Football Ferns Deserve So Much More Than A Draw

Story by Jeremy Ruane


The despairing look on the face of Football Ferns' captain Abby Erceg, after the final whistle at Etihad Stadium on June 7, spoke volumes for how close she and her team-mates came to finally ending a 29-match winless streak against their arch-rivals.

The Football Ferns were held to a 1-1 draw by Australia's Matildas in front of 8,604 fans, and the natives know all too well that, had the visitors won the match, their victory would have been fully and richly deserved, as they   were the better side throughout.

In just three days, Tony Readings' charges have absorbed the lessons to be learnt from Ballarat and applied them to their game to produce a performance laden with pride, passion and belief, one which would surely have enjoyed its due reward but for an appalling non-decision by Japanese referee Fusako Kajiyama and her Australian assistant, Allyson Flynn, about which, more later.

The signs that the black-clad Kiwis would be a different animal under the Etihad Stadium roof were evident inside the first seventy seconds of play. Kirsty Yallop, the only change to the starting line-up, saw her free-kick cleared back to her, allowing the midfielder to lob the ball back into the danger zone, with Meikayla Moore prodding a shot narrowly past the post in the ensuing melee.

This sparked the anticipated Australian response, but this time, they encountered a far more resilient Football Ferns defensive unit, one which repelled everything the home side could muster inside the first ten minutes of play, while countering via the pace of the overlapping Ria Percival down the right - she had a massive game, but she wasn't alone in this regard.

In the fifteenth minute, FC Basel's new signing scampered down the right on the counter-attack before inviting Hannah Wilkinson - much more like her usual self! - to take up the baton.

On she charged before firing in a cross which had Katie Bowen as its target. The lone black-clad player in the penalty area attempted a spectacular scissors kick, but Alanna Kennedy ensured that Lydia Williams would not be forced into producing a save.

Three minutes later, another New Zealand raid saw Annalie Longo latch onto the ball before feeding Amber Hearn inside her. The striker unleashed a twenty-yarder which deflected to safety, much to Williams' relief.

The way the Football Ferns had started the match left one wondering why lessons from the past still aren't being fully applied. On occasions when we've previously played Australia in multi-match series such as this one, it's taken the New Zealand squad the first game just to sort themselves out and get back in the groove.

A strong showing in the second match is often the norm in such situations - it was certainly the case in this encounter. It begs the question why we can't squeeze in a friendly-type fixture prior to the first clash of a series such as this in order to get rid of the cobwebs and re-establish combinations, so that we hit the ground running from game one.

For the funds which the likes of High Performance Sport NZ have invested in the Football Ferns, our national team literally can't afford to under-perform on the world stage in any match.

Any steps we can take to ensure we hit the ground running from the first whistle of the first match of any series we contest need to be employed, so we're not left to fight an uphill battle in subsequent matches when recapturing credibility and regaining respect are added burdens the squad shouldn't need to bear.

I digress. The Matildas' attacking fury reared its head again after twenty minutes, Kennedy combining with Caitlin Foord, who was far better contained here than in Ballarat.

This time, her cross wasn't cleared by Moore, and Erin Nayler's attempts to punch clear were impeded by Lisa De Vanna, allowing Kyah Simon to get in a shot. Percival cleared the danger, but seconds later Foord picked out Simon with a cross which saw her eye-catching volley blocked well by Erceg.

The Kiwis weathered this latest storm and in response, unleashed Cyclone Ali down the left in the 27th minute. Ali Riley stormed down the flank at a great rate of knots, only to uncharacteristically deliver a cross behind fellow raiders Hearn and Wilkinson, both of whom were in mid-stride towards near post and far respectively when they realised the ball's trajectory was where they had been five seconds prior.

Irked by her error, Riley soon made amends, a vital tackle thwarting Katrina Gorry in the act of shooting, following a De Vanna-led raid. But it was the collective errors of Australia's rearguard which were giving the natives cause for concern, presenting the Football Ferns with a number of opportunities to exploit one of their strong suits - set-pieces.

