Spot-Kicks Decide "Young Guns"' Cup Final
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by Jeremy Ruane
Two of the youngest teams to ever meet in the history of the ISPS Handa Chatham Cup Final went all the way to penalties at QBE Stadium on September 9, with 2016 winners Birkenhead United making it two triumphs in the competition by edging Western Suburbs 5-4 on spot-kicks, after the teams had concluded the match with the score locked at 1-1.
United began brightly, and were rewarded with the opening goal just six minutes into play. Lachie McIsaac's free-kick picked out the head of Alec Solomons, who guided the ball down into the stride of Alex Connor-McClean, ghosting in on the far post as Suburbs' defenders stood and watched.
The price they paid for doing so was celebrated heartily by Birkenhead's fans, whose presence made the Cup Final - the atmosphere they created suggested there were more than 3,364 fans present on the day.
Three minutes later, Clarke Foulds' cross was headed out by Dalton Wilkins to Sam Burfoot, whose twenty yard volley sizzled over the Suburbs crossbar. And on the quarter hour, another opening for United saw Solomons - a richly deserving winner of the Jack Batty Memorial Trophy as Cup Final MVP - spark a raid which culminated in Foulds picking out Luke Jorgensen on the far post.
He wasn't able to direct his effort on target, however, the cue for the game to enter a period of pure torpor - close to fifteen minutes which, if any insomniacs were present, would have provided them with a ready-made cure! It even made watching Everton or ManUre seem a slightly more attractive proposition by comparison! Only slightly, though!
The game was roused from its slumbers on the half-hour by the sight of Solomons prodding the ball into the Suburbs net, but referee Nick Waldron had already called a foul in the build-up, with Andrew Withers an unwilling victim in the circumstances.
Suburbs responded with their first attack of note in the match, a Matthew Garbett-led raid which culminated in his being felled by Christian Gray just outside the area. Referee Waldron played an advantage, however, as the ball had rolled into the stride of Elijah Just, whose shot was blocked to safety.
There was no blocking Mohammed Awad's piledriver in the 33rd minute, however. Wilkins won a battle for possession on the left before surging on then feeding Awad ahead of him.
The striker jinked inside a challenge prior to unleashing a fierce drive beyond Damian Hirst, who until now, had been deprived of anything worthwhile to do, such had been the form of Solomons ahead of him.
More of the latter was to follow three minutes later, the defender superbly foiling the run of Nathaniel Hailemariam as he led a four-on-three charge for Suburbs, who won the ball high up the pitch.
When the pair clashed again five minutes before half-time, it was the cue for controversy. Of the fact defender fouled striker there was no doubt, but referee Waldron initially deemed it took place just outside the penalty area, and signaled accordingly.
Within seconds, however, he received information from his colleagues prompting him to change his decision and point to the penalty spot. Solomons was mortified, and his remonstrations earned him one of seven yellow cards in the match, five of which were brandished towards United players.
Once that side of things was attended to, there was the little matter of the penalty to deal with. Hailemariam had stood patiently awaiting the opportunity to give his side the lead from twelve yards, but he was denied from doing so by a quite brilliant save from Hirst - unquestionably one of the best penalty saves this writer has seen in three decades of providing coverage of the beautiful game in New Zealand.
Right on half-time, United went desperately close to regaining the advantage through Burfoot, who jinked his way through three challenges before curling a twenty-yarder inches past the post.
The same player landed a thirty yard free-kick onto the roof of Suburbs' net early in the second spell, to which Suburbs responded via a strong run from Awad, who fended off two opponents before feeding Hailemariam. Under pressure, he shot straight at Hirst.
Half-way through the second spell, a McIsaac cross struck the head of Andy Thomas and spun wildly towards the Suburbs net, just going past the far post. It prompted McIsaac to deliver a corner to the far post, where Solomons headed narrowly wide under pressure.
Four minutes later, a poor clearance by Withers was pounced on by Luke Jorgensen, who instantly played the ball through for Bronson Kelly to take on. With Connor-McClean in behind him, he opted to go it alone, but was well foiled by Nando Pijnaker, who played the match despite the very recent passing of his father - his was an extremely brave performance in those circumstances.
Fourteen minutes from time, a McIsaac free-kick was cleared to Jorgensen, some thirty yards from goal. He unleashed an absolute screamer which ricocheted wildly off a Suburbs defender for a corner, from which United had strong - and justified - claims for a penalty turned away by referee Waldron, who didn't spot the handball offence by a Nelson defender which prompted United's protestations.
Ten minutes from time, Hailemariam led the charge for Suburbs as they looked to win it. He was ably supported by Kelly steaming up on the overlap, and when the latter received the ball he let fly with a shot which flashed across the face of goal.
Back came "Birko", Withers denying Connor-McClean at close quarters before the post prevented Solomons from heading home McIsaac's corner to the far post - it would have been fitting had the defender netted the winner, for his performance fully merited such reward.
Emmanuel Darkwa's timely tackle prevented Awad from snatching a late winner for Suburbs prior to the blowing of the final whistle, which was the signal for a further half-hour of play to take place.
During it, Burfoot volleyed narrowly over before Just grazed the far post with a swerving fifteen yard volley in the 100th minute of play. Four minutes later, Darkwa intervened once more, this time to foil Hailemariam, who had released substitute Ben Sippola to the by-line and was racing forward in anticipation of the cross.
Darkwa's clearance prompted a Birkenhead counter-attack, with Jackson Woods and Connor-McClean combining to present Jorgensen with another shooting chance, one he directed straight at Withers.
The second half of extra time saw a chance apiece engineered by these tiring young sides. Substitute Jack Kelly stung the gloves of Withers as United threatened once more - they were the more dominant attacking force in the contest.
Suburbs retorted via a splendid solo run from Just in the final minute of the match which deserved better fate than to be thwarted by the defence, with Solomons fittingly ensuring a penalty shoot-out would follow this captivating 1-1 draw.
First to step forward was Gray, whose effort cleared the crossbar - advantage Suburbs straight away. But it was swiftly nullified, Harry Edge hitting the post from twelve yards despite sending Hirst the wrong way.
The remaining penalties before sudden death all found the net, Burfoot's the only one to hit the net via the woodwork. And after Jorgensen had tucked home the first of the sudden death spot-kicks, the spotlight fell on Dominic Woolridge.
Hirst plunged to his left to turn the ball over the bar, and his Birkenhead team-mates instantly surged towards their goalkeeping hero, whose first half penalty save, allied to Solomons' outstanding display, were the key factors in ensuring the Chatham Cup would remain in Auckland, New Zealand's home of football, for a fourth successive season.
Birkenhead: Hirst; Darkwa, Solomons (booked, 40), Gray (booked, 69); Jorgensen, Burfoot (booked, 19), Bolton-Roberts (Kelly, 96 (booked, 117)), Foulds (booked, 59) (Woods, 100); Connor-McClean, Kelly (Hawkins, 106), McIsaac.
Suburbs: Withers; Clayton, Thomas, Pijnaker, Wilkins (booked, 12) (Bright, 119); Woolridge (booked, 41), Edge, Just; Hailemariam (Stamenic, 106), Awad, Garbett (Sippola, 56).
Referee: Nick Waldron