Both Gisborne teams lose
Thump. Thistle lost 2-0 to Port Hill at Childers Road Reserve and United lost 2-1 to Napier City Rovers Reserves at Park Island, Napier, on Saturday.
For both Gisborne sides, it was their first loss in football's Pacific Premiership this season.
They each have a game in hand on the teams that beat them, who themselves had lost a game each before Saturday, so the title race is still wide open.
And perhaps the defeats came at the right time.
Teams can get a little ahead of themselves if they enjoy early-season success — and the fulsome praise of a home-town football writer old enough to know better.
Yes, I thought our teams had the measure of their Hawke's Bay rivals.
Well, they don't . . . at least, not every Saturday.
And for Thistle, the next few weeks could be tougher than they might otherwise have been.
Right midfielder Sam Patterson and rightback Emerson Araya were sent off in the 40th and 52nd minutes respectively.
Port Hill lost the services of left midfielder Daniel Baxter when he was sent off, also in the 52nd minute.
If the incident had ended with Baxter's red card, the game would likely have restarted as a 10-against-10 contest.
But Araya said something, Baxter reacted and after a scuffle in which punches were thrown, Araya was shown the red card, too.
In the same incident, Thistle striker Tomek Frooms was shown the yellow card for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The three players sent off were shown the red card for some version of “violent conduct”.
Referee Chris Niven copped a bit of sideline criticism for some of his decisions. I thought he handled a hotly contested game well.
Gisborne Vehicle Testing Thistle were already 2-0 down when the first red card was shown, and Port Hill had shown the sharpness, tenacity and tactical nous that proved the difference between the teams.
Lone striker Matthew Betesta opened the scoring in the 15th minute when he ran on to a ball that skimmed off the top of centreback Daniel Venema's head. Betesta angled his shot past advancing keeper Mark Baple.
Thirteen minutes later, Betesta ran on to a through ball from midfielder Morgan McLellan and hit a rasping first-time right-footer past Baple from 15 metres.
Thistle centreback Ander Batarrita moved into midfield and Ema Martos dropped back to compensate, but the pattern of the game changed little.
Port Hill looked well organised and they harried Thistle relentlessly, never letting them settle before a challenge came in. Fullbacks Shay Wall and Adam McFarlane, and centrebacks Ciaran Whitty and 18-year-old Sam Skilton were supported by a five-man midfield who never shirked their duties in the harassment of the Thistle attack.
The Jags tried to compose themselves and play their possession-based game, but sometimes they came unstuck in dangerous places, like at the back.
Most worrying for Thistle was that Port Hill looked sharper all over the park. That did not mean they had all the chances.
In the 33rd minute Betesta got through again and Baple blocked the shot. Thistle counter-attacked and within a minute Port Hill keeper Khan Jellyman came off his line smartly to block a shot from Patterson. Play swung back to the other end, Jags leftback Kuba Jerabek slipped on the greasy turf and Baple, anticipating the direction of the Port Hill player's shot, got a hand to it at full stretch.
In the 60th minute Port Hill, like the All Blacks, pulled off three players for three pairs of fresh legs. Off came Betesta and midfielders Lewis Worthing and McLellan and on went Bradley Perks, Jamie Provines and former Gisborne Boys' High School player Jesse Sadlier. Their team hardly missed a beat.
Port Hill won a penalty in the 62nd minute for a foul tackle, and Baple dived left to save the shot by Provines and keep Thistle in the game.
Eight minutes later, Jerabek broke clear on the left and let fly from 25 metres. Port Hill's Jellyman did well to clutch it out of the air.
In the 74th minute, Port Hill right midfielder Jay Mason made way for Liam Marshall. Only one of the five midfielders who started played to the end. Except for the red-carded Baxter, the others ran themselves ragged until they were replaced by subs who did the same.
An example of their commitment came in the 76th minute, when Jerabek lined up to shoot from just outside the penalty area and Perks charged down the line of the shot to block it.
Thistle's day was summed up in the 85th minute, when striker Davie Ure did everything possible to hold a defender at bay as he received the ball, only to have another Port Hill player step in to nick it off his toe.
Even before they went a man down, Thistle were outnumbered in all the important places. Port Hill picked the areas they wanted to contest, then had the fitness to flood those areas with bodies committed to the cause.
Port Hill coach Jimmy Calder said his side's performance reflected the club motto: Together United.
“I came here knowing we had to win the midfield battle in the first half hour,” he said.
“If we did that, the game was ours for the taking. If we let them play, we wouldn't get to do any of it.
“I was always going to make the changes in the second half.
“We've just done what we talked about doing. It's not often as a coach you can say that.”
He was particularly happy with the play of holding midfielder Shannon Laxon-Fowler and striker Betesta, a policeman whose job sometimes made it hard for him to commit to all training sessions and away games. His speed and goalscoring ability prompted Calder to go the extra mile to get him on board.
Port Hill started training on January 13 and used a personal trainer in their bid to get the players fit and mentally prepared for the campaign.
While they had a full bench on Saturday, they were without one of their strongest players, central midfielder Brian Doherty, who was unable to travel.
Thistle coach Garrett Blair said the result was a wake-up call that came at the right time.
A lot of football still had to be played, and Thistle needed to be a lot more clinical.
Patterson and Araya would be missed for the time they were out as a result of being sent off. However, he was confident the squad had the depth to cover their positions to the standard required.
“It will be a long week at training,” Blair said.
“But the season's not over.”