"Swans" On The Spot To Thwart Rovers' "Three-Peat"
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Story by Jeremy Ruane
Glenfield Rovers' hopes of becoming just the third club to "three-peat" in the history of the National Women's Knockout Cup were dashed by neighbouring Forrest Hill-Milford United at QBE Stadium on September 11, as "The Swans" prevailed 4-3 on penalties after two hours of compelling Cup Final action produced a 2-2 draw.
The cup holders tore into their work straight from the kick-off, captain Liz Milne firing the first shot in anger narrowly past the far post a mere twelve seconds after Anna-Marie Keighley blew the whistle to commence the sixth Cup Final she has refereed.
Four minutes later, Katie Rood led a Rovers raid which also featured Emma Turnbull and Dayna Stevens, whose low cross to the far post was sent sailing over the bar by the former Coastal Spirit star, as the holders looked to strike first in the second final showdown in three years between these clubs.
United needed to steady the ship, and it was former Young Fern Chloe Wilson who produced their first moment of note in the match, a delightfully weighted ninth minute pass into the stride of Tayla Christensen, who took full advantage of some defensive hesitancy to see the whites of Alice Noyer's eyes, which went wider than usual when the Junior Ferns front-runner collided with her.
Noyer's selection in goal for this most prestigious of fixtures was rather forced upon Glenfield, with Kaitlyn Savage having transferred to Orlando Pirates two months ago, and regular first choice custodian Pam Yates on international duty with the NZ women's cricket team.
In last year's final, Noyer came on as an outfield substitute. This time round, the spotlight was firmly turned on a player who first donned the gloves for the club ten weeks ago. But she was little tested in the first half, United's front three giving the impression at times that the occasion was too big for them during the first forty-five minutes.
That certainly wasn't the case for Glenfield, and after Jess Innes' inswinging corner had been pawed out from beneath the crossbar by Emily Couchman, the holders hit the front in style - although United's 'keeper will know that she should have saved it.
Emily Oosterhof linked with Rood, who turned the ball back for Turnbull to steer into the stride of Milne. She took the ball on before unleashing a twenty yard grass-cutter which squeezed under the dive of Couchman to the delight of the ranks of Rovers' fans seventeen minutes into the final.
Within seconds, they nearly doubled their lead. Milne intercepted a Wilson pass and swiftly fed Innes, whose through ball sent Rood racing into the penalty area with just Couchman to beat, a feat the striker duly accomplished.
But Rood was prevented from becoming the outright holder of the most goals scored by an individual in National Women's Knockout Cup history - she is tied with Sarah McLaughlin and Rebecca Tegg on 31 goals - by virtue of Catherine Bott's goal-line clearance.
That denial inspired "The Swans", and three minutes later, some neat triangle passing between Bott, Malia Steinmetz and Wilson resulted in the fullback once more sending Christensen away down the left, in behind Geena Gross.
But the Rovers' defender made up the ground quickly and thwarted Christensen's efforts to deliver a cross which any number of black-clad team-mates were eager to convert.
After Couchman had smothered a Stevens drive - the striker had worked a one-two with Rood after initially being released by Milne, the 'keeper's clearance invited Christensen to run at the Rovers' rearguard, something which Maddie Jorgensen wasn't prepared to stand for. One block tackle later, job done.
The scorer of a hat-trick in United's semi-final triumph in Christchurch wasn't one for quitting, however, and in the 25th minute she was once more released down the left by the ever-dependable figure of Wilson.
Christensen and Jorgensen clashed again, with the attacker this time prevailing, allowing her to pick out the unmarked Sammi Tawharu with a cross. The youngster's header bulleted over the bar from eight yards out - a great chance to equalise.
United were beginning to gain some momentum, and but for Gross' block of an Issy Coombes piledriver, following a partly cleared Steinmetz corner, they would have been on level terms in the 26th minute.
Seconds later, Rolston curled one past the near post after more work by Wilson, while another Christensen run soon after, with Claudia Bunge dogging her every step of the way, resulted in a shot which forced Noyer into a solid smothering save - the first time she'd had reason to get her gloves dirty in this latest North Harbour derby.
