Emmanuel Darkwa celebrates winning the 2016 ISPS Handa Chatham Cup with his Birkenhead United team mates (Photosport)
The Birkenhead United squad may possess recent experience of winning the ISPS Handa Chatham Cup but will largely turn to youthful exuberance to carry them through their semi-final challenge away against Nelson Suburbs on Sunday.
The 2016 winners will head down to the South Island today and stay overnight to ensure their legs are fresh for the final-four encounter. But there are not likely to be too many stiff muscles or creaky joints anyway as most members of the playing squad are under the age of 19.
Despite being only 25 himself, Emmanuel Darkwa is one of the few elder statesmen in the team and relishes the presence of so many fit and able youngsters.
“We’ve got a young group who are hungry and just really wanting to win games,” he says.
“They are just so willing to run and close down areas which is great to see. It’s been part of our recipe for success and hopefully we can carry that on in the Chatham Cup.”
The defender is among a handful of survivors from Birkenhead’s historic campaign two years ago, in which they lifted the prestigious trophy for the first ever time. Also remaining from that group are Sam Burfoot, Christian Gray and goalkeeper Damien Hirst, whose combined experience will be crucial in guiding such a youthful line-up through the pressure cooker of Sunday’s big occasion.
“I guess that experience of being there before might push off through, it certainly did when we were in our quarter-final against Wairarapa – you could just see that experience showing,” Darkwa says.
“Being in that final has really helped us to settle the nerves this year – even though we’re quite young, we’ve got a lot of games under our belts. So hopefully we can use that experience and push through to another final this year.”
While Birkenhead are looking to make their second final in three years, their opponents have already matched their best ever finish by reaching the semi-finals. It has been a long time since the Chatham Cup has resided at the top of the South Island with the last team from the region to win it being Nelson United way back in 1977.
The Aucklanders will therefore be favourites at Saxton Field but Nelson Suburbs have shown how difficult they are to topple at home after edging out East Coast Bays, neighbours of Birkenhead, in the previous round. Like Bays, Birkenhead compete in the Lotto NRFL Premier League but are faring much better than their third-from-bottom local rivals.
Coach Paul Hobson has led ‘Birko’ to the summit of the table – although several teams below them have games in hand – and a league-and-cup double is therefore still a possibility.
“This is going to be a huge ask,” admits Suburbs coach Steve Bignall.
“They’re a young, very fit side and we need a few things to go our way, take our chances when they’re presented and try to get our noses in front. That’s what happened with East Coast Bays – they didn’t get going until after half-time when they decided there was game on and we were already one up.”
With semi-final football so rare in this part of the country and Nelson a football-loving town, the locals are sure to come out in their hundreds to get behind Suburbs but there will be just as much support willing Birkenhead on from up in the City of Sails.
“Two years ago, you could see the amazing support that we received and it does mean so much to the club, especially to those supporters that we see week-in, week-out,” Darkwa says.
“There are stalwarts you see in the club rooms who still talk about that day. It’s such a family, tight-knit club and we’re happy to have that support driving us through.”
Republished via www.nzfootball.co.nz