By Jack Sharp
While the Northern League title has long been sorted, the scramble continues to fill three more qualifying spots for National League participation.
The current table suggests Birkenhead United and Melville United should fill two of the places, and it’s a two-way race between Auckland United and Hamilton Wanderers to fill the last spot.
Sure, a disastrous turnaround of form could see Birkenhead United or Melville United miss the cut, but that’s not likely.
Both United and Wanderers play teams in the relegation zone this weekend.
Here’s our preview of the round:
Western Springs (6th) v Melville United (3rd)
Seddon Hills, Westmere, Auckland
With five Northern League games to go, Melville United must already have one eye on the National League. Chances are, they’ll only need a point a game to be sure of qualifying with a top-four finish.
So, at what stage does coach Sam Wilkinson switch to a longer-term plan, and start protecting his key players from injury?
He’s had two weeks to consider such options, given the loss of key players recently. In their last game, Moh Reynolds suffered a pulled hamstring and Stafford Dowling copped a collar bone injury, according to Melville’s website.
Kieran Richards, who has contributed some useful goals this season, has gone back to the United States for his college scholarship programme.
No doubt Wilkinson has scribbled more than a few potential line-ups as he considers the rotation of his squad for the remaining games.
Coaches who insist on taking “one game at a time” usually pull up short. Smart coaches (and Wilkinson appears to be in that category of coach) manage their players’ game time and injury risk with a bigger picture in mind.
And the clues to Wilkinson’s thinking will start to appear in team sheets for games like this.
Springs have been adventurous of late, chancing their arm to win games such as last week’s 4-3 victory against Manukau United.
Coach Chris Zoricich is another forward-thinker, no doubt looking to give his younger players game time to stake a claim for next season’s campaign.
He’ll be without Faiti Hamilton-Pama for this, as he serves a suspension.
If both coaches opt to give game time to fringe players, we could see two teams with young players given the freedom to go at each other.
If so, expect a high-scoring affair. It’ll be entertaining.
My pick? Melville don’t do draws, so I favour them to win 3-2 or 4-2.
North Shore United (11th) v Hamilton Wanderers (5th)
Allen Hill Stadium, Devonport
After a miserable season so far, in which they’ve conceded 76 goals, North Shore United have shown a few flickers of hope.
In their last outing, they upset local rivals Takapuna, beating them 1-0 with a goal in added time.
The clean sheet proved their defence can get through 90 minutes without wilting, and they must see Saturday’s game as a chance to scramble further clear of bottom-placed Waiheke United.
Even more so, a win against Hamilton Wanderers would have 10th-placed Takapuna looking nervously over their shoulder.
Wanderers are having the sort of season that could turn out to be one of the club’s greatest — or they could finish with nothing.
They’ve reached the semi-finals of the Chatham Cup and a final would be deserving for an ambitious club that has yet to win a national trophy.
They’re fifth in the Northern League, six points adrift of the cut-off for National League qualification.
A winning run, starting with three points at North Shore, and they might qualify.
A loss this week and that dream all but ends.
Knowing they are “all in”, in poker parlance, means Wanderers will throw everything at Shore.
I suspect Shore will put up strong resistance but once they cave in, Wanderers will fill their boots.
Bold prediction? Scoreless at half-time; 4-0 to Wanderers at full-time.
Other fixtures (with current league placings)
Bay Olympic (8th) v Takapuna (10th)
Olympic Park, Auckland, 3pm
Auckland United (4th) v Waiheke United (12th)
Keith Hay Park, Mt Roskill, 3pm
How they stand
Last weekend’s games
Our coverage of Northern League and Lotto NRFL men’s football is made possible through the support of our partners at Cube, specialists in print, design and signage. We encourage clubs and businesses to consider Cube when looking for professional help in their branding and promotional planning.