They are still on the top of the table but Napier City Rovers' bubble burst when Western Suburbs beat them in a nail-biting Central League match at Park Island today.
It was a gut-wrenching end for the Thirsty Whale-sponsored Blues after the Ole Academy boys drove a stake in their hearts three minutes into referee Martin Roil's time for a 3-2 defeat. It signalled the end of their five-match unbeaten record this season but also stretching back to a title-winning season last year.
Blues assistant coach Stu James, at the helm because coach Bill Robertson was playing in the O-League with Team Wellington in New Caledonia today, said the game would have been entertaining for the neutral fans. It would have been more bad news for Robertson whose side succumbed 2-0 to Hienghène Sport in Noumea.
"From a coaching perspective we're disappointed because we've got ourselves 2-1 up and then just lacked concentration, which let them back into the game," James lamented after the sides were locked 1-1 at halftime.
He felt the Rovers had committed some individual errors. However, the Suburbs deserve plaudits for guaranteeing rival fans an air of uncertainty season in, season out.
So does that mean the monkey is off the Rovers' backs now that the extra pressure of maintaining an unbeaten run has ended?
"The unbeaten run just means three points but we're still on the top of the table and it's still in our own hands to go win games so today was more around 10 to 15 minutes of football where we just didn't do well enough.
"They're a good side and we know that because they're technically good and they've put one on us in the [93rd] minute," James said.
Blues striker Martin Bueno made it 1-0 in just the second minute after Western Suburbs lost possession from the kick off and from the ensuing exchanges saw last year's golden boot winner, Martin Bueno, sneak past two defenders to tuck the ball into the net, leaving goal keeper Frank Walkington stranded.
However, the Wellingtonians equalised 1-1 when Matt Garbett ran down the right flank to put in a deft cross that went past goal keeper Alex Britton and also beat teenager Otto Ingham just inside the far post but Rovers captain Fergus Neil, shadowing Ingham, ran the ball into his own goal mouth in the 20th minute.
The game got a little testy and vocal for a few minutes after that as Suburbs player Marco Stamenic and Blues defender Liam Schofield picked up yellow cards for robust challenges in the 22nd and 23rd minutes, respectively.
Left winger Jonny McNamara had a great opportunity to extend the lead for the hosts in the 29th minute but a pirouette cost him that split-second window to pull the trigger as two defenders closed in to make it easy for keeper Walkington to snuff the ball from about 6m near the upright.
It was the visitors' turn when Joshua Rogerson headed American import Jared Odenbeck's corner kick but Schofield, standing guard under the near upright, coolly hoofed it out of harm's way in the 39th minute. Suburbs reloaded but Milner plucked the header with ease.
Ingham joined the yellow-card brigade for a silly foul in the 43rd minute.
It was all Rovers when play resumed in the second half and one wonders what the instructions were to the academy boys.
The capital city slickers simply set back, like the low-pressure belt threatening to dump rain at the park, to absorb wave after wave of attacks the Blues were mounting.
"Our young players needed to ride a storm in the game, which happens in football ... and I think they had the opportunity to show some strength and resilience in the back," said Suburbs coach Ben Sippola, who decided to run on to the pitch for Ryan Feutz in the 85th minute because it was their youngest side to play in Central League.
Sippola, who has been at the academy for six years, said they were delighted with the result "because they're kids who are still learning the ins and outs of the game".
"I think if you're a neutral spectator, you know, a New Zealand person who loves football you would have found two teams who haven't lost a game going back to last year playing a good game," said the 29-year-old said, emphasising Suburbs also are undefeated going back to last year despite the odd stalemates, bar a loss in the Chatham Cup last winter.
Sippola clarified "sitting back" to defend wasn't the mind set but more a measure to thwart the Rovers' long, diagonal attacking balls while embracing a counterattacking plan themselves.
"I don't know if it works but it works," he said, giving the Blues some credit for their raids.
Conversely James had impressed on his men to be brave and push higher up the field.
"We kept the pitch nice and wide which enabled us to retain the ball to create chances but, you know, we've been a little bit wasteful," he said, reflecting on the 25 chances in the previous round that yielded three goals but not clinical to emulate that feat on similar, if not better statistics, today.
Predictably Blues midfielder Gavin Hoy nudged his side ahead, 2-1, after Kaeden Atkins casually laid a pass across to him from another raid. The Canadian import pile-drove the ball into the roof of the net from about 25m out from the top of the 18m box in the 64th minute before James subbed him off three minutes later.
Both teams made a flurry of changes to keep up with the tempo of the entertaining match, including the exit of Blues forager Andrew Abba.
The 2-2 equaliser from Suburbs Alex Clayton came from another humdinger of a goal, when the right winger drilled a shot from inside the 18m box from an oblique angle to muted silence in the main grandstand in the 75th minute.
But what followed simply left the Bluewater Stadium faithful stunned in three minutes of the referee's time.
Centreback Jamie Wilkinson brought down Stamenic, who had threaded the ball past two defenders, on the top of the 18m box. Referee Roil didn't hesitate, awarding a free kick.
Garbett stepped up to curl the ball around the wall from an acute angle to leave Britton stranded for the winner, prompting wild celebrations near the corner flag from all the players bar a composed Sippola.
James felt Wilkinson had to make that challenge on Stamenic in the mould of a professional foul but would review the video footage on how the ball went past the wall although he saluted Garbett on his prowess.
Sippola felt retaining possession to earn a rest was Suburbs' philosophy which they hadn't done today.
"We're not really in the business of results in the Central League," he said. "We want to place players overseas in professional leagues."
Five players had been placed in Europe, Sippola said, and 10 of them in the New Zealand Under-20 squad.
"You probably get the results if you develop players along the way," he said, stressing Suburbs didn't undervalue the league as a pathway for nurturing Kiwi talent.
Asked if there was anything he wanted to add, a grinning Sippola said: "I think Napier City Rovers must miss [academy stalwart] Declan Edge this year."
Sippola copped some raspberries on the sideline, something former All White striker Edge had encountered in his six years from the jovial Blues fans.
■ At the adjacent field over the hedge, Alexander Electric Napier Marist FC beat Red Sox Manawatu 2-0 in their second-tier Central Federation League encounter.
The Jamie Dunning-coached Marist are sitting in fourth place on the ladder, behind undfeated Building King Havelock North Wanderers, albeit having played one more game and lost their opener as new kids on the Fed League block.
Captain Ethan Dent, leading a side of predominantly youngsters, opened their account from a goal in the 43rd minute before Mustafa Can extended the lead in the 65th minute.
According to club member Carl Hunt, the hosts dominated with 70 per cent possession.
The standouts for Marist were Can, Josh Murphy and Harry Mason, Hunt said.