There may only be two rounds left in the National Youth League but the destination of the title remains anyone’s guess with a remarkable six teams still very much in the running.
Only three points separate leaders Hamilton Wanderers from sixth-placed Canterbury United after Round Seven, which took place over the weekend and kept the race for glory wide open with some intriguing results.
Wanderers missed the opportunity to assert their dominance at the top in being held by ten-man Auckland City while fellow title challengers Canterbury, Wellington Phoenix and Team Wellington all kept their hopes alive with wins and were joined in celebrating a victory by Tasman United, who notched just their second three-pointer of the campaign.
It was the U-17 group from the Phoenix who benefitted most from the results, jumping to second on the ladder and within a point of Hamilton. Almost all of the action from their match against Hawke’s Bay United took place in the first half with Sam Phillip, Sam Sutton and Thomas Drillien all finding the net as Jorge Akers and Josh Murphy replied for the Bay.
It looked like it would stay at 3-2 as the clocked ticked into additional time but Phoenix substitute Joe Bell managed to grab one more to complete the Bay’s misery and leave them six points adrift at the foot of the table.
The Phoenix’s win meant they fully capitalised on the draw between Hamilton and Auckland, the latter of whom will be the happier of the sides after playing for the last half an hour a man down. Sean Skeens gave Hamilton the lead on 15 minutes and the visitors must have thought they had a good chance of going on to collect all three points when Moses Akimana saw red for Auckland on the hour mark.
But City responded well to the setback and equalised just a few minutes later through a brilliant long-range strike from Jack Anderson. They then held on for the point but now face a do-or-die derby this weekend at Waitakere United and need all three points in their pursuit of a fifth National Youth League title.
Waitakere are in a similar position but will be disappointed not to be sharing the lead with Wanderers after falling to a 2-1 loss at Canterbury. Jacob Richards put the hosts in front on 36 minutes but Waitakere hit back just before the hour through George Debenham, only for Declan Hickford to earn a crucial three points for the Cantabrians with the winner soon after.
That opened the door for Team Wellington to edge ahead of Waitakere and into fourth on the standings, albeit only on goal difference. They were able to do so courtesy of a 3-2 away success over Southern United, thanks largely to a first-half double from Ihaia Delaney. The hosts responded through Ryan Fleming just before the break but Wellington restored their two-goal cushion when Owen Parker-Price struck on 64 minutes.
Benjamin O’Farrell gave Southern hope by making it 3-2 late on but they were unable to find an equaliser in the remaining ten minutes as Wellington closed out the vital victory.
The round’s other match was the only fixture not to affect the title race as Tasman, who had recorded only one previous win, hosted fellow strugglers Eastern Suburbs. Tasman took control from the outset but were not able to find a way past the well-organised Suburbs defence until an Alex Connor-McClean effort early in the second half.
They then scored three more times in quick succession, Van Roland Hlawn Ceu and Matt Tod-Smith striking before Connor-McClean notched his second. Suburbs did manage to hit back in additional time through substitute David Yoo but it was no more than a consolation for the Aucklanders, who have now been beaten in each of their last five outings.
With so little separating the top six, this weekend’s Round Eight action will be hugely important in the title race.
National Youth League – Round Seven
Wellington Phoenix 4 (Sam Phillip 5’, Sam Sutton 14’, Thomas Drillien 21’, Joe Bell 90’ + 7’)
Hawke’s Bay United 2 (Jorge Akers 8’, Josh Murphy 27’)
Tasman United 4 (Alex Connor-McClean 51’, 77’, Van Roland Hlawn Ceu 56’, Matt Tod-Smith 62’)
Eastern Suburbs 1 (David Yoo 90’ + 2’)
Auckland City 1 (Jack Anderson 63’)
Hamilton Wanderers 1 (Sean Skeens 15’)
Canterbury United 2 (Jacob Richards 36’, Declan Hickford 66’)
Waitakere United 1 (George Debenham 58’)
Southern United 2 (Ryan Fleming 43’, Benjamin O’Farrell 81’)
Team Wellington 3 (Ihaia Delaney 11’, 41’, Owen Parker-Price 64’)