Waitakere Fightback Can't Deny Birkenhead's Cup Joy
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by Jeremy Ruane
Birkenhead United claimed their maiden Chatham Cup in dramatic fashion at QBE Stadium on September 11, overcoming Waitakere City 3-2 after a period of extra time in which they'd been reduced to ten men, and this after having seemed to have the cup within easy reach when two goals up with just four minutes to play in normal time.
But Waitakere, till now unbeaten in 2016, produced a stunning comeback to level the scores and force the extra half-hour of play, during which the Lotto Northern League First Division champions spurned some glorious chances to complete their fightback in thrilling fashion.
Yet for large chunks of this match, the West Aucklanders were a distinct second-best to their Lotto Northern Premier League title-chasing opponents in a match which referee John Rowbury was swift to make his mark upon.
The official brandished the yellow card just 72 seconds into the match, and his card count was already up to three by the time the four minute mark rolled around. He then opted to warn players as frequently as possible, but by half-time a further four players had overstepped the mark enough to have their names added to an ever-growing list.
By the end of the match, referee Rowbury had raised his arm aloft fourteen times to admonish the naughty, on one occasion brandishing a red card - to United's Ryan Cain after he had committed his second bookable offence in the 98th minute.
Quite what referee's assessor Neil Fox would have made of this officiating display is not known, although he doubtless would have had a wry smile that his record remains, Fox having himself issued a total of nineteen cards during that never-to-be-forgotten Christmas cracker between Auckland City and Waitakere United at Kiwitea Street ten years ago.
The daft thing was, just as in that aforementioned classic, the vast majority of Rowbury's bookings were perfectly justifiable. Yes, a couple were harsh and, from a different angle to the referee's position, hard to justify, but there really was a lot of needless physical nonsense on display throughout this match which wouldn't rank among the great Chatham Cup Finals had it not been for Waitakere's stirring late fightback.
Because, frankly, Birkenhead were doing this on their ear for the large part of proceedings, emphasising the gap between the upper reaches of the Premier League and the top of the First Division, much to the delight of the red-and-white-clad hordes among the 4,216-strong crowd - a terrific turn-out for the final.
They first threatened in the seventh minute, Sam Burfoot sending Godwin Darkwa down the left, where he did Harrison Sage a treat before whipping in a cross which was stabbed to safety by Jackson Gibbons.
Eleven minutes later, veteran goalkeeper Ross Nicholson was right behind a twenty-five yard free-kick struck low round the wall by Burfoot, but City's 'keeper enjoyed no such luck six minutes later, as United opened the scoring.
Jarrod Smith spread the play wide to Cain and dashed forward to support those ahead of him. When Cain's inviting cross came in, it was Smith who found himself perfectly placed to exploit it, something the former All White did with aplomb, combining neat control with an unerring finish into the far corner - 1-0 United.
They bossed the game from this point on, with Waitakere offering little genuine threat of an equaliser. If anything, a second Birkenhead goal looked more likely to give the scoreboard operator something to do, and after Nicholson had smothered a Dan Morgan drive in the 38th minute, after more fine work by Burfoot, that's exactly what happened.
City's defending was embarrassing bordering on downright deplorable in the 39th minute, drawing comparisons with the age-old question, 'How many men does it take to change a light bulb?'
No less than three of them made a dreadful hash of averting the danger after Darkwa had run up what appeared to be a blind alley on the right. When the United man emerged at the other end, the ball was still near the edge of the goal area, so Darkwa promptly played it across to David Parkinson. A touch inside for Smith - 2-0.
City had to score next, and three minutes before half-time, with their first attack of note, they came desperately close to doing so. Gibbons played the ball forward for the wild-haired Dylan Manickum to latch onto, and he duly dashed in behind United's defenders before rounding the advancing figure of Damien Hirst.
With the goal at his mercy, Manickum duly rolled the ball towards the gaping target, only to look on in horror as the fast-retreating figure of Christian Gray dashed back to save the day for Birkenhead with a goal-line clearance of which his dad, former All White and Waitakere stalwart Rodger Gray, would doubtless have been proud.
That close call, and a few words of wisdom from player-coach Jake Butler during the half-time break, seemed to inspire City, as they started the second half brightly. Within sixty seconds of the resumption of play, Jordan Hearn had sliced a shot wildly wide after cutting in off the left following Steven MacDonald's initial attacking thrust.
Two minutes later, City captain Paul Rhodes wriggled into space before threading a pass through for Manickum, in between defenders. He evaded one of them before unleashing a drive which fizzed inches past the far post.
United responded through a Jack Salter raid in the 52nd minute, the midfielder dancing down the right before dinking a cross to Darkwa, arriving on the far post, from where he steered a shot back across goal and just past the opposite upright.
That effort took a deflection, because a corner was awarded, the delivery of which was punched out by Nicholson, straight to Gray, whose instinctive volley cannoned off the goalkeeper - he knew little about it - and sparked an almighty goalmouth scramble which City somehow survived. Had United scored then, it was game over.
Hirst had largely been a spectator throughout the first half, but when he was called into action in the 58th minute, he produced a splendid save at the feet of MacDonald, after the striker had shrugged off the challenge of Cain upon being played in by Butler.
