launched the ball downfield, and the striker's express pace proved too much for both Pritchard and Shivi Anthony to cope with, Barnett duly firing past the static figure of Fuimaono.
Norwest were in dreamland in the 27th minute - 4-0 up at the home of the reigning champions! Cara Lonergan led the charge this time, slaloming through off the left flank past all-comers before picking her spot beyond United's unimpressive custodian.
Three Kings simply had to score next if they harboured any hopes of getting some respectability out of the game - come back from this, 4-0 down and with the central defenders getting caught napping every time by Norwest's pacy attack? You're having a laugh!
Extending their 27-match winning streak in the league seemed but a pipe dream at this stage of proceedings. But, sticking to their football-playing principles instead of panicking in the face of adversity, the title-holders swiftly started to warm to the task at hand.
Anthony and Alosi Bloomfield combined to release Blake through the inside right channel in the 31st minute. All was going well until she opted to cut inside, at which point, Moore intervened - she was immense at the heart of Norwest's defence.
Two minutes later, Crasborn released Hannah Robert down the left. Her cross targeted Blake, who needed to execute a first-time finish to exploit Norwest's lack of cover in that particular moment. But she opted to take a touch, and Moore swiftly appeared on the scene to avert the danger.
But only for the briefest of moments, for within seconds Satchell was back in possession, taking on all-comers before, from the edge of the area, unleashing a fierce drive which Olla got her hands to but couldn't keep out.
The goal buoyed the home team, who looked to grab another before the interval. Time got away on them on this occasion, however, at which point coach Alan Hindson treated his Three Kings charges to a right royal rollicking before plotting a means of getting back into the contest during the second spell.
Norwest's gaffer, Chris Acott, was understandably delighted with his team's efforts, but warned them to anticipate a barrage of Three Kings pressure early in the second half, and stand firm against it.
That anticipated barrage swiftly became reality, as Three Kings set about dominating the second half, employing the style of football which has brought them so much success over the bulk of the last two years - there was no panic, but plenty of passing and movement in an effort to unhinge the Norwest rearguard.
Yet it was the visitors who contrived the first attack of note in the second half, Cat Pretty sending Lonergan away down the right in the 53rd minute. She outpaced Georgia Martin, then saw both Pritchard and Anthony fail to clear her cross - an invitation for Jess Oulaghan to stride onto.
She sent a glorious chance sailing over the target, much to Three Kings' relief. Two minutes later, it was Norwest's turn to collectively puff out their cheeks, after Satchell caught Noble in possession on the right.
The speedster instantly set sail for goal, hurdling Moore's challenge before setting up Blake for a shot. Olla parried this effort, straight into the stride of substitute Deven Jackson, whose glee at having seemingly pulled a goal back was cut short by the offside flag, the "scorer" having been in an offside position when Blake pulled the trigger.
Encouraged by this close call, the champions kept
on coming, with Crasborn releasing Blake down the left on the hour. She cut inside both Shayden Cathro and Samantha Waru before seeing her shot deflect to safety.
In the 62nd minute, United pulled it back to 4-2, Blake rifling home a twenty yard free-kick after going down under the challenge of Jaedici Uluvili, a little too easily in the eyes of some.
That was all the incentive United needed to lay siege to the Norwest goal. Olla saved at the feet of Blake within seconds of the goal, Satchell having scooted clear down the right once more.
Seconds later, Bloomfield released Blake down the left, from where she took on Moore before playing the ball across to Mathews. United's captain was twice denied in the space of three seconds, first by Noble, then by Moore, both of whom blocked the shots of the midfielder.
Some of Norwest's charges were starting to feel the pinch under Three Kings' now incessant pressure, which was supplemented by the introduction of new signing Ally Toailoa twenty minutes from time.
Her presence allowed Crasborn to get further forward down the left, and she combined with Blake in the 73rd minute. This time round, the striker got to the by-line before cutting across Cathro and firing an acute-angled shot which Olla turned round her near post.
