Morton relishing Southern’s rise

Rose Morton in action for Southern United this season. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Rose Morton in action for Southern United this season. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Rose Morton has been through a rollercoaster of emotions this week.

Disbelief. Excitement. Shock.

She has even asked herself: "How has this happened?"

Most of all, there is a whole heap of pride bubbling inside the Southern United captain having led her side to the National League final on Sunday.

"I think we’re all kind of blindsided a bit by it," Morton said.

"We all knew we were capable, but I didn’t think we really saw it as being an actual possibility and now it’s here.

"Personally, I like being underdogs more than anything else, because no-one expects it and you kind of just prove everyone wrong, which makes it that much nicer."

It was not that long ago Southern United were struggling to record just a single win a season — Morton and defender Hannah MacKay-Wright are the only ones still around from those days.

Morton, 23, moved from Hawke’s Bay to Dunedin in 2019, and credited Dunedin Technical winning the Kate Sheppard Cup the year before for putting "Southern on the map".

After meeting the players, she struggled to understand how Southern did not perform to their potential.

"We’ve got amazing players. They’ve always had amazing players.

"It’s definitely changed a lot.

"We’ve gone from only winning potentially against the lower-table teams, and maybe causing an upset here and there . . . but never a real competitor that people took seriously."

That changed in 2021 when Southern won the South Central series, an adapted league without Auckland teams who were in lockdown, and after a "rocky start", they finished fourth in the national league last season, the best of any team outside of Auckland.

"I think we’ve always had that belief that we want to give it a go and we’re pretty hearty down here and that’s kind of the southern spirit.

"It’s crazy and it’s really cool to see."

Morton — who is the oldest player in the team — was proud to see the shift in Southern’s mindset as they blooded a new crop of players this season.

"They don’t know that Southern is a team that usually gets beaten all the time, which is kind of crazy.

"Our new players that have only just started this year are kind of like ‘is this not what always happens?’

"That’s what we want. We want other girls in the region coming through the pathways to realise that this is a team they want to be a part of, and that they should strive to be a part of.

"It’s cool to experience both ends of the spectrum."

Southern started this season with a narrow 1-0 loss to defending champions Eastern Suburbs — a result that shocked the team after losing last season’s opener 6-1.

They then thumped Phoenix Reserves 5-0 and beat last year’s finalists Western Springs 3-2 to start their winning roll.

"We were kind of, like, ‘what the heck?’

"From then on it kind of gave us the belief that it’s possible, and every week we’ve just got closer and closer, and then somehow we’ve made it to the final, and we’re all a bit, like, ‘how has this happened?"

In past seasons, Southern struggled to score goals, but the return of striker Amy Hislop, the top scorer with seven goals, and having eight other players contributing to the scoreboard this season paid dividends, she said.

Southern were always strong defensively, but a big focus on execution of their attack at training changed their mindset, led by coach Kris Ridley and former head coach Graeme Smaill, who is still involved with the side.

"They just complement each other so well which I think we get the benefit of, which is really lucky," Morton said.

Scoring will be crucial when they face Auckland United in the final at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday, after recording a 1-1 draw back in round six.

Both teams had chances to "put the game to bed" during the round robin, making them evenly matched for the final.

"I think it’s going to be a really good game . . . and they’re going to want it just as much as we do.

"We’re just kind of looking to go up there, play our game, have fun, and kind of enjoy the experience as a whole, because obviously none of us have been in this position, ever.

No matter what happens on Sunday, Morton will be proud of her troops.

"We’ve done what we set out to do — happy days."