By Harrison Ryburn
It’s all or nothing for UC Football at English Park this Saturday, with the New World Canterbury Premiership winners needing to overturn a first-leg deficit in the Mainland Football senior men’s play-off series to keep alive their hopes of Southern League qualification.
FC Nelson take a 3-2 lead into the second leg of the tie, with the winner set to progress to another final two-legged play-off with Roslyn-Wakari AFC to settle who takes FC Twenty 11’s spot in the Southern League for 2024.
While they remain well and truly in the tie with home advantage to come, UC Football were always chasing the scoreline against the Nelson Pine Premier League champions in the first leg at Guppy Park.
An early TJ Hansen penalty gave Nelson FC the lead inside the first quarter of an hour, before Hemi Innes replied with a spot-kick of his own to draw UC level at 1-1.
Goals from Jamine Wilson and Phun Lian restored Nelson FC’s advantage to 3-1 at the start of the second stanza, though, with UC requiring a second goal from Hemi Innes late on to stay in the tie.
Defeat isn’t something the students have been used to this season, with UC Football losing just one game in the New World Canterbury Premiership and going on to win the title by a dominant 13-point margin.
Head coach and UC Football vice-president Anthony O’Connor explained his pride in the group, describing how it comes off the back of a three-year project to rebuild the credibility of the club in the men’s game.
“What makes it even more impressive is that we haven’t fielded the same starting eleven or matchday sixteen in back-to-back games all year for various reasons,” he said.
FC Nelson have also had a strong campaign, going unbeaten through the Nelson Pine Premier League and edging Rangers Blenheim to win the competition by a single point.
O’Connor acknowledged them as a “well set-up side who have had a great season”, but said “It will be interesting to see how they cope with playing on the English Park turf in front of a hostile crowd.”
He believes the UC playing group is “incredibly resilient and has worked hard this week in order to go out and turn the tie around.”
A big challenge lies ahead of the club if they are to qualify for the Southern League in 2024, with another two-legged play-off against men’s Southern Premiership side Roslyn-Wakari AFC needed should they progress past FC Nelson.
O’Connor said participating in the Southern League would represent “the highest level of competition, but we have a few jobs to do before we think of 2024!”
Universities of Canterbury v FC Nelson
English Park, Christchurch, 11am
(Nelson lead 3-2 after first leg)
Harrison Ryburn is a Canterbury-based football writer.