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Southern United certainly had all the signs of a competitive squad.
Even that, given this team’s history, was not something to take for granted.
Between 2009 and 2016, Southern won just one game.
Since then, it has competed well, although nearly always fallen short of the top teams.
Winning? That was always a pipe dream.
Then the team went to Christchurch and beat Canterbury United in its season opener. And it was away.
That core group may be the same as in previous years. However, it has developed and those players who were there four years ago — when the team made its first leap to be a competitive outfit — are now better versions than they were back then.
There was a ton of experience throughout the squad.
The likes of Chelsea Whittaker, Shontelle Smith and Kelsey Kennard have all been there since the bad old days. The work they — and so many others over the past five years — have done to shed the easy-beat tag has been huge.
Ten years ago, it is unlikely national age-grade players such as Rose Morton or Hannah Mackay-Wright would have come to Southern.
It would have been viewed as detrimental to their careers.
Then there were the likes of Toni Power and Margarida Dias, who arrived last year and this year respectively.
Neither had been national league starters on arrival, but both took their chances and added undoubted quality.
It was that mix, along with the local core, that made this team so threatening.
There was not a weak spot throughout the entire team.
Perhaps that could be best be shown by who was left out at times.
You know you are in a good spot when you have players such as Emily Morison, Renee Bacon and Smith sitting on your bench, as they each did at different stages. Talk about super subs.
Notably, there was plenty
of resilience in this team as well.
Players trained for months before the season, with no guarantee they were ever going to get to play.
Southern went behind in five of its six games, coming back in all but one.
The belief was there, and with it came confidence.
When it all finally clicked, in an utterly dominant 21 minutes on Saturday, there was little even Canterbury United could do to stop it.
Five wins in six matches. Champions.
Some will point to the asterisk next to this year’s league, which was a South Central Series, rather than a national league.
And that is inescapable. The Auckland teams were not there. It was six-game league, rather than a 14-game one.
But just how big should that asterisk be?
The Auckland teams were not going to be the same as the ones that had played previously.
Its players were to be split up between four clubs that qualified through its winter league.
Besides, it was Canterbury that won five of the past six titles. And Capital that finished second a year ago.
Both were there this year. Southern beat them — twice, in the case of Canterbury.
The short season perhaps helped a team that may have struggled for depth if it went on longer.
But the majority of
seasons in this league’s history have been six matches — if you are going to write off Southern on that basis, you also have to write off all the others.
So, yes, put the asterisk there.
But do not overlook the significance of what this team achieved.
Southern has come a long way over the past five years.
The question now — can it repeat in 2022?