These are bleak times. The National Secondary Schools touch, athletics and cricket championships were cancelled on Wednesday, joining September’s winter tournament week on the Covid scrapheap.
First held in 1976, the National Under-19 club football championships typically caters for 68 teams, with others waiting to get in. This year the tournament started on Saturday with just 13 teams in the boys' draw and eight in the girls.'
Even then it was in doubt. North Wellington AFC captain Riley Manuel explains, “There was a COVID case in the Napier K-Mart or something. Teams withdrew at the last minute. We were pretty nervous, but tried to focus on what we could control. We are really grateful it went ahead,” he said.
A gruelling format requires the finalists to get through five pool matches lasting an hour in addition to a quarter and semi-final.
North Wellington didn’t concede a goal until the semi-final against one of the pre-tournament favourites Mirimar Rangers where they required extra time to prevail 3-2.
In the final against Wellington Olympic control was lost as early as the fourth minute when wing Sam Rioga was toppled in the box and George Walker coolly converted a penalty. Misery compounded 25-minutes later when Walker scored again collecting a piercing right-foot pass by Theo Jones on the edge of the area and gracefully turning by a hapless defender leaving the keeper stranded.
“We got off to a slow start”, Manuel admitted, “but once they got that second goal we started to turn up and get on top of them.”
“We didn’t give up, we kept trying, the boys' attitude was pretty good and in tournaments you can gain momentum quickly.”
Following the kickoff at 2-0 striker Alex Mort dashed clear and was knocked off his stride in a heavy collision inside the box with Olympic goalie Toby Hunt. With the penalty Manuel had the chance to half the deficit.
“It’s always nerve racking to take a penalty but I’m lucky I’ve got a lot of experience taking them. Where you shoot depends on the keeper, but deciding where to go beforehand and not changing your mind is pretty important.”
Manuel went right and North Wellington turned at halftime with some optimism 2-1 down.
Mort has a best time of 11.11 in the 100 meters. His searing pace resulted in a swift equaller after the interval when he turned an air-swing by an Olympic defender into an unexpected, opportunist goal.
“Alex got the tournament MVP and was really important for us. Our game plan was to get him running behind defenders and causing chaos. His speed is pretty helpful in tournament football and he jumped on that mistake by Olympic,” Manuel said.
With 15 minutes remaining Mort would pull up lame,but there was no panic.
“It’s pretty important the recovery side of the tournament because that helps you run for a longer time and maintain a physical edge. We had a lot of depth in our squad, great coaches, everyone delivered.
“Our two wingers Ashnarvy Mustapha and Johnny Khoun ran a mile. Our backs are really solid.
“They started to get a bit nervous because we were in rhythm while fatigued. They had quite a few supporters on the opposite side of the main stand and they were getting hyped which kinda made it more fun for us.”
The final lasts an extra ten minutes but if drawn at fulltime stretches another 20 minutes after which penalties follow if the scores are still tied. It was 2-2 with three minutes to go.
“We were on a counter attack. Our winger crossed to our opposite winger and played me into space. I took a shot from about 15 years which took a deflection and it went in. The shot felt good, getting the lead felt even better.
“I try to lead by example and be consistent. I’ve played a lot of senior football this year so I guess I’ve got used to playing at a higher level. Tournament was very different from our senior season where we struggled to gel a lot of the time and lost a few games in the 90th minute.”
Manuel is in Year 12 at St Patrick’s College, Wellington and also plays futsal. Football guru Hamish Wareham covered the tournament and paid tribute to Riley and host club Napier City Rovers.
“Riley led his side superbly, be it creating chances in midfield, doing defensive duties, or rallying his troops. North Wellington thoroughly deserved their title going through to the semi-finals without conceding a goal and then digging deep when it most counted. Napier did a superb job hosting the tournament. It’s like being in Disneyland for a bloke like me. Even if the borders reopen next year, I’ll be here.”
North Wellington Results FC
Lower Hutt, 2-0
Wanganui City, 6-0
Upper Hutt, 0-0
Upper Hutt, 4-0 (Quarter)
Miramar, 3-2 (Semi)
Olympic, 3-2 (Final)
Interview and story by Adam Julian. Photos by Hamish Wareham.
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