Wairarapa United’s Shakille Belle, right, goes up against Alec Solomons of Birkenhead United. PHOTO/JADE CVETKOV

FOOTBALL

JAKE BELESKI
jake.beleski@age.co.nz

A stirring second-half fightback wasn’t enough for Wairarapa United to keep their hopes of a second Chatham Cup title alive on Saturday.

Wairarapa took on Birkenhead United in a quarterfinal clash at Memorial Park, and it looked as if the match could be over at halftime with the visitors dominating and leading 2-0 at the break.

But Wairarapa rallied in impressive fashion to throw everything at Birkenhead in the second half, and went agonisingly close to forcing the match into extra time.

It was clear from the outset that Birkenhead were going to be tough to beat, as they controlled possession and looked more likely to make something happen on attack.

A couple of strong saves from Wairarapa goalkeeper Scott Morris kept the visitors at bay, but they eventually found the back of the net in the 22nd minute through Sam Burfoot, after a well-placed freekick was headed into his path and he nudged it into the back of the net.

Ten minutes later they extended their lead after a freekick from almost the exact same position was ruled to have hit the arm of a Wairarapa defender.

Christian Gray stepped up to comfortably slot the resulting penalty.

Wairarapa were getting desperate and the crowd rose to its feet as the inspirational Paul Ifill was introduced into game just before halftime.

Wairarapa came out with a sense of purpose in the second spell, but it wasn’t until the 76th minute that they made it count on the scoreboard.

Captain Cam Lindsay launched a counterattack from his own end with a searching run, and lobbed a perfectly-timed through ball which landed at the feet of Hamish Watson.

The Wairarapa striker calmly navigated the ball past the keeper and suddenly the match was alive again.

The final 20 minutes produced some of the most entertaining football you could hope to see, as Wairarapa launched wave after wave of attack in a frantic search for an equaliser.

Ifill had a freekick nudged just wide of the goal by the Birkenhead goalkeeper, while Daniel Allan fired a header just over the bar with five minutes remaining.

Morris was brought up into the attacking end as Wairarapa tried everything over the dying stages, but it wasn’t to be as Birkenhead were able to celebrate a thrilling victory.

Nobody could begrudge Birkenhead their place in the semifinals, but Wairarapa will be desperately disappointed after showing they were more than a match for their opposition in the second half.

Watson was a standout for Wairarapa, while the complexion of the match changed when Ifill was introduced.

Lindsay and Brian Kaltack controlled proceedings from the back in the second half, and Morris made several stunning saves.

Joining Birkenhead in the Chatham Cup semifinals will be Cashmere Technical, Western Suburbs and Nelson Suburbs.

Meanwhile, the Wairarapa United women’s team scored a convincing 5-0 Kelly Cup win over Western Suburbs on Saturday to advance to the next round of the knockout competition.