The blue-and-white champions banner was already made, the medals strung and stacked and the trophy had pride of place on the table at the tunnel well before the season-ending final whistle in Napier today - such was the belief in the host.

The Thirsty Whale-sponsored Napier City Rovers didn't disappoint their legion of singing-and-chanting fans when they beat Wairarapa United 2-1 in the final round 18 Ultra Football Central League match at the Bluewater Stadium in Park Island.

It was a match befitting a league-crowning moment as the jubilant players warmed the cockles of the hearts of Rovers faithful who had erupted into celebrations that carried on well into the changing rooms and, no doubt, late into the night into the clubrooms.

The Bill Robertson-coached Blues, with a beaming match-day captain, Joshua Stevenson, thoroughly deserved their victory although the favourites would have missed a heartbeat or two when wily Wairarapa veteran Paul Ifill, copping stick from the fans for the best of the first half, scored the equaliser in the dying minutes.

Advertisement

"Look, we're relieved at the moment, just relieved," said centreback Robertson, after pulling aside to quietly reflect with his wife, Kristy, and 2-year-old son Jack to enable his troops savour the moment of a proud club which has snared its third league crown.

"A lot of hard work has gone into this obviously with players through the course of the season as well as all the preparing and planning," said the former Team Wellington title-winning captain, lauding the coaching stable and support staff.

Robertson was immensely proud of the players' contribution and the fans' loyalty through a winter that promised a lot and duly delivered, ironically on a bitterly cold afternoon.

"We knew it was going to be a tough game against a dangerous Wairarapa team who caused us some pressure," he said.

Needing a victory or draw to maintain their three-point margin, the Rovers knew Advanced Electrical Western Suburbs would have profited from a loss after boasting a superior and unassailable goal difference.

The Declan Edge-coached Suburbs stuck to the plot, spanking relegated Building King Havelock North Wanderers 7-1 at Endeavour Park, Wellington, as league organisers tailored and synchronised to end this season with all games finishing at the same time.

Robertson said defending champions Suburbs were fantastic all season, pushing the Rovers all the way to accumulate 46 points to win the crown today.

"We've dealt with it and come out on the top so I'm delighted for everyone involved."

The Rovers drew first blood through none other than golden-boot winner Martin Bueno deftly heading in a cross from right wing back Liam Schofield to front upright after a recycled corner kick for a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute.

Striker Bueno finished with 24 goals in the season and his goal was crucial with the wind behind them.

Blues striker Joshua Stevenson (captain's armband) celebrates the winning goal from substitute Bjorn Christensen (lying on the ground) at Park Island, Napier, today. Photo/Duncan Brown
Blues striker Joshua Stevenson (captain's armband) celebrates the winning goal from substitute Bjorn Christensen (lying on the ground) at Park Island, Napier, today. Photo/Duncan Brown

The second half started with a stiffer southerly punctuated by a persistent drizzle, which went a fair way in explaining why the Blues dominated the first spell and the visitors chose not to burn themselves out.

The Blues absorbed the wind-swept attacks from Wairarapa for 15 minutes before shifting gears as the rain dissipated.

Rovers midfielder Sho Goto had missed two one-on-one opportunities by the 58th-minute mark against Wairarapa United's youthful-looking goalkeeper, Scott Morris.

Assistant coach Stu James pulled out Bueno and injected Bjorn Christensen in the 65th minute, after the 27-year-old Uruguayan was coming under some attention from defensive midfielder Daniel Allan. But following a shot in the bread basket Bueno was at his tether although picking up a yellow card for chirping away at referee Anthony Riley minutes earlier.

However, it was out-of-sorts former Wellington Phoenix striker Hamish Watson who had an early shower for collecting a second yellow card following a crude tackle on Karan Mandair in the 76th minute.

Sensing the 10-man Wairarapa's knockout cup mentality from there, James pulled out Goto to inject English import defender Drew Matthews in the 83rd minute.

