Only hardy souls would have given Napier City Rovers a fleeting chance to progress to the Chatham Cup semifinals in Napier today. But the Thirsty Whale-sponsored Blues defied gargantuan odds to come from 2-0 down in the last 10 minutes of the game — including added time — to take it into extra time and a penalty shootout to end Albany United's fairy-tale run in the national knockout competition.
The surprise elements had kicked in well before referee Mark Rule had blown the whistle to start a game that had ended with the Blues winning 4-3 in the shootout after the sides were locked 2-all after 30 minutes of extra time.
Uruguayan forager Martin Bueno was back at Park Island from the South Africa trials for a professional contract but the hero was going to turn villain in the subplot of a footballing theatre where the supports acts had emphatically stolen the thunder.
Perhaps what intrigued most was Solomon Islands speedster Andrew Abba parked on the bench in the first half with teenager Sam Wall coming into the engine room at Bluewater Stadium although an ill Sho Goto's exemption card was understandable.
No doubt, the Rovers started firing when Abba had laced up in the second half for the victors who had slipped the skipper's armband on three different players.
The Aucklanders had their villain in Damien Mosquera, the striker who fouled at will but for some odd reason had the luck of the devil in staying on the park until the end when he ran out of it in horribly skying his penalty shootout attempt over the crossbar.
Rovers goalkeeper Joshua Hill and counterpart David Masters had some edgy moments but gallantly kept their sides in the game. However, it was the former who had stopped the rot in the shootout, denying Ben Semple to ensure the Rovers didn't have to go to their fifth kicker.
"I just tried to save it, really," Hill said, putting an ice pack to his left shoulder after the diving save.
The 24-year-old Englishman said he had read the twitch on Semple's body so he had taken a hunch and it had paid off.
Was it up there with the most memorable save in his career?
"Yes because we were 2-nil down with 30 more minutes left and to come back on penalties shows that's what cup footy's about so you just can't give up," a grinning Hill said.
The hosts didn't need a gentle breeze behind them from the hockey turf-end of the park but some sort of minor miracle. The feet of god came from two substitutes, Joshua Stevenson in the 85th minute and the equaliser from Goto on the final minute of the five minutes added to Rule's 90-minute script to lock the game 2-all.
"Yes, it was a good motivator sitting there watching us not play very well so after that we needed something a little extra and something different," Stevenson said, adding goals changed matches.
"I had said to Stu while I was sitting on the bench, 'Get me out there I'll change this game', after we had plenty of possession and not much had happened," he said of assistant coach Stu James.
The police officer said it was obvious the Mike Anderson-coached Albany were spent by fulltime and the Blues had not lost their faith in eking out a victory despite the virus striking some players.
It had all turned to custard in the 87th minute when Bueno, who had slipped on the captain's armband in the second half, was sent for an early shower a couple of minutes before regulation time ended as fourth official, Martin Roil, indicated five minutes of added time.
Rule didn't hesitate, flashing a red card in Bueno's face with Milan Elie rolling on the ground. The strange thing was Mosquera had fouled Hoyle on the sideline and the ref was walking towards the pair. If anything, Mosquera was lucky to be on the park because he had gone on to foul Hoyle again in the first 15-minute spell of extra time.
Bueno later explained he had retaliated to Elie using "underhand tactics" when the ref's back was turned and he had lashed out with his arm, something Rule had spotted from the corner of his eye. Many fans were still in the dark.
The first half was quite docile, all things considered, as both sides seemed to try to gauge each other's intent. The visitors looked calmly composed, simply content to recycle long balls to their "second division" sniper, Jack Beguely, who seemed to thrive on Mosquera's physical presence.
It was Beguely who broke the deadlock, 1-0, after the striker latched on to a long clearance ball from a defender in the 17th minute. Cruelly that came from an attempt from captain Fergus Neil to follow up a ball where Masters had mistimed his run out, only to have the ball hit his face and ricochet outside the 18m box for the goal-scoring clearance.
