The Stirling Sports Premiership trophy ventured outside of the country’s largest city for the first time last year and Team Wellington are aiming to keep it that way when they take on Auckland City in this season’s Grand Final on Sunday.
Wellington finally wrestled the title away from the City of Sails in 2016 with an upset win over Auckland City and will be looking to go back-to-back with another victory over the same opponents at QBE Stadium on Auckland’s North Shore.
It will be an intriguing battle as Team Wellington are the highest scorers in the league while the Navy Blues possess the meanest defence. At the sharp-end of Wellington’s free-scoring attack is competition Golden Boot winner Tom Jackson, who has found the net 18 times so far this season.
Jackson has formed a lethal partnership with fellow Englishman Ben Harris – the pair have plundered over 30 goals between them – and has faith that Wellington can successfully defend their national crown.
Team Wellington striker Tom Jackson
“We’re in the final because we deserve to be there – I believe that we are one of the best teams in the league,” he says. “So if we can go out and play how I know we can play with good, attacking, aggressive football then hopefully we can go back-to-back.”
Another key component in Wellington’s offensive impetus has been three-cap All White Joel Stevens, who scored twice in the remarkable semi-final victory over Waitakere United, including a strike of sublime quality.
Edging them ahead 6-5, it appeared as if Stevens’ late stunner would be the winner in that 12-goal, extra-time thriller but Waitakere hit back with one of the last kicks of the game before Wellington finally emerged triumphant on penalties.
“We’re going into this weekend knowing it’s going to be a hard game but we’re going to give it our all, just like in the semi-final,” Stevens says.
“It’s always tough going up against Auckland City, obviously we won last year which was a big positive for the club and for New Zealand football in general. Sharing it around and not having an Auckland team winning it every year shows that there’s a lot of character and good players all around New Zealand, not just based in Auckland.”
Team Wellington midfielder Joel Stevens
Wellington booked a return to the final after recovering from a slow start to their campaign under new coach Jose Figueira, who oversaw a pair of losses in his first two matches in charge.
“That happens sometimes, we had some new players and nothing really clicked,” Stevens recalls.
“Everyone is used to playing different styles in the winter so coming into the summer league and implementing Jose’s characteristics on the game was obviously important for each player. It took a little bit of time but we got there in the end. We’re playing really well now and are on the up.”
Despite earning that landmark win over Auckland City in last year’s domestic showpiece, the omens aren’t particularly good for Wellington – who will be without suspended defender Guillermo Moretti – this time around after losing both round-robin games against the Navy Blues at an aggregate score of 7-1.
And even the most rampant scorers in the Stirling Sports Premiership will find it difficult to breach an Auckland rearguard that has conceded only 15 goals in its 19 matches.
Team Wellington coach Jose Figueira
“We’ve faced them a couple of times already this season and have been on the wrong side of two results against them – probably deservedly so,” admits Figueira, who is hoping to secure a national title in his debut season of coaching at this level.
“But it’s been a long time since we played them and we’re a different team. We have a lot more belief and the boys will be eager to get out there, express themselves and hopefully put on another show.”
The Stirling Sports Premiership Grand Final between Auckland City and Team Wellington takes place at QBE Stadium in Albany on Sunday 2 April from 4.35pm.
Stirling Sports Premiership Grand Final
Auckland City vs Team Wellington
QBE Stadium, Auckland
Sunday 2 April
Live on SKY Sport