Ifill drew a deafening silence from the parochial home crowd when he received a pass on the left flank, ran an oblique angle before curling it inside the far upright past Blues goalkeeper Mackenzie Waite for the 1-1 equaliser in the 87th minute.

Rovers Canadian import Patryk Misik (foreground) and Joshua Stevenson celebrate the club's third Central League crown at Park Island today. Photo/Duncan Brown.
Rovers Canadian import Patryk Misik (foreground) and Joshua Stevenson celebrate the club's third Central League crown at Park Island today. Photo/Duncan Brown.

However, right on fulltime the hosts broke into a mini-celebration when an unmarked Christensen finished off a ball from an acute angle 5m out on the left to wrest back the lead, 2-1, after a magical one-two combination between Wesley Cain and veteran striker Stevenson.

Canadian import winger Cain intercepted the ball in his defensive third, crisply put it through to Stevenson in the middle. The striker slickly caught the defence napping to latch on to a through ball from Cain before unselfishly feeding it to substitute striker Christensen.

"It's unbelievable just watching on today, the suspense," said regular season skipper James Hoyle. "The lads have showed so much passion and quality at times."

The English import defender labelled the first half the best seen at home in a while.

"We knew we had to win because Wests have been chasing us hard all year so for us it's been unbelievable to set our goals and achieve it."

Hoyle said the plan was always to play to the conditions so taking the wind behind them was imperative and that did work.

Nevertheless, the wind picked up in the second half and Ifill struck but the boys showed tons of inner desire to not buckle under pressure or reach for the panic button.

"We knew all season long this is what we wanted to do."

A grinning Hoyle said with all the winning gear at the venue they had felt some pressure of expectation.

He thanked club chairman Phil Doran and wife/secretary Terri not for just their glory but other achievements in the lower grades that stamped the Rovers' dominance this winter of plenty.

Rovers golden-striker Martin Bueno (aloft) celebrates with match-day captain Josh Stevenson at the final whistle. Photo/Duncan Brown.
Rovers golden-striker Martin Bueno (aloft) celebrates with match-day captain Josh Stevenson at the final whistle. Photo/Duncan Brown.

It was a stellar finish to the Napier club's season after its Duke of Gloucester NCR won the Computercare Pacific Premiership, adding to the silverware the premier reserve side clinched a fortnight ago. The side included several ex-Central League winners in the likes of Stu Wilson, Chris McIvor and David Gearey who had vociferously backed the incumbents behind the goalmouth.

Everyone played their hearts out today with the likes of Cain, Stevenson, Canadian Patryk Misik and Mandair standing out in the engine room and at the coal face.

Defenders also didn't flinch with Danny Wilson, Englishmen Liam Schofield and Jamie Wilkinson standing staunch alongside Robertson.

Cain, who thrilled the crowd one more time with his trademark multiple somersaults, said he thoroughly enjoyed the season.

"Come on the Blues," he said, agreeing the title would not only add to his portfolio but had also boosted his self-confidence and mentality greatly for whatever lay in store in his career.

A beaming Bueno didn't know what happened with the ref for the yellow card but the rewards had eased any pain he had endured.

"I was a little nervous when they scored but I trust this team who focus and work so well for this moment," said the striker who has signed to play for the Hamilton Wanderers in the ISPS Handa Premiership (national league) this summer and wants to return to the Rovers next season.

The Blues will play a curtain raiser game against the Wellington Phoenix to the Central League promotion match between North Wellington and Palmy North Marist at the Central Energy Trust Arena in Manawatu on Saturday next week.

In contrasting fortunes, Josh Murphy scored the only goal for the predominantly home-grown Wanderers who have been relegated to the Lotto Federation League next winter.

A shirtless Jamie Wilkinson picked up a yellow card for his troubles but it hardly mattered in Napier today. Photo/Duncan Brown
A shirtless Jamie Wilkinson picked up a yellow card for his troubles but it hardly mattered in Napier today. Photo/Duncan Brown