Season 2007-08 would be remembered as one of transition. Auckland City looked to a bright new future under new coach Colin Tuaa with a number of players exiting Kiwitea Street for arch-rivals Waitakere United. Jonathan Perry, Paul Seaman, Neil Sykes and second choice keeper Richard Gillespie crossed the City of Sails, deemed surplus to requirements by Tuaa. Jonathan Smith – a lynchpin under Jones – departed for a new life in Japan.
The arrival of the man known as the ‘Cannon Shooter’ – Ki-Hyung Lee – would bolster the Auckland ranks, a player with undoubted pedigree with Korea Republic. Fiji international Salesh Kumar also arrived at Kiwitea Street, while youngsters Sam Campbell, Alex Feneridis and Adam McGeorge emerged.
Waitakere United also made sweeping changes. O-League winning coach Steve Cain left the club and was replaced by Chris Milicich. Waitakere had taken out the minor premiership the season before, but fell in the Grand Final, a hammerblow for the club. A clutch of cross-City arrivals boosted their ranks. Darren Bazeley arrived from the New Zealand Knights while Benjamin Totori – a livewire with YoungHeart Manawatu – would link up effectively with Daniel Koprivcic.
Further south, Team Wellington, coached by Stu Jacobs, were undergoing a quiet revolution led by veteran striker Graham Little. The diminutive frontman declared this season would be his last and it was his intention to go out on a high – winning the championship. Wellington stamped their mark on the opening day of the season with a 2-1 away win over Waitakere.
Stu Jacobs said: “I told the boys that win or lose let’s make a statement that we’re contenders this season. I think they achieved that.”
A winning streak of five matches saw Wellington sit top of the pile – until a 1-5 thrashing to Waitakere inspired by an Allan Pearce hat-trick. “We got a lot of criticism after the first up loss to Wellington – we’ve proved we’re not a bad side and we can scrap if we want to,” said Chris Milicich. Jacobs was in sombre mood. “We can’t play like that and think we’re going to win championships,” he said.
With Waitakere and Wellington waging their own private war, Auckland City opened hostilities on the domestic front with a nine-match unbeaten start to the season. Seven wins, two draws and no defeats left many observers thinking Auckland were a shoo-in for four-in-a-row. A 1-0 away win at Hawke’s Bay with only nine men suggested the defending champions would be tough to beat – Tuaa recalls his relief that day at Park Island.
“I’m really pleased with the character and the way we re-organised things – it’s been a hell of a week,” Tuaa said. He was right – seven injuries, two red cards and a backs to the wall win, and all a fortnight before the first Super City derby of the season.
Derby day produces unusual pressures and this Super City derby had plenty of it – seven yellow cards and another red for an Auckland City player – Chad Coombes – featured in a combative encounter. Two defensive mistakes allowed Benjamin Totori and Paul Seaman to get on the scoresheet. For Seaman – unwanted at Kiwitea Street – it was a special moment.
While Auckland and Waitakere were kicking lumps out of each other, Team Wellington continued their dogged pursuit of the playoffs. Graham Little smashed a hat-trick that gave Wellington a 3-0 win over struggling Canterbury. Jacobs was effusive in his praise of Little, describing the Scot as “the ultimate goal poacher”. For Canterbury, hammered 9-1 by Waitakere the week before and under new management in the shape of coach Korouch Mounsef, it was another painful day.
The effect on Team Wellington’s campaign was profound. Their final seven games of the regular season saw the capital men rack up six wins in a row, 19 goals for and only one against. It’s a run they haven’t matched since. With questions marks raised about Auckland City’s ability to dominate the Super City derby after a second defeat, Wellington sensed a playoff with the defending champions may not be the match it may once have been in previous seasons.
Going into the final day of the regular season, Waitakere sat atop with 50 points and a match with Otago United looming. Auckland and Wellington sat joint second on 47 points. An advantage of plus 37 goal difference over Auckland meant Waitakere could afford a narrow defeat to the southerners and still lift the minor premiership. Wellington needed a seven goal win over Auckland to take the minors and qualify for the Grand Final. Hawke’s Bay – Wellington’s nearest rivals – had given up the playoff chase weeks ago, now some 18 points adrift of the Jacobs-coached side.
Otago gave Waitakere a scare and produced a 2-2 draw in Dunedin – it was hardly an inspiring performance but it was job done for Milicich and the Danny Hay-skippered West Auckland outfit. At Kiwitea Street, Auckland City downed Team Wellington 3-2 in a pulsating match, a precursor of the drama that would unfold in the preliminary final a week later.
A place in the final was at stake. Graham Little had confirmed it would be his final match of senior football. Colin Tuaa – the man charged with taking Auckland City to their fourth title in a row – looked on pensively. The lid was about to blow off at Kiwitea Street.
As if scripted, Little opened the scoring on 24 minutes to silence the home ground. With twenty minutes left, Jeff Campbell equalised for Auckland City. Within three minutes Auckland led after City’s other Korean import Chan-Goo Yan deflected countryman Ki-Hyung Lee’s freekick past Phil Imray. The Team Wellington bubble looked burst. Substitite Peter Halstead took the match to extra time with an 86th minute leveller.
Kiwitea Street drew its breath. Luis Corrales was bundled over for a stonewall penalty – Greg Uhlmann was sent off for Auckland – and Little made no mistake from the spot on 109 minutes. 3-2 for Wellington. Halstead rubbed salt into the wounds on 116 minutes. A late goal by George Suri left the game finely balanced as Auckland fought desperately to grab a goal to take the match to penalties. It wasn’t to be.
Stu Jacobs was ecstatic in victory.
“There was talk about history being against us but I told the lads that the only history we need to worry about is what we set,” Jacobs said.
Auckland City’s three-year reign as New Zealand football champions was over – a final with Waitakere United loomed large.
Golden Boot winner Graham Little, scorer of 46 goals in 81 games for Team Wellington, expressed his delight thus:
“The old legs are still working,” Little said, “But today’s not my last game – that’s next week and there’d be no better way to finish than winning the Grand Final.”
Sadly for Little, that honour was to elude the prolific Scot.
Waitakere United edged a nervy final 2-0, with Karl Whalen turning the ball into his own net just before halftime.
Allan Pearce sealed the win for Waitakere beating two defenders with a clinical finish midway through the second half.
Stu Jacobs was philosophical after guiding Team Wellington to a Grand Final in his first season in charge, but falling short of a title and with it missing out on next year’s O-League.
“We made them work hard for it and we were close, but nobody likes losing. We know we can compete with these teams now so as a franchise we have to make sure we don’t take the foot off the throat and come back stronger for the experience next season,” Jacobs said.