She didn't have long to wait for the second occasion - mere seconds, in fact, a result of Tawharu picking Bunge's pocket and playing in Saskia Vosper. Noyer was off her line in a flash to save at the winger's feet, the ball duly breaking for Rolston, who, after evading a challenge, saw her shot blocked to safety by Gross.
By half-time, Rovers were giving the impression that they were far hungrier for victory than their opponents, something which was clearly addressed during "The Swans"' mid-match team talk.
For they came out with far greater purpose in the second spell, and after Coombes had sent Steinmetz surging through - she shot straight at Noyer five minutes after the resumption of play - their self-belief was sent soaring skywards by a captain's knock from Tessa Berger.
United's captain is far more defensive colossus than goalscoring goddess for her side, but the 51st goal of the 22-year-old's career - her first came when aged just 11 years and 242 days, a Northern Premier Women's League record - will be one never forgotten, much though Glenfield will want to in the months and years to come.
Latching onto a loose ball in the centre circle in the 52nd minute, Berger surged forward and, spotting Noyer off her line, let fly from fully forty yards - count them!, the ball soaring over the head of the back-pedalling 'keeper before crashing into the corner of the net to give "The Swans" a lifeline they had desperately needed.
Glenfield instantly looked to regain the ascendancy, Rood and Milne combining to pick out Stevens, whose technically superb hip-turn volley was well saved low to her right by Couchman in the 54th minute.
The influence of Steinmetz and, in particular, Coombes, was growing by the minute, however, and very soon it was the former Claudelands midfielder who was calling the tune in the final.
Moments before Steinmetz succumbed to cramp, Coombes and Christensen combined to play in Vosper with just Noyer to beat. The 'keeper's splendid block to deny the newly-named Young Fern eventually found its way to Rolston, who thundered a shot over the bar in the 64th minute.
Four minutes later, Bott and Coombes combined with Rolston, who evaded three challenges before setting up Christensen. Her effort cleared the bar, as did another from Coombes sixty seconds later, Christensen, Rolston, Tawharu and Vosper having featured in this lively raid down the left.
It was another down the right from which United came desperately close to taking the lead twenty minutes from time. Chisato Nagahama's pace from fullback has been an eye-catching feature of "The Swans"' game this season, and it certainly was in this fixture.
As was the hanging angled cross Nagahama delivered on this occasion, which the flying figure of Christensen, dashing in on the far post, only just failed to direct on target.
Chances for Glenfield, by now, were becoming rather rare, with Bott and Berger combining to frustrate Rood at every turn. So to Stevens fell the opportunity to fire her team back in front eighteen minutes from time, Innes picking her out with a gem of a through ball which the striker took on in her stride before unleashing an eighteen yarder past Couchman. Sadly for Rovers, it flew past the near post as well.
Glenfield introduced Sonja Bain to the fray to stem the tide, but "The Swans" were coming home with a wet sail, and only a vital block by Innes denied Christensen nine minutes from time, Morgan Owen, Nagahama, Coombes and Vosper having opened up Rovers on the right.
Back came the cup holders, a Stacey Hallford corner picking out Milne on the far post. Couchman smothered her low drive, while at the other end of the park, in the last minute of the ninety, Tawharu's angled header flew past the far post after Christensen had skipped past an opponent to pick out her team-mate with a well-flighted cross.
So to extra time, and its beginning almost mimicked the opening seconds of the match. Milne swooped on a pass, stormed forward and threaded the ball through for Rood, who took the ball round Couchman before, having been forced wide, chipping a cross to the far post which Stevens was mere inches away from reaching, some seventeen seconds after the game's resumption.
From the resulting goal-kick, Milne swooped again, this time playing Stevens in through the inside right channel and the offside trap. Her shooting angle was acute, but Rood was far better placed in the middle, only for the youngster to over-hit her cross - another great chance went begging.
United responded to this scare via Nagahama, who jinked through three challenges on the right before picking out Aneka Mittendorf with a cross which allowed the substitute to squeeze the ball past Noyer at close quarters, only for Gross to clear off the line in the 99th minute.
Rood squandered the free-kick she earned seconds later, having been felled by Berger, whose name became the first in referee Keighley's notebook in this match, with that of central defensive partner Bott soon to follow.
