They got in on the umpteenth hour when Team Taranaki had bailed out last year but the Havelock North Wanderers are now on the cusp of making an emphatic return into the premier winter league next year by virtue of having earned the right.
The Building King-sponsored villagers beat Petone FC 4-2 at Guthrie Park, Hastings, in the first of the home-and-way legs of the Central League promotion matches on Sunday.
Now player/coach Chris Greatholder's undefeated Central Federation men have to, at worst, find the net twice and not lose by a two-goal margin to the Capital Premiership champions from Wellington in a 3pm kick off at Petone Memorial Park this Saturday.
The two matches are played similar to the European away-goals format where every ball the visitors plant in the net will carry more clout if the sides claim a win each and other statistics marry.
"I think we'll be favourites from now," said Greatholder after Havelock North were 4-0 up before Alexander Shepherd-Reynolds out one past goalkeeper Nick Hayward in the 83rd minute following a defensive blunder before centreback Jordan Pickering pulled another back from a freekick header in the first minute of the referees' added time.
"We're huge favourites but they clawed their way back into it so we would have had one foot in promotion had we kept a clean sheet."
Jared Bloor drew first blood, 1-0, for the hosts from a header following a corner kick before captain Bjorn Christensen extended the lead to 2-0 later from a cracking goal curled into the top corner of the net 25m out two minutes later.
It wasn't until the 66th minute that Bloor extended the lead to 3-0 after he had pounced on goalkeeper Shea Stapleton's fumble to hurt the visitors more on a heavy field due to rain.
Teenager Jack Parker added salt to the wound of the Paul Whitmarsh-coached Petone when he dispossessed a defender, took it around Stapleton before tucking it into the net for a daunting 4-0 lead in the 72nd minute.
"They'd say it's game on now and the momentum's with them but I still think we'll go down there to score goals," Greatholder said. "We would have absolutely taken that result before the game but we're a little disappointed we let them back at the of the game."
Ominously for Petone, who have lost three matches in their league, he was optimistic the Wanderers were capable of playing better despite the challenges of the artificial pitch this Saturday.
The team will travel down on Friday for a light training session the next morning to enable the players who haven't played on the turf to find some traction.
"We're a footballing side and like to play through the third on a flat kind of deck will be conducive so I can't see it being a massive factor but something we'll just have to consider."
Greatholder, who won't play this Saturday after picking up an injury on Sunday, said the fatigue factor had kicked in for their predominantly youthful side who had nine players competing in the New Zealand Secondary Schools' premiership tournament at Park Island, Napier, last week.
"That's when the last 20 minutes was tough on their legs so, I'd like to think, Petone's momentum was because we had physically run our race."
He welcomed the freshness the Wanderers would embrace this Saturday.
While the sense of pride to have come close to earning their stripes on the paddock is undeniable Greatholder hastens to qualify that two teams — Wairarapa United and demoted Wellington United, who had three draws each — had failed to eke out a victory between them.
"Last year we won four games and weren't good enough to stay on so, essentially, you don't know how strong Central League will be each year."
However, he said Petone had won their respect with the damage they could potentially do to them.
"They're well organised and have some good individual players who play a level that is slightly better than our level, to be fair."
The villagers won all 16 matches 16, scoring 81 goals, conceding just a dozen in amassing 48 points with Alexander Electric Napier Marist finishing runners-up on 34 points on account of four defeats and a draw.
"The game [on Sunday] had moved at a quicker pace but we train like a Central League side now so that intensity didn't hurt us even if it was new," said Greatholder who revealed the villagers were manufacturing their own environment with tougher training sessions.
He felt Havelock North still needed to get right their "one per centers", including eating and sleeping well before the game.
"It's far from a given because they'll be up for it and it should be a battle but if we come through it'll be a fantastic achievement," he said, expecting some wind but not expecting the weather to be a factor.
Thirsty Whale Napier City Rovers, who won the Chatham Cup last Sunday in Auckland, is the flagship Hawke's Bay team in the Central League, having won the league crown last year but finishing behind Western Suburbs this winter.