Waiheke’s Chatham Cup dream ended with heartbreaking 1-0 home defeat to Eastern Suburbs on Saturday. Waiheke were the smallest club left in the hunt for New Zealand football’s most coveted trophy, and were definite underdogs in this quarterfinal clash.
On a sparkling winter’s day a bumper crowd packed the hill to cheer their heroes on and a wall of fireworks, drumbeats and song greeted the players as they entered the arena. From the opening whistle the match was tight and tense with few clear-cut chances for either team.
Eastern Suburbs were physically imposing and direct, while Waiheke’s nimble forwards threatened with mazy dribbles and short, sharp passes. The midfield battle was torrid and pivot Claudio Amad impressed with some meaty tackles and clever switches of play. He was ably supported by Bert De Raat and Juan Canay, but the visitors were well drilled and a tough nut to crack.
Inspirational captain Cabe Llunes and Felix Knight were rock solid and aerially dominant at the heart of Waiheke’s defence, and at halftime the game was deadlocked at 0-0 with an upset win for the men in red still a real possibility.
With a fierce northerly at their back, Waiheke started the second half strongly. Spicy wingers Nico Vanina and Mauri Herrera caused panic with some dazzling close control and surging runs, but Suburbs weathered the storm and struck the telling blow in the 58th minute. A quick counter-attack from the visitors forced a corner on Waiheke’s right, and the whipped delivery was met at the near post by a bullet header that gave star keeper Seb Ciganda no chance.
Waiheke were stung but, buoyed by the boisterous home crowd’s roars, they poured forward in search of an equaliser that would take the game to extra time. Fullbacks Gaspar Mena and Rohan Calustre overlapped menacingly and Suburbs’ seemingly impregnable defence suddenly looked shaky. The visitors conceded a string of yellow cards for time-wasting and cynical fouls and, in the 75th minute, their right back was given a straight red for a crude hack on Vanina. Waiheke had 15 minutes and an extra man on the pitch to keep their Cup dream alive but this just wasn’t their day as Suburbs ran the clock down expertly. Substitute and club legend Kelly Elscombe battled bravely against the visitors’ packed defence, while Llunes came close with header from a dangerous Amad free kick late in the game. • Carl Grimmer