Crasborn delivered the resulting corner into the danger zone, where Pritchard was flying in to meet the sphere, sending her bullet header wide of the target. Cue groans of despair from the home team, but they were short-lived.
For in the 76th minute, they reduced the deficit to one goal, in some style, too. Rebecca Burrows threaded a ball through to Bloomfield, who slipped it inside to Blake.
She couldn't control the sphere, but Jackson, lurking beyond her, did so with relish, swivelling to slam a twelve yard left-foot volley into the top far corner of Olla's net and mark her twentieth birthday, twenty-four hours earlier, with a cracking goal.
4-3 then, with fourteen minutes remaining, and Norwest mounting a rearguard action in a desperate effort to hold onto their lead. Olla saved at the feet of Blake after Burrows played her through, before a poor goal-kick by the custodian invited Bloomfield to play in Satchell on the right.
Olla made amends by tipping the subsequent shot to safety, only for Satchell to bear down on goal once more in the 83rd minute. Pouncing on a Waru error, Blake threaded the ball through to her speedy team-mate, who fired her shot past the advancing figure of Olla but into the side-netting - spectators on the golf course side of the ground began cheering, thinking the ball had entered the net.
Those cheers were swiftly stifled, but were released full bore in the 84th minute as United drew level. Jackson led the charge, before allowing the superior speed of Satchell to run Norwest ragged once more.
There are times when Satchell's greatest attribute lacks an end product to match, but this was most definitely not one of those moments, much to Norwest's chagrin. The winger curled a beautifully weighted cross to the far post where Blake, stealing in, swooped to head a superb equaliser between Olla and her near post - 4-4!
They couldn't, could they? Noble and Natasha de Jong blocked shots from Blake and Burrows respectively, following an 87th minute Crasborn corner. Norwest were running on empty, with, in particular, Moore, Noble, Oulaghan and Pretty doing everything within their power to preserve the visitors' share of the spoils.
Into stoppage time we went, and with a 4-4 draw - and the end of their winning streak - looming large, Three Kings earned a 93rd minute corner. Crasborn lofted it right into the danger zone, at which point fortune favoured the title-holders.
Moore, in her desperation to head the ball clear, unintentionally directed it back towards her own goal … right towards Toailoa, lurking on the edge of the six yard box.
Without a second's hesitation, the Three Kings debutant spun around and slammed the ball into the net from close range, to the undisguised glee of her team-mates, who engulfed the former Papatoetoe player in delight.
How starkly that delight contrasted with the despair among the Norwest players, whose body language was summed up in a sentence by goalkeeper Olla - "How the (expletive) did we allow that to happen?" - in the immediate aftermath of conceding the decisive fifth goal.
No one could offer a reply, with all those in white-and-blue preoccupied with coming to terms with having somehow lost a game which they had led 4-0 after 27 minutes. When the final whistle sounded soon afterwards, some slumped to the ground, others looked on somewhat dazed, and doubtless there were a few tears somewhere in the mix.
To coach Chris Acott, nothing could be said - it isn't an experience endured very often, at any level of the game. But when it happens, coming to terms with it is challenging, to put it mildly. As learning experiences go, it is unquestionably one of the hardest. But in the words of Stevie G, "We go again".
As for Three Kings, they know all too well this was their 'get out of jail' card. This was a game which, in all honesty, they should have lost. But they stuck to their footballing principles, played their way back into the contest and - the hallmark of true champions - somehow found a way to win against all odds.
As a result, they kept their winning streak going, remained top of the table, and, together with Norwest, contributed significantly to one of the all-time-great Lotto Northern Premier Women's League matches - not in terms of quality, it must be said, but where everything else is concerned … WOW!
Three Kings: Fuimaono; Anthony, Pritchard, Martin (Toailoa, 70), Crasborn; Mathews, Bloomfield, Burrows; Satchell, Blake, Robert (Jackson, 52)
Norwest: Olla; Cathro, Uluvili, Moore, Noble; Waru (Nottingham, 79), Pretty, McCarroll, Oulaghan; Barnett (Young, 88), Lonergan (de Jong, 77)
Referee: Torres Chang