Twenty minutes from time, Smith's flying fifteen yard header - from a Cain cross - flashed inches over the bar, while after United's defence had stood firm in the face of threats posed by Manickum and Rhodes, Morgan swooped on an under-hit back-pass and, with just Nicholson to beat, rattled the near upright from eight yards seven minutes from time.
It was a genuine let-off for City, who would have been dead and buried had that one gone in. And how they made United pay for their profligacy, with a stunning comeback which brought back memories of the 1979 FA Cup Final.
On that occasion, the ribbons were being put on the trophy when goals from Gordon McQueen and Sammy McIlroy threatened extra time, before Alan Sunderland's stoppage time winner ensured Arsenal of a 3-2 win, having been 2-0 up.
Twenty-seven years on, and half-a-world away, the circumstances were uncannily similar. MacDonald was again the architect, and this time Manickum executed the plan, bursting through the defence before squeezing the ball past Hirst - the striker appeared to impede the 'keeper, but play continued - then recovering to bundle it over the line just as Gray appeared to attempt to clear it off same once again.
2-1, with four minutes still to play. Three minutes later, all hell broke loose as MacDonald forced his way into the penalty area and went down under the challenge of Gray.
Referee Rowbury pointed to the spot, and after a lengthy delay brought about by protests galore from the Birkenhead players - Tom Davis, later named winner of the Jack Batty Memorial Trophy as the Cup Final's MVP, was the only addition to the growing list in the referee's notebook during this episode - Keegan Linderboom brought about parity from the penalty spot.
Out of nowhere, it was 2-2, and to extra time we duly went, with United - players and fans alike - wondering how they had managed to bottle a two-goal lead with four minutes left to play in normal time.
The image of England manager Sir Alf Ramsey urging his players on at this point in the 1966 World Cup Final sprung to mind - "You've won it once. Go and win it again".
United went about doing just that, piling on the pressure in the early stages of extra time, but only with one meaningful shot to show for those efforts, a 92nd minute attempt from substitute Ethan Galbraith to which Nicholson proved equal.
All wasn't equal on the playing numbers side of the equation, however, following Cain's second bookable indiscretion five minutes later. That reduced Birkenhead to ten men, and Waitakere wasted little time in looking to make their numerical advantage count on the scoreboard.
Linderboom's teasing free-kick, from the foul Cain committed, was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Hirst, who looked beaten for all money as the ball swerved violently goalwards.
From the resulting corner, a goalmouth scramble of epic proportions ensued, ended only when City substitute Frank Belt volleyed inches over from six yards out in the 99th minute.
Four minutes later, James Olausen - a terrific display - surged out of defence and into United's half before feeding Manickum, who had been harshly booked for simulation on the hour.
The only diving being done on this occasion was by Birkenhead defenders in vain attempts to dispossess the Futsal star, whose mazy run concluded with a pass to MacDonald. His thumping low drive careered past the diving figure of Hirst, only to cannon to safety off the base of the far post - now it was United's turn to breathe a hefty sigh of relief!
Into the second half of extra time, it was all on for young and old, with end-to-end action ensuing. In the 109th minute, Davis swept past two opponents on a run out of defence before allowing Salter to take over and race on to the by-line.
Olausen cleared his low cross, and within seconds, Linderboom - whose running style is reminiscent of a young foal - was off down the right, with MacDonald and Manickum in support. The latter lashed the chance over the bar.
Back came Birkenhead nine minutes from time, and their by now nervous faithful were once more hollering to the heavens as a result of this raid, as they saw their heroes regain the lead.
Salter's hanging cross from the left was spilled by Nicholson, who never gathered the ball cleanly thanks, in part, to the presence of Olausen in between his 'keeper and the lanky figure of Galbraith.
The striker swivelled to lash home the loose ball as City protested in vain for a foul on the 'keeper - how could referee Rowbury possibly award a free-kick when it wasn't an opponent but his own team-mate who had impeded Nicholson?
The last nine minutes were drama-laden, with City piling on the pressure and United defending with as straight a bat as possible, albeit precariously at times. They took four attempts to clear one Waitakere raid, but when the game entered its final minute, Birkenhead hearts were very much in mouths …
For MacDonald had somehow worked his way down the right before picking out Manickum with a cross which allowed the striker to dash through on goal with just Hirst to beat.
He went for the postage stamp by the base of the far post with his shot, but missed it by inches, and the sight of the ball creeping past the upright was met by a huge groan from the City faithful, who knew that they were now consigned to receiving the Bob Smith Memorial Cup for the fourth time in the club's history.
Simultaneously, there was a massive roar of relief from the United faithful. Seconds later, their roars were even louder - Birkenhead had won just their third major honour in top-level men's football, and those honours don't get any bigger in New Zealand club football than the most coveted prize of them all, the Chatham Cup.
Birkenhead: Hirst; Cain (booked, 74, 97 - sent off), Gray (booked, 41), Davis (booked, 89), Parkinson (booked, 32); Boss (booked, 70), Burfoot, Salter (booked, 4); Morgan (E. Darkwa, 98), Smith (Galbraith, 76), G. Darkwa (booked, 3) (Nkoy, 73).
Waitakere: Nicholson; Gibbons, Sage (Belt, 70), Olausen (Armitt, 116), Hearn (booked, 2); Hagan (booked, 58) (Kettle, 66), Butler (booked, 35), Rhodes (booked, 45); Linderboom, MacDonald, Manickum (booked, 61).
Referee: John Rowbury