13th Grade NRFL Boys Season Review

Head Coach Steven Paul takes a look back at the 2021 season and the first year of regional football for our 13th grade boys.

It’s always exciting coaching a 13th grade team as the players are taking that step from junior to youth football - it’s great to be able to help them adapt and hopefully thrive on a full-size field and the eleven a side game.

We were entered into the LOTTO NRFL 13th grade competition along with 12 other teams. We would play every team once in the first round of games and then the league would split into the NRFL Premiership (top 6 teams) and the NRFL Division 1 (bottom 7 teams) for the second round of games. So, our first aim was clear: secure a place in the top 6 after the first round of games.

We had a good pre-season, winning all our games against East Coast Bays, Bucklands Beach and Manurewa - all games were on the road too so the boys could get used to the travel. Our season began on the 18th April away to Western Springs at Seddon Fields, they retained the ball very well and were clinical in front of goal winning the game 2-0. I’m not sure if the artificial pitch made a difference but we never got into our stride and maybe long term a good lesson for the boys as the standard of teams in this league was shown.

Our second game was at home against Bay Olympic. Tikipunga was the venue, and the boys were keen to bounce back. We absolutely dominated the first half, playing most of the half attacking and playing some great football. The only disappointment was only going in 1-0 up thanks to Luca Owen. Our intensity dropped in the second half and Bay Olympic created a few half chances before the pressure told and the equaliser came, before we could gather ourselves Bay Olympic struck again and saw the game out 2-1. The boys were devastated, but took learnings from this game - our changing room was quiet afterwards but we had an honest discussion and the players came out with a clear idea on what they needed to do going forward and it proved to be a turning point in our season.

The next 4 games saw the boys score 24 goals and winning all 4 against Melville (6-2), Uni-Mount (11-1), Fencibles (3-1) and Northern Rovers (4-0) a great response from the boys after a difficult start. Then came our first game at the best venue in the league, Trigg Sports Arena, against high flying Auckland United who had played 6, won 6. The boys were full of confidence and excitement. The tactic was clear we set out to attack them from the beginning and to try a put them on the back foot and it paid off straight away when Jonno Bonetti gave us a lead after just 1 minute. The boys didn’t slack off after that and dominated the next 20 minutes creating another couple of good chances but sadly, we didn’t manage to add to our lead, Auckland United came back at us in the last 10 minutes of the first half and managed to equalize just before the break. The second half was a lot closer and chances were at a premium, but the visitors managed to eke a winner ten minutes from time.

At this point I will mention our 12th grade keeper Braedyn Stanners who follows in his father’s footsteps in playing for Northland FC. Braedyn was fantastic for this team and has shown everyone his quality and for me has a very big future if he continues to progress the way he has this season.

After the setback against Auckland United, the boys again put a good run of wins together winning the next 4 games against Eastern Suburbs (2-0), East Coast Bays (1-0), Hibiscus Coast (2-0) and (2-1) against Bucklands Beach in which Braedyn saved a last-minute penalty to secure us the win.

With those results and only one game remaining in round 1 we had secured our top 6 finish with a place in the top three alongside Auckland United and Western Springs. So to our final game of round 1 against Birkenhead away and even though our place in the top 6 was secured it wasn’t the case for our hosts who needed three points to achieve the same feat. We started strong (a trait of this team) with Ryley Burgess on the scoresheet after just 3 minutes and the team was again showed their class for 20 minutes, dominating the ball and creating chances. However, the hosts levelled with a well-executed short corner routine that caught us napping, the game then became end to end for the remaining 10 minutes before half time and the hosts were awarded a penalty to make it 2-1 at the break. Birkenhead then used the counterattack to great effect in the second half and probably deserved their 4-1 victory in the end. The new system had given us a lot going forward but also highlighted what we needed to work on when we didn’t have the ball.

So, onto the NRFL Premiership and a home game against Fencibles, which the boys won 4-1 followed by another home game against Birkenhead at Trigg. The boys saw it as opportunity to make amends against a team we had lost against only 2 weeks previously. We started very brightly and took a deserved lead after 15 minutes thanks to our center back Rafe Fleming-Bone from a corner we again created chances but couldn’t add to the lead and then were sucker punched just before half time as the visitors equalised. The boys responded really well in the second half, and we finally broke through with a 35-yard free kick from the superb Luca Owen, two more goals followed from Ryan Gore and Jonno Bonetti to give us a 4-1 victory and we had made a perfect start to the second round.

Then came Auckland United away who were unbeaten 14 games into the season, with probably the closest they came to defeat being the game against us at home. We reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation that we played against them earlier in the season as it was quite effective but somewhat uncharacteristically, started slowly and found ourselves 2-0 down at the break. We decided to change at half time to 3-4-3, which provoked a response but we were hit by a decisive blow, conceding a third which put the game out of reach. Fionn Howard scored from the spot and the game finished 3-1. A shame for the boys as we just never got started until the second half.

Sadly, due to covid that would end up being our last game as we went into level 4 and were not able to play our last two games against Western Springs at home and Bay Olympic away. We finished the season in third place out of 13 teams which is testament to the character of these players. Of course, in youth football the performance outweighs the result with final league placings serving as a barometer for progress, both as individuals and as a team.

The boys played some great football and never failed to entertain, they were a pleasure to work with and are setting themselves up to become fine young men as well as capable footballers. If they continue to train and play this way throughout their youth career there is no doubt that they will be representing our club at senior level at the earliest opportunity. I would like to thank our team sponsor, McDonald’s Northland for backing the club, and the parents of the players – both for their incredible support on the sidelines but also for assisting with transport and providing after match food during home games. Onward and Upward!

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