Hearn Makes History As Ferns Edge China Again
Story by Jeremy Ruane (Click above to go to SportsWeb Soccer)

An exquisite chipped finish from Amber Hearn, just nine minutes into the Football Ferns’ clash with China at North Harbour Stadium on June 20, earned her country a 1-0 victory and the delighted scorer a place in the history books.

It was Hearn’s thirtieth goal for her country, breaking Wendy Sharpe’s record of 29 goals for New Zealand, one which has stood for eighteen years. 

It was also one of few highlights in a tightly contested encounter, with China a much improved combination compared to that which was completely outplayed by the Olympics-bound Football Ferns at Mangere Centre Park three days earlier. 

By contrast, the host nation turned in a scratchy display, with stray passes aplenty contributing to an off-key team performance, one in which Abby Erceg stood out for the Football Ferns – the central defender’s positional play and all-round effort was the best of all those who took to the park, be they wearing white or red. 

But this was Hearn’s night, and while she copped a fearful pounding from her Chinese opponents – referee Anna-Marie Keighley let an awful lot of harsh challenges go unpunished throughout proceedings, she got her retaliation in first. 

Catching Liu Shukun in possession ten yards inside China’s half in the ninth minute, Hearn swiftly shifted through the gears before spotting goalkeeper Wang Fei off her line. From twenty-five yards, she unleashed a gorgeous curling chip which gave the back-pedalling custodian no chance whatsoever as it sailed over her head into the back of the net – a brilliant strike, four years and four days since scoring her first goal for her country, against Argentina. 

Four minutes later, the Football Ferns came close to doubling their advantage. Erceg played a free-kick to Ali Riley, who dashed down the left before whipping in a cross intended for Hayley Moorwood. Chinese defender Li Jiayue headed the danger to safety, albeit narrowly across the face of her own goal. 

A further nine minutes followed before Moorwood was in the thick of things again, this time to her detriment. She was blindsided by Zhou Feifei just inside New Zealand’s half, with the Chinese midfielder quickly threading a defence-splitting pass through the home team’s rearguard which put Gong Qian through the inside-left channel. 

Jenny Bindon was all that stood between the striker and an equaliser in Gong’s eyes, but that situation changed very swiftly as Erceg raced across to execute a classic ball ‘n’ all tackle which left the Chinese player wondering what had hit her, and Bindon with the ball in her hands. 

New Zealand’s number one, who equalled Leslie King’s long-standing record of seventeen clean sheets with this shut-out, was in action again in the 24th minute, smothering a twenty yarder from Gong after Li’s ball forward had been flicked into the striker’s stride by Han Peng. 

China were getting back into the contest after their hosts had enjoyed another strong beginning, and on the half-hour once more went close to equalising. Referee Keighley ignored a clear foul on Riley on New Zealand’s left flank, and Gong took full advantage, breaking clear before firing in a cross. 

Erceg headed the ball clear, but only as far as Han, who evaded a challenge before unleashing a curling effort which cleared Bindon’s right-hand post. 

The Steel Roses were gradually getting the upper hand, but while they were playing balls in behind New Zealand’s defence, too often they were over-hit, and ran harmlessly out of play. The Football Ferns weren’t assisting their own cause by misdirecting a number of their passes, and the combined lack of accuracy from both teams resulted in a match which will never rank as one of the greatest advertisements for women’s football you’ll ever witness. 

But it was a game which was tight and testing, with defences dominating proceedings – witness Li’s headed clearance of Kirsty Yallop’s free-kick, as she sought out Hearn’s head ten minutes before half-time. 

Five minutes later, China had grounds for a free-kick of their own, just outside the Football Ferns’ penalty area. Song Xiangjie played the ball forward, and Lou Jiahui’s flick allowed Gong to cause problems once more. Riley raced across and left the striker tasting the turf with her thumping tackle, one with which referee Keighley had no issues. 

The paucity of opportunities to score continued throughout the second spell, with just two materialising in the first half-hour of the final forty-five minutes. Both went the way of China, with the first arising from a wayward Ria Percival pass, on the hour. 

Wang Lisi, one of six substitutes the Steel Roses used in this match – two of whom, incidentally, were themselves replaced later in the game – pounced on the loose ball and set off towards goal. 

She was eventually dispossessed by Rebecca Smith’s efforts, but kept chasing and nearly earned an unlikely reward when Erceg’s clearance cannoned straight off the persistent striker and ricocheted narrowly past Bindon’s left-hand upright, although the ‘keeper had it covered. 

China threatened again five minutes later, but Erceg was again their nemesis after Lou and Zhou had made in-roads down the Kiwis’ left flank. The visitors then found themselves on the back foot fifteen minutes from time, as the Football Ferns delighted the disappointing 1,865-strong crowd by creating their first chances of the half. 

Substitute Anna Green added some very welcome edge to the Football Ferns’ attacking influence upon her introduction, and her very first cross parted Hearn’s hair in the 76th minute. 

Two minutes later, Riley, who had switched to the right flank to accommodate the arrival of Green, dashed in-field before setting up Kirsty Yallop for a twenty-five yarder which Wang Fei gathered under her crossbar. 

But that was as close as it got for New Zealand, with China pressing again for an equaliser, this time in stoppage time. Pang Fengyue fed Wang Xin down the right, and she fired in a cross for Wang Lisi to attempt to head home. 

Rebecca Stott was up to the challenge, however, and headed well clear to snuff out China’s penultimate threat, their final attack arising from a Pang free-kick, which was fired into the penalty area from near half-way. 

Li rose above all-comers to head the ball, but couldn’t direct it on target, and when the final whistle sounded soon afterwards, a series victory over a country to whom they had lost their previous twelve encounters was something for the Football Ferns to savour, as they played their final game on home turf prior to heading to the Olympic Games. 

Their first stop on their travels is Wollongong, Australia, where they take on the Matildas on Sunday and Wednesday before returning home for the naming of the eighteen-strong Olympics squad on the penultimate day of the month. 

Then it’s off to Switzerland, where they will again compete in the Matchworld Cup prior to the Olympics themselves, where matches in Cardiff – against Great Britain and Brazil – and Coventry – against Belarus – are on the agenda, after which it’s knockout football for the Football Ferns, and with the tangible spirit coursing through this team, who knows what they can achieve if they make it to the quarter-finals? 

First things first, however. Some unfinished business against the old enemy needs attending to, at WIN Stadium from 5pm on Sunday, NZ time. 

Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival (Green, 74), Smith (Stott, 61), Erceg, Riley; Moorwood (Hassett, 61), Hoyle (booked, 90), Hearn (Longo, 80), Yallop; Gregorius, Kete (Wilkinson, 46) 

China: Wang Fei; Pang Fengyue, Song Xiangjie, Li Jiayue, Chen Miaomiao; Han Peng (Wang Lisi, 43 (booked, 53)), Liu Shukun, Lou Jiahui, Zhang Rui (Feng Yadi, 68) (Ma Xiaoxu, 80), Zhou Feifei (Wang Xin, 84); Gong Qian (Ren Guixin, 55) (Zeng Ying, 79)

Referee: Anna-Marie Keighley