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Melville seeking return to big stage

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

It’s been 16 years since Melville United were last in an ISPS Handa Chatham Cup final but they are on the verge of booking a return and a hero of that earlier campaign is one of the key men behind it.

Back in 2003, Sam Wilkinson was a promising young midfielder who helped the unfancied Hamiltonians to one of the biggest stages in domestic football but then suffered heartbreak in a 3-1 loss to University-Mt Wellington.

He is now in charge of a youthful Melville line-up and is relishing the chance to have another crack at lifting the cup.

"I’ve got good memories of that time and it would be amazing to get there again," he says.

"We were a bit of an underdog team and that cup run galvanised the whole club. We got great following and I still keep in touch with a lot of players from that group. That’s largely down to the experiences we shared in the cup so I’m definitely aware of what a cup run can do and the memories it creates."

But Wilkinson’s memories are somewhat soured by how the final panned out all those years ago and is using the pain of that loss as an added motivation.

"Having been to a final and lost, I can say you never quite look back on that experience in the same way you would if you had actually lifted the cup," he says.

"So we want the boys to enjoy the ride but it’s very much about trying to win the cup. We won’t celebrate making semi-finals or anything like that - we’ll do that if and when we actually finish the job and win the whole competition."

To do so, Melville first need to get past Auckland-based outfit Bay Olympic, who will play host to Wilkinson’s charges on Saturday afternoon in the semi-finals.

On paper, Melville are favourites as they are in the top flight of the upper North Island system while Bay Olympic are in the second tier. But the Bay dropped down only last season and are looking odds on to swiftly bounce back, leading the Lotto NRFL First Division with only a couple of weeks remaining.

"We’re feeling confident and have been on a good run in the second half of the year," says Wilkinson, who coaches Melville with former team mate Michael Mayne.

"But we know it will be a challenge, Bay Olympic are a strong team and have a lot of players with national league pedigree. From our point of view, we hope the fact that we’ve been in tighter games week-after-week comes to the fore a little bit and gives us an edge."

Despite operating outside of the highest level, Bay Olympic coach Paul Marshall can call on the likes of Sam Burfoot, Mario Bilen and goalkeeper Nick Draper, who all featured in the ISPS Handa Premiership last season.

Melville will meanwhile look to former All White Aaron Scott and Welsh goal-getter Marc Evans - who scored a hat-trick in the quarter-finals - to lead their bid.

"We always do homework on the opposition and try to get that balance of 20 per cent focusing on the opposition and 80 per cent on us. So we’re aware of some of their threats and how they might look to play but we’re very much focusing on imposing our own style of play," Wilkinson says.

He is confident the younger members of Melville’s squad will be able to handle the sense of occasion at Olympic Park tomorrow.

"We’re expecting a rowdy Bay Olympic following at the game, we know they get a good level of support and that’s probably been a huge factor in their cup run," he says.

"But so far in games where there’s been a good crowd and a bit of pressure our players have really risen to that challenge - I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t again."

The other ISPS Handa Chatham Cup semi-final takes place on Sunday and brings a pair of previous holders together as four-time winners Napier City Rovers host Onehunga Sports, who claimed a maiden title two years ago.

ISPS Handa Chatham Cup Semi-Finals

Saturday 24 August

Bay Olympic vs Melville United

Olympic Park, 2pm

Sunday 25 August

Napier City Rovers vs Onehunga Sports

Bluewater Stadium, 2pm

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