The 2006-07 Hyundai A-League kicked off on the last weekend of August, with the New Zealand Knights and Newcastle Jets grinding out a scoreless draw at North Harbour Stadium, Auckland.
While there was plenty of enterprise and endeavour, it was an encounter sorely lacking in the delivery of quality final ball and, as a result, goalscoring opportunities, and one was left with the impression that avoiding defeat was of greater importance to both sides than seeking victory.
Given their efforts of last season, many would regard that as a step forward at the very least for the New Zealand-based franchise, but new coach Paul Nevin is not someone who aspires to mediocrity - he, like we, expects better than this showing, one which offers both teams scope aplenty for improvement.
The first twenty-five minutes, in particular, were exceptionally cagey, save for one incident, a tenth minute crossbar-rattling effort from the Knights’ Jonathan Richter which, had it gone in, would have changed the entire complexion of the game.
Sadly, for many of the 5,000+ attendees who parted company with $25 at the gate, it didn’t, and what ensued will have done little to inspire a return visit next Saturday afternoon to see Pre-Season Cup winners Adelaide United - although there is the added attraction of the Chatham Cup Final afterwards to ensure punters get to see two games for the price of one!
Prior to the half-hour mark, the home team’s impressively performed defensive midfielder, Jonas Salley, had headed away a Labinot Haliti effort for Newcastle, while the Jets’ young custodian, Ben Kennedy, was right behind a long-range effort from Malik Buari, one of fourteen new recruits in the multi-cultural combination which is the NZ Knights, 2006-7 version.
Newcastle’s best chance of the half came just after the thirty minute mark, when Nick Carle - who was generally well contained by former team-mate Richard Johnson - prised open the Knights’ defence with a measured through ball for Joel Griffiths to pursue. He let fly from the edge of the penalty area, the ball brushing the fingertips of Danny Milosevic en route for a goal-kick.
That was followed by a clash of heads between Newcastle’s Paul Okon and the Knights’ Sean Devine, which left both men bloodied and bruised. But at least they could play on - the sight of Jobe Wheelhouse departing the fray on a stretcher in the 38th minute with suspected ankle ligament damage was, at the very least, sobering.
Right on the stroke of half-time, Newcastle squandered a great chance to break the deadlock. Haliti slipped Griffiths in on the right, and he powered into the penalty area before luring Milosevic out of goal and pulling the ball back. Sadly, his delivery was behind rampaging midfielder Mark Bridge, much to the relief of the local faithful.
The second half began with Carle curling a twenty-five yard free-kick round the defensive wall and into the side-netting, which prompted an instant response from the Knights as Scot Gemmill and Darren Bazeley combined to create a headed chance for Devine, which Kennedy grabbed greedily.
On the hour, a lovely move featuring Bridge and Stuart Musialik culminated in the former’s cross for Vaughan Coveny being thwarted by Gregory Duruz, while two minutes later, another Bazeley cross at the other end of the park arced just beyond its intended target, Buari, as he homed in on the far post.
Neil Emblen produced a superb recovering tackle to thwart Griffiths as he stormed into the penalty area in the 66th minute, the Knights’ stopper’s partnership with Che Bunce catching the eye throughout this defence-dominated duel.
After Milosevic had punched a Haliti cross off the head of Griffiths, the Knights’ best chance of the half fell the way of Devine, nineteen minutes from time. Again, Bazeley was the source of the raid, having been picked out by Richter. The captain’s cross found Devine in between defenders in the penalty area, but the combined efforts of Okon and Andrew Durante thwarted the striker at trigger-pulling time.
The latter was guilty of a crude challenge on Richter earlier in the half, and he was joined in referee Simon Pryzdacz’s book by Wheelhouse’s replacement, Shane Webb, in the shadows of the final whistle, the substitute having crudely felled the Knights’ enterprising reservist, Michael White, who livened up the local team’s prospects in the last fifteen minutes without anything coming of his efforts - more’s the pity!