In between times, that of Milne was recorded again, and, as before, for all the right reasons. Pouncing on a stray pass, she surged forward before battering a twenty-yarder past Couchman to the jubilation of the black-and-yellow-clad hordes - Rovers 2-1, with just eighteen minutes remaining.
What rabbit could "The Swans" pull out of the hat this time? We didn't have long to wait. For after Rolston had directed a header at Noyer - substitute Lily Jervis having benefited from Jorgensen's wayward clearance, the scores were level once more.
With ten minutes remaining, Christensen, who had been rather subdued for a wee while, suddenly exploded into action again, bursting through three challenges en route into the area, from where she curled a shot around Noyer.
The ball struck the far post, then ricocheted off the retreating figure of Jorgensen into the stride of Rolston, following in behind her. The scorer of "The Swans"' two goals in the 2014 final made sure she would bag at least one in this encounter as well - 2-2.
What more drama could there possibly be inside the last ten minutes? Plenty, as it happened. Gross - she had a terrific game in Glenfield's defence - blocked another effort, this time from Jervis in the 112th minute, after Bott had picked her out with a free-kick.
Glenfield's response, four minutes later, saw the hat-trick-hunting figure of Milne on the charge. Rovers' captain promptly fed Rood, who played in Stevens, one-on-one once more with Couchman the lone obstacle between the youngster and what would surely be a third successive National Women's Knockout Cup triumph - and a fourth in six years - for Rovers.
Incredibly, the 'keeper came up with the ball, tackling Stevens on the edge of the area before gratefully grabbing the sphere as it spilled loose - a huge moment in the match, as was that which happened at the other end of the park sixty seconds later.
Tawharu played a lovely ball through for Jervis to capitalise upon, only for Bunge to produce a stunning game-saving challenge to avert the danger with three minutes left on the clock.
Rovers raided once more, and again Milne sent Stevens dashing through, this time through the inside-right channel with a minute left on the clock. In hot pursuit, however, was Berger, and just as the striker was shaping to pull the trigger, United's captain produced one of her trademark desperation tackles which so often save the day for her side.
It certainly did on this occasion, preventing a repeat of the 2014 scoreline when these teams contested the final. There was still time for two chances to score to avoid the game being decided on penalties, with Berger sending Jervis through, only for Noyer to deny her, and Wilson and Rolston combining on the left, the latter's thirty yard lob landing on the roof of Noyer's net, thus ensuring a final 2-2 scoreline.
So to penalties we went, for just the third time in the history of National Women's Knockout Cup Finals. Rood fired Rovers in front, and Milne extended their lead after Berger had hit the post.
Wilson got "The Swans" on the board before Bott levelled matters, Bunge having been denied by Couchman's save in between times. The 'keeper prevailed again seconds later, Oosterhof's miss presenting Rolston with the chance to fire United in front for the first time in the match.
Incredibly, she hit both posts with her penalty, meaning Innes had the chance to fire Rovers in front once more, with their fifth spot-kick. But over the bar the ball flew, presenting Owen, who scored a solitary goal for Glenfield way back in 2005, with the chance to deny her old club a "three-peat" of cup triumphs.
Noyer plunged to her left to deny her, so to sudden death we went. Jorgensen and Jervis duly delivered, but when Gross cleared the crossbar with her penalty, Christensen reacted as if United had won.
The scoreline read 3-3, however, and upon the Junior Fern befell the task of firing Forrest Hill-Milford in front for the first time in the match, at the death. Christensen held her nerve to send Noyer the wrong way, to the dismay of the Glenfield squad and the undisguised delight of "The Swans", National Women's Knockout Cup winners for the first time, in just the team's fourth year in senior women's football.
FHMU: Couchman; Nagahama, Berger (booked, 100), Bott (booked, 105), Wilson; Steinmetz (Owen, 67), Rolston, Coombes (Jervis, 107); Vosper (Mittendorf, 86), Tawharu, Christensen.
Glenfield: Noyer; Gross, Bunge, Jorgensen, Oosterhof; Turnbull (Bain, 78), Milne, Innes; Rood, Stevens, Hallford (Evans, 113).
Referee: Anna-Marie Keighley.