Signs of Royals starting to gel

Connor Neil does it all for the Dunedin City Royals. PHOTO: JULIE COLLINGS
Connor Neil does it all for the Dunedin City Royals. PHOTO: JULIE COLLINGS
Maybe the Dunedin City Royals are starting to find some form at the right time.

The Southern League has one of the longest seasons around, starting back in March and finishing in September — not to mention a preseason that begins in January — and that is all just to qualify for the National League that comes after.

As the Southern League approaches the halfway point this weekend, the Royals sit seventh, with a record of three wins, one draw and four losses.

Coach Richard Murray is the first to say his side has made a slow start, but some of that can be chalked up to losing plenty of experience in the offseason and having up to nine players out injured, or unavailable, across the opening eight games.

The Royals have started to settle in the past four games, notching their three wins while only conceding two goals.

"We were a bit leaky at the start of the season against some of those bigger sides, but we’ve certainly tightened up defensively, which is pleasing," Murray said.

"[It] just means that we’ve got a stable foundation and we can build our attacks from there.

"You want that steady climb over the season to get better and better. It’s improving — it’s pleasing to see that."

The Royals started out with a tough 5-1 loss to Cashmere Technical, who sit in top spot, and followed with a 2-0 loss to Nomads United.

They drew 4-4 with Ferrymead Bays, then succumbed to another tough loss against Christchurch United, who are second on the table.

A 4-0 win over newcomers University of Canterbury ignited the Royals season, and they followed with a 3-1 win over FC Twenty11, a narrow 2-1 loss to Coastal Spirit and a 3-0 win over Selwyn United.

Will Turner has been the Royals’ leading goal scorer this season, with five, but others have also caught the eye of their coaches.

Young Hugh Jack — who is in his final year at King’s High School — has been a regular starter and improved each week, Ryan Mairs has come along nicely and Nicholas Zambrano’s quality and experience has been huge.

Connor Neil, who moved from an attacker’s role to fill the void at centreback to cover injuries, had also stepped up, Murray said.

Younger players continued to impress and they were pivotal for the future of the squad this season and beyond.

"They’ve slowly got to grips with the league, and with that, we’ve started to improve and put in performances," Murray said.

"Having player depth is the most important thing in this league for teams."

After being knocked out of the Chatham Cup early last year, the Royals produced a 4-1 win over Wanaka last weekend.

Staying in the Cup as long as possible — "I think everyone’s dream is to win the Chatham Cup" — was crucial for the Royals in terms of their Southern League season, as it still provided a game every weekend when the league took a break.

The Royals have played all their home games at Tahuna Park this season, instead of Logan Park Turf, and Murray praised the facility and the Dunedin City Council’s upgrade for the Fifa Women’s World Cup last year.

Heading into the rest of the season, Murray wanted his side to push as much as possible.

The Royals sit on 10 points, three points behind fourth-placed Nelson Suburbs and 12 points behind the top two.

As the Cup results proved last weekend — Coastal beat Cashmere 3-1 — anyone could beat anyone on any given day, he said.

"We’ve just got to keep putting results on the board and boot up that table.

"That’s important for us. Ultimately it’s still a top-two finish, but if we can’t get in that top two then as high up the table as possible and just giving players that experience."

The Royals have their longest away trip of the season tomorrow when they play Nelson Suburbs in Stoke.