A star turn from Tayla O’Brien has helped Auckland earn a place in the National Women’s League grand final for the first time since 2012 after the midfielder assisted all three goals in a 3-0 success over Southern United in the preliminary final this afternoon.
Some superb goalkeeping from Southern’s Tessa Nicol had kept Auckland scoreless until the 26th minute at Keith Hay Park but O’Brien then began her match-winning exploits, finding herself with the ball on the edge of the area but, instead of shooting, laying it off to Grace Jale. The Football Ferns squad member accepted the opportunity in some style, rifling home an unstoppable strike from 25 yards to put one foot in the final for Auckland.
O’Brien was in on the assists again soon after, teeing up recent Football Ferns debutant Hannah Blake to finish past the diving figure of Nicol in the 38th minute.
That left Southern, who had already enjoyed a hugely memorable campaign after making it through to the playoffs for the first ever time, with a steep hill to climb but they gave themselves a chance of doing so when Renee Bacon pulled one back with a close-range header just after half-time.
But any hopes they had of completing their fairy-tale with a place in the grand final were dashed when Auckland’s two-goal lead was restored in the 78th minute, O’Brien getting to the byline and crossing for Jacqui Hand to smash home.
The determined southerners refused to give up though, forcing several saves late on from Auckland goalkeeper Nadia Olla as they desperately tried to keep their best ever campaign alive.
But Auckland closed out the game to finish as deserved winners and will now look to go on and claim their first title since 2009.
In the pre-game build-up, coach Gemma Lewis had spoken of the strides her players had made since their opening day defeat to Southern and was delighted to see them prove that this afternoon.
“We know we have the quality amongst the team and when we play our football we can beat any team in this league – it was about putting all that together today,” she said.
“It’s a great feeling to make the final, the girls were hungry for it and the staff have put in so much work behind the scenes. We are really looking forward to next weekend.”
Southern coach Terry Parle was disappointed to see his side’s special season come to an end but had plenty of praise for both sets of players.
“It was a good game of football and, take nothing away from Auckland, they were the better team in the first half,” he admitted.
“We changed a couple of things at half time and we were the better team in the second half. We’ve had four shots in the last five minutes and, on another day, they go in. But I was pleased with our girls’ attitude and I really do wish Auckland all the best in the final – they’re the best team we’ve played this season,” he added.
“Overall, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this season. We’ve now proven there’s a lot of talent in the south. In the past, girls have had to leave Dunedin but we can now provide that standard of football.”
Auckland will now take on defending champions Canterbury United Pride in the National Women’s League grand final, to be played at English Park in Christchurch on Sunday 10 December and televised live on SKY Sport.
National Women’s League Preliminary Final
Auckland 3 (Grace Jale 26’, Hannah Blake 38’, Jacqui Hand 78’)
Southern United 1 (Renee Bacon 49’)