PREVIEW: Tough at the bottom as four get dragged into relegation struggle

posted in: News, Northern League

By Jack Sharp

An intriguing battle for Northern League survival is emerging as the competition sorts out its potential relegation candidates.

Unlike previous seasons, when the bottom two sides automatically drop into the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship, three teams could potentially move down a tier for next season.

Melville United’s head coach Jarrod Young … his side is looking for its second win.

To accommodate the reserves team of A-League expansion club Auckland FC next year, whichever club finishes 10th in this year’s Northern League will face a play-off with the runners-up from the Lotto NRFL Men’s Championship.

READ MORE: Late changes to promotion/relegation rules disrupt start to season >>>>

After seven rounds, four teams are already locked in a relegation battle — promoted East Coast Bays, bottom side West Coast Rangers and the Waikato rivals, Melville United and Hamilton Wanderers.

Three of them are yet to win a game this season; only Melville has found a way to win (but has leaked an average of four goals a game in all their other fixtures.

East Coast Bays have ground out three draws in a row to find a semblance of form but they face leaders Auckland City this weekend.

Hamilton Wanderers head to Manurewa, where form favours the home side.

That leaves a crucial clash between Melville United and West Coast Rangers …

Game of the week

Saturday’s floodlit game between West Coast Rangers and Melville United is a classic ‘six-pointer’.

West Coast Rangers picked up their two league points in the opening three rounds of the competition, with draws against Hamilton Wanderers and Manurewa.

Since then, it’s been a rocky ride, with losses to high flyers Auckland City (3-0), Bay Olympic (4-2), Birkenhead United (3-1), Auckland United (6-1) and Tauranga City (2-1).

Rangers’ hopes won’t be helped by the suspension of midfielder Sam Burfoot, sent off in last weekend’s loss at Auckland United.

Melville United, who have struggled to replace some of their squad who left over summer, won the Waikato derby 2-1 against Hamilton Wanderers in round 2.

Apart from that, it’s been a sobering season for last season’s Chatham Cup runners-up.

Losses to Tauranga City (4-0), Birkenhead United (4-1), Manurewa (7-1), Auckland United (2-1), Auckland City (7-3) and Eastern Suburbs (4-0) have been bad enough; the losing margins are the cause for concern.

For both struggling sides, Saturday’s match provides the chance for a win to reboot a season; a loss will rattle the confidence further. And a draw will help neither in a battle to climb away from the bottom three.

It all makes for a tense game with plenty at stake.

Auckland City’s Liam Gillion unleashes a shot against Western Springs. Photo: Regan Dewar / Phototek.

Player to watch

When Emiliano Tade left Auckland City for Western Springs, the Navy Blues needed a new goalscorer to emerge.

The experienced duo of Ryan de Vries and Angus Kilkolly looked the most likely, while 17-year-old Stipe Ukich looked promising in pre-season.

But it’s been winger Liam Gillion (21) who has stepped up with eight goals in as many rounds of competition who has filled the void.

The former Western Springs striker could be in for a season where he fulfils his potential at the top level, with the prospect of this month’s OFC Champions League tournament in Tahiti and his potential selection for the New Zealand U-23 side to go to the Paris Olympics in July.

First, there’s this weekend’s game at East Coast Bays, and a chance to gain ground on the Golden Boot table … where he’s a goal behind old teammate Emiliano Tade.

Bold prediction

Eastern Suburbs and Birkenhead United have similar records this season and are likely to be thereabouts when the four qualifying spots are settled for the Men’s National League.

The danger for both teams is going into Saturday’s clash with the mindset of not losing.

You can guarantee Birkenhead will plan to shut down Suburbs striker Jake Mechell who leads the Golden Boot table with 11 goals in seven rounds.

Fortune favours the brave, as they say, and I think Birkenhead will take the game to Suburbs at Madills Farm, and pinch the win.

Last week, I tipped Western Springs to keep their unbeaten run alive, despite playing Auckland City, and I predicted East Coast Bays would return from Tauranga City with at least a point. Springs lost 2-1 to Auckland City but Bays came away with their point, drawing 2-2 at Links Ave.

Golden Boot

11 — Jake Mechell (Eastern Suburbs)
9 — Emiliano Tade (Western Springs)
8 — Jonty Bidois (Tauranga City), Liam Gillion (Auckland City)
6 — Eber Ramirez (Manurewa), Josh Tollervey (Auckland United)
5 — Corban Piper (Birkenhead United), Jerson Lagos Giraldo (Manurewa)


Games to be played on Saturday May 4, 2024

East Coast Bays v Auckland City
Bay City Park, Browns Bay, 3pm

Bay Olympic v Tauranga City
Olympic Park, New Lynn, 3pm

Manurewa v Hamilton Wanderers
Manurewa War Memorial Hall, Manurewa, 3pm


Eastern Suburbs v Birkenhead United
Madills Farm, St Heliers, 3pm

West Coast Rangers v Melville United
Fred Taylor Park, Whenuapai, 5pm

Western Springs v Auckland United
Seddon Fields, Westmere, 5.30pm

Jack Sharp

Jack Sharp is a long-time follower of club football in New Zealand and is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football. You can show your appreciation for his work by buying him a coffee.

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