Defending champions Team Wellington have begun their bid for a three-peat of ISPS Handa Premiership titles with a come-from-behind 3-1 win over Auckland City, earning themselves the season’s first piece of silverware in the process.
In a match that doubled as both the Premiership opener and clash for the Charity Cup, both sides had a fresh look to them at David Farrington Park in the capital but it was Wellington’s new faces that took to their surroundings more quickly, hitting two unanswered goals in the second half after the score was locked at 1-1 at the break.
Nearly half of the Auckland side was on debut with coach Ramon Tribulietx handing starts to Liam Graham and Kris Bright, as well as youngsters Callum McCowatt and Owen Parker-Price. It was a strikingly similar situation for the hosts, who fielded off-season signings Scott Hilliar, Mario Ilich, Erik Panzer and Angus Kilkolly for the first time.
Two of those new arrivals had a big say in the final outcome as former All White Bright opened the scoring midway through the first half while ex-Waitakere United and WaiBOP player Hilliar notched Wellington’s all-important second goal with just under a quarter of an hour remaining.
Hilliar also had an unfortunate hand in Bright’s opener, the much-travelled striker marking his return to New Zealand shores by firing towards goal from the edge of the area and benefitting from a hefty deflection off the debutant defender to wrong-foot Wellington goalkeeper Scott Basalaj.
Abandoning their usual attacking style and moving to four at the back from last season’s three, Wellington clearly had a game plan to sit deep and allow Auckland to dominate possession. If the intention was to frustrate the Navy Blues, it paid off as the visitors did enjoy far more of the ball but could not build on their narrow lead.
When another goal did arrive, it went the way of Wellington shortly before the interval and again it did not come in a clean manner. Joel Stevens burst down the left wing before crossing for Tom Jackson, whose shot hit the post but the ball ended up in the net anyway as an Auckland boot turned it home in the ensuing scramble.
With Auckland defender Mario Bilen limping off injured in the second spell, the match began to turn in the home side’s favour and they were able to exert more pressure on Auckland higher up the pitch. Stevens – capped three times by the All Whites – again played a role as Wellington went in front in the 77th minute, his corner landing straight on the head of Hilliar at the near post for the new signing to glance home in accomplished fashion.
That put Wellington on course for the second Charity Cup title in their history – the first also came over Auckland City in 2014 – and they went on to both claim the trophy and bank a valuable three points with a third goal late on. After teeing up the first two strikes, Stevens was well deserving of getting on the scoresheet himself and did just with an almost carbon copy of Bright’s effort, the wideman likewise trying his luck from the edge of the area and seeing his effort go in via a deflection.
It is the second time in consecutive years that Auckland have lost their opening fixture and puts a marker in the ground for Wellington as, despite triumphing in the 2017 final, Jose Figueira’s side were beaten four times in five games by the Navy Blues in all competitions last season.
“It’s always difficult starting a week earlier than everyone else and there is always the niggle in the back of your mind that you’re starting from behind but the boys executed the plan brilliantly,” Figueira said.
“We frustrated them, we knew they would have more of the ball but we stood our ground and grew into the game as it went on.”
The Charity Cup was the only match in the ISPS Handa Premiership to be played this weekend with the first full round of fixtures set to take place next week on October 22 and 23.
ISPS Handa Premiership/Charity Cup
Auckland City 1 (Kris Bright 20’)
Team Wellington 3 (Own goal 39’, Scott Hilliar 77’, Joel Stevens 88’)