Blues midfielder Jonny McNamara added to the frustrations when he picked up a yellow card for a crude challenge on Albany counterpart Daniel Campbell in the 22nd minute.
Three minutes later the red-head Englishman had drilled a 25m speculator past his right upright.
Again Albany went up 2-0 on a counterattack after Wall had passed back to defender James Hoyle who had made a defensive blunder in trying to take a touch on the ball.
Beguely didn't need a second invite, easily skinning the left back to bag a brace in the 33rd minute.
"Obviously I felt the guilt at halftime after making a mistake in such a big game but I always felt confident when we went to penalties or even when we were going to comeback from 2-0 down," said Hoyle, adding the Rovers needed to put behind everything to focus on the semifinal.
The 23-year-old agreed they desperately needed a pick-me-up after the pep talk at halftime.
A minute before halftime, McNamara had the time and space in the box to put the Blues on the board but his shot sailed over the crossbar to the tune of a collective groan from the Bluewater Stadium faithful.
"We just needed something to inspire us back into the game."
Abba, coming in for right wing back Neil as an out-and-out winger, immediately created some havoc, forcing Albany to sit back even deeper.
Midfielder Gavin Hoy clipped the upright after curling a free kick over the wall in the 53rd minute and Liam Schofield had emulated his feat from an oblique angle five minutes later.
James had replaced Wall with Goto in the 63rd minute but, disappointingly, even the Japanese import lacked the peripheral vision to find a frustrated Abba raising his arms unmarked as the substitute rifled a fruitless ball over the crossbar from about 40m out.
Abba was a potent weapon, the red shirts reluctant to get too close to him especially when he darted into the 18m box but, regrettably, again the Blues engine room panicked to opt for more direct chips from the rib of the park.
Mosquera picked up a yellow card for hoofing the ball out of play after the whistle had gone in the 74th minute.
However, the goal came from veteran Stevenson, who had come in for McNamara in the 75th minute, pulling one back to 2-1 in the 85th minute from 25m out to beat Masters with a worm burner in the bottom left corner of the net. It was mayhem when Goto equalised from the far post following a cornerkick the Albany defenders had failed to mop up.
The 30 minutes of extra time had its moments but the players looked lethargic, Albany definitely missing Beguely's pace although he was pulled out because of cramps.
As the players and fans erupted into celebrations after the shootout, the red shirts sank to the ground.
Coach Anderson was "gutted" after they had succumbed from a healthy lead but he was immensely proud of his players.
"It was gut wrenching but we still had the belief and we can hold our heads up high because we've come a long way to get this far to miss out on a penalty shootout," said the 41-year-old former Albany player who is on his debut stint as coach in the second division of their league.
Anderson agreed his team were capable of footing it in their division one, if not premiership ranks, and would push for that after trying to win their second division league.
He felt their campaign had been a reflection of a solid team culture.
From the Chatham Cup quarter-finals at the weekend:
Onehunga Sports 5 (Sean Lovemore, Andrew Milne 2, Ross Haviland, Shohei Moriyasu) Wellington Olympic 4 (George Barbarouses, Dylan Wood, Tom Jackson pen, Ahmed Othman) after extra time. HT: 2-all. FT: 3-all.
Caversham 1 (Connor Neil pen) Bay Olympic 2 (Jonathan Quinn, Jared Colligan). HT: 0-2.
Melville Utd 4 (Marc Evans 3, Craig Pritchard) Christchurch Utd 0. HT: 3-0.
Thirsty Whale Napier City Rovers 4 (Joshua Stevenson 85th, Sho Goto 90 + 5) Albany Utd 3 (Jack Beguely ) after extra time and penalty kicks. HT: 0-2. FT: 2-all.
Albany first attempt:
● Albany: Daniel Campbell, Callum Simmonds scored; Damien Mosquera missed; Alexander Richardson scored; Ben Semple saved.
● Rovers: Liam Schofield, Sho Goto, Gavin Hoy, James Hoyle all scored.