One such opportunity materialised in the 31st minute, but Yallop's corner was cleared, and away raced Foord on the counter-attack, galloping half the length of the field before angling an early cross in towards fellow speed merchant De Vanna.

The Football Ferns had recovered well, however, and a subsequent collision between Percival and Steph Catley allowed everyone to draw breath while both received treatment.

When the visitors next threatened with a set-piece, eight minutes before half-time, they were just inches away from opening the scoring. Yallop flighted a delightful corner to the near post, where Erceg forced her way through the gathered throngs to flick the ball on to the far post, where the rising figure of Hearn just failed to make contact with the ball, the unguarded net yawning invitingly just a metre ahead of her.

New Zealand's all-time-leading markswoman was not a happy camper upon missing out on the chance to edge ever closer to her 300th career goal, but before she had the chance to make amends, Elise Kellond-Knight thrashed a twenty-five yarder wide of the mark at the other end of the park.

The fine covering run of Moore thwarted Simon's bid to break the deadlock five minutes before half-time as Clare Polkinghorne fired over a cross on the run, while two minutes later a slaloming run from half-way past four players by Foord culminated in her lashing a twenty-yarder onto the roof of Nayler's net - the closest the Matildas had come to scoring to this point in proceedings.

Back came the Football Ferns, Longo and Wilkinson combining in an intricate attack which, but for the split-second mis-timing of both a pass and a run, would have left Hearn in on goal with just Williams to beat, rather than a body width at most offside.

The Matildas' goalkeeper produced the first save of the match on the stroke of half-time, smothering a Wilkinson effort after Bowen and Longo had unhinged Australia's defence, prompting a half-closing counter-attack which culminated in Gorry curling a shot past the far post from the edge of the penalty area.

It goes without saying Alen Stajcic gave his Australian charges a bit of a rev-up at half-time, as they certainly came out all guns blazing from the resumption of play. Simon led the charge, firing one high and another high before getting the mix right in the fiftieth minute, only to find Nayler springing skywards to turn her latest effort over the bar.

By this time, half-time substitutes Betsy Hassett and Sarah Gregorius had got up to speed with the game's pace, and in the 53rd minute the latter's pace, in tandem with the craft of Longo and Bowen, had Australia in trouble aplenty, the substitute only being denied by the vital covering tackle of Polkinghorne.

Two minutes later, the crossbar twanged resoundingly as Erceg, with a bullet six-yard header from Bowen's pinpoint corner, came within two inches of giving the Football Ferns a lead few would have begrudged them. This was one of their best collective displays for some time, make no mistake - despite the final outcome, it's one they can reflect on with pride.

Seconds after Erceg's miss, the crossbar was rattled again, this time by Gregorius, albeit from an offside position. Then, after a brief respite, the Football Ferns pressed again, Hearn leading the 63rd minute charge which ultimately culminated in Longo and Gregorius combining to play in Hassett, in the heart of the Matildas' penalty area.

Catley came sliding in to thwart the midfielder, a feat she accomplished by foul means rather than fair via the most blatant handball offence you will ever see. Everyone did, save for two people, referee Kajiyama and her Australian-based assistant, Flynn, who, between them, ignored New Zealand's pleas for the awarding of what was a stonewall penalty

One wonders what the outcome would have been had a Football Ferns player been guilty of this misdemeanour we'll never know, of course, but you don't need to be Einstein to guess the most likely outcome.

Thankfully, justice was imminent, but not before Foord had finally forced her way to the by-line before pulling the ball back towards De Vanna, who lost control of it at the vital moment, allowing Hassett to thump the ball safety.

Her clearance was latched onto by Gregorius, who, from inside her own half, rampaged down the left at pace towards the edge of the penalty area, where her progress was curtailed by Kennedy's challenge.

While Gregorius had been causing mayhem at will down the left, Bowen had been making a parallel run down the right flank, gradually cutting inside to support her team-mate near the edge penalty area.

The ricochet from Kennedy fell invitingly into Bowen's stride, and from twenty yards she curled home a first-time effort over Williams and in off the underside of the crossbar - 1-0 Football Ferns, and a maiden international goal for Bowen as well.

