‘Birko’ claim second title in three years

Birkenhead United have won the ISPS Handa Chatham Cup for the second time in three years, finally overcoming Western Suburbs on penalties after a gripping final finished 1-1 at QBE Stadium in Auckland this evening.

The Paul Hobson-coached team, who lifted the trophy for the first time in 2016, won the prestigious cup for a second time in three years and showed great character and composure in front of 3,364 fans who braved the cold conditions.

The hero for ‘Birko’ was goalkeeper Damian Hirst, who saved a penalty in regular time and repeated that feat in the shoot-out to deny Suburbs in their first Chatham Cup final in over a decade.

Western Suburbs, two-time champions from 1971 and 2006, were trying to take home the prized silverware for the first time in 12 years but came up just short. They proved worthy finalists and showed that many in their squad have bright futures but tonight Birkenhead toasted Chatham Cup success again.

Birkenhead Head Coach Hobson said it was a surreal feeling to lift the trophy after a tense final that could have gone either way.

“It feels incredible,” he said. “I still can’t quite believe it. I didn’t fancy us in the penalties, but I felt we deserved it in the end. The first half we were so-so but I felt we really got on top in the second half and when it got to penalties we are just happy to come out on top.”

Centre-half Alec Solomons, who has returned from injury to be part of Birkenhead’s squad this season, was a standout in the match and was named as the Player of the Final, the recipient of the Jack Batty Trophy.

“Words can’t describe how happy I am right now,” he said. “This is a personal accolade but this is more a reflection of our team. I love playing for Birkenhead and to win the Chatham Cup with this group of players is pretty special.”

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Birkenhead United celebrate Alex Connor-McClean’s opening goal in the ISPS Handa Chatham Cup final (Photosport)

The Northern Football team got off to the perfect start when Alex Connor-McClean found the back of the net in the seventh minute on the end of a well-worked move. From a free kick, Solomons flicked on a perfect header for Connor-McClean to finish from close range.

The Birkenhead red-and-white army, who turned up in their thousands to QBE Stadium in Albany, were on their feet and dreaming of reliving the past cup glory.

Birkenhead United, who finished fourth in the Lotto NRFL Premier League this season, had a chance to score their second in the 16th minute. Luke Jorgensen was picked out at the back post but couldn’t connect cleanly with his volley.

After the goal, Suburbs settled into the game and found their rhythm. They got back on level terms when Birkenhead turned the ball over deep in their own half. Mohamed Awad was played into the box and dummied his way around a challenge before firing past Hirst in the 34th minute.

Wests looked the more likely to claim the lead heading into halftime and should have done so in the 40th minute on the back of a hotly-debated penalty decision.

Suburbs were awarded a spot kick after a challenge by Alec Solomons right on the edge of the area. Nathanael Hailemariam stepped up to take it but was denied by a spectacular save from Hirst. It was a huge moment in the match and kept the 2016 champions level heading into the sheds.

“Damian saving that penalty was a huge plus. We knew that they would be fit and keep going, so we were happy to go in 1-1 at half time. Second half I felt we had the better chances,” said Hobson.

In the second half, the final was shaping as to who would break first as both defences handled the attacking threats well.

In the 55th minute, Hailemariam was played into the area and fired a shot from close range but it was easily contained by Hirst in goal.

At the other end of the pitch, on the back of concerted pressure, Birkenhead had a great chance to take the lead. A corner kick into the goalmouth was met by a header from Solomons but it was just wide.

The pressure kept coming and Birkenhead forward Bronson Kelly had a great chance in space but could not get a clean shot away.  For all the chances, neither side could find the back of the net as the final headed into extra time.

The best chance of the added period fell to Elijah Just in the 100th minute. The promising young midfielder volleyed across goal and his shot missed by the smallest of margins.

That meant a penalty shoot-out would be needed and both sides struggled to keep their composure initially, Christian Gray and Harrison Moss-Edge both missing the opening spot kicks for Birkenhead and Western Suburbs respectively.

The subsequent penalties were all successful though and the game wasn’t decided until Hirst pulled off another great save to keep out Dominic Wooldridge’s attempt and bring the cup back to Auckland’s North Shore.

ISPS Handa Chatham Cup Final 
Birkenhead United 1 (Alex Connor-McCLean 7’)
Western Suburbs 1 (Mohamed Awad 34’)
HT: 1-1
Birkenhead won 5 – 4 on penalties

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