'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', so they say. Whoever came up with that age-old maxim had clearly never witnessed an Australian women's football team's collective ire!

To say they were not best pleased is something of an understatement! But before they could go about redressing the balance, they had to survive another Gregorius-led raid, culminating in a timely interception by Kennedy as the substitute looked to play in Hearn with just Williams standing between the number nine and a two-goal cushion.

Straight downfield tore The Matildas, with Percival's timely tackle on Foord followed seconds later by Nayler's second save of the match, Gorry directing her drive straight at the custodian in the 68th minute.

The same player landed another shot on the roof of New Zealand's net two minutes later, before Hearn spurned the chance to double her team's lead, her lob landing on the roof of the net after Gregorius, upon intercepting the goalkeeper's poor pass to Laura Alleway, quickly teamed up with her fellow front-runner.

Seventeen minutes from time, the Matildas drew level, and again, there was a hint of controversy surrounding it. Longo had the ball in midfield, but was fouled by one of the opponents challenging her.

Referee Kajiyama didn't see the naughty challenge, which left Longo on the deck and yellow shirts pouring forward in a move which culminated in Emily Van Egmond and substitute Michelle Heyman teaming up to present De Vanna to cut inside onto her favoured left foot and curl a twenty yard effort round both Riley and the despairing dive of Nayler, the ball's next stop the bottom far corner of the net.

Black-clad players were crestfallen, but after Gorry thrashed a twenty-yarder narrowly past Nayler's right-hand post, rallied to resume their pursuit of a victory they fully merited.

Bowen saw her ambitious thirty yard volley easily dealt with by Williams in the 81st minute, while three minutes later, Percival linked with Hassett on the right, the latter evading two challenges as she dashed along the by-line before pulling the ball back, only for Catley to clear the danger.

Four minutes from time, the Matildas came desperately close to clinching an unlikely victory. A stray Erceg pass was pounced on by Van Egmond, who combined with De Vanna and Heyman to play in Foord.

Nayler blocked her effort at close quarters, but the danger wasn't averted, with Gorry having a shot blocked before Van Egmond headed the rebound back into the goalmouth, where Heyman gleefully steered it home.

Thankfully for the Football Ferns, the offside flag was raised, but it gave the Matildas momentum going into the dying minutes of the contest. Substitute Chloe Logarzo picked out Alleway with a free-kick, only for the defender to see Nayler plunge to her right to turn her goalbound header round the post.

The 'keeper then pulled off another diving save to thwart a long-range effort from Van Egmond, before the Football Ferns went close with a last-minute raid led by Jasmine Pereira, which saw fellow substitute Rosie White's attempt to win the match blocked by Kennedy, Australia's best-performed player on the night.

There were far more contenders to choose from among those in black, with Percival both tireless and fearless in her efforts for the cause, while Moore was much improved defensively.

One can't understate the impetus added by the half-time introductions of Gregorius and Hassett either, while goalscorer Bowen had one of her best games in a Football Ferns shirt on a night the visitors had to settle for a draw when their performance merited so much more.

When the countries next clash at senior women's international level, it will be the fiftieth encounter between them on the world stage, although Australia, unlike their trans-tasman counterparts, have chosen not to recognise a couple of these games as full internationals.

Nonetheless, how fitting it would be if, on that auspicious occasion, the Football Ferns can finally end 22 years of disappointment and return to winning ways at the expense of their arch-rivals - preferably having played a game beforehand to get up to speed!

Matildas: Williams; Polkinghorne (Allen, 65), Alleway, Kennedy, Catley; Gorry, Kellond-Knight (Logarzo, 65), Van Egmond; De Vanna, Simon (Heyman, 65), Foord (booked, 76).

F'ball Ferns: Nayler; Percival, Moore, Erceg, Riley; Longo (White, 88), Duncan, Yallop (Hassett, 46); Wilkinson (Gregorius, 46), Hearn, Bowen (Pereira, 77).

Referee: Fusako Kajiyama (Japan).